Monday, February 24, 2014

¡Carnaval! -- by Josh

February is carnaval time around the Catholic world, and the Dominican Republic is no exception.  Luckily, though the city of San Francisco de Macorís (SFM) has an extremely high murder rate and there are occasionally minor and major protests and riots against the government, it turns out that SFM has one of the most civilized carnaval celebrations in the country.
After some terrifying run-ins with whip-cracking hooligans in Santiago and stories of physically abusive demons in La Vega and other parts, Zora was terrified when she saw another of the carnaval clubs mosying down our street.  Our neighbors were all out for the impromptu parades, but Zora demanded that we go inside.  I had no intention of missing out on the fun, and actually planned to follow the dancers downtown to the big party in the park.
Weeping, sobbing, Zora insisted that we go home, but we pushed through and ended up having a great time!
I know it's a horrible finger pic but it's the only one I managed to snap of my very favorite costume. It's a crazy guy dressed up as a jungle with real plants! He just stood there while all the other clubs walked by, and was there in one spot for at least an hour.  My favorite was that kids would occasionally pick up the spritzer that he'd positioned nearby in order to water him.
Zora decided to stay in character at dinner.

All through the park there were girls walking around back to back, or with their hands over their butts, trying to protect themselves from marauding boys and the "pig bladders" they like to smack people with.  I loved that these girls had teamed into a group of 3 and actually had armed themselves in order to hit the boys right back.

The crowd in front of our lovely city hall.

Zora was on her dad's shoulders as well to see the action over the crowd. Today I found out from a student that she'd seen us on the local TV channels coverage of the event. I guess we stick out.

Zora was NOT happy about the approaching carnaval club.

When we got to the vendors' area, Max went for the weapon, determined to attack his neighborhood friends. Zora chose the more peaceful route.

I was attracted to this crew by their DIY traditional style. I gave the nice woman my card and she said she'd already been to the library and wanted to work with us in the near future for her group's social project. Cool!

Dancers coming down the street in front of our house.

Don't worry, the paintball gun is empty. SFM people are kind at heart.
Party in El Capacito!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

When It Rains... -- by Josh

We've had a ton of rain the last few days, but I'm actually referring to the metaphorical kind of raining and pouring.  About five days ago, I got a call from someone looking for Rebecca. The connection was terrible, but I was able to make out that she was from Santo Domingo and wanted to visit the library on Saturday. I gave her directions and thought it was pretty cool that someone would drive all the way here to visit us.
I got an even better surprise when three lovely librarians stepped from an SUV and greeted us with two boxes of books! It turns out we'd gotten on the list of a marvelous foundation whose name translates as "Bring a Book in Your Suitcase".  On a side note, you can appreciate how great an idea this is.  We're on an island, so books are expensive and rare. However, this is a country that receives over 5 million visitors per year, with over 200,000 Dominicans who live abroad returning just during Christmas time. If just the returning Dominicans each brought one book to donate, the collection in public libraries would be doubled over just two Christmases.
I digress.  So, Rebecca immediately started entering and labeling the books and the kids who were at the library were able to check them out while the donors were still standing there!  Then these super-heroes were on their way north to a public library on the coast. Cool beans.

On our way home, we ran into our neighbor, Carmen. She told Rebecca that we'd received two boxes of books. "I know," replied Rebecca, thinking it strange that Carmen had known about the visitors from the Capital.
However, once inside our front gate, her comment became clearer. There were two ginormous boxes that could only have come from one magical place: Elizabeth's Books Across Borders!
Excited much?

Apparently I was going too slowly for Max's taste. BOOKS! MUST HAVE BOOKS!
Ever-practical Debbie had even used up the extra bit of space to help spice up our lives.

The hallway to our bedroom is now chock-full of goodness. We already know the young lady who'll be checking out that top book, and another who I had to convince to wait one more day so we could register her long-awaited book in our system before checking it out.
There really is no way to describe what a valuable service is being rendered by this simple little library and its ardent supporters.

In those boxes were hundreds and hundreds of high-quality books specially picked by a woman who is the epitome of persistence and dependability.  Quite frankly, our collection would be lame without her efforts, and it just got even more awesome with these new additions!
After all, a year ago we had about 700 books. Now we have over 3,500!

On my way back from today's traveling story time (oh yeah, by the way, every week a group of teenagers get together to go read books they've chosen from the library to random little kids in the neighborhood. More on that later) I went into our neighbor's house to get Max. He'd been busy at a meeting for the community library he is founding along with two of his friends, "Biblioteca Comunitaria Palmera de la Enseñanza" (Palms of Learning Community Library).
While there, one of the co-founders came up to me with a stack of paperbacks.  "These are all romance novels, so they don't really fit in with our collection. Can we donate them to your library?"
Apparently she'd gotten them from her grandma and aunts, so I gladly accepted them for our adult section.
Let it pour!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Victory! -- by Josh

On Monday morning, we got up at 4:30 in the morning to catch a ride with some dear friends down south to the Capital. They dropped us off at the Metro station and we weaved our way through the rush hour crowds and secured a seat for Rebecca and the kids. One of the great things in this country is that, although most drivers would never, ever consider stopping for you (or a little old lady) to cross the street, on the subway kids and elderly folks will always be given a seat, and there are even special parking spots at grocery stores for pregnant ladies.
Anyhow, then...

This is actually from a different trip, but it gives you an idea of the work they've done to beautify the Metro stations.  Best of all, every major station has a small library and technology center, generally with A/C!

We arrived at the immigration office and, after a short wait, I was handed an envelope with two very official letters. Our pictures were stapled to them and apparently the letters assured the Central Electoral Council office that we were indeed worthy of cedulas (national identification cards, generally used for voting, but not in our case).  

We then hopped into a taxi and headed to the other office. We walked in and were told that we needed to go to the foreigners office.  It's just down the street, they assured us.  We walked and walked, until we finally found this very official looking, misspelled sign telling us that we were on the right track.  It was more like 300 meters.

Once in the office, we jumped in line, then got to enter a bit earlier since the lawyer in front of us was "still waiting for (my) foreigner".  The lovely woman in the office was efficient and friendly, but I did have one question: "There aren't any more charges, right?"
"Just $75 from each of you," she answered.
I groaned, then asked where the nearest ATM was.  "It's okay, we take credit cards."
I was overjoyed, and had to laugh when we got into the room to take pictures. They used a finger-print scanner and used computers to enter and access all of my information.
"You know," I commented, "the suckers over at the immigration office use ink for fingerprints, write everything in children's notebooks, and only take cash."  The last part is extra nice since they require hundreds of dollars from you at a time, and everyone knows it.
So, we took the pictures and 20 minutes later we had cedulas and a few new Colombian friends we made in the waiting room.  It cracked us up to talk with people there, who had all been going through the process at least as long as we had (13 months on our part). One started in 2012!
Okay, now we're hungry, but we've gotta take care of business. Back in a taxi to get our residency cards from the immigration office.

Sugar always makes waiting easier.
After another couple hours of waiting, we were on our way, official residents of the Dominican Republic!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Thank You -- by Josh

As I arrived at the library this afternoon, fresh off the bus from a seemingly pointless and frustrating errand in the Capital (5 hour round trip to pick up a paper from the immigration office that said I needed to come back on Monday for an appointment; no, you can't call and ask about such information), my heart leapt with joy.
The two boys who had come in with their shoe-shine boxes to play games and read with our library staff were there once again, playing with Max.  Not only that, but the place was full of other kids and youth doing the same. Then the English class was let out and those little ones headed for the books and puzzles to get in some intellectually stimulating play time before their parents picked them up.  As the next couple of hours wore on, several more teenagers came in, asking about certain titles and finding just the right book.
"You have some great stuff!" one of them said as he browsed. Then later, on his way out the door, "Thank you, thank you! I'm so glad my friends told me about this place."
Just before closing time, a teacher from a local public school came by to ask if any of her students had stopped by yet, since she'd been spreading the news.  We weren't sure, but we sent her off with library coupons to pass on to her students (we charge a very small nominal fee to encourage participation, but prefer that membership be paid by an hour of service or donation of a book). She then talked with Vanessa about setting up a field trip to the library for her class and left with a big smile on her face.
Reflecting on my day, I felt a great wave of joy, almost bringing on tears.  So many people work so hard on projects just to see the smallest bit of light or progress.  Though we still have a very long way to go, I feel immensely blessed that we can already see some of the fruits of our labors, and of the sacrifices and generosity of people far and wide.
It is working.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Alllllllmost there.... - by Josh

Okay, here's a quick update for y'all. Last week, Max and I went to the immigration office, as you know.  But there was a surprise: there was no numberless window!
Instead, all of the windows were covered in newspaper, and as I got closer, I realized that those two offices had been transferred to a couple of folding tables. Perfect.
I approached the desk and busted up laughing: even brought out from behind the glass, the guy who always just sat around playing on his phone and flirting with female co-workers was doing just the same! Just chillin' there, playing with his phone. I had to admire his perseverance.

I talked to the first person, who sent me down to the end of the table, to one of the few immigration office employees who had ever given me excellent service. Unfortunately, his only job is to process finger prints and the accompanying forms, so I was pretty sure he wasn't the guy I needed, but I thought I'd say hi anyway. He politely and energetically told me that I actually needed to talk to someone who'd just stepped away from the desk but would be back soon. He then proceeded to point out to a co-worker that when one is service-minded and kind, everyone leaves happier.  Why can't that guy be in charge of the whole place?
So, I waited for a while, then shoved my special stamped paper at yet another person. This young man accepted it, wrote a big #5 on a jumbo sticky-note along with the date, then told me to come back in 20 minutes.
Not a stamp in site. Uh oh!

I re-joined Max and read for a while. After a half an hour I went back up, but the dude was gone. I asked another young man who asked if I had an appointment. Nope, and no idea what he was talking about.
"Well, you can have one today if you do it before three."
"Sure," I assented, not sure what the appointment would be for but feeling hopeful.  I went back to the Sherlock Holmes book on my phone.
Forty-five minutes later I returned to the desk. "So, about that appointment."
"Oh, do you have the letter?" he asked.
"What letter?" I was so confused.
"The letter you need in order to make an appointment."  Why couldn't I just talk with the finger-print guy!?
Long story short, it turns out, according to this guy, that I need to return after a while, get a letter from upstairs (apparently that's where the other fellow had gone with my paper) which I would then take to the Electoral office to get an ID, which I would then take back to the immigration office in order to have my appointment and officially "be given residency".
I'm going to head back to the Capital tomorrow, so we'll see what's next! 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Mañana, Mañana, We Might Be Legal Mañana, It’s Only a Day Away -- by Josh

Well, well, well, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?  Last you heard of the seemingly pointless residency trek on which we’d embarked things seemed truly hopeless (or at least hilarious).  About the time when we caught a glimmer of hope on the horizon, I dropped out of the blogosphere. So, here’s what went down.
                A good friend of ours works for the United Nations and thus travels within circles of influence, and when he heard of our travails in the Fall he told us to let him know the next time we were headed to la migra.  Long story short, we met up at the immigration office in October, him in a suit, me with my shirt at least tucked in, swapped our IDs for special clearance tags and headed upstairs.  He led me down the hall, schmoozing along the way, then into the office of the deputy director of immigration for the republic!  
                We spent a while talking with him about this and that (if you haven’t seen it in the news, the Dominican government and the U.N. have been in the midst of a disagreement about how to treat descendants of Haitians; it was an interesting conversation).  Then my friend told him why we were there and all about the difficulties I’d been having.  He was very kind and we chatted a bit more, then headed back downstairs.
                I don’t know what happened in the meantime, but when I next headed up to the numberless window, Numberless Window Lady was more polite.  I handed her the tiny little stamped paper with a number on it that I'd received on the previous visit and awaited more bad news.  Only once did she shuffle all my papers then demand that I be more organized and send me away to re-order them.  Then, she actually took the stack and accepted it.  
             After less than an hour, SHE actually called ME over.  It was time to speak with a lady I’d met in a back office before, a real sweetheart I’d shared some cookies with (always seek opportunities to sweeten up the situation!). 
                “I’m afraid you’re missing X and Y,” she informed me.
                “That’s okay,” I said, “they’re right there and there.”
                “But what about A and Z?”
                “Right there and right there.”
                “Oh, well, hang on a minute.”
                I waited a bit longer, then was called up again to the numberless window.  “Take this paper and come back in three months. Next!”
They spelled my name "Joushua". I'm hoping that won't be a problem. I'm not kidding. We've had similar issues during this process.

                My head was spinning.  In my hand was a paper with no fewer than three very official stamps on it.  I stumbled over to an adjoining window where a young man sat, not doing anything in particular.
                “Excuse me,” I said, interrupting his meditative state (the rolling waves outside the office’s windows can be mesmerizing).  “I was just given this paper and told to come back in three months.”
                “Ah, yeah, you should do that.”
                I wanted details. “Okay, well, today is October 17th, so does that mean that I HAVE to be back here on January 17th?”  I knew it was a crazy idea, but with them being such sticklers on other little things I didn’t want to take a chance.
                He laughed, “No, no. It’s more like between three and six months.”
                “Yeah, so, come back during that time frame and check on the status of your papers. One more thing: if one of you needs to leave the country at any point before we have your papers fully processed, you have to come back here and request a letter of permission.  It’s $150 for each letter, but it’s better than completely re-starting the process.  Take care!”

                I thanked him and immediately called Rebecca, ecstatic.  Victory was on the horizon, albeit distant.  Much like my approach to arriving at parties, I took his hint and didn’t go on the 17th of January.  Tomorrow Max and I will be in the Capital anyway, so, fashionably late, we’ll go and check on our precious papers.  Then, it’s off to Wendy’s to either drown our sorrows or celebrate victory with a nice big Frosty.  ¡Hasta pronto!