On the Other Mountain

On the other mountain, across the green valley, it was not raining. A year of gazing across that impressive expanse has taught me that the smoke stacks’ rising plumes belong to the daytime horizon as much as the barren rocky slopes, and progress’s inextinguishable reddish glow at dusk. I waited upon the roof of my sedimentation tank, lazily paring a mango in the rain, feigning patience, but deep down hoping to soon hear the rush of water rushing over the dry tank floor- if I didn’t, it was probable that I would need to delay the construction of Tres Boca’s storage tank by another week. The UVA students in Corozo were behind schedule on account of damaged threads on their eight galvanized pipes, and my efforts to finally secure money from FOMISAR died once again in a labyrinth of papers, lawyers, and forced smiles. It was a day when I felt like I was failing on all three fronts, when I just wanted to close my door and all my windows, and hide. Normally I wear my uniform of mud and water with pride, but this day, it represented defeat. My legs were aching from scrambling up muddy inclines, and my patience was waning- but this was my mountain, and no others.

I imagined that there were engineers with white hardhats, wearing their orange vests with pride, eating lunch on top of that gold filled hill, gazing out at the grassy ridge where I was seated. From that distance, this tiny tank, the spring source of weeks of heartache, would be invisible to them. I wished those engineers from the other mountain would fly in on helicopters and tell me why water was not entering my tank. I wish I had a team of people with more experience helping and teaching me. They could build and operate a gold mine, this aqueduct would surely be child’s play for them. This lonesome hillside was the battleground for social justice, and I sat alone in the rain frustrated, exhausted, longing for someone to tell me what needed to be done.

The world will pay me to go to the other mountain to dig for gold, but leaves me alone on this hillside, trying do decide which puppy I will keep because I can’t afford dog food. It leaves me here, forcing myself to do things I am not qualified to do because no one else is here to do it. It leaves me here battered, wondering when the reinforcements will appear on the horizon. Sure, the personal growth I have undergone is a direct result of the hardships I have endured, and the independence I have been given, but it is also the reason I think of pipes at 6:30 in the morning, the reason my legs are sore right now, the reason that my mind is still in the mountains while my body is resting on the beach.

I am not truly alone, my villages would find a way to get water with or without me, but that doesn’t change the fact that they look to me for guidance, and I need to give them answers. I’m tired of giving answers to people, and wish I could ask a few questions myself. But with each day I pass on the mountain, more people ask me questions, and fewer people can respond to my questions. The biggest question of all, why is this mountain, this battlefield, so unimportant to the world that they can leave a lone 24 year old in charge of it’s destiny, and the mountain across the valley is crawling with the brightest businessmen and engineers on the island. As I wait to find someone to answer my questions, I sit on my tank waiting for water to arrive, gazing at the other mountain.

The water never came. I couldn’t believe it. 530 more meters uphill, cursing in my secret language, trudging along towards the stream catchment for the third time in the day, hoping to arrive at a conclusion as to why the water wasn’t arriving. After reconnecting the HDPE hose with Arjao, it seemed impossible that the water wouldn’t arrive. There were no other burst pipes. Water gushed out of my first clean out valve, but 50 meters downline, just trickled out of the next valve.

After an afternoon of thinking, I decided that there was only one thing that could make my pipes behave the way they were behaving, a missing respirator at the intake. I had a finger on the top of my straw in my soda cup, and the water just wouldn’t fall down. I’ve filled this tank with water before, but that was during the dry season when the catchment area wasn’t submerged with water, blocking off the only path of escape for the air in the pipes. Tres Boca’s would need to wait another week to build their tank and I would need to climb the mountain some other day.

I was happy with the conclusion I had drawn, and happy to be leaving the mountain. As I walked down, I stopped to gaze at the hose I had connected earlier to see how it was holding up. KABOOM! The hose slipped out as I stared at it, no less than two meters away from it. Water went ten feet in the air as I jumped backwards out of the way. It was the most exciting part of my day, but after my adrenaline filled laughs passed, I realized it was just another broken thing that I needed to fix.

Most of the time, I feel like I am stumbling forward in a vaguely coordinated series of half steps, but then I look back and see that I have indeed moved forward. Every now and then though, I have roaring successes that fill me up to the brim. I am on the verge of formalizing financial support for my side project in El Corozo so that the community may build on the UVA team’s work on the intake line, and continue in the streets with 12 kilometers of distribution line. I feel like everything just barely fell into place at the right time, and I may actually see water in El Corozo before I leave this country next May. 

There is a distant neighborhood of El Corozo called La Curva, over 7 kilometers away from the tank site. La Curva has around 40 homes, and most recently a fellow Peace Corps business volunteer named Samantha. The community had been meeting with the Corozo water committee in the planning stages of this project, trying to secure their rights to be included in El Corozo’s water system, despite the distance and the added strain on the water supply during dry season months. Together with the students and the water committee of El Corozo, we decided to include La Curva in the project. It was at this point that Samantha informed me that La Curva already had a local NGO in the area that had promised to give them running water via an enormous USAID grant for the development of La Curva. When I pressed Samantha for details on the project, I discovered that the proposed project would be an unreliable system that would use a pump to send undrinkable water to the community. I saw this NGO as a godsend, and told Samantha to pass the word that we would no longer include La Curva in El Corozo’s water system if they already had plans to get water. It wasn’t long before the engineers working with USAID wanted to meet with the students and me.

The engineers had been thinking too localized, focusing all of their time, energy, and money only on La Curva, much in the same way that I had focused my first few months on Las Dos Palmas, failing to see that a multi-community water system that included Tres Bocas would be more cost effective and a better service overall. The engineers had never thought of bringing water from over 7 kilometers away, and did not know that we have already completed most of the most complicated part of the project, the intake line. The engineers met with the students and I, and asked us to take them up the mountain to see the water source. I was ecstatic.

Three hours later, as I cautiously prodded the depth of the swiftly moving river water that rose up to my thigh, I realized that we would not get any money from these engineers if I accidentally killed them. They nearly asphyxiated trying to get to the top of the mountain, and then the sun disappeared behind some dark storm clouds and all hell broke lose. They were middle aged Dominican men, and they sounded like me when I first got to the country. In the middle of the storm, one of them hollered, “This is a thousand times better than office work!”

They survived, they got their GPS points. They liked what they saw, and they wanted a design and detailed budget to see how much the whole project would cost. With the help of the students, a week later I sent them a design and detailed budget totaling over 2 million pesos, or $50,000 that would benefit around 1300 Dominicans in the area, some of whom spend up to 2 hours a day looking for water on horseback. I have a meeting with the engineers on Wednesday to discuss the design and budget. I have many doubts, but with regard to the commitment of these men to this project, I have none.

The Fourth of July celebration in Las Galeras was a long anticipated vacation, but three days of bumming it on the beaches just wasn’t enough. Seven other volunteers and I stayed in a rental house, appropriately named La Cueva (The Cave), due to its rocky interior. The builder probably ran out of cement so they decided to use the natural rock outcropping as the back wall. Kati made us falafel, another friend commandeered the grill for some cheeseburgers, and jello shots solidified in the fridge.

The evening entertainment for me was mainly Ben’s Dominican host brother, who thanks to Ben’s generosity, was stepping into the ocean for the first time in his life. His name was Nike, which I explained to him was the goddess of victory in ancient Greece. After a blank stare, he responded by speaking to me in the third person. “Nike understands this.” Ben had spent too much time with Nike, so he was also speaking in the third person, in Spanish and in English. Amazingly enough, this is not a common aspect of Dominican or Haitian culture, the guy was just as bizarre as he was friendly. He probably thought it was sexy, like his red pants. I also own a pair of red pants now, you see. 

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***Disclaimer, I am not a tiguere- but I dress like one for my own safety. Tal (far right) on the other hand… bueno…

Every time I go to a new beach in this country, I say it’s my favorite beach. After a 20 minute boat ride in choppy waves, we arrived at Playa Fronton, a beach jutting out on the end of a peninsula of rocky cliffs. When we arrived, there was only one person on the beach fishing, no restaurants, no vendors, no water, just sand, coconuts, the shade of the cliffs, and blue glory.

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I always have post-it notes out on my counter, just so I will be ready for the day when I will organize my life and decide to start filing documents, color coding vainas and cosas, and writing down grocery lists. In my scatter-brained present, I have finally found a use for post-it notes- removing the many smelly gifts my puppies leave on the floor every day, surely their expression of gratitude to me for saving their lives. When I swipe my debit card at the grocery store, prematurely bankrupting my pitiful monthly stipend, I can’t help but see that eight pound bag of kibble transformed into eight pounds of ammunition that my post-it notes will buckle under. Regardless, here in the campo, my puppies have become a sort of family for me, and I am finding it hard to part with them, poop and all. Canela and Coco are in great health, but Cafe hasn’t been eating for a few days on account of worms. I need to find the time to get some anti-worm pills, but I don’t know if I can get any in Cotui.

Life is anything but boring right now. I’m going to go buy some ice cream now for fifty cents and it’s 10:30 in the morning, because nobody can tell me I can’t. 

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3 responses to “On the Other Mountain

  1. I wish I had words of wisdom, but heck you wouldn’t listen anyway, right? 🙂 Okay, fine! Just PHONE Maritza and ask about how to get a prescription for puppy de-worming pills. All three of the puppies have that problem guaranteed – it’s transmitted via mother dog’s milk. Pele had it in WV. It interferes with their nutrition and growth! Get it done. They should really get distemper and rabies shots – they can die from those, as well as sicken humans. People very rarely live if they contract rabies (though you have had the vaccine, Freihling has not, etc.). I will cover the cost, ok? Don’t wait! They can get sicker!

    Love the photo of “blue glory.” Hate red pants, much as I hate July – why? The Ew Factor.” Red is glorious and joyful – while red pants are not…they fairly demand that one notices your ass. :O Sorry, I refuse.

    Ok, so in a perfect world – governments CARE about their poor people. When the govt’s are like that in the DR, they want to show their best face – showcase the capitol, where tourists go. They care about what they think, and want them to come back to spend more money. But, it’s the jewel in the crown; and almost a facade. After that, outside the capitol, it’s almost best to avert your eyes…because you see stark neglect – in education, in nutrition, in infrastructure, medical care, roads…unless it’s something YOU can fix…like the uncooperative pipes. It’s painful to see.

    I am REALLY proud of your team, Daniel. A bunch of 24 and 25 (Kati) year olds changing the disadvantages/obstacles in the world one day at a time. The problems will, of necessity, have a “typically Dominican solution.” I realize red pants help you celebrate life and youth. In a place like that, you need joy – it comes via red pants. You need puppies, and ice cream, too. Dump some fruit on it! YUM. Pineapple story sounded like a plan to me! 🙂

  2. Dan – love your post and the stories. I kinda want to flick off my manager and hop on a plane to help you get that water to the villages right now. Congrats on not giving up – I can imagine how hard it is… but you’re a strong little man ( 🙂 ). Love the red pants – had you been in the US in the past 6 months, you would know that I myself acquired a pair.
    Good luck with everything Danny boy – always great to read you!

    Greg

  3. Oh, God…the Red Pants Defense/Insanity disease has struck among the French! :O Feigned horror. But, I do love red, in general. When Dan comes home at Christmas, you can both “paint the town red.”

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