Monday, January 28, 2013

Is That Cat American?

"Is that an American cat?" neighbor Ramon asked Josh and me.
We both looked at him, quizzical. We often don't understand the man. Did he say cat?
"You know, you brought him from Nueva York, right?"
"No, he's Dominican," Josh responded, kindly.
I laughed aloud, covering my mouth at the thought that I--known among friends and family for my dislike of indoor pets--would actually pay to have a feline shipped from one corner of the globe to another. If a cat was that important, I'd just buy a new one. Heartless, yes, I've been told.
"That cat can't be Dominican. He doesn't even look Dominican. He looks American," NeighborRamon insisted.
"Don Ramon," I composed myself, "we brought this cat from the campo. Not only is he from here, he's from the rough and tumble countryside!"
"That's no village cat," NeighborRamon was not convinced, "He's too fat and beautiful."
We shrugged our shoulders.

And then started looking at all the other cats in our neighborhood. Scraggly. Hungry. Matted fur, wide-eyed, fight-for-their-lives, little creatures.

Perhaps NeighborRamon was on to something. Danger is a Dominican cat, but he'd been tossed in a burlap bag and hauled down the mountain in a guagua as a kitten. He's lived with us Americans ever since.
We pay a guy $3 to come to the house and stab him in the side every once in a while, and buy about $6 of cat food for him every month. We clip his nails ourselves and administer most medicine he ever needs ourselves as well (Thanks, YouTube! We're experts now!). We even buy fancy sand for him to poop in. Doesn't seem like much, does it? About $100 a year.
We're doing pretty well by Dominican standards, though not by American ones (we don't have health insurance, for example, or any kind of vehicle to get around in). Knowing what our day-to-day looks like, what we have and don't have, we still can't figure out how most people survive on the island.
The BBC has a wage comparison calculator. You type in the country you live in and your wage. Here are my results:
Your wage is 237% of the Dominican Republic average and 74% of the world average.

Just for kicks, I put that we live in the US, using our same income:
Your wage is 34% of the United States average and 74% of the world average.

How's that for perspective?
I'm still not sure what it all means.
Josh found this site, "Stop the Hunger," which put these things in perspective on a larger scale and shows you all kinds of things.
I found much of this quite fascinating. Check out the second line "amount that would allow to feed the hungry today" compared to the last line, "spending on pet food in USA and Europe today." Not that we should euthanize all our pets tomorrow morning; I'm not that heartless. I do know its not really about pets, but it's an easy measuring stick, so there it is.
These numbers are constantly changing and you can find them at: 

So, if I was living in the U.S., I would have a "Dominican" cat--a mangy creature, neglected because of smart prioritizing of my meager income. In the Dominican Republic, my cat is an "American"--fat and beautiful.
Guess you were right, NeighborRamon. Except I don't think Danger is all that beautiful. He is a cat, after all.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Residency Process or They Got All My Lunch Money!

Dedicated to Maria. Just because.

Installment #1 - January 24th, 2013
We're doing it. For reals, yo. We've decided to officially establish ourselves in the Dominican Republic and we need to be legal. Don't ask me why. Everyone here thinks we're crazy for taking the legal route. It is fraught with peril. The path less traveled, if you will. We have encountered many proverbial obstacles thus far including, but not limited to: the fog of confusion, the cement barrier of stupidity, the potholes of misinformation, the tumbleweeds of bureaucracy, a few literal highway robbers narrowly avoided and several random sheep. Yes, I'm living a B-rated video game.

For those who have also chosen, for whatever reason, to take this same exciting path through the unkempt jungle of a government unsure of itself, I'm documenting the steps and, more importantly, price tags for each of the requirements here. If you have oodles of cash laying around, I strongly recommend just giving it all to a lawyer. They have connections we lowly immigrants do not. And they talk sexy.
If not, this is how we're rollin'--free agents, lone rangers. All prices will be in US dollars, unless otherwise noted. So relax, and have a good laugh with us along the way, because the alternative is misery. Or loneliness, unless you count the occasional sheep.

1. In June 2012, the Dominican government changed the immigration laws requiring all people requesting residency to do so from their "country of origin". Good thing we were all born in the same country! Since not even Dominican kids have cedulas until they're 18, Josh and I have decided to only go through this process for ourselves and will get the kids through the process at a later time. Stupid? We'll let you know in a few years.
     *One-way plane tickets to the US: $434 x 4 = $1736
2. Before we left, we had to have a Dominican citizen vouch for us. We had to travel to Santiago and pay a lawyer friend (I think normally the fee is far higher, but Josh is one of the friendliest guys on the planet and who can resist that?).
      *Round trip to Santiago for four: $26
      *First installment to lawyer: $87.50
3. Once stateside, we've started collecting all the documents necessary. This is what we've got so far:
       *Fingerprinting: $15 x 2 = $30
       *Copy of marriage and birth certificates (must be issued within the last 6 months) = $76.50

Missing Milk Money Thus Far = US$1956

Our next steps are to send the fingerprints to the FBI (could this video game get better?) and get our documents authorized & translated. The Dominican embassy says they'll authorize & translate for $133 per document. Awww, thanks guys. We found a second opinion.
More updates coming soon. I'll try to keep a running tally in a sidebar. Be fair warned, however, I dream big and have too much confidence for my own good. I may not be able to create such a tech-savvy piece of information on the blog. We shall see, dear reader. We shall see.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Don't get squashed -- by Josh

We tossed some squash seeds in our garden last year, as you may know, and a calabash jungle ensued.  However, that's nothing compared to a sight I came across on the walk to pick Max up from school.

 I've heard that trees grow in Brooklyn, but Macorisanos are apparently much more practical.  Give this little plant a few months and there'll be food in the gutter!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Want to Go on Vacation? Take a Walk -- by Ed

We recently spent 10 days in San Francisco de Macoris, Dominican Republic. Wow, all those beaches and all-inclusive resorts! Not for us, though. Sometimes a simple walk is all one needs.

Walk through a new city, loud, vibrant, full of old cars and motorcycles that don't even slow down for stop signs. Sound like fun? Add in one grandchild. Talk about what he likes about his new city. Let him squeeze your hand when he wants to let you know it is safe to cross the street. Watch as he high-fives with his new friends before they all take their flutes from the small draw-string bags they carry loosely at their sides. Listen to Jingle Bells and the Theme from Titanic as the second grade boys in this crowd have an informal rehearsal before the music teacher's assistant lines them up to march into class.
Max practices with classmates for a televised winter school concert. 
Walking Max home after his 2nd grade social studies exam, I learn that the trickiest question was to name and locate the birthplace of Jesus Christ. His toughest exam of the week had been Spanish; his easiest had been his foreign language class - English. Natural science had been a challenge, but he liked it. I learned that he has many friends at school - from my observations and from his sharing, though he also said that he only sees these friends at school. Around his neighborhood, he has another set of friends with whom he hangs out and plays football. I was introduced to them my first day, as we tossed the football back and forth on the walk in front of their homes.

We pass carts full of coconuts, sidewalk stands of tropical fruits. We're passed by women carrying bundles of sandals on their heads. We see a Haitian family leaving the construction site where they'd camped for the night, and he explains this to me. He's keenly aware of both the poverty all around us and the joy and openness of the people. He's guarded at times, but he also lights up when a friend passes going the other direction, giving him a high five.
Josh leads Max across the street on our way to the concert recording.
To say my spoken Spanish is rudimentary would be claiming too much, so he translates for me in the small shops or when he introduces me to his friends.

As we walk in the late afternoon to his Taekwondo practice, the grandmothers sitting in front of their houses or sweeping the walk greet him with smiles. The guard sitting on a folding chair in front of the Banco with a shotgun on his knee offers a smile and a high five, but Max slips under my arm, squeezing close.
Max practices for his upcoming exam.
Sue and I were happy to be able to watch his Taekwondo exam one Saturday morning. Though I'd been watching him at practice each afternoon, his demeanor was different for the exam. His intensity gave him a stature greater than some of his fellow students who were much older and taller. He had his orange belt, and he was going for an orange belt with a green stripe, the intermediate step toward the green belt. We were thrilled, as was he, when he was awarded his full green belt at the end. All of that practice at home and at the center had paid off. On Monday, as he and I walked to his practice, the guard in front of the Banco noticed - "Aaaaa, verde!" with a fist tap. The grandmothers also noticed. This is a neighborhood.
Max earned his green belt.
Only once did we go for a walk after dark. Josh, Max, and I walked through town to the bus stop downtown to catch a guagua (usually a 10-15 year old minivan) to the baseball stadium. The streets were particularly dark since the power was off in the city, again. We waited some time for a guagua with a spare seat or two. We finally ended up catching a taxi to the stadium where we enjoyed the large, raucous crowd and the talented play of the Gigantes del Cibao.
Gigantes fans watch the game.
On one walk with Josh, Zora, Max, and Sue, I witnessed a surprising act of sibling closeness. Yes, they can really push each other's buttons at times and burst into conflict at the drop of a hat. On this day, as we walked, Zora asked Josh to carry her. Even though he was carrying something in his right hand, he scooped her up with his left arm. However, she was soon slipping through, and she yelled, "Max!" and he stepped up, lowered his shoulder and pushed up to support her on his shoulder saying, "Don't worry, Zora, I've got you!"
That is one way to carry a child.
Lest you think taking a walk can only be a vacation in some exotic clime, I want to share two other walking stories from much closer to home. You see, it's not the exotic clime that is key, but the grandchild. About once a month we travel from Toppenish to Portland. Sometimes we stay with our son, Sam and his family, and when we do, there is a Sunday morning ritual. We take a long walk with Bria, our 9 year old granddaughter, to the Safeway Starbucks for our morning coffee and a hot chocolate. As we walk, we hear about what she's been doing in school, her favorite book of the week, and more family "secrets" than her parents would probably want her sharing. We try to help her think through the latest challenges with her friends, and we share in her excitement about all the positive things happening in her life. It is something we all look forward to on these visits.
Bria and Susan on a morning walk.
On the weekends when we don't stay at Bria's house, we stay at June and Oliver's. June is 4 and Ollie is 1. When we last visited, June took me for a walk in her neighborhood. We take many walks in this neighborhood, but usually with other members of the family. This walk was just for June and I. I never know what adventures will develop. As we walked, she talked....and talked. As she held my hand, she stopped in front of one house to tell me this was her "favoritist" yard. I could see the remains of flowers that spoke of a colorful past display. She told me all the reasons this yard was special. Then we walked on. Suddenly, she stopped and stooped down, whispering that we had to be quiet so we wouldn't wake up the monster in the yard ahead. We duck-walked by the yard, with nary a sign of said monster, but I was much relieved to have such a knowledgeable guide. Then she shouted it was time for a race. She counted 1....2.....3.....4......5....GO! And off she went with me laughing and running to keep up. Then we crossed the street, with her telling me when it was safe after looking both ways from the curb and from two steps into the street to look around the parked cars. A savvy city walker, indeed. Then I was told, as we walked up the hill, that we needed to watch for rabbits, and that she would catch the rabbits on the left side of the sidewalk while I was to catch the rabbits on the right side. Before I knew it, she had scooped up 3 rabbits, and I was still looking for tracks. I barely had time to grab one rabbit before we stopped to examine the branches of an interesting bush. By the time we returned to the house, we were both ready for a nap.
June will definitely keep you moving!
Want to have that refreshing, reinvigorating feeling of a vacation? Take a walk - with a child. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dear Chepe, Cold is One Way to Put It

"Why did they turn up the AC so high?!" Max asked, bewildered, as we de-boarded the plane and stepped onto the jetway, touched down in Oregon. My tropical-climate-loving children were in for a surprise. We weren't even outside yet.

The day before we left the island, I was talking to the doorman, Chepe, at Max's school.
"Oooh. I hear it's cold there," Chepe grinned as we talked about the distant land of New York.
I nodded, amused by this man's child-like spirit. Chepe has a perma-grin and shoes that are three sizes too big for him. I'm not sure if he naturally shuffles or just does it to keep his shoes on. If a child is ever misbehaving, he simply wraps him in a bear-hug for several minutes, gives a good chuckle and lets the wee one on his way.
"I was really cold once," his eyes turned to me, serious. "In a bank."
I smiled again.
"They had the AC up so high," Chepe pointed to the sky, then hugged himself and shivered, "I couldn't be in there!"
"Chepe," I turned to him, equally serious, "It's so cold where I'm going that water on the ground becomes ice!"
His eyes widened and I couldn't help myself.
"Chepe," I continued, "It's so cold where I'm going that when you breathe the air in, you can feel the cold in your lungs!"
He put his hand over his mouth, aghast.
"Chepe," you bet I kept right on, "It's so cold where I'm going that they cancel recess so the children won't freeze to death!"
He stood up, "Stop. That's too cold."

My first morning here, I awoke early (I was on a clock four hours ahead) and had to go to the bathroom. Like anybody else, I have my bathroom quirks and routines. There is one bathroom in my parents' house that I use. Just one. It was so cold in there I couldn't bring myself to take my pants off. This girl ain't nobody's fool. I thought I might find a fine layer of ice in the toilet bowl. Having abandoned my "usual spot", I frantically (the bladder waits for no wo-man) racked my brain for a solution. How do I empty my bladder without freezing to death, several hours before anyone is awake to notice? Solution: 82 jumping jacks, a carefully wrapped blanket and lightning moves. You think I'm exaggerating. Bless you.
The thing is, in my parents' successful attempt to live more frugally, they don't turn the heat on higher than 60 F in most of the house--it's a large house. And in some parts, it's shut off completely--like where my preferred bathroom resides. My dad ambles through the house in slippers made for Alaskan trekkers and a coat so puffy, it takes a moment to find his face in the mass of cotton. It looks like he's smuggling pillows. "I don't mind being cold," he smiles.
That said, I don't own a coat--just a couple thin sweaters. Before moving to my island paradise, I gave away a few of my coats and then during my visit back this October, sold my last one to pay for some things for our library project. Surely, I would not be visiting in the colder months of December and January. Ha. Here I am. Thank goodness for friends with extra winter coats. #meloveyoulongtimetika&steph At least I had the presence of mind not to sell my boots.

I'd forgotten a few lovely things about the cold. I noticed this on my parents' back deck yesterday.

Dear Chepe, Its so cold where I'm going, not even the spiders can catch a break.
Isn't that far more beautiful than a warm sunrise over banana trees? Well, no. But it is nifty.

I'd forgotten that baking heats up the house in a pleasant way, not a sweat-dripping-this-bread-better-be-worth-it kind of way. I'd forgotten the delightful faces my husband makes when I put my icy fingers on his warm stomach. I'd forgotten the intense crispy, clean in the air. I'd forgotten the soothing of a hot mug in cupped hands. I'd forgotten that you can exhale in the shower--because the water is warm and keeps you there long enough to feel a bit guilty. I'd forgotten the bundled snuggles of my kiddos clinging to me, shivering. I'd forgotten the sounds of the fireplace. I'd forgotten mittens, butternut squash soup, icicles, seeing your breath in the air, and hot tea all day long.
I'll have to tell Chepe about those things when I get back.

Monday, January 14, 2013

I've Kissed a Lot of People

I kissed a middle-aged Dutch woman right on the mouth at a devotional gathering once. I was just as surprised as she was. When greeting someone there, you kiss on the cheek. Then the other cheek. Then yet again on the first cheek. You need a certain rhythm with the other person to do it right. Apparently its easy for most people. And I'm awkward.
In the Dominican Republic, a kiss on the cheek and some kind of hug/embrace/long handshake is usually in order. There are any number of rules and subtleties attached to the greeting schema.
I haven't kissed anyone full on the mouth, but I've had some close calls. Usually, its worse than that. I'm not--how you say?--gentle. Not smooth. I may have bruised a few cheeks. I'm short by US standards, but with all the villagers I hang out with, I'm considered gargantuan. I lean down to greet them and somehow my cheekbone slams into theirs. Not gentle. Not smooth. Then I hug them to make up for the abuse. I may squeeze too tight in the excitement. Everyone is afraid to tell me.
In my high school teaching years, I used to play a diversity-awareness game with my students. I had 20 or so different slips of paper, each indicating a different closeness-comfort-level and greeting custom. Each student took a slip and had to adopt that custom as their own for the activity. The world around, greetings range from cold to hot, short to lengthy--and when you mix the people up, unusual and uncomfortable things happen. Like kissing middle-aged Dutch women at prayer meetings. I never did get her name.
The possible greetings include simple nods of acknowledgement, blinks of acknowledgement, firm handshakes, soft handshakes, brief handshakes, long handshakes, double-handed shakes, elbow holds, shoulder pats, side hugs, full hugs, short and long hugs, a kiss on the cheek, a kiss on each cheek, and three times a lady. I have yet to encounter a group of people who regularly jump into each others' arms as a standard greeting, but I have seen it enough times to warrant mention here. No, I didn't include it in the game for my students. Methinks my principal wouldn't have been too happy.
Back here in the US, I have to remember not to be as touchy-feelie. I've already hugged three strangers because I went in to kiss their cheeks and remembered where I was. Their shoulders noticeably stiffened. What is expected on the island could get me a sexual harassment suit here. Sorry about that, I say. At least I didn't kiss you? Then they go about their work and don't even stay to chat. That must be how people are so efficient and on-time here. They don't talk to perfect strangers for thirty minutes at a go.
The greeting ceremony island-side doesn't end after the kissing and embracing. No, no. You must ask how the person is, their family, their pets, their ex-girlfriend and the health of each. This used to drive me bat-poop-crazy, as the kids say today. Think about it. If you wanted to buy a coffee, make a bank deposit and pick your kid up from school--that's at least 90 minutes of mandatory chit-chat, which doesn't include commute times. Now, I actually enjoy the process and being stateside, am consequently driving others batty asking them about their cat's recent castration or their child's flossing habits. I'll figure it out sooner or later. Hopefully it won't be as I defend myself in court. "Your Honor, I didn't mean to kiss her!"

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

This, I Will Miss

“That which God said to the rose, and caused it to laugh in full-blown beauty, He said to my heart, and made it a hundred times more beautiful.”

I keep checking myself. I'm too full of wonderful emotion, light pulsing through me. Is this supposed to happen? Does everyone come to a place in their life when--all of a sudden--it all fits and gratitude radiates through you? Sometimes I can't contain these surges and, at any given moment, great bubbles of energy expand, rise up and burst into laughter or spontaneous and fierce dance parties.
Then I remember.
I have to leave home. Hopefully this joy is not attached to a place, because I have to leave San Francisco de Macoris. This pueblo I've come to enjoy (of course there is loathing at times) and love--the sights (not so much the smells), daily conversations and intense feeling of community which has somehow blossomed here. But I have to leave. On Saturday.
The new immigration laws require it. Well, the immigration office did say they don't care if we're illegal, but that's another story. Yes, we are illegal immigrants. And we're going to attempt to remedy that. Si Dios quiere, as is said by all here, if God wants it. Which drove me insane at first and somehow now sounds like a perfectly reasonable response. Perhaps a trip back to my roots (again) is in order.
So we'll be back in Oregon.
On Saturday.
Send me a message if you desire anything from my island and I'll take your extra wool socks in exchange. Since I intend to keep dancing.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Thanks Baba Ed! -- by Josh

My parents were recently in town and we had an absolute blast.  It got me thinking about the importance of grandparents and extended family in general.  It was fantastic to be able to have people around who I can inherently trust. I could send Max off to taekwondo practice, or off to school, and know that all was well.
We got to go out to a baseball game and had a great time.  Baba and Max even became twins of sorts, the first ever Rousculp Gigantes fans. 
Max is inseparable from his new Gigantes hat.
However, I've been pondering the even greater gift that Baba gave to Max last year.  When they had visited last December, book-loving-Baba gave his grandson a copy of the award-winning kids' book The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  It is a massive book of 533 pages and for months Max wouldn't look at it.  It was just too intimidating.  The thing is, it's actually 90% pictures, but still, 533 pages!
  Finally, one day Max was chillin' around the house and decided to pick it up.  He sat spellbound for three days and when he did talk to others it was to update us on his progress: "I'm already on page 246!"  "I just reached page 392 and it's only been a couple of days!  Can you believe I can read this much?" 
Max even passed the book on to our friend Mark with his highest recommendations.  Mark made a special point of letting Max know that it only took him a day to read it, but Max was still proud.
The point is, that was a watershed moment for my son. Before that, Max was a reticent-reader.  I had the hardest time getting him to partake of our fair selection of titles, though of course we would read together every day. 
After finishing the book from Baba, he couldn't wait to get his hands on new titles.  Not only that, he was finally putting into practice all the reading strategies he'd been bombarded with by his teacher-parents.  He was sharing his thoughts on the different texts, making connections, talking our ears off.
Then, he started to get really confident and made a special request:
Would we consider letting him read Harry Potter 4?
 He'd been begging us to read it to him for a while, since we wouldn't let him watch the movie version, but now he'd realized that he didn't need anyone else to read to him.  Even a title as daunting as Harry Potter was within his reach.  Of course, if he bragged a lot after reading Hugo Cabret, you can imagine what tackling a 700-page novel with only a handful of pictures would do for his confidence.
Now he's unstoppable.  He has been devouring books left and right and can't wait to help out in the library once it opens.  The trick now is to get him into reading in Spanish, which is gradually getting easier. 

So, as you can see good old Baba Ed has given something that will last longer than any toy or baseball hat to my dear little kiddo.  Now, where's Max?  He's supposed to read us our bedtime story tonight!

Photolog: Dominican Baha'i Winter School

Dedicated to Jane & Howard.

"Its better to arrive late than dead," warned the big bus company's TicketLady. We'd just traveled two hours from San Francisco de Macoris to the capital on our way to Baha'i Winter School. We were deciding between waiting 5 hours at the bus station for the next big bus to leave or just catching a small bolero guagua within 30 minutes. TicketLady thought us crazy to even consider the underdog. #YOLO

TicketLady was likely just jealous of the rockin' pink curtains these underdogs are now sportin'.
Or she was jealous of the cozy feeling you get when you ride on top of your suitcase.
Either way, we arrived early AND alive. Take that, TicketLady, says I. 

At camp, we study (and facilitate study).
We engage in the arts. Children dramatize serving a Ducks fan.
We serve. Washing dishes was fun with Mark. Or maybe it was the water shooter.
Or maybe it was soaking Mark with the water shooter.
We check out the newest from Benzan's Baha'i Bookstore. Catchy name.
We practice patience. Why is lunch so far away?
We make birthday cards for Carmela.
We play games. And learn new strategies.
We don't comb our hair (well, the lady on the left doesn't).
We learn about service from octogenarians.
Doña Erika recently returned from service at the Baha'i Lotus Temple in India. 
We use our SpideySkills to concentrate on the task at hand.
We sing. A lot.
We become inspired by beautiful Annery.
We learn to share, consult, and create.

Max, no doubt inspired by the arts all around him, decided to become an "insect photographer". His career was short-lived.

We laugh.
And we help one another.
'Tis a wonderful week. We'll see y'all again next year!