Photo: KR1212

A month in the Dominican Republic’s central mountains and my world feels small again.

Kids I don’t recognize run up to me to play “Pollito Pleibe,” a hand game set to a song in which lovers get married in a restaurant and eat grilled chicken with a side of codfish. The fact that I don’t celebrate Christmas is a popular conversation starter with my bewildered neighbors. ”You will after this year!”

An hour’s walk up a steep mountain road, a motorcycle taxi driver recognizes me. ”I’ve seen you here many times. You’re living here here, aren’t you?” I sure am. My gut is regular from my daily yucca, my calves are shiny with DEET but still bitten up, and my skin is tan enough that I was cautioned against getting Haitian in the sun. 

Segue to a debate on the physical attractiveness of the Haitian people.

Haitians were some of my first friends here. They were quick to invite me to the river and the soccer game. They were also quick to lodge their complaints against their Dominican neighbors, but not before these same neighbors warned me about Haitians’ cultural flaws. If I can understand everything I’m hearing in the Dominican-Haitian barrio that is my home and the site of my Peace Corps service, I may be able to do some bridging in ways that would be harder from within either group.

In the book Why the Cocks Fight (2000), Michele Wucker describes Dominicans and Haitians as cocks bred to hate each other, clawing for scant resources, unaware of the circle of stakeholders standing around them and making money off their fight. 

That helps me contextualize some of the ugliest comments I’ve heard. It doesn’t explain everything, though. 

“When we walk into a potentially hostile space as we are, expecting the best, we allow ourselves a chance to be loved.”

A Haitian vendor carries a ponchera of limoncillo fruit that she cannot hoist to her head alone, but can carry comfortably with no hands once it’s up. She relies on her Dominican customers to help her lift the ponchera after each transaction. And they do. A transgender rabbi once explained to me that when we walk into a potentially hostile space as we are, expecting the best, we allow ourselves a chance to be loved. I see this vendor making a similar choice every day, walking courageously through a potentially hostile environment, not even looking for love, just a fair price on fruit.

Love has weighed heavily on my choice to live in the United States most of my adult life, and falling out of it shook my little world enough that I could choose to live abroad. Now, I spend my days in an organization that serves poor youth, watching what goes on and piecing together how I might be useful. 

I’m raving at how well my student completed her homework, ”Values are very important” written 100 times in shaky penmanship and neat rows. I’m mediating disputes over buena or mala balls on the volleyball cancha. I’m visiting homes, meeting parents. A girl finds a pair of too-big underpants to clothe her brother in honor of my visit. A boy gets his ear twisted red for stealing his kid sister’s sticker. A family sits together to sift through a huge bowl of rice and pluck out the rotten bits, or to pop beans from their hairy pods. I’m calling kids from the street into the community chapel to make board games, giving in when they insist on punching holes in the boards, and watching them leave, grinning, proudly sporting their games strung around their necks.

Photo: The Noshery

I’m letting my host mother laugh a little too hard as she watches me try to peel green plantains with a blunt, handless knife. I’m refusing invitations for coffee from hissing men, and accepting when the same men tell their curly-haired baby daughters to extend the invitation. I’m ”dar-ing una vuelta” in the evenings, making a round, the same phrase that novios use to ask permission to get out of the house, and there they are, kissing against the muchacho’s motorcycle on a dirt road that cuts through flooded fields. Someday I’ll come back to that smallness that is pressing up against lips that know mine. But these days, I’m taking the long way around.

Community Connection:

It’s never too late to serve in the Peace Corps. Read this interview with 84 year old Peace Corps member, Muriel Johnston.

Want to be of service but feel like the Peace Corps isn’t for you? Abbie Mood offers Five Peace Corps Alternatives.