Triumph

 

So many faces once unknown. I tried to memorize all 40 of your names in the first half hour after meeting you, curious which handful I would remember for decades to come. So many faces, and now just as many goodbyes. Well, less one- a saving grace I was just too stubborn to part with. We were a motley family, and we needed each other to get through the trials, but by the end, we were a family like any other. Any one who says that these 27 months flew by in the blink of an eye is a liar. Habladores! They were long, challenging, and lonesome at points for all of us, but for most of us, it was all worth it.

The goodbyes just kind of snuck up on me. Most of them resembled any of the other hundreds of goodbyes I’ve said over the past two years- casual although we might not see each other for the next four months. Some of you I almost never talked to. Some of you I didn’t even realize were gone until two weeks too late. Some of us were about as compatible as the neighbors’ chickens and my pack of sadistic mutts. It doesn’t matter because we have all laughed together. I’m proud to have been part of this adventure with you- grateful to have known you.

Other goodbyes were more bizarre. Out of no where, a car engine was running. A door was open. And two years of friendship were crowned with a quick hug, a handful of words, but mostly silence. There was only thing that made it distinguishable from the slew of goodbyes brought on by two years of comings and goings-

Silence.

I know our paths will cross again, but will we ever light a bonfire by the beach, saturating the night with a rapturous bachata. Will we sing that familiar psalm of Presidente and palms? Maybe one day. This was our home, and where do reunions happen if not at home?

But I’m still here, and my cell phone has never been more useless.

It doesn’t matter- the only reason I’ll be here this next month is because I knew I’d be so busy that I wouldn’t have time to feel alone. Six more students from my old university, who I need to teach how to bucket flush a toilet, how to feel good wearing tight red pants, and how to build a new intake structure in Corozo.

I had envisioned that moment of triumph and thanks since before arriving to this country. Microphone in hand, hundreds of familiar faces before me, and with nothing but words, I needed to honor them, to make them tear up with joy, and to thank them. How can mere words compliment the good faith of a community and the reckless optimism of a few dreamers. How can words describe how grateful I am to have been given a home in this community? There was nothing else left to do but speak. I told them that they couldn’t measure their enormity of their victory by counting the kilometers of pipeline they slaved over, nor the tens of thousands of dollars spent by half a dozen institutions, not even by the year and a half they spent wearing their uniforms of sweat laced mud. They will see it in twenty years through the unbelieving eyes of their grandchildren.

I told them:

A day will come in 20 years, when this dirt road will have pavement, when all the houses are made of cinder block, when the moments that we’ve spent without electricity and water will seem like an almost forgotten dream, and an old woman will speak with her granddaughter on the porch of her house. She will speak of a time when she had to carry water by bucket on top of her head from the distant spring up to her house so that her family didn’t go thirsty. She will tell of the moments when she fell in the mud and had to go begin her journey again. And the granddaughter will listen with interest, but doubtful eyes, and she will say that it’s not possible that a life like that is possible- because water flows from her tap.

And the woman’s husband will appear in the door and will say that yes, life was hard in those times. He will remember a morning 20 years ago when he was climbing the mountain in Tres Bocas with a long pipe upon his shoulder, and a pick axe in his hand. He will remember each drop of sweat that fell from his brow while digging the ditches on this distant mountain all the way to his house. 11 kilometers of ditches, and a year and a half wearing his rubber work boots, foot by foot fighting, rock by rock, believing in the dream that was running water in the house. And the granddaughter will say that it’s not possible that they did all of that work by hand. But water will still flow from the tap.

And an old American will arrive on a motorcycle, that still doesn’t know how to drive one, and still knows nothing. And he will see the streets, and the houses, and the people transformed- only the mountains will remain tall and proud, beautiful. And like a son who has spent too much time out of the house, he will ask himself where the years went. And he will see the place, and the people, that gave him so much confidence in himself, so much friendship to value for his life, and so much love when he needed it most. And he will remember this place where he grew to know a foreign world, a strange language where the people say “poi favoi” (nobody seemed to understand this joke- “Why did he just say please- weird gringos…”), where he learned that he was a “palomo” that weren’t good for nothing”, Where he learned about all types of strange creatures that should belong in a horror film, not in his house, like tarantulas and centipedes, and the cockroaches that, in this country, know how to fly. And he will remember an impossible goal, of giving water to 230 houses, a goal so big that at times he thought he wasn’t possible of achieving it. But he’ll realize 20 years later, that the water still flows from the tap.

Progress is coming to our communities, and we know that its here because we invited it here, with our unity, and faith. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart for an unforgettable adventure. For living and learning from you all, I have gained a priceless treasure, and I will never forget it.”

Soon after, we cut the ribbon. I launched a geyser of water into the air from the hose, and people cheered. Most of my best friends were there to celebrate with me, even my college roommate of four years, Jimmy, was able to attend. I devoured a greedy portion of stewed goat, pork, rice, beans, potato salad, vegetable salad, and yucca. Then a nine person meregue band from El Corozo plugged in their equipment, got on stage, and played until the sun went down. Halfway though the dance party, the band, with whom I had provided gainful employment, tricked Kati and I into merengueing in front of a few hundred people alone for the entirety of a 5 minute song called, “Vamos a Hablar Ingles”. Emilio and Tona joined in for the last two minutes. While waiting for the band to resolve their technical difficulties at the start, I may have danced the Macarena to amuse a few children. Nobody seemed to understand that my strange American dancing was actually supposed to be a joke.

The next few weeks were whirlwind of adventures which culminated in a trip to the “Dirty, Dirty South” with Kati to see four foot long Rhinoceros Iguanas crawling amidst desert cacti, and Bahia de Las Aguilas, a deserted beach fairly close to Haiti. It’s a place with an almost imaginary, beautiful atmosphere, where poets and philosophers lose sight of the dimensions that confine most of us to our physical bodies. They write until they’ve flattened themselves into two dimensions, and all thats ever found of them is a piece of paper on the sand. For the first two hours, we only had to share our five kilometers of white sand and turquoise dreams with three other people. The only problem was that the guard on the beach didn’t have the wifi password, and I couldn’t buy a McFlurry anywhere. We had to settle for a picnic and conversation, with two bottles of home brewed honey mead. Rough life.

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So many good things. But now the best ones back home. And I’ll be there soon.

Noel

I know why fiction writing exists. It exists because nonfiction is too personal. We’re afraid of what they’ll say, we’re embarrassed of what they’ll think, we don’t want trespassers in the untraveled halls of our hearts and minds, and we don’t want to trespass into the lives of others. The thoughts, the words, the love, and the perspectives that might have been shared will die in some dusty journal, but at least they’re safe. At least they’re somewhere beyond this lonesome morass of memories, ideas and emotions. At least they’ve been whispered, like a prayer.

I’ve got a friend here in the Dominican Republic who lost an arm eight months ago in a motorcycle accident. To say that life has been hard on him since the accident would be a gross understatement. His name is Noel. He’s a strapping 22 year old built like a Greek god, and towers over the rest of us mere mortals. He was on his way to a baseball game in Cotui to play against a pushover team from visiting from La Vega, but he never arrived. He hit some loose gravel on the road and went down. The doctors weren’t able to save his arm, or his dreams, but they saved his life.

You see, Noel was more than good at baseball- he was a prodigy, and the talent scouts from the big leagues in the US had noticed. The contracts were in the process of being signed, and Noel was getting a one way ticket out of the campo, and a shot at grandeur in the United States. He had it all, a dream come true, a future with promise, maybe some kids one day would trade baseball cards with his face on them, boasting his outstanding stats. Maybe they’d grow up wanting to be just like him. Noel lost so much more than his arm. He lost a future. All of the interesting people he would have met… all of the sweat he would have spent on the baseball diamond… all of the wonders he would have seen in the big city…gone.

Noel will spend the rest of his life in the campo as a one armed cacao farmer, and will go to bed under a leaky tin roof for the rest of his life. That phantom limb will itch, and it will itch, and 50 years from now, it will still itch. He will never make millions, he will never be famous, he always be left to wonder what could have been, and left to wonder why he hit that gravel. There was a whole other life that he could have lived that just disappeared because of some gravel under his wheels. I’m sure that’s the hardest part- wondering what could have been.

My heart aches for Noel. Every time he talks about what he lost, people fall silent, they don’t know what to say to him, they get goosebumps when they hear his story, and when tears well up in his eyes, as they so often do, he never cries alone. His family, and his friends, and his entire village feels his loss too. He was their hero, and they were rooting with him since the first time they saw him knock the ball from home plate into the cow pastures beyond the barbed wire fence. His village feels the loss more than Noel could ever know, and hopefully in some way, this love that floats between us will let us still see the color in a sunset.

Noel has another arm, and another future. Just yesterday I saw him building his new house across the street. He was hammering away at the nails with his one remaining arm, and the entire neighborhood came together to help him build the house. The neighbors help him get the nails started, but he insists that he hammer each one into the wood himself, with his one good arm. Im sure when he’s putting each nail in, he feels his phantom limb more than ever. He will never see the United States, that future is indeed gone- but he is starting a new life here, and he will know happiness again. He told me the other day that he will continue to play baseball one armed, and he’s going to teach the kids. He’s gonna send one to the big leagues one day.

We will always lament what was lost, and in Noel’s dreams, he will always have two arms, but in time, we will not despair. We will see that every second of life that he spent with courageous passion, with love for baseball, with his soul’s vessel brimming over with dreams that he was living- is time when he was alive. Even one year of life that is truly spent alive can redeem everything else. Nobody can take that happiness from Noel. The Past has sown his dreams, courage, and passion into the fabric of time, and it will be there for all eternity. And long after Noel’s accident, when we see a shoeless child playing on that slanted baseball diamond by the cow pasture, and we see them dreaming, we will remember, and rejoice that Noel knew how to live, and his story can help others to do so as well.

Noel doesn’t exist.
His story doesn’t exist.

The other words do. 

The Multiverse

His name was Old Warrior. He was a fifty foot long blubbery beast, with a few tally marks on his back counting his lost battles with unforgiving propellors. When he erupted vertically through the water close to our port side, a wave of adrenaline hit everyone on board our vessel. Screams of surprise, then gasps of delight, and finally a few tears of awe. Onetwothree seconds- frozen in the air with a palm covered mountain behind him, twisting towards us with his floppy fins orbiting him like Saturn’s rings. Then he was gone- leaving a momentary, turquoise stain of aerated water where his enormity had squashed the sea. While our hearts were still pounding, he was already deep beneath us, escorting a mother and her calf across the Samana Bay. After four hours of perfect contentedness, watching graceful crests, and feeling the salty spray from the powerful blasts of air through their spouts, Old Warrior’s three second gravity defying magic act will be all that I will remember of a perfectly splendid day.

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If Old Warrior could’ve given me a 10 second warning, my photo would look like this

This spectacular annual migration of Humpback Whales to the Samana Bay was well known by the Taino people native to this island, who depicted their grandeur on the walls of their holy caves. I’m continually impressed by the hidden treasures that the Samana Peninsula has to offer, both above and below the waves. Kati and I came very close to missing these submarine mammoths, all because I felt the need to be idly present in my campo all week waiting for donors to transfer funds, and waiting for the hardware store’s phantom delivery trucks to finally arrive. The day has been seized, the moment seared in my mind, but even if my mortal memory betrays me, my understanding that the word “life” is bigger than the mere human race, and that the word “sacred” is bigger than a church altar, well, I won’t let that fade.

Last week, I read that it’s possible we may live in a multiverse, instead of a universe. That’s like a chain reaction of Big Bangs happening into infinity, outside our own tiny universe. Each time a new universe sprouts, it could have the most improbable of results- a four dimensional universe like our own, or it could more likely have an inane number of dimensions that our physical bodies and feeble minds can’t understand. Unsurprisingly, we can never have the evidence we crave to confirm this, because we are trapped in our own universe. Previously, I would have thought that such talk could be nothing more than a Cannabis inspired raving, but apparently there are some lab coat wearing scientists who talk with Russian and German accents, who think it’s possible.

Physicists have seen the smoke from the gun, a warped gravitational field which proves that the fabric of space time was violently wrenched apart in the tiniest fraction of a second after the Big Bang, expanding the universe faster than the speed of light, in a phenomenon called “inflation”. I’m a bit of a nerd, please don’t tell anyone. I latched on to this mind boggling news and downloaded a few more articles. Apparently, most computer models of inflation indicate that once inflation starts, it is eternal, and it is such a potent reaction that it would most certainly happen many more times.

I’m not a physicist, and I don’t pretend to even remotely understand half of what the articles I read spoke of. What I did grasp however was that our Old Warrior is very very tiny. We have always known that we are tiny in the cosmic scheme of things, but now we know with certainty that the universe goes on beyond the furthest flung photons in the universe. And the cool part? We can never know anything about the rest of this universe with any certainty because it’s racing away from us faster than light. I’m relieved that now matter how big our brains get, our imaginations have free reign, because we can never be certain. Simply beautiful.

When a whale leaps above the waves, we wonder what he’s thinking. When my canine family gets a priority changing scent on the breeze that sends them on the most important of missions, I think of it as frivolous. When I use all of my cell phone minutes to invite my friends to a chess tournament at the colmado, half a dozen people stand thinking that chess is a waste of time. As I try and focus on forking my opponent with my knight to steal his queen, I hear the Evangelical nomads from Cotui, speaking in tongues, launching frightening, guttural, fierce, and nonsensical sounds through the microphone, to the cheers of a wild crowd. And I wonder why.

Do we live in a multiverse? I just live in a campo. And a whale just lives in the sea. And my dogs live in their doggy scented world. And the tranquility I feel in a chess match must seem as foreign to the preacher as his gibberish seems to me. We do live in a multiverse, and each of our worlds are lightyears apart from our neighbors. We understand that we will never really understand each others’ motivations and choices in life, but we should at least be able to empathize with one another, recognizing that happiness comes to us from different, foreign roads. Just because they’re not on your road does not mean they are a broken person. Why can’t we respect each others’ paths? Must we force each other to join our caravan, to walk our road? Do we do it just because we’re lonely or uncertain?

After a perfectly pleasant lunch at the biggest Jonny Rockets in the world, my two project partners from the Mormon Church took me on a tour of the office. It was a great place, full of extremely nice people who were very grateful for the work that I was doing, but there’s always one guy. An eccentric friend of theirs invited me to join their church. I think I just barely kept my response together in a polite but firm way. When somebody you just met asks you, “Do you know anything about God (as if it’s the first time I’ve heard the word)? Would you like a Bible (go learn something I already know)? Come to our church sometime (you lost sheep)…” I just find it artificial, callous, and completely disrespectful- just assuming that I’m clearly a broken person because I’m not on his team. There was only one universe in this man’s mind, in which there was no room for uncertainty. My project partners indirectly expressed their apologies to me for being overwhelmed by the flood that was this man’s elevator speech.

We are tantalizingly close to the end of work in Dos Palmas and Tres Bocas, but even with 80 tap stands installed, all of the mainline pipe installed, and all storage tanks full of water, I have been forced to spend the past three weeks idle. I even have a tap stand out front of my house now, even if it does still have dry pipes. With our last delivery truck scheduled to arrive sometime this week, any other items we may be lacking will be able to be purchased with cash locally in Cotui. It’s required a torturous amount of patience, actually 26 months of it, but by the next blog post, you will see a photo of me with a free flowing tap stand out front of my house.

In the meantime I’ve contented myself by getting stabbed with needles by Peace Corps medical staff, giving a few vials of blood, um… you know… coughing, urine samples, and three stool samples which I needed to march proudly into a crowded clinic. Even though I had a carrying bag, I felt like the bystanders in the clinic all knew what was inside, and their judgmental eyes said one thing, “disgraceful.” I wanted to shout at them all, “Yes, it’s mine! There’s poop in the bag! I know you’re all human too, so look to the beam in your own eye!” Instead, I entertained myself with the notion that if I was robbed, I would be able to laugh about it in the evening, when the thief would quite literally get shit for his effort. Peace Corps paid for my three days in the capital to conduct the exams, and if not for the busy days and form signing, it would have been a veritable vacation. I explained it to my host family as follows- when you rent a car, the company must examine it afterwards to make sure that there is no hidden damage that you should be held accountable for. Well, Peace Corps signed off on me. No noteworthy damage to this car, but they sure did get a hell of a lot of mileage out of me.

In these past three weeks, I have seen minimal progress in my main project, but I have busied myself with my endeavors in Corozo, as well as yet another side project that Tal and I have been working on in a village called Los Guineos. Seeing how Tal has basically finished his main project, he has taken the lead on the modifications to the faulty design in the Los Guineos system- an old Peace Corps system that failed to provide water to around 40 houses in the community. I was able to help Tal on the design, and being the charmer that he is, Tal was able to win over Rotary’s financial support to implement the modifications over the course of the next three weeks.

After Tal and I finished tightening up a few new pipes at Los Guineos main tank, their valve box was too small to be useful, so we needed to hack it apart with a pick axe, and build a valve house upon the ruins. This house barely covered the massive labyrinth of old pipes, superfluous valves, and bad ideas that the community had experimented with over the past few years. After putting in a few more puzzle pieces, I am certain that anyone who looks at this new valve house will have absolutely no idea what is going on. I am not even sure I do. But I am sure the design will work.

After installing the valve house in Los Guineos, a visiting PA from the Rotary team saved my toe from advancing to gangrene by removing a nine day old cactus spine lodged into the callous of my big toe. I’m pretty sure there’s a youtube video somewhere documenting the field surgery. The thorn was half a centimeter long, and that number is not prone to literary/Dan exaggeration- I measured it 5mm.

I received the cactus spine while searching for cell phone service on a hilltop in Punta Rusia (Russian Point). I had always thought that Punta Rusia must have had a high number of Russian expats, but it turns out that they call it Russian Point because it’s so far away from everything that it might as well be in Russia. I got my invite from an Environment Sector couple living in the area. They were calling all divers to come help them on their coral nursery project. The offer was too tempting to pass over. Not only could we see the famous deserts of the Russian Point, but we could get a free dive with friends. The night ended as it should have, with a beachfront bonfire, friends, and booze.

As I count the days down till the end of my service, I’ve developed a few hobbies- home brewing for example. Kati and I made our first five gallon batch of honey mead, flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, and the juice from a bag of handpicked oranges. We have 10 more gallons on the way! The champagne yeast was a nice touch, if not for the taste, then certainly for the look on Octavio’s face when I popped open a bottle and a five foot tall geyser hit him between the eyes. I’ve found that when kept refrigerated, I can tame bubbles a bit, and the bottles themselves have less chance of exploding (I’ve lost 3). This batch has been experimental, and not without its flaws, but it’s been delicious. I would bring some back to the United States to share with everyone, but due to customs regulations… shipping constraints… and, h well, actually… I’m just going to drink them all myself. 

The Other Half of Heaven

The clock ticks on, quietly. It’s always been ticking, stealthily, month by month, but I haven’t heard its song until now. It’s beckoning me home with an inescapable, mechanical persistency. The end begins to resemble the beginning, as a thrill saturates these quiet fears of mine, and conviction reigns amidst a familiar uncertainty. But when will that moment come? When will that calming realization embrace me, as it did before? That recognition that one life has utterly run it’s course, and with no regrets, I can look to the dawn. I still have a purpose here. I’m reminded of it by that never-ending ruddy groove crawling down the road, a little further every day. I am making an impact. I have never questioned that. But in time, will I forget? I will always remember the people I have met here, and the work that was done along this journey. But will I forget to live?

I used to complain that the hardest part of life in my campo was that I had to spend most of these two years apart from almost all of the people that I wanted to spend time with. It took me the greater part of a year to find even one real friend here. Although I still want to be around the people I love more than ever, and almost all of those people are not with me most of the time, I realize that I am no longer lonely. In fact, I have forgotten how to feel lonesome, although I’m alone. I was forced to adapt to the silence of an empty house, night after night. Silence is no longer pain, and a night by myself is no longer wasted life. The two hour silences of candlelit chess games with Octavio are calming rituals. I look forward to them as I used to long for the satisfaction felt after a dizzying night of emotion filled faces, swirling across the dance floor. I know how to spend an hour sitting in a hammock watching my dogs play, without a single conscious thought entering my mind. It’s meditation. I have learned to love reading. Writing, however, is not silent. It’s a conversation overflowing with unspoken words. A person who can not be at peace in silence does not know what peace is. Perhaps I’ve finally learned? But will I forget when this all fades? The world back home moves so fast, will I get lost in the blur?

Almost all of my graduating engineering class will live to become successful professionals, with spacious offices, juicy incomes, with increasing power and responsibility each year, because that is what is expected of privileged people in wealthy areas. I may very well end up the same, because the gravity of our own culture shapes our personalities in a way that binds us to them. We are expected to not squander the gifts we have, gifts that others have been born without. We know that the only responsible thing to do would be to multiply our gifts. I’ve had friends tell me that they couldn’t understand how I could spend two years in the Peace Corps, away from our professional opportunities, because these two years were so critical to our futures. He was right, these two years are critical to our future, but I disagree with the phrase that was used to describe my choice, “a waste”. He’s a good friend, but we saw the world with two completely different lenses.

We must not waste the gifts we are given, but who could deny that our most precious gift is our life, our freedom, our ability to choose our path, our happiness. The beauty is that our happiness calls us all to many very different places, to do many very different things. But few have the courage to even realize what that their own happiness is, for fear of where it will take them. I realize that I have a choice. I could spend the entirety of my life away from conformity, away from the camouflage capable of dissolving our creativity like acid. I don’t have to choose those things that our culture showers upon us, things that get outdated, things that break, things that enslave us as we try to sustain the unsustainable. If I find that I’m not fulfilled in my new life, what will I do? I want to go home, but I don’t need to anymore. I think there is a place for me there, so I will go. Confidence shepherds me today, a confidence that the sun always rises. But tomorrow, will I forget that I am free?

Of the 40 of us who stepped out of the plane on February 29th, 2012- 34 stand together at the end, but all of us are changed. This past week, we joined each other for our Close of Service (COS) conference. This was our last official gathering before we go our separate ways. When I entered the swanky hotel where our COS conference would be held, and saw the ceviche at the free buffet, I realized that this was more than a conference- it was a celebration. It was a heart-felt thank you from the Peace Corps staff, and a congratulation, in an effort to compensate us for our bouts of parasites, and our sad dances with Dengue.

After three days of meetings and reflection, we were loathe to part with our hotel cards- our passports to comfort. On our way back to those ancient cobbled streets in the capital, I was transported back almost two years to the day, to a group of pensive eyes looking away from the airport. It was the same guagua, filled with the same luggage and faces, cruising by the same endless ocean blue. And there were palm trees saluting the sea, just as before. But they weren’t foreign. They weren’t exotic. They were just trees. Then I realized that faces around me were not the same as before. Life had left its signature on our faces, where lines had been forged by hot rays, and laughter, and sometimes tears. Will I remember how those lines were forged? Together. 

Our last farewell party was spent at the deputy chief of mission’s mansion in Santo Domingo. His name was Dan, an RPCV from Bolivia, and the second most powerful person at the American embassy. From looking at where he lived, you would never guess that he once lived on a shack on a mountain in Bolivia. His lavish home was serviced by a personal security guard, a chef with a classic, poofy white hat, and a few maids wearing black and white dresses, just like in the movies. His words of wisdom to us were powerful. He spoke of how he often wished he was back on his mountain, but how we shouldn’t worry about what’s next in our lives. Take our time, he said. Don’t worry, everything will be ok. Although his words were simple, the empathy in them made his short speech one giant, verbal hug.

The weekend whisked Kati and I away to our well explored paradise, the Samana Peninsula, to sharpen a few underdeveloped diving skills at the End Of The Road in Las Galeras. New faces had appeared at the Dive Shop, including Aaron, a friendly, relaxed guy with an innate ability for teaching. We were going to focus on buoyancy control with Aaron, off of the La Playita beach. After only half an hour, Kati and I were floating with our fins at the surface and our heads just inches above the sand, using just our lungs to float up and down. We were ready to go down, deeper into the bottomless blue.

There was a shipwreck beneath us, an 80 year old mystery, whose name and story were buried in the sand. Where men once walked upon its deck, thousands of fish had made their eerie home. It was a freighter, 200 feet long- not the dinky little fishing vessel I had envisioned. My eyes followed the rope that was guiding us down into the murkiness, but all I could see was more blue, and we were already very deep. From the moment we were under, we became the only three people who had ever existed in the world: Kati, Aaron, and me. Memory ceased, and the adventure began.

About half way down, I had a sobering experience. The increased water pressure had suctioned my mask uncomfortably to my face. As I began trying to equalize the pressure, water began filling my mask. I’d been trained well, and knew how to take off my mask entirely, put it back on, and empty out all of the salt water just by blowing my nose and tilting my head upwards. This wasn’t a problem, just an inconvenience. I knew that just because your eyes are stinging, and your nose is surrounded by water, that does not mean that you are drowning. You just continue to breath like normal with your regulator, while you fix the problem.

Unfortunately, every time I emptied out the water from my mask, it kept filling with water within a seconds. I cleared out my mask a dozen times before starting to get frustrated, and thinking about the surface. Any questions I had for Aaron would have to be explained via underwater diving sign language. I cleared my mask, and pointed at it as water began seeping in once more. As I held on to the rope with one hand, and blindly tried to empty out my mask with the other, I realized that Aaron had written me a note on his tablet. Tilt your mask down. The bottom of my mask had basically been touching my nostrils. After completing the dive, Aaron later told me that he was sure I was going to give up and swim to the surface. I’m not stubborn, just persistent. Oh, and shipwrecks are really cool.

The wreck was so big that you couldn’t even capture it all in one view. The deck was buried in the sand, and most of the ship’s base was covered in barnacles, swarming with schools of Snapper. The top of a large smoke stack had broken off, and was pointing upwards to the surface, filled with all sorts of unknown tropical fish, exploding with vibrant colors. After looping around the hull, we looked up and saw two massive Barracuda lurking above everything. They must have been the size of me! I was a little on edge when I saw their spooky outlines, but afterwards I was amused to find out that one of them had a name- Eric. The best part of our dive was when we swam through the wreck, passing beneath the deck and the sand. We had a roof over our head for about a minute, and I was sure that I was dreaming. I didn’t linger to peer into the hallways, and cavernous, murky voids around us. I was focused on making it through, and letting Aaron know that I was down to a quarter tank of air, so we must begin our assent soon. After all, we were guests in Eric’s all you can eat buffet, and he had a guest visiting.

Never in my life have I thought that I would actually swim through a shipwreck 60 feet under the waves. It was certainly the most surreal, dare I say, magical experience that I have had in this country. And what would I have to show if confidence was a stranger to me? What would I have gained if the risks intimidated me? That night, I sipped a mojito with Kati and a few other friends, on a cliff face restaurant overlooking the bay. Where others saw a beautiful sunset beyond the mountains, across the rippled bay- I just marveled at how will hidden the other half of heaven was.DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO

Unfolding The World

There is a seemingly impassible void between these two worlds of palm and of ice, of torn jeans the color of muddy ditches, and of steam ironed dress shirts with silk ties. My mind is a fragile bridge trying to span the chasm. All of these precious experiences, complete with all of their jarring details, fight for sovereignty over the same few cubic inches available in this faulty organic vault.

Both worlds can not coexist in the same present, with the seamless fabric that I will them, that I need them to have. Perhaps my mind knows that it will be overwhelmed by the contrast, so it stows away the disparate memories- dreamlike visions that do not belong to the present before my eyes. Maybe those memories dry up in the absence of the people who made those memories worth remembering. Maybe I’m just too preoccupied with my work to bother reminiscing about a distant world. I don’t want to be a bridge. I want to bask in these experiences as if they were a single reality, occupying the same dimensions of time and space, and maybe then, the vivid details might survive with more intensity.

Even my body can not physically cope with the change between these two worlds. My blood has thinned out, and a 50 degree gust sends me running for my coat, while my friends stare in disbelief, wearing T-shirts. After finishing a morning jog in the cold woods, my knee caps became hot plates dipped in cold water, aching to the point that I could barely walk, until I found the heat that my body has felt for these past two years. A half pound cheese burger at a pub overwhelmed my digestive system, and I felt nauseous from the excess. Even if my mind and body can not span the void between these worlds, at least here in words, I can imagine what it would be like. I could live it as if it were a single life path, not two worlds that can never be one.

How would it feel to have lived this past month as if it were one single, consistent reality? To feel the crunch of frozen earth, jogging through the a leafless wood with Joe and Nichole. The next day, my bare feet dissolve into that liquid sand on the shore as the foam rushes over them, cooling them after a game of pickup football. One cold evening, I warm my toes by the fire at Maddie’s house when the luz se fues. In the morning, the hot tropic sun tans my neck as I work. I could dress in my Sunday’s best for Nora’s candlelit baptism at the chapel, but in the evening I don my red pants, and Kati puts on her new highlighter yellow top. What outfits could be more fitting for champagne and fireworks amidst a cheering, faceless crowd at midnight on the beach? Then I awake to find wrapping paper, colorful lights, more gifts than I can imagine, and Mikenike’s in the same old Christmas stocking- but I can’t open any gifts until I carry my bathwater up the hill. Later in the day, I clean the cement off my boots in the river. Then I could hop on my motor taxi to meet Kim and Pat at the pub, for a heavenly christmas ale, Atlanta’s finest. When I get home, I could stroll down the dirt road in Crocks and PJ bottoms to buy the only cheap, flavorless beer available to me- with my three dogs following me like my own shadow. I could be with Kati and Tal in the DR, Kim and Pat in Atlanta, and with my family in DC all at once. I could build water tanks for my communities Monday through Friday, and talk about what a tough week it was with Macho, as he kicks my ass in billiards. I could experience it all, and never feel like I’m missing something important elsewhere.

A two week visit to the United States, once a year, isn’t enough to reincorporate myself mentally into the fabric of my old life, because I can’t forget the beauty of a palm tree’s silhouette before the full moon. I can’t forget the pride, and the triumph I feel when water flows. I’m somewhere in between worlds, but not in either one fully. It feels a bit like visiting high school friends after a few years in separate colleges. You can still chat and laugh together, but your shared experiences stop with the trumpets in Pomp and Circumstance in the graduation ceremony. You’re left with stories to tell, but everyones’ lives are moving so fast, and you’re not there to see them move. The only difference is that in this case, my high school is an affluent, urban area in the United States, and my college is the poor, rural Dominican Republic. It’s not that the leap from one world to the other is too far to imagine, it’s that they’re not even within sight of one another.

Not only has this new life moved quickly, but it has broken away from the old one, in a way that few people can relate to. Few people have the flexible, broad vision required to actually have a real conversation about the other half of my life, but I want to talk about it all the time. If I don’t discuss it, silence camouflages these memories with the past. If you don’t camouflage them, awkward silences will meet you at the end of your words anyways. There’s always silence. You end up feeling like a foreigner in two countries.

Surely that was enough philosophical drama to inflict on my readers for one day. Sometimes I wonder if people think that I exaggerate my emotions and thoughts regarding this experience, and the transitions between worlds. I could simplify everything for you, tell you how much I miss hot showers, how I miss walking down the street without constantly looking over my shoulder for thieves, how quiet and cold it is back home, and what it’s like to live peacefully in simplicity on a tropical farm. I could tell you the quick answer is yes, that my time in the United States was a heavenly escape, one that almost made me look forward to the end of my service. Above all, there were just so many people that I had missed seeing for so long. But during this long, dark evening with no electricity, like so many other evenings in my campo, I have something that is rare back home- the time to be introspective. It’s amazing how many thoughts we leave unexamined, how many emotions we leave unfelt, because we only have enough time or courage to see the world unfold with our eyes, rather than unfolding the world with our mind. Writing is the soul’s meditation, so when I write, it may overwhelm, but it can not portray anything except genuineness.

Now I need writing more than ever, or else I will spend the evening watching episodes of Seinfeld to distract myself from what is within. I feel the walls of my heart opening up, and do not know what repressed monster will jump out. Well, here it is- cascading out, formlessly, tragically.

My friend Tomas passed away suddenly this weekend. On Thursday, he called me to tell me he couldn’t make it to the meeting in El Corozo, because he wasn’t feeling well. On Monday, when I called to see if he was feeling better, his widow answered the phone. My conversation with her was one of the shortest, and most awkward conversations of my life, in which I learned the word “to pass away”, fallacerse, a tad less painful than, morir, “to die”.

I will never know much about Tomas’ personal life, but I know that he was married 18 years and had kids. What I knew of him was all professional. In my mind, we were a team of two, working to bring water to El Corozo. Tomas was the face of Fundacion Reddom in El Corozo. Since the UVA team left last July, I had been in contact with Tomas at least once a week. When I was distracted with my work in Dos Palmas, it was Tomas who reminded me to get the budget done so we could get pipes delivered on time in El Corozo. It was Tomas who stood on top of the tank with me in El Corozo, reminding me that I was not alone in this battle. Tomas was the face that gave me confidence that I could leave this country tomorrow, and El Corozo would be in good hands.

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Atop the tank in El Corozo: From left: Me, PC Country Director, Tomas, Salvador

Why? How? None of that really matters, because it will not change the fact that I will not shake his hand again, or stand by him at the inauguration of the El Corozo system. He was a good man, who sacrificed comfortable days in his office in Santo Domingo, to travel to remote villages so that they might know the word, “progress”. It hurts me to see him go. It’s all bottled up and confused inside. What I do know is that I feel like we have unresolved business to discuss. Since the end of my vacation in the US, he had been telling me that he wanted to meet with me to discuss the El Corozo project. He knew how desperately we needed more pipes to keep working. I still feel like I’m waiting for him to call me back, but those words are lost and will never be said. I’ve never had life snatch someone away from me mid-sentence before. What do we say to resolve it? I know that he would be proud to stand with me on the next tank we build in El Corozo. Tomas will be yet one more reason for me to keep moving forward.

Amidst the losses, we must not lose sight of the victories. It was not a painless victory by any means, but 13,000 gallons of water above Dos Palmas is a monumental achievement. I arrived to this village to bring water to Dos Palmas almost two years ago, and since then, I’ve built a tank in Tres Bocas, and in El Corozo. It has tortured me that we have been unable to build the water tank in Dos Palmas until now, but it was not possible until water flowed to the tank site. The water that fills this tank is birthed in a distant mountain stream, almost 5 kilometers away, and we have spent tens of thousands of dollars, gallons of sweat, and almost a full year to get to the point where we could actually build this tank. As always, tank construction was stressful, which was all the justification I needed to go spend a few nights at Kati’s seaside apartment, hiding from the world, a hobby of mine nowadays. Now, the most challenging parts of this project are all done. It will be a joy to finally be free of this behemoth undertaking. 

DSCF3881 Above: My Friday work brigade- well, what was left of them- there were a half dozen of them already                                                              down the hill by the time I could get my camera out.

 

End of the Road

I went to the moon, but there were no craters or lunar dust- just a grayish blue infinity wrapping all around me, a misplaced floating speck. It was both frightening and soothing at the same time, to hear nothing but the overpowering sound of my own, deep inhalations, followed by a flurry of bubbles racing towards the surface. You never lose track of what’s important underwater. Every single breath echoes in your head as if it were the only thing that mattered in your wet, blue world. In a sense, it’s meditative, clearing your mind of the problems that persist on dry land. Short of a few hand signals, I couldn’t communicate with the other specs floating around me. I was alone, but safe. I was in awe, but relaxed.

After you learn to trust the rubber hoses and aluminum tanks harnessed around your body, it all comes into focus. There was a forest of stringy, dark green seaweed strands, anchored to the reef, swaying together with the unceasing rhythm of the ocean wind. A school of tiny neon blue fish hovered around us for a few moments, curiously eyeing their alien visitors. Then there was a tiny gold fish swimming through them, like a beam of light, oblivious to their nautical ballet of coordinated turns- someone has to be the rebel I suppose. And then you roll over and look up, and feel tinier than ever when you see how far away the surface is. We were only 40 feet under, but it was quite a view, and quite a thrilling sensation. After spending a half an hour underwater, you don’t want to come up. Gravity is a buzz kill.

A Tiny Speck , floating

A Tiny Speck , floating

The classroom portion of our scuba diving class was less magical, but necessary to obtain our open water diving certification. Along with a few other Peace Corps friends, Kati and I were pretending to be tourists for a few days. We felt like we deserved it after almost two years of “fill in the blank”, and despite the fact that I was playing hooky from work for a few days, it was my birthday, so I didn’t feel guilty about anything.

The English couple who were running the course, Paul and Diane, had enough personality to be cartoon characters, or bobble head figurines at the very least. Diane decided to show off her American accent by singing me Happy Birthday Mr. President, like Marilyn Monroe. Our instructor, Paul, was an ex-seminarian, who became a standup comedian, then a DJ, a restaurant owner in Spain, and was now was a spear fisher, cave diver, ice diver, and treasurer hunter, who spends his work week relaxing in the eerie skeletons of half millennium old Spanish galleons. There was also Sara, who helped out around the shop, who had abandoned a well paying job in London, her suit, and her cubicle, and was now at the end of the road with the other outcasts. They’re such interesting people, and will always have the gratitude of Peace Corp’s mosquito ravaged masses, for giving us unreasonably low prices for their course, and always bringing us a second round of bread with dinner.

After a day of studying for our diving certification test, we went to enjoy the night on Las Galera’s main beach, Playa Grande. It was dark, undeveloped, quiet apart from the surf, and had a clear sky with stars cluttered around the palm trees’ silhouettes. I began to think of how mortal this paradise was. Would this be just another blurry memory one day?

Back from the moon.

Back from the moon.

Amidst the chaos that immerses everything around me, I have found some sort of balance here, and in this balance I see beauty. That beauty is the freedom to walk through the sand on a path that appears before me each day, rather than one that I try to manipulate, dominate, and ultimately claim as my own. Are we just trying to cheat fate when we dream of a life as free as this? Call it cheating fate or not, when you go to the end of the road, you find some very happy people there who didn’t want to fit in elsewhere. They are conformity’s refugees- the gold fish swimming the wrong way. If I ever go astray in life, if I wake up and find that I am not happy, will I have the courage to travel back to feel that unforgettable sensation of freedom? It’s what I felt 40 feet underwater, and what I feel in the night sky on a sandy shore, and I don’t care if it’s a cliché or not, but I feel infinitely large and infinitely small at the same time. You look up at stars around you, or at a wet, blue world, and you’re dwarfed in size by the horizonless void surrounding you, but somehow it doesn’t matter at all because you feel so alive, and in a very real way, that void is filled.

Our scuba diving adventures were preceded by our annual thanksgiving feast, celebrated in an upscale hotel’s reception hall. Just like last year, we overtook the rooftop pool and hot tub, and for a few hours, we felt like royalty. Instead of playing early morning football, I spent the night before in one Santo Domingo’s more subversive athletic establishments- a pay per the hour soccer complex with mini-turf fields, aptly named in English as Soccertown, so it would be a magnet for hooligan foreigners in Santo Domingo, protesting baseball’s monopoly of power. Unlike Peace Corp’s last Thanksgiving, the sports and pool party will not stick out as the most impressive memory. This year, I will remember the artists. I have never worked with such a highly concentrated group of artists. Our talent show had it all: singers, stand-up comedian acts, poetry readings, and beat boxers- but all of them artists. Their art told me one thing in many different ways, that they see beauty in life, and they took the time to study it, create it, and share it with us.

The ditches have been moving down the road in all three of my communities. Between them, we have over 40 people working every day to better their communities. As always, Corozo has been a model for success, not because they do everything right the first time, but because they fix the problems when they arise. I found out that the plumbers were installing the pipes at a frighteningly shallow depth, and spoke very sternly with them, and the water committee representatives that employed them, and within a few days, everything was fine.

Corozo has such strong leadership there thanks to the motivation of a few individuals. One of these individuals actually took me over to his house to speak with his family, so that I could explain to them that he was actually spending the entire day working with me, and not cheating on his wife in the city. I can’t think of a single person in any of the communities in which I have worked who has single-handedly done more for their community than this man, and suspicion was his reward. Rather than confronting the embarrassing situation directly, I instead thanked his wife for lending me her husband for so much time, and explained the invaluable role he was playing in the project. My friend laughed afterwards when I asked him how I handled the situation. He told me that I had a gift with words.

Just before heading to the capital with my luggage for winter break, I went with Octavio, Tal, and a few other volunteers in the Cotui area to a campo house for Tal’s Hanukkah party. Perhaps when you think of a campo house, you think of a wooden shack, but this was a three story luxury house, complete with billiards, a pool, and loud music- and we didn’t have to pay a cent. Tal and Jenni are friends with the houses owner, who owns a grocery store in Cotui, and were able to get them to lend us the house for the night. The house’s owners never even came to say hi to us from their real home in Cotui, but they sent us lasagna and a driver to take us into Cotui to go dancing. I struggle to understand how people could be that trusting and giving without ever even meeting half of the house guests. We danced plenty in Cotui, and saw fireworks, cotton candy, and live bachata performances around every corner, in a sea of wandering, inebriated people. It was Cotui’s annual patronales celebration, but I didn’t know it at the time, I just thought Cotui was like that every Friday night. In this theater of the bizarre, I want to bed on the third floor in the “communist room” of the campo house, a large room painted red, adorned with no less than 6 portraits of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, with a rifle leaning prominently in the corner by my bed. Home sweet home?

By nightfall, I will be bundled up in a coat and sweater for the first time in two years, back in the States visiting family and friends in Atlanta, before I make the trip up north to my old stomping grounds in DC. It’s been seven months since my last homecoming. Up till the day before my flight, I was working in the muddy streets, aware on some level that I would be traveling home soon, but not really feeling it. My flight leaves in a few hours, and I still don’t really feel it. When you spend a heartbeat of time in a world so different from your own, like half an hour underwater exploring a reef, your return to the “real world” makes your tiny incongruous adventure feel like a dream. The shortness of the time and the intensity of the difference leave you with only a vague understanding that the adventure happened, but it still doesn’t feel real. My last trip home felt that way, and I’m sure this trip home will feel the same- a good dream. 

Walking The Tight Rope

The Corp’s predecessors of more than half a century ago must truly think of us as wimps. Not for having a concrete floor instead of brown, tamped earth. Not for bucket flushing toilets instead of the dig-a-hole-and-squat methodology of old. Not for complaining when the luz se fues, when their neighbors had never even seen luz in their lives. We are wimps because none of us have really let go of our old lives. We walk the tight rope, steadying ourselves with an acrobat’s balancing stick, putting half of our weight in the lush palm covered hills around us, and the other half in a fantasy world with snow and Big Mac’s and nostalgic places. Our predecessors had no choice but to dive right in to the darkness. Communication with their old lives was hand written letters that would have taken months to arrive, if at all. Now look at me, shaking with rage because some punk tiguere stole my $10 cell phone in a carro publico, and I felt for the first time how isolated I truly am, when I couldn’t call anybody to complain. Not a single day has gone by in this country when I do not spend at least 20 minutes on the phone with Kati or Tal, or on Skype with family and friends back home. The time I spend chatting with them is as much a part of my daily schedule as brushing my teeth, and just as important for my health.

After a boring morning of running errands in Cotui, I was homeward bound. I was exhausted from traveling, so my heart sank when we stopped to pick up an additional three passengers. I was riding shotgun, and would lose the little bit of comfort I had. I must have left my cell phone on my seat as I stowed my backpack in the trunk, and that’s when the tiguere who sat next to me must have slipped his pitiful plastic prize into his pocket. In a five seat car, we fit four adults in the front, four adults in the back with a toddler and a few bags on their laps, and one unfazed dude seated on our luggage in the trunk with the hatch wide open. Ten people, a new record for me. While still within the city limits, we passed three horses running loose where the double painted line dividing traffic should have been, one of whom had the bottom half of its leg barely dangling on. Nobody commented on the ridiculousness of this situation, and I realized only afterwards that there are no limits to the absurdity of this circus. All I can do is just keep juggling and try to remember why I once thought situations like these amusing, and not tragic. 

I didn’t realize that my cell phone was missing until I was back home. My motortaxi friend, Tito, called my number several times, and actually got into several conversations with the thief. Tito tried to appeal to the void where this punk’s sense of guilt should have been, explaining that I was working for the communities to bring them water, and all of my work contacts would be lost if I didn’t get my cell phone’s SIM card back. My neighbor who sells me internet wasn’t home until 10PM that night, so I had a full 10 hours to ponder how truly isolated I was, before I finally got into a late night Skype conversation with Kati. The tiguere had been texting Kati, and had a 5 minute conversation with Tal, who pleaded with him to give me my phone back.

The phone meant nothing to me, but I had been robbed of my only escape from the world around me, my ability to call my friends so I could vent my self-righteous rage. This punk found a way to entertain himself at my expense, by texting my girlfriend and talking with my friends, when I couldn’t, and when I needed them most. I have never felt so violated. I can feel a monster in me fighting to get out, the bizarre creation of toxic amounts of stress slowly being injected into me for over a year and a half now. So many volunteers say they are more patient people than they were before they left. In many ways I am too, but when I see people deliberately making our lives more difficult, and I know too many volunteers who’ve cried themselves to sleep in frustration that their projects might not be making a difference, I feel this monster of mine crawling in my rib cage, wanting to burst out. I’m scared of it, and I want it to go away, but I don’t know how.

My first week of work started the next day, so I wouldn’t be able to go to Cotui to buy a new phone. I would have to go a whole week without talking to people when I wanted to, a terrifying prospect. Tito told me the tiguere would sell me my SIM card, but not my happy meal quality phone, for a grand total of 100 pesos, the cost of a jumbo sized beer. I told Tito to go for it, but told him to bring the town sheriff with him, packing heat, to put this kid behind bars. Instead, the tiguere didn’t allow himself to fall into the trap by coordinating the hour of the tradeoff, instead he sent his own friend to Tito at a random time when the sheriff wasn’t around to ambush him. I paid the 100 pesos, and used Octavio’s old phone to call my friends and work contacts the entire week. 

Work was long and hard, but satisfying and productive. I awoke from my sleep each morning feeling as motivated as could be. I slipped on my rubber boots and pumped out a few pull-ups while Eye of the Tiger played on my Macbook. I even washed my dishes after eating dinner one night! I was ready to work. The main goal for the week was to cross Arroyo Vuelta (Turn Creek), which is more of a tiny river that divides Tres Bocas into what many might consider to be two separate communities. I had known from the beginning that crossing this river would not be easy. The bridge they have there is relatively new, and already has broken culverts, cracked supporting walls, and 1/3 of the road completely washed out from flood waters. I had toyed with the idea of burying the pipes on the side of the road that wasn’t washed out, but realized that would just be sloppy engineering. I could have run several galvanized pipes along the side of the bridge, but that would have been extremely expensive and would not last very long when a large storm floods the bridge. Iron pipes can bend like horseshoes with a strong enough current. The only other option was a cable suspension crossing, which would have to be enormously long due to the unfavorable topographical conditions I was left to work with. The bridge soars across the river 180 feet from column to column, carrying two pipelines instead of one, and will be the most visible and impressive part of this project when all of the other pipes are underground and the water tanks lay hidden on distant hilltops.

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My tight rope…

DSCF3760                    Reyes and I, feeling good. DSCF3705

Kids in Tres Bocas going to bathe!

As I was trying to convince a brigade full of workers to carry river rocks to the top of a hill above Arroyo Vuelta, El Corozo was impressing me once more with their unwavering dedication to their project. Two months ago, I told them in a water committee meeting that an organization called Enda Carribe could provide them with seedling trees to reforest the mountain above their water source, and a man named Salvador, the treasurer of the water committee, organized everything. Reforesting the mountaintop will not only enhance the quality of their water, but will augment the quantity as well. Salvador understood the importance, and made the reforestation project a community affair, bringing teachers out from their school with over 30 of their students each day. In three days, they succeeded in planting over 2,000 trees on the mountain top. I wanted more than ever to see this miraculous community led endeavor with my own two eyes, but I couldn’t leave my work in Tres Bocas. A PCV living in Corozo Abajo decided to attend so that we could document this beautiful story with photos. In the meantime, I tractor trailer is en route to Corozo with $15,000 worth of pipes to begin the project this week. I am not worried about overextending myself because the community plumbers, under my distant supervision, will direct this work on the many days when I can’t attend. In Corozo, I am all that I should have ever been in these projects, a facilitator and technical counselor, not a cheerleader having to lead them along one baby step at a time.

Waiting tables, studying for tests, biking to work in the snow- it all seems so very long ago. When did so much time pass? I’m done in six months! I’ll be back home for Christmas break in less than one month, and I’m thrilled to see everyone, but at the same time, I feel like I’m leaving home to go on a trip, rather than returning home after a long absence. I know I complain a lot about the ongoings of my life here, about how I’m always looking for an escape, but there’s always just enough magic left in this tropical atmosphere to make it totally worth it. If you added a few faces to my life here, and a vehicle for private transport, it would be as good a home as any. I hope I never forget the joy of riding on the back of a motor through mountain roads, merengue pulsing through the streets, and yes, even the crowing of roosters early in the morning, in this place where I first learned how to live with courage.