Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Adventure that was: Haiti

(Thank you Jon Oleson for the photos!)

Hi everyone!

I wanted to write you an update on my recent trip to Haiti! While I didn’t have a camera on me, I stole these pictures from a couple other interns as examples of what we saw. Ready for some stories?

Haiti is quite an interesting country, and you can’t expect to go there and not have plans go somewhat awry. You just learn to be flexible and allow the trip to determine what happens at some points.

So, after a little bit of a payment debacle in Santo Domingo to get a ticket to Haiti – you need $45 USD cash to pay at the borders, which none of us have since, well, we have PESOS – we got onto a 9am bus to Cap Haiten. After many hours of bus riding and waiting at the Haitian border, we finally arrived in town around 5pm local time.

We were met by another Esperanza staff member Obed, who is a Haitian-American, and speaks both Creole and English perfectly. He lived in the south part of Haiti for several years when he was younger, and then has lived in the United States since, including going to college in Rhode Island. He was gracious enough to be our guide for Haiti, set up our hotel, transportation, and other activities.

This will be a thread throughout this story, but the hotel we wanted to stay at – the Roi Cristophe – told us they were “full”. And then sent us to another hotel which they said was connected, just in a different area of town. This hotel was under construction to say the least, had no main desk, very bare rooms, and many other amenities missing from the main hotel (such as well-functioning AC, towel and linen service, drinkable water, swimming pool, the list can go on). Why did I put “full” into quotations? You’ll hear the rest of this story later in my blog. Trust me, it’s interesting.

Anyway, Friday we had hashed out to spend the day at the Esperanza office in Trou-du-Nord, which is about 30 minutes away from Cap Haiten. Unfortunately, we were not able to spend any time in the field going to any repayment meetings – the main boss at the branch was at a meeting in the Dominican, so we had no transportation. However, we DID have a wonderful lunch at a home nearby, which you can see in this photo:

It was VERY tasty. In the afternoon, a couple of the fellows were able to go interview a couple associates to hear of the successes of their businesses. In Haiti, Esperanza and microfinance is certainly making an impact on lives.

After a fun night hanging in the hotel while talking and listening to music, we had a sight-seeing day on Saturday. We went to this place named The Citadel (Citadelle Laferrière), which is a huge palace and fort built back in the early 1800s by Henri Cristophe, a Haitian leader during their slave uprising. They built this fortress and 365 cannons to ward off any attempts by the French to take the island over again – and never had to use them, since there are lots and lots of cannons still left on top of the fortress. The following photos are from that trip, including a view of the grand palace (which is different than the citadel) and the cannon balls in the actual citadel

Saturday night, the whole hotel situation hits the fan. What happened is this: Some random employee had said that it’s $120/night between the 5 of us at the hotel. He wasn’t the boss there, just some kid who quoted a number, and said the sorts of facilities they had. As I listed above, the facilities were terrible. Being experienced travelers, we figured the price should have been closer to $50 per night. When we approached the employee who had been around all week about this (via Obed translating), he said, “Ok, fine – I’ll just charge you $350 instead of the $360.” Our response: ARE YOU JOKING?, that’s $3/night off. Ridiculous. After allowing Obed to translate this, the kid called his boss to tell him to come.

This is when it gets real interesting. The boss enters, and doesn’t act anything like a reasonable owner of a hotel at all. Instead of acting as he should have (weighing our complaints about the hotel to figure out a fair price for us to pay), he was extremely aggressive. He entered and immediately began accusing us of being unjust customers, stating angrily “Who do you think you are, coming into MY hotel and telling ME what to charge you?”, and otherwise changing the subject from the faults of his hotel to show why we deserved to pay the $120/night. David, one of the other fellows, did a good job of attempting to keep the conversation focused on the issue at hand – we cannot and would not pay that much, for the very understandable reasons we laid out. We were misled into believing this hotel was of higher quality than it really is. Perhaps someday it’d be that valuable, for now, it was on the same level (if not lower) than a Motel 6.

At some point in the night, several of us started to pick up that we may have started to bring ourselves (or Obed), into physical danger by agitating this man. He certainly was very wealthy, and we assumed he had friends in high places who he could call to deal with the issue of five pesky Americans. We were finally offered $260 for the three nights, and accepted it. Though this price was too high, it seemed to us that we needed to get away from this man.

We went to withdraw extra money from the main Roi Cristophe hotel to give to this man. At the Roi Cristophe, we learn an amazing fact: we had been part of an employee who was committing fraud. The man at the desk on Thursday who said that it was “full” was a friend of our not-so-friendly manager, and would send potentially wealthy people (i.e. anyone white) to the other hotel, which was no where near the same quality. In fact – the other hotel wasn’t even related! It was all a ploy to make us think we were somehow going to a legit place, which wasn’t legit at all.

In the end, the Roi Cristophe offered us rooms to stay the night at their hotel that night as a recompense for dealing with the fraud. We gladly accepted and quickly packed up from the other hotel and moved into a (MUCH) nicer and safer hotel for the last night.

And so ended the adventures in Haiti, as we left the next morning back to the Dominican. The Dominican now seems so much more developed than Haiti. It almost felt like I was going back home, to a 1st world country. The stark difference between the two is extreme. I am still processing through the adventure, but I was glad to see some of the 2nd biggest city in Haiti.

There are many more stories, but this post is already far too long. If you want to know more, just contact me and I’d be happy to talk about this – and even more I would love to hear about how YOU are doing too!

Survive that heat Seattle! You can do it.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A culture of infidelity

Hello everyone –

This blog is less an update on what is happening with me, and more about some observations about the Dominican culture of infidelity which many of us here have observed and discussed.

(As a slight sidenote, I’m writing this on my balcony overlooking the Bay of Samaná as a thunderstorm rolls in to my right...what a nice blog writing ambiance).

Before I get started, I just wanted to let you know that I’ll be spending this Thursday-Sunday in Haiti with 4 other fellows in Cap Haiten and Trou-du-Nord. We’re going to visit the Esperanza office in Haiti and perhaps hear some stories from Haitians who have been able to benefit from the microfinance loans they have received. I’m quite excited to go – it’ll be a somewhat expensive trip, but well worth it.

Most anyone who has been to the Dominican (outside of just being in a resort in Punta Cana…) quickly becomes aware of how infidelity is completely engrained in the culture. Nearly everyone in the Dominican is aware that their significant other probably has a different significant other. The infidelity goes both ways. Wives know their husbands are cheating and vice versa – and the amazing thing is that people would rather not talk about it than confront the issue. There was a Dominican staff member here at Esperanza named Analin who is just a couple years older than I, and she allowed us interns to pick her brain about the practice of infidelity. She ventured to guess that 90% of Dominicans in a relationship are cheating with someone else. And yet, even though everyone knows this is happening, they would rather ignore it (and have their affair), rather than challenge their partner. To challenge their partner would mean having to admit their own guilt of infidelity. Hence, the cycle just continues, with both parties guilty.

Beyond this, when the spouse knows the name of the other person in the affair, they will not seek a divorce. Analin told us a story about a woman who she knew that was recently given a new car by her husband. She then said she wanted to go drive by this one particular store, in order to show off to the mistress the new car she had been bought! This blew me away – she not only was living with an adulterous husband, but she wanted to show off her husband’s gift to the mistress in order to create a sense of jealousy!

I combine these new stories with my previous experience here in the Dominican in 2007. I came on a missions trip to the local bateyes, which are essentially Haitian refugee camps which the Dominicans created to get cheap labor for sugar cane harvesting. In Barahona, located in the southwest near the Haitian border, these bateyes are extremely poor, as they are throughout much of the country. When I arrived there I was completely taken aback – there were almost zero males in the entire village between the ages of 17 and 70. It was completely full of women with 8, 12, 14 children. It broke my heart. These children were almost all from different fathers, and the boys had no concept of a father figure in their lives. They were all aware that their brothers and sisters were not from the same father. When myself and other guys arrived into the town, the boys immediately clung to us. They just wanted a guy to throw them around, to give them piggy back rides, to give them a hug, to throw a baseball. Anything. It tore me up to see that these boys were “growing up” without a father to help them see how to be a man. And the cycle will continue when they become 20 years old and move out and father children from place to place. The one thing these boys need to set an example is a man – a father – and that’s exactly who is not present.

With no use of contraception and a lack of the males seeing any need to stick around, the women were left, in absolutely destitution, to try and feed a dozen hungry mouths. The culture of infidelity – of men not staying with the women and vice versa – is prevalent in every corner of this country. In fact, in most major towns and along major highways, there are cabañas, which really means “commit adultery here!” These are essentially motel rooms, but are not necessarily designed for stays overnight. Each room has its own garage so that your car is not visible from the street (and, hence, someone can’t know you’re in there due to recognizing your car). You pay for 4-hour blocks of time. The payment method is completely anonymous – there is a spot in the wall where a hand will appear, you give the correct amount of money, and the hand goes away.

In the end, one feels quite powerless to do anything here. Something needs to fundamentally change here, so that young boys and girls have fathers, mothers, mentors and leaders who can show them how to grow into men and women who are faithful to each other in a relationship and respect the other enough to not have affairs on the side. It’s something for you to pray for. I wanted to write this blog to make you aware of an extremely strong cultural subcurrent here – and with the hope that someday it may change.

I’m planning on writing a blog about microfinance soon – of some of the pros which I came in expecting to see, and then what the reality of it is like here in the Dominican. I have some thoughts which have developed through observation and conversations with others here in the Dominican, and I want to share them with you at some point. If I don’t get them up before I leave to Haiti, please pray for us there – and for those living here on the island of Hispanola. A lot of people need Jesus.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

El Cumpleaños fuera del país

The photos you see above are from the recent weekend trip I made to Playa Rincón and an island named Cayo Levantado this past weekend. It was pretty awesome! And yes, that is a Piña Colada we are all drinking, and, yes, they were amazing.

I hope all of you have had a great past week! I recently spent my second consecutive birthday out of the US. I’ll be honest though – it was quite possibly my most uneventful birthday ever. It happened on a Thursday, and the only thing different about the day was I got a happy birthday phone call from my parents. It was great to talk to them – but after that, the day was quite “blah”. I did my normal work, went home, read a book, and fell asleep.

Exciting fiesta for one’s birthday, eh? Thankfully, this past weekend, some other interns came up here to Samaná, and we had a fantastic weekend hanging out at local beaches and towns on the peninsula. We actually were lucky enough to find a driver who took us place to place all weekend (for a price of course), but in the end it really didn’t cost us much. The beach we went to (Playa Rincón) is so secluded that you really either need to take a boat there from where we stayed the night, or you need to hire a taxi driver who stays with you all day and then drives you home when you’re ready to go. We opted for the latter option – and it really only cost about $8 a person. Gotta love the prices here!

The weekend was a great time to just unwind. I work quite a bit here (in the office from 8am to 6pm daily), and the weekends are a chance to “cargar las pilas” (recharge the batteries). It’s quite convenient that there are some of the most beautiful beaches within an hour drive of my house here!

Changing subjects, my friend Triller offered me his ukulele to borrow while I’m here in the DR, and I’ve taken full advantage of it. I love playing it at my house, and it provides entertainment while we are taking weekend trips. I’m learning a few songs on it, and I hope to have a larger repertoire by the time I head out of the Dominican. In fact, it’s one of the best ice-breakers that I have when going into the field. I bring it with me into the field to the loan repayment meetings, and it usually sparks some conversation with people there. I don’t even have to play it – people just have never seen a ukulele before. They call it “la guitarrita”, which is just “the little guitar”. Several people have offered to buy it from me – and I always ask them for a million dollars. No one’s taken me up on the offer yet.

Oh another point: please, please please know exactly what your shirt says when wearing it around, especially if it’s in another language. I absolutely died of laughing when I saw a shirt that a 60-ish year old Dominican man was wearing. In big print it said “Pornstar. Get some”. I was unfortunately not around any other Americans who could appreciate how funny this was – and I struggled mightily to try and translate “get some” into Spanish so that everyone else could know why I was laughing so hard. At the very least, I let them know that they should be aware of what their shirt says before wearing it outside, lest you be the source of some hearty laughter from someone who understands the language.

I am also planning on perhaps going to Haiti in 2 weekends. There are a few people going there, and I think that the opportunity is so unique – and the group so small – that I need to take advantage of it and just go. I really want to visit Haiti, and we wouldn’t be staying in a nice hotel somewhere far away from the poverty. I’d possibly be staying with one of the Esperanza workers who lives in a “small apartment with an outdoor bathroom”. We’ll just say that I won’t be in a touristy area of town. We’d be staying in Cap Haiten from Thursday-Sunday, and hopefully we’ll have the chance to attend a repayment meeting on Friday with some of the loan officers in Haiti. I’d love to have an opportunity to see how microfinance is working in Haiti. Unfortunately, the language barrier will prevent me from having conversations with individuals there like I do here in the Dominican, but it would still be a valuable experience. I feel a strong need to go to see Haiti, especially when I am on the same island for a period of 2 ½ months.

I’ll add another post this week with some thoughts I have regarding microfinance, the Dominican culture, and about my office here in Samaná. We’ll just say that where I am is in turmoil – largely the result of mismanagement. There are some fairly major legal issues here, and I’ll forward some information to you, though I want to first see what I can and can’t post on this public forum. Regardless, the next post should have some interesting thoughts! Keep posted.

Again, I hope you all have a wonderful week – it looks to me like at least Seattle will have some wonderful weather!! Check back in for a blog in a few days.


Ps – YES I am allowed to wear shorts in the office now. The heat has become infinitely more bearable now that I can wear shorts. :)

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Dominican 4th of July


I hope that all of you had a wonderful 4th of July, and all the wonderfulness that encompasses that holiday (save for potential burns, house fires and the occasional hospital visit…). I wanted to give a little update for how all is going down here in the Dominican.

I spent the most recent weekend and holiday in Santo Domingo, the country’s capital. Quite a few of us interns made the journey to the city, to unwind and generally enjoy the fact that there is no work on the weekend. Since the main office is in Santo Domingo, we were able to hang out with some of the others who did our training and are part of the staff. There is an apartment-ish place (which is more likened to a zoo based on the number of dogs, cats, birds and children) where a few of the interns live, and we hung out there a couple times over the weekend. Mostly, we just had a blast going out at night with everyone. On Friday night, we found an awesome colmado (translation: convenience store mostly filled with alcohol and sodas) next to a university and hung out there, and met random people from all over the place – including a crazy guy from Finland (he was a little…different…), and a really nice guy from Cuba. Sidenote: have you seen the movie Bedazzled? If so, remember when Brendan Fraser becomes the basketball player with bleached hair that sweats a ridiculous amount? That’s basically the same look this Finnish guy had.

Friday night, we all went out to this amazing outdoor terrace bar, which also had a dance floor. There was music all night to dance salsa, merengue and bachata, and it was such a blast. I hadn’t been able to dance since getting here, and that was easily my favorite night of the trip thus far. It was so much fun. Though I did feel quite a few eyes on me when the tall white guy with a backward hat was up dancing salsa amidst the Dominicanos…

Saturday night (during the day nothing happened at all: great success!), we all had a goodbye party for a couple of the Esperanza staff who are leaving to go study. Funny enough, both are going to UW, so it wasn’t really a goodbye for me, since I’ll be seeing them around Seattle come September! We just hung out on a balcony that is at the apartment building where the other staff lives, and then went dancing again at night. Not too bad of a way to spend the 4th of July! Nothing necessarily “American” happened (save the fact that we ate Pizza Hut ordered to the apartment…), but that was fine.

We actually tried to call the embassy to see if they had any sort of party for the local Americans…but it turns out their party/fireworks were on FRIDAY night, not Saturday. Leave it up to the American Embassy to celebrate the “3rd of July”. Due to this, we clearly missed the party, since we missed the memo of Independence Day occurring a day early this year.

I’m now at the office, about to finish up my first day in the (quite stormy) city of Samaná – I woke up several times last night due to the incredible lighting/thunder/rain/wind storm that blew all night. I got rained on while sleeping quite a bit, and generally sleep wasn’t easy because the wind would howl through the shutters that I have. I don’t have any windows, just these blinds, which don’t necessarily do a 100% job at keeping water and wind out.

Anyway, that’s all for now – I’ll write another update sometime soon!


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Beaches, microloans, and gua-guas, oh my!

(the above photos are from my recent trip to Las Terrenas, which you can read about below!)


It’s been a week since my last post, and I wanted to update all of you with some more photos and stories from the life in the upper 80’s with 90% humidity Dominican Republic. (As you can see, the sticky heat and I have a very close friendship). Basically, as I work in this office, I am “required” to wear jeans and a collared shirt. I put quotations around required, because I haven’t yet built up the courage to ask if I can wear a nice pair of shorts to work with the collared shirt. I made sure I brought some (what I consider), nice looking shorts which would go a long way to cooling me down AND keeping me looking somewhat professional. At least, I don’t know if that last part is true with my office manager Audilin yet – but we’ll find that out soon enough. Hopefully my slowly improving Spanish skills can woo my employer into allowing the pobre Americano to have some respite from the heat. Audilin I think would at least be somewhat sympathetic – he constantly looks in when its around 3pm and I’m sweating and laughs while he says “Ahhh Americano- tienes brillo!” The rough translation of this would be ”Hey American, you’re shiny! Sucks to be you hahaha”.

This last weekend, I was able to get a little mini-vacation in a beach town about 30 minutes to the northwest of me. Myself and 8 others who are interns or work for Esperanza went to Las Terrenas, which was a wonderful time to charge the batteries, relax, and go to the beach at least three times a day. We stayed at a wonderful little house-style hotel/hostel, and enjoyed the area. The water was absolutely clear, and blue, although the photos I took didn’t necessarily capture the colors involved. The clouds in the sky didn’t help it, but don’t worry, it was pretty beautiful.

With that trip comes a note about travelling city to city here on the Peninsula of Samaná. Basically, there are informal “gua guas” (9 seater vans), and the backs of pickup trucks. Everyone knows of the local spot where the rides originate from based on the town you stop in, and you just hop into a van or the bed of a truck after agreeing on a price to take the half hour ride to a city. One note about the vans: I may have said 9 seater van. That’s being somewhat generous. They are more similar to a VW bus in size and shape, and the one I was in held 24 people. It wasn’t comfy – 4 across in 3 different rows, with me sitting 3 across in a row facing the back, 2 behind me squeezed between the driver and myself, 4 in the front row, the driver, and then 2 “cobradores”, or kids who stand outside the van on the sliding door, collecting money as people get off. Let’s just say it was somewhat crowded.

I am also learning to enjoy my time in the field – though a few of the frustrations are starting to poke their heads up, too. Basically, for me to be able to do what I need to do to put a profile on Kiva, I need the full 5 woman group present at a bank meeting. At a bank meeting (a Bank of Hope), the meeting can range from 2 groups of 5 women, all the way to 8 groups of 5 women, with the cap at 40. Usually the meetings have between 3-5 groups. For me to get a profile up, I need a photo of the complete 5 member group. The frustration is that this happens only somewhat sporadically. Some bank loan officers are better at getting their associates to attend meetings than others, and unfortunately this week I’ve been going out with an asesora (loan officer), who has less than stellar attendance of her associates. Hopefully with time this changes – Audilin is trying to put some pressure on them to change the discipline of the borrowers, and I try to hint that full attendance will help not only me, but the borrowers. They have to attend meetings in order to get loans in the future! If that isn’t an incentive, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, I am absolutely enjoying most of the times when I am able to talk with the women out in the field. I met with an absolutely wonderful woman named Altagracia. She has such a heart for others, and as the leader of her bank, I could tell she is loved by everyone. She had the warmest eyes, and talking with her about her business (selling gasoline, parts for motorcycle repair, and baked goodies and sweets) was an absolute pleasure. She’s on her 7th loan cycle, and has been improving her business since day one. She’s a great success story, and to me, is the exact type of person microfinance is designed to reach. She deserves every single penny that her business brings in, and I’m thankful to be part of the process which has helped her along her way to escaping poverty. These sorts of stories and conversations are absolutely wonderful to hear as part of my day at “work”.

I’ll put another update up soon, perhaps after this weekend – I’m headed to Santo Domingo to celebrate the 4th of July with some of the other Americans here in the DR. It should be fun!

Have a safe and wonderful rest of your week, and a great 4th of July everyone!