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How “developed” is a “Developing Country”?

I have not written in quite some time! I have been on a hiatus that required much thought, reflection, and of course adventure. After the devastating election and political insanity that ensued, I had to take a break from the internet and do some re-evaluation, myself. In the meantime, we have made many important decisions about your future! But more on that another time!

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I was recently inspired to write this post by my brother-in-law, Mikey. I have received a lot of questions and comments about the Dominican Republic being a “developing country” and what that means for us. First, I will refer to it as a developing country which many people have likened to meaning 2nd or 3rd world. None of these terms are really a great way of describing countries and the labels themselves are based in political history rather than a real look at the economic and social systems within the country. For more on this, click here.

One thing people are always interested in seeing (and subsequently shocked by) is where we get our food. Many think of loud, colorful city markets with vendors and stands overflowing with fruit and other odds and ends. I have found in several of the countries we have travelled to is that imagery is not entirely false, however, it does not tell the whole story. I mean, almost ALL countries have something of the like– think of your Saturday morning farmer’s market. However, most of the developing countries I’ve visited are far more advanced than one would be led to believe.

Having travelled so far and wide most of my life, I had absolutely no expectations about what we were walking into when we showed up here with our four suitcases and two pets.

Introducing, La Sirena, probably the place I dislike most in the world, but has been a God-send for the cravings we have of home. This large Dominican franchise has every food you can imagine, including a huge variety of American fare. I had culture-shock walking in here for the first time!

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SOOOOOO embarrassing, but you get the point!

LOL– that is the picture I sent to my friend so that she could prove to my former DR students that I was living here now. They didn’t believe me when I told them I was coming here. They all said “WHY would you go there, willingly???” That in itself should give you an idea of the duality of safety and economic stability that exists in this country. Anyway, back to the task at hand.

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I could not believe the variety of food, drink, and merchandise that existed in this supermarket a mere four blocks from our house. This place is insane. While one would think it stands in direct competition with the street vendors, you’d be surprised.

The fruit, meat, and veggie section are CRAZY! Anything I want and in any quantity. However, we have found that when buying produce from a conglomerate like this, they are often lacking in flavor and freshness. If you want FRESH, you have to hit a street vendor, plus it is nice to give to small local business.

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You can’t get a better dragonfruit than the guy on the corner!

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(Not my picture, borrowed from here)

These guys are either on carts or have permanent stands set up. Whether in a barrio, on the beach, or in a bustling wealthy city neighborhood, these guys brave the heat to sell the sweetest, freshest, lush fruits and vegetables! It’s funny because in my neighborhood it is not unusual to see a Range Rover pulled up to one of these guys ordering massive avocados or drinking straight from the coconut. Wealth doesn’t always turn its nose at the “real” Dominican.

Check out the view from my classroom window… sorry about the smudge, I really am too lazy to get a better shot!

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We literally live in a metropolis.That plaza across the street sells designer bikinis from Spain that retail on average about $350. Who can afford that?? Well, turns out some Dominicans can! Also in that plaza is a nail salon, hair salon, two restaurants, a UPS, and a jewelry store. Some of my 8th grade students walk across the street from that gray building where they live every Saturday to get their hair blown out and nails done. I get invited frequently because the divide between student and teacher here is very blurry; but, I haven’t acclimated enough to cross that line yet, though.

Now check out this shot from a barrio, thank you to my favorite Instagram account right now Everydaydr.

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This Dominican family in Province Independencia are shelling pigeon peas on a Saturday morning together. There is a lot that can be said about what wealth really means in this country, and maybe I will get into that in my next blog post.

So, how “developing” is a “developing country”? I don’t really even know how one could answer that. In any given moment I can have the most succulent avocado I’ve ever eaten in my life that is naturally and without GMOs the size of my head while also getting my toenails  done at a 24/7 Botox Salon. My internet sucks most of the time, but last night I got 3 pizzas, two beers, and a 5-gal bottle of water delivered to my apartment from 3 different places without having to lift a finger. We lost water two days ago to our apartment, but then I used an app to get a taxi to cart the three of us all over the city without ever having to use Spanish. So you tell me.

I think that more than anything else it is important to note that places can’t REALLY be labeled one way or another. We know this (or should) about people and stereotyping. There is no one way to paint this place. It is the best of both worlds. I love this country, I love these people, and I love this life.

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Until next time, Jersey.

xo SBV

 

 

Las Terrenas: The proof is in the pictures

Hi all! Some of you have asked for some more information about the “Off the Beaten Path” locations we’ve posted pictures of, so here we go with a little less personal, and a little more information!

Las Terrenas is an incredibly beautiful spot in the Dominican Republic that is lesser known to many Caribbean travelers. If you want to get away from the overwhelmingly tourist-y resorts but eating and drinking the same, I strongly suggest heading to the peninsula, you won’t be disappointed.

Airbnb and VRBO housing is incredibly inexpensive and you can get around to restaurants, stores, the grocery, etc all walking distance or ATV which are cheaply rented from any number of places. There are plenty of people who speak English and here you can find that real Caribbean-style living that can’t be replicated at a resort. Restaurant prices vary for a family of four you can get food and drink anywhere from USD$ 50 and up, including drink. Food and produce is incredibly cheap and accessible here at the local grocery store. EVERYONE is willing to help you and the kindness of the people here will leave you speechless.

The sunset on the beach is easily the best part. The beaches are not crowded because it is a lesser known location so on any given day you may have an entire stretch of beach to yourself. Food and drink on the beach is also cheap; as a reference point you can get a large Pina Colada with fresh coconut and pineapple (cut by a machete in a little bodega playing Salsa music– it’s like a movie, really) for USD$ 3.50.

Did I mention the restaurants and houses are mostly dog-friendly?

All in all, Las Terrenas is not only beauty, but also functionality. It is cheap, fun, and quiet with opportunity for lots of nightlife, exploration, and relaxation should that be what your traveling heart seeks. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or interest about getting to this side of the island, you truly won’t be disappointed.

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This is the only one that is not my picture, but this is an idea of what the beach looks like from one of many restaurants (lasterrenas-live.com)

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The Dominican art of letting go

I haven’t written in a long time because I have felt blocked and unable to quite put my finger on it. While I’ve used this blog as a method of letting “our people” know what we are doing and how we spend our days here, this one is a little more personal.

One of the most difficult parts of being overseas is who we’ve left behind. Interestingly enough, it feels more as if we are being left behind, despite being the ones who boarded the plane. Watching life go on without you in a place you so belonged is a harsh side effect of the life we chose to embark on this year. Mix that with the lack of an  insta-community (word coined by my new friend, you should read her blog, I cry through it pretty regularly– http://www.drinkingthewholebottle.com) you can sometimes find in international school, plus being in a foreign country and you have the perfect recipe for disaster.

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These feelings of loneliness were some of the first feelings to strike once we began to feel settled. Think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once you get over your basic physiological and safety needs, what is left is a need for belonging. My husband and I are fortunate that not only have we come here with one another as a couple, we are also the closest of friends. We have lifted one another out of some of the darkest places and most taxing moments; however, as all who are in healthy relationships know, you can’t just have each other.

There is a widespread culture on this island of letting go. Letting go of control, time, grudges, the list goes on. It is also my biggest challenge and personal life mission. It is hard to reconcile that life has bigger plans for you. I’ve begun to realize that I’ve glorified many friendships over the years as being my “best” ones, but realizing in my most difficult moments that these friendships were made of convenience; because we had a shared history or shared space at some point. I won’t be at the forefront of my best friend’s minds anymore and that could mean a lot of hurt, but it doesn’t have to, right?

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That is where the letting go comes in and it is not restricted solely to those moving their lives abroad. I have always appreciated the principle of impermanence that is a part of Hindu and Buddhist doctrine but have never had to face it so entirely until we moved abroad. Buddhist monks create these incredible sand mandalas that take days to create, building one grain of sand at a time.

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Then, just like that, they destroy their creation. All of that toiling, bending over each speck of sand, the precision and concentration is all wiped away. But why?

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Time, memory, people, communication, is all fleeting. While I have always been fascinated with this Buddhist principle, I’ve now been immersed into a culture where letting go not only exists, it is required.

We hold on to these things because we need to feel human connection. Life moves forward and it has been a hard lesson to learn that the people who are worth putting in the extra effort for, will be there regardless of where we are on the planet and how long we stay. While devastating, that many of these glorified friendships have crumbled in the last several months, I have also begun to learn the Dominican art of letting go. We’re okay. It’s okay. There is not enough energy to hold a grudge and those fleeting friendships, while they may not have meaning anymore, meant something in the moment. That’s wonderful, but it’s also okay to let go when the friendship is no longer serving either of you.


Loss of control is not a bad thing; in fact, there is so little that we have control over in the first place that perhaps we didn’t ever really lose it, we just allowed ourselves to accept it.  Of all the lessons I’ve learned so far, this has been both the most difficult and the most rewarding. While I have only just scratched the surface of learning to let go, I pray this aspect of Dominican culture seeps into my very being the same way the salty, humid sea air does. I feel less burdened, less worry, less guilty.

These initial feelings of isolation in conjunction with some pretty jarring revelations about friendship took a heavy toll on me, in particular. I quickly realized that not only was it time to find community, it was also time to let go; otherwise we would not last in the Dominican Republic.

Since these bumps in the road, we have since made some incredible friends from all walks of life. We’ve met people with similar values and beliefs that have made us feel like we don’t need to pretend we are anything other than who we are. I have found that many people who move overseas have been forced to learn the same lesson so there are no expectations or rules that govern friendships aside from love and let love. It’s the greatest lesson I’ve learned, yet.

 

 

Life lessons from Hurricane Matthew

No school tomorrow! Woohoo!!

As I may have forgotten to mention, because we work in a Catholic school we don’t get any of the usual US holidays off that we had in New Jersey. That means like 15 more days of school in the first three months of the year than we had in the past.

But today, we got that ever-celebrated, always-anticipated phone call! The call we often woke up anxiously awaiting during inclement weather; the “snow day call”!

Well, as you know living on a tropical island is not conducive to snowfall but it is the perfect mix of wind, humidity, and rain for massive hurricanes. Cue major winds and thunderstorms. We have been on the watch constantly for Hurricane Matthew because people can’t quite predict where he is going to hit.

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That little red circle is where we live and really we are not in the direct path of this hurricane. We are probably going to get the tail winds and some seriously heavy rain. Some context for the storm: the internet has been out since Friday (currently using my mobile data as a hotspot) and most of the electricity is out. We have back up generators that will allow us to use small appliances and most lights in addition to a propane stove so we can still cook. Really, we aren’t so affected by the storm. We also have working A/C and plenty of food and drink to get us through.

Almost as if in anticipation of this storm, the city hasn’t seen the sun in three days. Okay, not so bad right?

Wrong.

Like I said we did a little happy dance and then we remembered how lucky we have it. We got the day off, but Jamaica, Haiti, and Cuba are about to get slammed with a Category 4 hurricane; as if Haiti needs another thing. It is much easier to be excited about school off when there is snow because people can stay in their homes, and for the most part we don’t have major concerns of large-scale tragedies occurring when it snows. However, a hurricane is larger than life and the 30-40 inches of rainfall that is expected to drop over those three countries could be truly devastating.

blue-mall.jpgLets look at our beautiful neighborhood, Piantini, that has plenty of money pumped into it’s infrastructure. We live about two blocks left of that red arrow. Houses and high rises are made of brick and cement, insulated to keep cool while the A/C is running. However, when it rains we have such severe flooding, I have seen people take their shoes off and roll up their pants to wade through shin-deep water to cross the street on their walk home from work.

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Barquita, Santo Domingo, DR

These are not my images, by the way. But you can trust me as a history person to ensure you are seeing exactly what I am describing.

Move over to a less-fortunate neighborhood in the same city and people’s houses are flooded to their bedsides. The tin roofs on make-shift wooden/metal structures hardly suffice to keep out the rain and wind.  Worse yet, missing a day of work for some people is missing a day of food.

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Now, move even further west on the very same island to Haiti where they’ve been absolutely devastated by flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes, and as a result, rampant spread of illness and you have a true recipe for disaster when a storm like Hurricane Matthew arrives. At some point you have to wonder “why”? Why them? These people can not have controlled their location on the globe so, how can they deserve to be repeatedly impacted by these disasters? They don’t deserve it. But as long as Haiti is getting hit, it means the Dominican Republic isn’t. More on that in a bit.

Can’t they leave their side of the island and find safety elsewhere? No, unfortunately they are not allowed citizenship on the Dominican side of the island; in fact many of the people who were born here in the last 75 years are currently having their citizenships revoked if they are of Haitian descent. Don’t believe me?

Check it out: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/19/dominican-republic-violated-human-rights-haitians-citizens

So, do they deserve this repeated trauma brought on by natural disasters because they are unable to move from the country they are in; the circumstances they were born into?

While it is certainly a relief to have a day off of school (and it may look like Tuesday will be off, as well) it isn’t worth what may be coming for Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica. It is hard to be excited about something that serves us (and we desperately could use a shortened week) while it is simultaneously hurting others.

You should read this… because I don’t express my thoughts on this often…

And that brings me to my reflective paragraphs I try to put at the end of each one of these posts. As I said earlier, as long as Haiti is getting hit, it means the Dominican Republic isn’t. Isn’t that a good thing for me? I can’t control what is happening to other people, I can’t control this storm or what the reality is for millions of people who aren’t as fortunate as I am this evening typing away on my blog. So why is there any argument against “good for me”?

Here we go…

We are all entitled to our own opinions, and I thank my lucky stars I was given an education and upbringing that allows me to see outside myself and what serves me. If we all took a moment to stop thinking about how we could each personally get a leg up on another person or group of people (this is about to be a run-on thought, bear with me)… or if we had a little compassion for one another as human beings experiencing life differently because of our circumstances then, I don’t know, maybe if we could look at ourselves and decide that because something enables us personally but doesn’t enable other people who live among us, maybe it isn’t “right”, after all. Just because something is good for me and isn’t good for someone else, doesn’t mean its good. Literally, at all.

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When we aren’t the ones experiencing “the storm”,  do we really have a leg to stand on to make decisions about whether this storm’s effect on another group is founded or unfounded? Can we make decisions about how that storm is handled when we sit far away in a cushy cement building on the second floor with our backup generators and working propane stoves? Should we rejoice in how the storm serves us, when it also punishes others so severely they may not walk away with their lives? How can we make assumptions about how we would have handled the storm when we were not born into a place or circumstances prone to these “storms”? Why have we turned into a people that takes a loud-mouth stand against the guy rolling up his pants to wade through the storm water saying “this isn’t my personal fault, I need help” when we haven’t had our shoes wet? It’s not even that people are unwilling to listen, they are totally unwilling to comprehend the complexity of reality. That maybe there is a reality that exists outside their own.

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  It is a privilege to be indoors observing what is happening around us without having to feel the consequences of it.

I think that the biggest problem with US politics and opinions today is this idea of what’s right vs. what’s wrong in every situation. Things don’t have to be one way or another. The beauty and curse of the United States is encompassed by its heterogeneity. Why do we think we need to choose sides when really no clear side exists? We have to honestly shut up for 30 seconds and listen to what someone else has to say; question who we are and why we feel a specific way and decide if there is possibly any other solution, perspective, or reality that may exist.

There is. There are a lot of realities that exist outside of your own. Life isn’t just black and white. You don’t get to make judgment calls about something you don’t understand when you haven’t tried to understand. That is ignorant. It’s the same reason Donald Trump has moved so far in this presidential election; absolute ignorance. America is looking mighty ridiculous on the world stage.

 

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In the words of one of my personal favorites, “I’m not perfect and I don’t claim to be. But before you start pointing fingers, make sure your hands are clean.”

 

 

 

 

Tonight, I’m sending my love and prayers to those who are unable to control their circumstances, whether its Hurricane Matthew, your own personal, or collectively shared storm. More so, I’m sending positive energy to those who have the ability to change the realities of those they may not understand. The people who can use what serves them, to serve others. Maybe, just maybe, we can change the course of the everyday storms that exist.

I will spend my day tomorrow putting together lessons on global citizenship. I can’t stop the hurricane from hurting people, but I can enlighten young minds to the reality of caring about people, even when it doesn’t serve them in particular. We have been given the gift of conscious thought. Use it. It is time we take responsibility for ourselves and each other.

End rant.

xo SBV

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.

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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