Gloria Mayne:: Dominican Republic
Today concludes the end of my fourth week in the Dominican Republic. January 8th marked the date of my arrival to the Las Americas International Airport. A child’s enthusiastic call, “Tierra!!!” followed by Dominican cheers and applause on my arriving flight manifested the beginning of what would be a ten week cultural journey and an invaluable experience with development work.
My sarcasm would note that the comforting, hot-and-humid welcome from my host family (great), coworkers (great), and mosquitoes (not so great) were almost as flattering as the daily stares and “piropos” hollered at me by “tigeres” as I get on and off the bus. Which reminds me (how could I forget) of the survival-of-the-fittest that is getting to and from work every day. Take a VW Eurovan, stretch it out enough to fit 25 people, stick about 70 Dominicans in there, put me, “la rubia,” in the doorway hanging out the side, crank up the merengue, and call it a gua-gua. Believe or not, the RD$20 (USD$ 0.55 cent) trip is worth it and takes me straight to where I need to go. And if it doesn’t, for another 55 cents a “vintage” (generous word choice) sedan with six other people crammed in it will.
Believe it or not, the sounds of Santo Domingo are quite refreshing. A combination of the roosters’ six am wake up calls, the guaguitas (think SU maintenance cart) driving down the street with megaphones attached to the roof advertising medicine or fruit sales, the colmados (corner minimarkets) blaring reaggaeton and bachata from their subwoofers, and the sound of motoconchos (motorcycle taxis) zooming up and down the street all make for a better soundtrack than what’s on my iPod back home.
It’s easy to get lost in the intensity of “La Capital” but once you step outside Santo Domingo’s boundaries the DR’s classification as a developing country is reaffirmed; terrible infrastructure, run down homes, immense amounts of trash on the road, and a supplement of underprivileged populations. Nonetheless, the apparent cultural and socioeconomic differences in the República are almost counteracted by the overwhelming majesty of its natural landscapes and wholesomeness of its people. Excursions out of the capital are often decorated with rolling hills of green jungle lining the one road passage to the next town, dense tropical foliage feeding clotheslines drawn with clothing leading to cinderblock and or metal sheet houses, brightly painted in contrast to the dark skin of its inhabitants who seem to be gossiping at their front entrance while multitasking by playing domino and starring at passerby’s. Kids in blue and khaki uniforms run down the road with their backpacks slung low bumping against their backs, waving you down or trying to catch a ride on the back of a truck to their school in the next town over. Turquoise rivers, roaring waterfalls, green valleys, picturesque shores; I’d say popular merengue lyrics do a great job at expressing my fascination -- “De este país no me voy, no me voy…”
Every day since my arrival I’ve met many people, learned more about Dominican way of life, and further explored the many facets of international development. This brings me to my Scope of Work. As an AED Development Fellow I was assigned to the USAID-DSTA project, DSTA standing for Dominican Sustainable Tourism Alliance, the DR branch of the greater Global Sustainable Tourism Alliance that which’s mission is to manage ecotourism initiatives in developing countries. I’m working under the Grants Technical Monitor specifically with the Fondos DESTINOS, thirteen small-medium enterprise ecotourism grants awarded to local Dominican organizations. In general, this cost-share funding method will support further development of their projects in efforts to generate new sources of income, employment opportunities, community integration, women’s empowerment, capacity building, environmental preservation, and overall economic growth and sustainability in their surrounding areas. As the Small Grants Intern, I’m heading up the communications aspect of the DESTINOS monitoring and have been designing and composing literature in Spanish and English about each grant, creating presentations for USAID, local government entities, and the grantees regarding project objectives and progress, contributing to the DESTINO webpage, assisting grantees with promotional material, visiting each project site to record technical progress, and conducting interviews with community members and beneficiaries in order to write up success stories for USAID.
In addition, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to participate in countless meetings and discussions regarding the many components of these grants and have been working alongside the many different actors that play a part in the DSTA such as: USAID officials, AED, consulting agencies, ecotourism operators, Clusters, the Consortium for Dominican Tourism (CDCT), the Secretary of Tourism, the Secretary of Environment, The Nature Conservancy, and many more. While this was an overload at the beginning of my internship, I now recognize the strengths and shortcomings of this web of entities and have had direct experience with the collaboration and open dialogue between them that is necessary to sustain these projects.
Last night I returned from a four day trip to the province of La Vega to visit five USAID-DSTA project sites. This trip was by far the most interesting and beneficial element of my exposure to development so far; there is nothing more valuable for the evaluation and advancement of a project than directly meeting with the grantees, community members, and beneficiaries. I’ve had my first major encounter with the complications and challenges of development work. In short, although one project may be sustained by the strength and efficiency of its motivated community members, another could be falling behind due to lack of enthusiasm, participation, capacity, and implementation of proper project procedures. During these next six weeks I will continue to expand my understanding of our project’s accomplishments and shortcomings by participating in discussion and active measures in order to overcome these obstacles while cooperating with the concerning communities. Simultaneously, I’ll gradually define my role as Small Grants Intern and assess how my work is benefiting the overall progress of this project.
As I reflect during these final hours of my internship with USAID-DSTA, I’m sad to say that by Monday my ten-week journey in the Dominican Republic will have come to an end. My work as an AED Development Fellow with the Dominican Sustainable Tourism Alliance has proven to be advantageous; my knowledge and skills have developed tremendously and I hope my active contribution to DSTA will be of lasting value to the project. I’ve grown a fond attachment to my grantees, interacting on a first name basis and sharing thoughts about life’s certainties. Listening to stories from the women of Villas Padre Nuestro and gaining exposure to the lifestyles of the community members of Angostura has heightened my compassion and fascination with the people’s hospitality and eagerness for community advancement. This experience has without a doubt endorsed my long-term interested in international development.
In the past weeks I’ve mastered the gua-gua, learned to dance bachata and merengue, endured a few good sunburns, and have developed an aptitude to bargain like the locals. My travels have extended to opposite ends of the country, including a most interesting visit to the modest blue bridge that marks the Pedernales border with Haiti. My perceptions of the country’s extremes along the socio-economic spectrum have been tuned but nonetheless have aroused conflicting sentiments of optimism and helplessness. So, what’s my overall opinion on international aid and development? I wish it were that easy to look past the inefficiencies of bureaucracy and even the confidence of aficionados.
From my experience with our grantees, I’ve noticed an uneasy trend of under-educated communities. The DR’s extensive history of infiltrations and suppressing dictatorships has over-time marginalized the masses from proper education. Although things have changed over the decades, many rural communities lack schooling systems and rarely have graduates past the elementary level. This lack of education breeds hopelessness, failed motivation, and migration among communities that with capacity and guidance could escape deprivation and excel. Whether it be community workshops and training programs for adults or high school and associates courses for youth, I regard the development and availability of formal education as critical for the Dominican Republic.
While I’ll miss the daily sensory encounters with the colmados blaring merengue around every corner, the bright colored houses, the ribbons adorning the braids of children passing to Sunday mass, and the doting Caribbean traditions, I have a feeling I’ll be returning sooner than later; my heart will always reside with the people and culture of the Dominican Republic.
Nos vemos pronto,