I’ve been super busy for the last couple of weeks, hence my lack of update. But now I bring to you, my final Peace Corps update!
It’s an extremely exciting and happy time, but an overwhelmingly sad and emotional time as well. Let me start by explaining why I’m heading back to the states a good 6 months earlier than expected.
A while back, I applied to graduate programs to study Public Health to begin in the fall of 2013. Simultaneously, I was researching two potential “Extension” opportunities here in the Dominican Republic. I narrowed down my options to attending either the University of Southern California for an MPH or moving to Santo Domingo to work with an NGO focused on Sexual and Reproductive Health Education in the DR for a year. I was quite torn between the two options, both having me leave La Culata 4-6 months early, while one had me starting school right away in the US and the other had me living abroad in a hustling and bustling city for another year. I had my final interview with the NGO, was offered the position and then given lots of advice and thoughts from the director on the pros of taking the internship rather than starting school right away (I had explained to him, that in all transparency, I was also considering graduate school). He told me that if I wanted to work internationally, this opportunity would hold a great deal more weight than grad school would (which I would have to do eventually regardless). He also talked to me a lot about how I’d learn through practice a lot of the concepts that I’d have to learn in grad school, and so that would be a great experience. Well, then I got to thinking, and since I don’t plan on working internationally in the future, rather I hope to continue with Sexual and Reproductive Health Education domestically it might not be the most logical decision. Also, if I’m going to have to learn about these concepts regardless, why not just get it over with now while I am still young and have the energy for graduate studies, late nights and endless amounts of reading. For that reason, I decided to accept a spot at USC, which starts in May…one month from now. This decision came with the new task of wrapping everything up in La Culata, medical exams and a whole lot of extremely depressing goodbyes.
So that’s where I am and where I’m going. Now for the fun part, the part where I talk about all of the wonderful experiences of culminating my Peace Corps experience.
Two weeks ago, my sister Meghan came to visit me. She is the other Spanish speaker in the family, so her visit was completely unique. She was able to interact with my neighbors in a way that gave me MUCH less work, and in turn gave us more time to visit even MORE people and hang out in a little bit more of a relaxed way. Meghan was wonderful, brought amazing gifts for my neighbors, and everyone loved her. I don’t think she realizes, but everyone was saying how she should have just stayed for my last two weeks in town because she was such a delight. Alas, she had to get back to teaching High School Spanish. Maybe she’ll go back to visit someday with me.
I left La Culata with Meghan to take her to the airport, and from there went to the capital, Santo Domingo, to meet up with a fellow health volunteer, Norma. We have been planning for months now to head to Punta Cana for their annual Half Marathon. Normally I train quite hard for these long races, and Norma as well. This year, however, I was building stoves (which left little time nor energy to run daily) and then also suffered, as a result of squatting for 4-6 hours a day building stoves, a pinched nerve in my knee. The symptoms of my leg injury? A numb right leg and foot for roughly three weeks. So, in the two months leading up to the race, I ran a total of 3 times. My goal was to make it across the finish line without having a heart attack. Amazingly, Norma and I made it within a minute of each other, and actually came in 2nd and 5th in our respective age groups. Pretty successful.
After a day on the beach with a beer and a nap, we headed back to the capital where I spent three days being poked and prodded by doctors and dentists. I had to poop in a cup “over three consecutive days” get TB, HIV and Parasite tests. It was actually not bad (I am healthy on all accounts) but sitting in the capital waiting to pass a bowel movement and being sore from a half marathon is NOT the most enjoyable way to spend three days.
Upon my arrival back into my community, feelings were tangible as everyone knew I was leaving in a week. Every conversation started with, “Ayyyy, se nos va Jaime.” (ahhh, James is leaving us). It was hard, especially when the second part of every question was, “When are you coming back?” to which I really don’t have a good answer. I generally went with, “Soon, if God lets me.”
Highlights of my final days:
- Eating a meal in a different house everyday, and miraculously being served a different dish EVERY day, including white rice and pigeon peas, asopao, sancocho, moro, spaghetti and fritos. The main meals in the Dominican menu. I was pretty thrilled to get them all right before I left (and my growing “I’m leaving gotta take advantage of the food”-belly was happy too).
- Gifts. GIFTS! SO MANY GIFTS! I am leaving with an entire suitcase full of just gifts. Home roasted coffee from neighbors, candies, baked breads, cashews, oregano, a bottle opener, poems, cards, notes, a hat…the list goes on and on. It was really nice and surprising when some unexpected people stopped by my house to leave a “recuerdo” or “memory” for me.
- Junior sent a special bottle of oregano for his girlfriend, Zibby (my sister). He specifically said, “It’s not for your sister Meghan, it’s for Zibby, my girlfriend”.
- An AMAZING evening spent listening to music until midnight with my best friend, Juan Pedro, during which we recapped our friendship, our ups and downs, our fights, the changes each has made on the other, and a culminating moment where I came out to him and we had a very long conversation about it and why I couldn’t tell him earlier. It was an amazing conversation.
- My brother, Juan de Dios, taught me how to drive his motorcycle and I spent my last two days driving him around to run errands, pick up milk from the cheese maker, stop by the cooperative in the pueblo, and drop him off at school.
Another thing that happens here a lot when volunteers move away is a Goodbye Party, known as a “Despedida”. Mine was supposed to be a surprise, but let’s be honest, children are not very good at keepin secrets. But I pretended it was a surprise more or less.
Here’s how it went down; I was told to go visit Ludovina at 6pm on Monday night because she had something that she wanted to give me. As I walked by the community center, more than 100 people were sitting in chairs with one set up at the front of the center. I was told to take my place, and once I sat down, the event began.
After the welcoming words, we would normally have a prayer to begin the event, but in recognition of the fact that I don’t pertain to either Christian nor Catholic church, they withheld from an opening prayer, which was honestly a amazingly heartwarming gesture. Next, the combined Chicas Brillantes and Chicos Superman youth groups performed a dance that they had choreographed. Next came “Free Time” which was a platform for anyone to stand and say a few words. Mind you, there was no electricity, so they strung a flashlight from a rafter and had a nice “mood-lighting spotlight” for anyone who stood to speak. One by one, nearly every person in the room stood up to say a few words. Messages ranged from a short, “Thank you James” to a song from the president of our Junta de Vecinos. The whole Chicas Brillantes group stood up and one by one thanked me for working with them, teaching them and being a friend. The president and vice-president than made a presentation about their plans for continuing the group even after I’m gone. I was very impressed. The chicos group did the same. One of my Hogares Saludables promotors stood up and read a poem that she had written and my neighbor/dad stood up and talked about having me as an American son and how proud he was to see me working with kids, adults and stoves all the time. Some people stood up, started talking, and then just started crying. I, in all honesty, was extremely surprised by how emotional and strong some of the goodbyes were. My favorite might have been when a 26 year old guy stood up and said, “James, all I’m going to say is that you promised me something and you still haven’t done it. So you HAVE to come back and complete your promise. For those of you that don’t know, James promised me an American girlfriend. He’s coming back, and she’s coming with him.” I died laughing.
Next, I was asked to stand for a competition. The competition was in recognition of my favorite food, eggs. I think it’s a town joke at how many eggs I eat, because I buy them like everyday in large quantities, as my staple protein source. They made my brother and I have an Egg Eating Competition to see who could eat 5 hard-boiled eggs the fastest. He and I nearly choked from laughter while stuffing our faces, and I think the whole community nearly died from laughter…I won.
Next, and the part that most caught me off-guard was when they had the “committee” stand. Two members from each community group, meaning the neighbor’s committee, both churches, all three youth groups and the Hogares Saludables group stood up and went to the front of the room. There, I was presented with a plaque that they had made for me. Mantula had traveled to Santiago and picked up a plaque in commemoration of my hard-work, dedication and effort towards La Culata’s community development. It was amazing, and truly an honor. We proceeded to take a million pictures, and then gorge ourselves on a giant spaghetti and tostones dinner.
The event was a blast and I left feeling quite content.
So, that brings us to the final goodbye. I spent my morning with all of my kids cleaning my house, getting rid of my last items, giving away pens, paper, old clothes, flip flops and things like that. We went fruit picking (and eating) and then I went to Mantula’s for lunch. We had our final lunch, Mantula managed to find some ripe mangos (which aren’t in season yet) and we had a delicious mango milkshake. Then, we all sat around kind of tensely, sort of just waiting my Motorcycle driver to call me and tell me he was ready for me.
When the call came, everyone knew, before I said anything, who it was. Apolinar gave me a hug, then another one, and then a third one and whispered into my ear, “Jaime, I hope I get to see you again before I die.” I assured him that he would. I looked at Mantula, and she wouldn’t make eye contact with me. Tears were already streaming down her face, but in that silent way, where if you didn’t see the tears you wouldn’t have known she was crying. I’ve never seen that woman shed a tear. Not a single tear. She’s tough. She stood up and we hugged. She tried to say something but couldn’t get the words out. Before I knew it, I was bawling. I tried to tell her something, who knows what it was, and it wouldn’t come out. We just hugged and cried. I called for Yanelys and she said, “Bye Jaime!” from her bedroom and I yelled at her that goodbyes are not done through a window. She came outside and she was crying. She and I exchanged a few words, hugged and cried. My last goodbye was my host-sister Nelis, who through my time has been my young, cool, and always understanding rock. She gave me a kiss and a hug, grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “Jaime, I don’t know if you’ll come back or not, and neither do you. But I know that you’ll never forget us and know that we’ll never forget you.” Andres called me again and told me that we were going to miss my bus, so I said one last goodbye and walked away trying to stop the tears. I quickly loaded up the motorcycles with the same two suitcases that I arrived with, hopped on the back of Andres’ bike and we were off. It’s a good thing I’ve gotten comfortable on the back of a motorcycle, because I spent the whole trip to the bus-stop wiping tears from my face. At the bus-stop was another one of my moms, Antonia. She had promised to wait for the bus with me. She greeted me with open arms and a tissue. We stood together until the bus came, she gave me one last tearful goodbye and that was that. I was on the bus heading to the capital. I cried a little bit more on the bus.
It was a really hard goodbye, but as many people here say, “Las despedidas son tristes, pero hay que irse para volver.”
Now, I sit in the capital, signed a lot of papers, closed my bank account, have two more meetings with some administration and in 36 hours, will be on a plane back to New York. Can you believe it? I certainly still don’t.