Boca Chica and Bocana

Two weekends ago, S and I decided it was time to try out the “locals” beach. Yes, I said locals, not local, because everyone HAD to inform us we would come in contact with the locals if we went here. Unfortunately, because of the neighborhood we live in many people tend to thumb their noses at anything that isn’t touristy. Yes, I am talking about Dominicans, themselves. Money here really encourages a “them vs. us” mentality between the classes, it’s pretty upsetting.

Anyway, we grew tired of seeing great pictures and not having anyone to take us, and it suddenly struck me that this is NOT our first rodeo. We have absolutely travelled in the past to foreign places not knowing the language, so who were we waiting for? We picked up this past Saturday and just went. Boy, were we happy we did 🙂

First, we decided to take Uber, an app that works extremely well in major cities, but has not made it all over the country yet. It took 3 minutes to get someone to pick us up at our house and drive us. Because of the amount of traffic, a 20 minute drive became 40. We paid USD $24.00 to get there which really isn’t bad for the amount of time we spent. Local transportation is certainly an option but we left pretty early in the morning and felt as though we wanted to spend the money to have a private ride. You can make the trip on a local bus for USD$ 4.00 if you wanted to. We have used the public transportation before and laughed our heads off, it was a great experience. That is neither here nor there, so back to the topic at hand.

We were given advice that the best place to lay our towels would be at Bocana Beach Club and Restaurant. It really is more of a restaurant than anything else and welcomes all people. We got dropped off at a dead end, made our way to the restaurant and walked up to this:

 

I actually got teary-eyed by the view. We sat at a table a couple feet from the water and began our day!

Are there vendors who will try to sell you anything from food (even though you’re at a restaurant) to massages to phone cases? Yes. But it is not nearly as annoying as people claim. If you politely say “No, gracias” that is the end of the conversation. There is no pressure, no pushiness, and who the hell cares about someone making an honest buck when you are looking at that view? The place was practically empty the entire day and it was the first time I actually felt like I was in the Caribbean! From the locals to the music, the innate joy of the islands filled my heart and lifted my spirits right into the salty sweet air. We had the sweetest waiter of all time, Joserito, who watched our bags so S and I could swim together. People were so dedicated to making this a “safe space” for tourists that we had no fear for losing our belongings or being ripped off. The vendors all have badges and pay money for a permit to sell. I am still way too nervous to oblige but you can get full massages and pedicures on the beach for less than USD$ 10! Where does that happen??

My favorite part of the day was when the thunderstorm rolled in. We took some great pictures and then were brought inside the restaurant under the pavilion to eat. Look how GORGEOUS this storm was on its way in!

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Bocana is an awesome restaurant. Even indoors, you are right on the beach. The wait staff is incredible and the locals are definitely the best part. I felt like I was in paradise. Drinks and food are so reasonably priced, we paid less than we did for dinner in the capital. And if you know us at all, you know WE ATE. Eight drinks, 2 meals, and 2 appetizers cost us USD$80. Expensive? Look what we got:

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Yep, that is fresh-caught seafood and delicious tostones. Not pictured: drinks because I don’t post that kind of thing and calamari because we ate it WAY too quickly lol.

There were several schools there that brought students to do trash clean-up service projects. It was so fun to see students from around the city who didn’t all look like mine. At the end of their project they were all allowed to jump in the water and play, it was so sweet!

Interesting fact!

I have no understanding of how this works or what it is, but women with light or white skin tones often have reactions to the citrus in drinks and food here over time. So as you can imagine, having spent the whole day here I got my first reaction. These rashes occur primarily on the stomach and ribs. I had to change the coloring of this picture to exaggerate where the rash was to make it visible on the computer. For some reason I couldn’t get it with my camera in the lighting we were in. So again, my stomach was NOT this red, but I exaggerated the coloring so you could see where the rash showed up. Look at the dark coloring. It’s a lot! It went away after a couple of hours though.

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Overall, we had a fantastic time. We loved interacting with the local people, making observations about the lifestyles and culture of the non-Westernized, and obviously eating. We have since made a vow to go to the beach at least twice a month for the rest of our time here. It is a small sacrifice for this walking on air feeling that lasts the rest of the week 🙂

We headed to Samana this past weekend which is easily the most beautiful place on this planet. I can’t count the number of times I lost my breath looking at the expanse of the water against the backdrop of mountains. If you are okay with spending a fraction of what you spend at the all-inclusives of Punta Cana and can read an English menu, you will never go back to Punta Cana again. Stay tuned for that post!

Despite how incredible our weekends have felt, there is absolutely a piece of us missing without the fall, football season, and crisp smell of the Jersey air. You have no idea how many moments a day I can almost taste home, and how many times my heart has dropped into my stomach remembering how far away I really am. Until next time, thank you for reading!

xo SBV

 

Los Tres Ojos

Los Tres Ojos or “three eyes” park was like stepping into another world. A world where you felt as though dinosaurs would step out of the untouched rainforest into the cold, cavernous lakes that run throughout the park . Tres Ojos is a nature preserve that is home to three beautiful caves with clear blue water, miles of park land, a small colmado and surprises all over the place! Entrance is 100 pesos which is equivalent to about USD$ 2.00. It is a little more for a tour guide, but a guide isn’t really necessary to enjoy the scenery. We went with one of our good friends, Cindy, an American teacher from Tennessee who had previously taught in Morocco. She is no stranger to adventure and was such a fun travel companion! Check out some of the pictures 🙂


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While the water in the caves was cold, the air was brutally hot and the humidity clung to our chests like a vice. Is that dramatic? It is absolutely necessary because it is THAT hot. We walked up and down these old, slick stairs (a lawsuit waiting to happen?) and each time the walkway or cave opened up to one of the lakes, it was like we were seeing it for the first time again. Each one was more beautiful than the last. One of them was called “El Lago de las Damas” or Lake of the Ladies because that is where Taino (native) women would bathe their children. That one is below:

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Turns out, there are actually four lakes, but one is not considered part of the “three eyes” because it is open rather than enclosed by a cave. In order to get there we had to pay 25 pesos (roundtrip about 70 cents USD$) to get on a sort of raft and pulled through an incredibly dark cave lit only by small spot lights.

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Then, we walked along a dark path gripping the hand rails so not to slip. Bats hung from the top of the cave– an extremely eerie ambiance. As we approached the “light at the end of the tunnel”, literally, we could not believe our eyes as the scenery opened up to the most beautiful, untouched landscape I’ve ever seen.

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One of the original Tarzan movies was, in fact, filmed here. And as it turns out, Steven Spielberg scouted this very park as a possible location for the original Jurassic Park movies.

This place was ridiculously inexpensive, beautiful, and mysterious. After getting back to the park we got some cold water at the colmado and hiked the trails around the rest of the park. If you ever find yourself in Santo Domingo with USD$3.00 to spare, this is not to be missed. The money goes to the upkeep of the park and educational programs to the public about preservation.

Thanks for following along 🙂

xo-SBV

Teaching Abroad Part I

So, the whole purpose of our move abroad is to see what international education looks like. We walked in with the idea that these schools had enough resources, school fees would ensure motivation, and an administration that has worked in education systems around the world would surely be a step-up from the politics we faced at home. In all honesty, almost anything would have been better than the complacent behavior on the part of adults and true enabling nature of the discipline procedures that existed, or didn’t for that matter. Moving abroad to teach is my last try at “is this the right profession for me?” I’ve wanted to be a teacher my entire life, and my last three years of teaching had me feeling like no matter what I did or how hard I tried, I would never be valued or respected by most of the administration, people in the community, and parents alike; not to mention our illustrious governor of NJ who recently was quoted comparing teachers to the mafia. Being a teacher is really, really hard and if you knew me personally, you know how much I’ve struggled with this.

Anyway, that is not the point of this post. The point of this post is to give you some insight on what my school day is like, the people I’ve encountered, and how it makes me feel.

Time allotment

So, lets start with the schedule. We work from 7:30 AM to 3:00 PM everyday except Wednesday when we go until 4. Actual teaching time is 15 hours per week, and I have 1 hour of duty per week. I have what is considered a “medium to high” case load. Steve teaches 17 hours per week so he has a “high” case load. So what happens in all of that free time? From 3-4 on Wednesdays we have school-wide professional development. Each day we have 2-3 hours of planning time. We can use that time to common plan, print, make copies, meet with supervisors, work independently, or even take a break with colleagues and eat. We have two department meetings a week that are scheduled for the same time each week. They take place during the school day for 30 -40 minutes. Our department is very small so it makes it much easier to collaborate, talk, and plan. I have between 16 and 22 kids in each class. So in hours alone, per week:

  • 12 hours of planning time
  • 15 hours of teaching time
  • 1 hour of professional development
  • 2 hours of department meetings

The other five hours that are missing from this equation are made up of an advisory period (like a homeroom), 1.5 hours of enrichment/tutoring that takes place from 2:30-3:00 most days (this is strictly by appointment and request of students/parents (I have not had any kids for these “office hours” yet) and flag ceremony/morning prayer.

Morning Procedure

Every morning we meet as a school at the flag poles to raise the Dominican flag, the school flag and depending on what is going on in the world, the American flag. There is the playing of the Dominican national anthem and then the morning prayer, it is a Catholic school, after all. All of this is done by the students of the school. Students get their uniforms checked by their advisory teachers (I have one section of Grade 10) and once inspection is passed, there are school-wide announcements made. They also announce birthdays of students, teachers, and staff members! Everyone claps, it’s really sweet.  It’s really a family feel and it psychs the kids up for the day, every morning. I find it really encouraging and it reminds me of a 60 minutes episode my friend (name withheld because he may as well be Ron Swanson) showed me at the end of last year.

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Kids and Classroom

Personally, I teach two grades (tenth and eighth). They are fantastic kids with interesting world views. They’ve been all over the world and are well-versed in global affairs. They struggle in the same way American kids do, but they have the financial means to catch up to their classmates. Students graduate fluently speaking 2-3 languages. Classes are done in English, but the majority of the teachers are Spanish-speaking and Dominican so we are definitely the minority here. All emails are in English and Spanish, and most meetings are done in both languages. Lucky for us people speak both English and Spanish very quickly here so we don’t usually run over. Students are motivated to do well by grades and incentives. See “downside” below for more information on that. My classroom is huge and freezing cold but I have full control over the temperature in the room. Two walls of my room are covered in windows, one of which is floor to ceiling, I love it!

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I have two sections of 10th grade and three sections of 8th grade. I see each class three times per week for an hour each time. The way the sections are divided, students stay in the same “section” for every class from the time they are in Kindergarten until the time they graduate. Again, see below.

Building and Recess

The hallways are all outside, however covered by a ceiling so that in the event of those 20 minute thunder storms we are protected. The school is four stories tall (no elevator) and shaped like a rectangle. In the middle of the rectangle are palm trees reaching up through the 4th floor and a courtyard where students have recess. It is so sunny and bright each and every day! All students of all ages have recess here. They eat and then can run around, play sports, games, etc. Its a great way for them to relax their minds, I love it. I think it is so important that students have the capacity to rest. They don’t grow complacent and sit around on their phones and listen to music while pretending to socialize in the cafeteria. There is such a strict cell policy here that students don’t dare even take it out of their pockets during their free time. It forces them to REALLY have conversations. It’s awesome. Recess and lunch combined is only 30 minutes. Students don’t waste time; they eat and play!

Downsides:

Well, with all of the perks there have to be downsides right?

Union

There is no such thing as a teacher’s union. If I have classes in the middle of the day and then I have lunch duty and then more class, I don’t eat. If there is a presentation scheduled for my prep, I don’t get to have one of my preps. If I have to meet with the school psychologist to discuss the needs of students during my planning time, even if I don’t get any more planning time that day, then I meet with the psychologist. Yea, it isn’t great that we don’t get to have that guarantee but that is definitely the purpose behind giving us so much time in a day. Planning time is to be used for planning, and if it works in your schedule then you can eat too. Thursdays, I teach two classes, have a homeroom period, enrichment, and lunch duty. It still leaves me with four full hours to plan, and I do. You eat when you can, and if you can’t then you wait. It’s really not the worst system but it definitely takes some getting used to. People don’t sue the same way here that they do in the states. There is so much less to fear everyday. Labor laws are very straight forward in this country and contracts are solid. Labor laws in this field tend to be in support of the teacher. So again, while a union is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY for the protection of teachers in the United States, they are sort of obsolete here.

Grading

The grading system is entirely different. Each students gets two grades per class on their final report cards. The first grade is their work, tests, etc, just like the US. The second grade is their “conduct grade”. This grade is based entirely on behavior using a rubric created by the school. The conduct grade is fantastic and if a student falls below an 80%, they are excluded from extracurriculars and sports. All grades must be documented by rubrics. So that really isn’t the downside. It truly helps the school environment that the students are held accountable for their behavior (as opposed to teachers being held accountable for student behavior). Of course there are a hundred more variables that come into play here. The downside is the actual grading percentages. It is 10% formative assessments, 20% work habits (think participation, homework, are they doing what they are supposed to be doing, focus, etc) and 70% summative assessments. Isn’t that wild? So in theory a student can do NOTHING every day all day, pass a test, and still pass the class. For some beautiful reason it doesn’t happen here but we have had a really hard time adjusting to this grading system. It doesn’t make sense to us but it works here and that’s okay.

 

Internet

The internet is totally unreliable. It is truly a disaster waiting to happen. Some days it’s like who would even know there was a problem? On other days you better hope you have a back up lesson because you may not be able to show that video or have the students work on their projects or research, etc. Not a huge problem depending on how someone sets up their lesson planning but the school pushes for Project-based learning, which has been a lot of fun, btw, but not so fun when you have no working internet.

Big Brother?

Each classroom has a video camera with audio recording. Scary right? It’s another reason why the union may not exist here. Cameras are there to protect the truth in situations. Nothing can hide whether you hit a kid or made a comment you shouldn’t have. Also, nothing to support a kid making a false statement about teachers. Also, the cameras are not watched unless there is some kind of situation that arises warranting an investigation. It has to do with privacy laws for the students here. Anyway, it’s an interesting concept that is supposed to provide protection to students, teachers, and school alike. I haven’t made up my mind about it but I can’t help but feel like big brother is watching.

Blah, Blah, Blah

There is an unprecedented culture of talking here, especially among the students. Dominicans are beautifully social people who want to know about YOU as a person. They are warm and welcoming but with that comes a lot of talking which is fine in real life, but not when you are trying to teach a class. I had a hard time teaching about 9/11 today because the students all wanted to share personal stories, thoughts, and ideas with me and one another. It is absolutely the biggest difficulty we deal with here. They don’t necessarily understand that what they are doing is wrong and really they are very nice kids so it’s not right to make them feel as though their cultural norm is wrong. Anyway, hoping this part gets better with time using procedures, warnings, and incentives. My students are so sweet though it is hard to be mad at them for long.

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Kids are in the same class from the time they are in kindergarten until they graduate high school. Based on normal falling outs, or disruptive behavior among friends, the kids could possibly be changed into another “section” but it does not generally happen. I find that it makes the social aspect of the classes a little more challenging because they are all like brother and sister. Further, they don’t have the opportunity to really explore other ideas, people, or experiences because they are with the same kids from 7:30 in the morning until school is out at 2:35. However, in a lot of ways it really works. It makes crosscurricular projects extremely manageable. Further, students are responsible for one another. They work together really well and they have each other’s backs. That’s pretty cool.

Here’s me in my classroom:

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In summary, I love it here so far. We will see how it unfolds as the year goes on, but I truly look forward to discovering myself as a teacher without the same restrictions, deadlines, and suffocating pressure that I have felt in the past. I don’t have dark circles under my eyes anymore and I don’t spend 30 minutes in bed dreading getting up and going to work. They have hot coffee brewing for teachers in 2-3 locations around the school and water jugs for kids and teachers. It is clear that there is a climate for caring. The owners (note; owners) of the school say it all the time, we are a family here. We don’t hurt our families, we nurture them. There is so much more to say about the school procedures, everyday life, and the colleagues I have found; but it’s enough for now.

I have to say I miss those Franklin kids more than anything. They really made my world go ’round. Nothing beat the way those kids made me feel, even on their worst days. They’ll never ever understand how much I loved each and every one of them.

Until next time,

xoxo SBV

 

Un Botellon de Agua and other Colmado reflections!

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So the Dominican Republic (and several other Carribbean Islands from what I understand) are well-known for these little corner stores called Colmados. They can be anything from a formal building, to a stand, to someone’s garage. They sell all of your basic necessities like milk, ice, eggs, drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), enormous jugs of water, chips, candy, etc. You know, like a corner store or I guess a 711 is comparable.

On most evenings it is not unusual to find people hanging out at the plastic tables and chairs outside of these stores. Loud Latin music draws in people of all ages to pull up a seat with friends or dance to their favorite bachata song, right on the sidewalk. These places may seem intimidating to the foreigner, but the people are always warm and welcoming (as almost all people have been so far)! However, there is definitely a system to ordering what you want from behind the counter and how quickly people speak Spanish here really can give you a run for your money!

The best part of the colmados? They deliver these groceries to your door!! So do you see that bike with the crate on it? You call a phone number, list the items you want, give the guy your address, and he’s there in 5 minutes with your goods in that crate! It’s amazing! You can literally ask for a 40oz of beer, and a pack of starbursts. There is no order too small!

Easy right? WRONG. Well, for a non-Spanish speaker it is. So, for several weeks we have had to have other people call in order to get our weekly “botellon de Agua” which is one of those huge water cooler jugs. We can’t drink from the tap here so it’s really our only option. Each jug costs USD$1.50 which includes delivery and tip. So, while convenient, there are a few drawbacks to this system. The guys who answer the phones speak a million miles per minute (because they aren’t expecting a gringo to be calling, these services are used most frequently by Dominicans of course!) and Dominican Spanish really is its own dialect. Here is how a typical conversation goes when calling one of these numbers, which by the way is a cell phone number of God knows who lol.

Him: “laksjdaisje;klwa”

Me: “Hola, peudo tenir un botellon de Agua, por favor?”

Him: “awiekjnlasdkau akjsdalkejhasocnaskd, 65 asd;aslkdjal;skd”

Me: “Que?”

Him: “awiekjnlasdkau akjsdalkejhasocnaskd, 65 pesos mi amor. Donde?”

Me: “Ah, Okay, Calle Federico Geraldino (insert exact address here)”

Him: “alksdja;ns;dlaksj?????”

Me: “Que?”

Him: “aksldjal;sdjalks??????????”

*Silence*Click*

And then they never came. This happened 5 different times and while yea, we can ask people to do it for us, it really isn’t ideal to wait on other people.

So alas, we have sat for 4 weeks relying on our friends to call the colmado to get our water.  Whatever that last question was, we just were not understanding, and they were not coming. To be fair, I don’t understand much at all. I only really knew what to say because one of our friends wrote us a “script” based on how she thought the conversation would go. So, we were without our independence in a country where we are trying very hard to learn the language!

Until today! Today changed everything!

Turns out, if you ask the guy to speak a little more slowly, he will. Also, it turns out the longer you spend REALLY listening to people in the context of their conversations, the more you learn. We learn new words everyday—and sometimes in the fast-forward version of Spanish known as Dominican lol. Anyway, within minutes our enormous jug of water was at our door step. We have an apartment security guard who walked the young man to our door and made sure he didn’t overcharge us. I have not yet been overcharged by the colmado but I have to say that there has been widespread support from many of the native Dominicans here so that we are not taken advantage of while we learn the language and lay of the land. The colmado guy was really sweet and for some reason this moment today really had Steve and I feeling like we can do this, and do it well. It’s a major victory for someone living as an immigrant in another country, which is really what we consider ourselves. Expat seems like a white privilege word to describe the same idea as immigration. More on that in another post.

It’s hard being somewhere in the world where the majority of people do NOT speak your language. It’s hard being the minority, something white people don’t really get to experience in their everyday lives in the United States. It’s really important to have this experience. It is a strange role reversal to be in the country of so many of my ESL students who came to my classes to learn English. It’s really hard but these small victories make all the difference. I’ve never been the person to judge another for not speaking the language, EVER. But, if there is any doubt in anyone’s mind about how difficult it is to “just learn”, take it from me.

So cheers to our water jug, the nice colmado man, and the determination despite utter embarrassment and intimidation to call the corner store and celebrate our small, but major victory.