Pinball Wizard (Mago de Brincar)

That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball.

Pinball—sort of how navigating my life has felt the past few years—bouncing around like the small silver ball inside the machine, rattling around aimlessly, groping for answers and bonus points and extra lives—hoping maybe to finally see the road beneath my feet.   And I wouldn’t be surprised if I appear to the casual observer like the antagonist of the ousted pinball King, a kid without a real sense of what he is doing, navigating only by instinct– although I admittedly still lack the mean pinball skill.  Novato en algunas maneras, todavía.

Pero sigo jugando.

Clarity and security—-we are all capable of sacrificing these two comforts in exchange for a world of possibilities and potentialities.  And regarding anything—careers life love, daily habits, daily interactions.  We can trade a script we know by heart– or one in which we can anticipate nearly every plot development– for one that finds us bouncing around, living a life that is in many ways still unwritten.  It is the essence and definition of risk.  It is life.  And exchanging certainty for uncertainty in the direction of a new, desired future can in many ways feel like a deal with the devil—trading whatever sense we have of place and purpose for the inevitable feeling of being utterly lost is in no way an easy pill to swallow.

But we do it in the hopes of one day being better found.

So we bounce. Like the pinball.  And we keep bouncing.   Like the past few years have felt for me, steady bouncing like KRS-One between places and people and jobs, or if a more suave soundtrack is called for, like R-Kelly’s remix to ignition. Bounce bounce bounce —- not knowing where to next, or what’s around the next corner.

It’s not easy.  It’s not all bumpers and flippers and blinking lights.

When I feel lost, I try to remind myself  that the clarity and certainty of everything can be as suffocating as the uncertainty can be unnerving.  And I give thanks to my family, my college, my friends for enabling some of the bouncing—I have been blessed with many opportunities and endless support.

Perhaps the worst part of bouncing around is that people think we do it carelessly.  As Dan says, there is a stigma about bouncing around from place to place, job to job, not following a set career track or a predefined path.  People often think you are unintelligent, incapable, or worse yet, flaky. Incapable of committing, and in many ways immature.

In some ways the bouncing is careless and juvenile—maybe that is why most people ping about while they are young.   But in many ways this bouncing springs from so much care and thought, from a knowledge and respect that searching for passion, for things meaningful, for those things which will ultimately be for us the most fulfilling—-that this is a deal worth making–or at least a game worth playing.

The best translation of this idea of the pinball wizard, those who also happen to be bouncing around the universe looking for their passion or calling, was Mago de Brincar —- the magician of jumping.   Brincar has implied within the idea of jumping without thinking, literally saltar con ligereza –  to jump lightly, flippantly.  It’s like hopping or bouncing about carelessly, like a mountain-goat on some steep, rocky hillside.

To many it seems ridiculous, careless, risky. But we rarely fall.  And we may not all get where we are heading (or even know where we are trying to get), but at least we are bodies in motion.

And although we think it out, and the same time we don’t.  Because we are unsure of what exactly we are doing—the path is undefined, the pages unwritten.  It is all done by instinct.

We may be playing blindly, but some day all that bouncing will somehow make sense.



Pa’ La Ciudad Corazón

Dan, Felicia and I had sworn to travel this past weekend…to get afuera de La Romana. Lunes being a día feriadodía de Duarte—we had a long weekend looming ahead of us. And we were getting out of town.

We sat down to dinner last Wednesday like elders at council—determined to travel, to take advantage of three days off, and to see another part of the country– a ir para otro lado. Maps strewn across the table, we set our sights on heading north to Santiago.

The plan, however, did not evolve much beyond that.

The word that ruled the day at the outset of our voyage was spontaneity. We had no idea where we were staying, what we were doing, or how we were even exactly getting there— we resolved to hop guaguas to the city and figure it out cuando lleguemos.

We recruited our friend Alex for our blind trek, and like four aventureros we set off after lunch Friday for Santiago de los 30 Cabelleros, segunda capital de la República Dominicana.

The road there was a beautiful one. After passing through Santo Domingo and switching buses, we passed through the mountains toward La Vega, inland and up. The lush mountain ranges, partly obscured by fog and cloud cover, provided a mystifying backdrop that began on the outskirts of Santo Domingo–a completely different scene from the cane-filled lowlands of the Eastern province.

The five hour journey afforded plenty of time to think, to attempt to unwind. I spent the early leg observing the landscape, trying to avoid being preoccupied with the fact that we had not the slightest idea what was awaiting us at the other end of our paseo.

Felicia had been stressing the night before about not having booked a place to stay, and Dan and I had given her a round of flack, como siempre.  And of course now here I was, on a bus bound for the unknown, slightly unnerved for the very same reasons.  I had to let it go though, and embrace the idea that we were truly traveling, and would figure out things as they presented themselves– espontaneidad.  “Down for the tumble,” as Felicia is fond of saying.  After all, the unplanned and unexpected is often the most memorable. And Felicia was clearly no longer worrying in the least about any looming uncertainty– she and Dan were already fast asleep in the row ahead of me.

My preoccupations fled soon enough—se me dejó con sueño.

I awoke on the outskirts of the city, welcome signs and other letreros clearly demarcating our arrival en la ciudad corazón.

Three simple words could not have said it more beautifully.  Nestled in the Cibao Valley lay Santiago, a metropolitan area of casi 1 million ciudadanos sprawling from the sudeste al noroeste, in line with the mountain ranges both above and below the beautiful city.  We could tell we were arriving in a real ciudad, not merely by the immense sprawl and tall(er) buildings, but the look and the feel and the bustle. Not only did it have an entirely different vibe than the capital or La Romana–our homely pueblecito–it was also clean and well kept.  The roads were wide and smooth, not ridden with potholes or maniacal drivers, the typical trash and filth we have grown so accustomed to absent as well.  There were people about, and plenty of traffic—but it was immediately apparent that this place was more tranquil than the South.

Alex was already at work talking to some locals on the bus, asking about lodging, hotels, things to see, stuff to do.  I joined in a little bit in conversation–I was no longer unnerved about not having plans, even when Alex made some remark to the extent that we were all tourists now, since he had never been up north to Santiago in his lifetime (a mutual friend told me a few weeks later its been years since he had been outside of La Romana).  But I could not help being still somewhat unsettled—the sun was beginning to set, and I did not want to spend our entire first night looking a room.

So we took the first tip we got re: una habitación, taxied from the parada to a nearby hotel, shed our bags and soon set off into the cool nighttime air of Santiago. We had heard that the hub of the nightlife in the city centered around the monument—a large structure built during the Trujillo era and now called El Momumento de los Héroes de la Restoración. It was a true landmark, visible from all over the city, set atop a hill in the Downtown area.

We made for the Monument, which seemed about a mile or so from where we were staying.  Like true Dominicans, however, we got sidetracked for a few hours.  We had turned up an alleyway that ascended on a steep grade toward El Monumento, now looming right above us, when we spotted a cozy looking colmado.  We ordered a few Presidentes and sat down for what we thought was a quick breather and our first drink of the night.

Soon however (after a few probing questions on our part about the score of the baseball game underway in town), a television was carted out, propped up on milk crates, and prendido.  More chairs soon made their way out onto the sidewalk.  Game 6 (best of 9) of the finals of the liga dominicana, the Leones del Escogido contra Las Aguilas del Cibao was in full swing, and we spent the next 2 hours watching a real drama unfold.  A great game, complete with a walk off win in entradas extras that found us going loco in the street with a bunch of locals.

That night we eventually made our way up to the monument, got some food and a few drinks.  We somehow found ourselves in a parking lot llena de gente al lado del Monumento, in what our best guess was some post-game tailgate party for the Aguilas (though this very well could just happen on the reg).  We spent an hour or so there before hiking back to the hotel and retiring at a relatively decent hour.

The rest of our trip went by in a flash.  Alex knew of someone up in Santiago by the name of Surihen, a mutual friend that he got in touch with Saturday morning.  She knew of a good place to stay, and so we migrated from our hotel to a suite situated closer to the monument and charging a much better rate.

Suri was great.  She took it upon herself to be our guide, and spent all of Saturday showing us around the city.  We trekked a great deal on foot during the day, ate an epic lunch at some crazy pollo place called Provocón XI, and took in a good deal of touristy stuff.  That night we made for the monument again, relaxed our tired legs with brugal and presidentes, and drank for awhile before hunting down some late night street food (the famed dish here being yaroa, a lasagna made with chicken, beef, and papas fritas adentro).

That Sunday centered around Game 8 of the finals, which was back in Cibao after a Game 7 loss by the Aguilas in the Capital.  They were now on the brink of elimination, and had a chance to force game 9 with a win that day.  Dan and Alex and I—being true aficionados de pelota— had to of course go, and we were enormously excited for both the game and the prospect of seeing the stadium.  We meet Suri outside the gates at Estadio Cibao, renovated in 2008 for the Seríe Caribe and with a capacity of almost veinte mil personas, double the size of Estadio Francisco de Micheli en La Romana.

The five o’clock game turned into a five-hour marathon as the Aguilas won 9-2, punishing the Leones in a humiliating fashion that of course caused the game to devolve into several bench-clearing incidents (though they would lose the finals to Escogido the following night).  The ambiance was absurd, a sea of yellow that did not quiet the entire time, los aguiluchos. It was even more impressive than the Toros games, which are something to behold.

We left the game and made a quick vuelta in the city with Suri, had one last meal of yaroa and sandwiches de pollo and said goodbye to our guía increíble y nueva amiga. 

Monday morning we were up early, saying our goodbyes to the Monument, to La Ciudad Corazón, and to the unfamiliar, which we now hungered to make more known to us.

Regresaremos pronto.

Xmas Brindis (+MMXII)

La Navidad ha llegado.

I found an old Burl Ives Christmas CD the other day. Tucked away in one of the cabinets of our office at the Hogar. Most likely left by last year’s group, if I had to guess. The Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer soundtrack.

We spent most of the morning Listening to Holly Jolly Christmas (always y por siempre my fave), and the title track of course.  DJs Felicia and Dan soon followed up with some christmas jams by ‘NSYNC and James Taylor, respectively.   Later that  day was the big gift-giving festival for all of the students at the Hogar — toys from mundo de juguetes were distributed throughout all the classrooms, and the young kids were grinning ear to ear as they eagerly awaited being able to get home and rip their dolls and trucks and tea sets out of their packaging.

Everyone here has been ecstatic about the coming Christmas vacation (which began yesterday), and everyone has seemed to exist in anxious anticipation of the holidays for the better part of 3 weeks now.  It is the big month here in the Dominican–vacation time, people earn twice a$ much money, and apparently everyone drinks as if there is no tomorrow….

‘Even the people who hardly drink will DRINK in December,’ Abrahan told me one day.

I hardly doubt it’s an overstatement.

The Christmas decorations went up early, and I did not in any way expect to see so much decoration/holiday spirit/fesitivites/etc. in a carribean island, far removed from a prospective of a white Christmas.  While the weather may be different, the same spirit is in the air, the same warm, cheery mood. It is intoxicating.

I am going to pause the blog for my vacation (though I have already slowed as of late — such is the fate of any blog), if not simply to clear my head and return to this with a new energy, but to also enjoy visits from family and friends.  My oldest amigo cercano in the world (after kid brother Daniel) arrives this afternoon in La Romana, and Thursday my family comes for 6 days, to celebrate Christmas here together.  I couldn’t be more excited.

I am especially looking forward to our Christmas brindis.  Literally, a toast or offering—my mother’s favorite tradition.   Clinking glasses and solemn words.  It is both a reflection and a thanksgiving, an acknowledgement of the past and a commitment to the future.  Ever since my family told me they were coming down to the caribe for the holidays, this is the moment I have pictured.

And as wonderful as Christmas is (and this Christmas en particular will be), I think my favorite day of the year is New Year’s—for the very same reason I like my mother’s tradition.  As arbitrary as the ‘New Year’ can arguably be (for cynics), for me, like many, it is always a time to reflect on what the year has brought me, where I have found myself, what has transpired, and what I want to accomplish moving forward.

A self-reflection, a thanksgiving for the blessings and fortunes of the year past, but also–and more importantly–a time to make new promises and commitments to the future.  As futile as many of them may end up being, I still really place a lot of importance on the idea.  Maybe it is the optimist in me, but every holiday season I like to think of the New Year as an opportunity to reinvent myself, to better myself, to perhaps remake myself and in turn remake, in some small way, the world.

With that, I eagerly await my friends and family being here in La Romana to celebrate the holidays together and close out 2011.  And I look forward to welcoming 2012 – that it may have as much in store as 2011, and that it is as prepared for me as I for it.

Feliz Navidad y prospero año nuevo a todos.

Otro Mundo, Bajo Mundo (Otherworld, Underworld)

A late afternoon trek the other day took us to the far reaches of town.

Lupo’s camioneta climbed upward, not in any noticeable manner, but it kept laboring up a steady incline, a small hill that crawled slowly away from town, arriba y afuera. 

The road soon changed from pavement to piedra, loose stone that was violently chewed up by the low-lying truck, the bed in back full of coworkers heading home.  People walked barefoot on the roadside, almost keeping pace with the slow moving vehicle.  Soon enough even the stone was gone, and we were navigating the rough, worn tracks of a dirt road, the afternoon sun beginning to set ahead of us.

“Look,” Lupo said in Spanish, pointing to our left.  “Over there is a sea of garbage, as far as you can see.  And here, the dogs turn to goats.”

Dan and I looked over toward the far side of the street, where a mass of green overgrowth only partly concealed a bed of filth beneath.  And up on the side of the road ahead– sure enough– was una cabra, ripping into bags of garbage with its teeth, chewing handfuls of trash as if it were grass.

Bienvenidos al tercer mundo.

Ever since we arrived here in July—even before departing—people have been telling us of the poverty, the filth, the way things are here:

One day, when Felicia and I were having a late afternoon lunch at the club, we met up with a friend and coworker from the Diagnostic Center associated with our school.  In the middle of chatting with her, we found ourselves reflecting on the purpose of our experience here—and what motivated us to sign up in the first place.

“Well it’s a great chance for you to be exposed to another language, another culture, and see what it’s like to be in un pais tercermundista— a third world country,” our friend remarked, sharing some statistics about just how many people here live in poverty, how rampant unemployment really is, and how a large amount of income in the country is repatriated from the U.S., wired courtesy of Western Union.

People had told us of the poverty, the filth…the abandoned buildings, the run down neighborhoods…the starving children, the opportunistic thieves…

A young boy at the stadium during the Toros game the other day, maybe 10 years old, followed me around for awhile, working a more subtle and protracted pitch for money.  But he was funny enough, and was talking to me for some time, asking me what I thought of the country.  I replied that I liked it very much, and he asked me why, with all the trash everywhere, and all the kids like him begging for money.

And on a separate vuelta with Lupo & Co., we had passed through the barrio nicknamed bajo mundo–the underworld–a cluttered and dense neighborhood in the middle of the city, where the buildings were falling over onto each other from their respective sides of the street, encroaching on the small alleys between, shading them from the sunlight by squeezing out the sky above.

“This is where all the drugs are.  Everything.  Anything you want.  The police don’t dare go here.  And if you come here at night, the tigres will take you for everything you own.  Including your shirt and pants.”

We had our fair share of warnings, of shared insight into some of the more base things this country had to offer. Yet despite everything we had heard, or seen–the orphaned buildings around every corner, the stray, starving dogs roaming the streets, eating garbage and baby diapers on the side of the road, starving children begging for food or money—despite all that, nothing compared to the ride that day.

Es como un otro mundo,” said Doña Miqueya, sitting in the front seat as we made our way up that hill. “If I didn’t take tours with Lupo, I wouldn’t even know this part of La Romana exists.”

This world does exist.  And people we work with live there.

What really struck us that day was not just seeing that this type of poverty first-hand, but seeing people we know and work with living with in the midst of it. Several people hopped from the bed of our truck as we meandered throughout the dirt roads of the neighborhood, making their way home. And soon we came to a stop outside a dilapidated wooden house, the tin roof on top rusted to a dark red hue.

“The houses here are all built on piles of garbage,” Lupe chimed in again. “And you have one family sharing a house with one room.” We looked over at the sad looking skeleton of the house.  A lonely toy bulldozer lay sideways in the middle of a muddy excuse for a yard, clothes hanging suspended above it on lines running in every direction, and through the house itself.

Out from the house came one of the teachers from the school.

Seeing her emerge from that house was almost surreal. We had only known her at the Hogar, and this was our first time seeing her afuera de trabajo.  We were shocked.  But it was real– we soon spotted in the crowd of boys playing stick ball in the street ahead her three sons– Daniel, Eliot, Markos–students at the school where we work, happy-go-lucky kids that are always quick to smile and say hello, and were soon at the window of the truck doing that very same thing.

After a quick conversation regarding whatever was being exchanged– Lupo apparently had some paperwork for her– the truck began its slow descent back down the hill. The sun was barely clinging to life, threatening to dip below the horizon at any moment.

Dan and I were speechless afterwards—Dan was the first to break the observant silence we had found ourselves in for the past hour or so.

“The DR has to be a third world country,” he stated simply.

“Yea, I didn’t think that until now,” I replied, following it up with an inconclusive ‘that was…’ which I’m not sure was ever even vocalized.

It certainly was something.

Vecinos Higüeyanos y Revelaciones Pequeños

 ¡Qué pequeno el mundo!

Yesterday, we made a short visit to the nearby city of Higüey (hee-gway), the capital city of the eastern province of La Altagracia, which borders La Romana to the east. The province is home to the popular tourist areas of Bávaro and Punta Cana, but these beach areas are about an hour y algo further beyond Higüey.  The city–which is about the size of La Romana, with cerca de 200,000 inhabitantes— lies on the western edge of the province, far closer to La Romana.   It is only about an hour from our home at the club.

A fellow guest at the club who has been working the past few months as an engineer at Central (great guy, pero él es liciesta) had offered to take us to some nearby sites after hearing of our recent lack of travel — in fact, he was more or less persistent upon it, but in a friendly (and so very Dominican) way. He suggested showing us around Santo Domingo, where he lives when he is not at the club, or a quick trip to Higüey to visit the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia.

So we made plans to take him up on the latter, and yesterday we made a late afternoon voyage, departing La Romana at about half five (as the British chaps here are so found of saying). The voyage took us on an open carretera surrounded by a sea of sugar cane, all owned by Central.

Lupo had told me a few days before, on a trip to the Cacata Batey, that the passage to Higüey was nothing but caña.  But this reality was impossible to anticipate—as we drove past recently leveled plots that afforded views to the fields beyond, it was sugar cane for as far the the eye could see—it appeared to stretch all the way to the foot of the mountains in the distance.

It wasn’t until sunset that we pulled into the parking lot of the Basilica, a huge concrete church with an impressive arch that sits at its center, spanning far above the structure.  Construction of the building began in the 1950s, but wasn’t the finished until 1971.  The church, as it stands now, is the largest in the country.

The church was pretty fascinating, simply in its size and stature, the concrete arch not only making it an awe-inducing presence from afuera, but it also allowed the roof inside the church to reach aggressively towards the heavens, a steep and curved ceiling that seemed to vanish into oblivion overhead.   It also made for some eerie acoustics that reverberated throughout the place, the line ‘escuchanos, Dios…’ echoing throughout the building as we first entered, passing by a sea of candles holding vigil at the entryway.

The real awe of the Basilica, however, lies in the legend surrounding it.  Housed within is the famous Virgen de La Altagracia painting, brought over by the Spaniards in 1512, during their conquest of the island (Higüey being the last province to be taken by the Spanish).  There are a handful of legends surrounding the painting, even more regarding mysterious miracles occuring in the villa of  Higüey near the site of the Basilica, and many myths about appearances of the Virgin Mary in the region. The Virgen de La Altagracia has since come to be the symbol of the ‘mother protector’ of the nation.  There are legends abound regarding the site, and every January people from the country and Latin America venture in a sort of pilgrimage here to the Basilica, its legend being profound and potent enough to make it a revered religious site.

The most fascinating thing about our brief excursión, however, was the priest who spoke with us as we stood at the doorway before departing, taking in the last of the experience.  With an outstretched hand he walked over, asking us where we were from. Dan replied La Romana, but the Father clearly knew otherwise, and asked again, this time in English.: ‘No really, where are you from?’

We soon learned that the priest had lived in the Boston area, and we talked for awhile about the city and how great it was (and how it is far superior to New York, a comment to which he nearly jumped he could hardly contain his enthusiasm and agreement).  He then alluded more to the areas he had visited, and said that he stayed for some time in Duxbury, near Plymouth.

I asked if he had stayed at the Miramar near Bay Farm.

Sure enough, this priest we met in Higüey, Dominican Republic had lived and studied for some time at the Miramar, a place no more than ten minutes from the house I grew up in, a tranquil little alcove near the ocean where I had once been on a confirmation retreat, a place both Felicia and I had visited before.

“Like the phrase we use in Spanish,” Father concluded, “How small the world is.”

Let’s Get Free / La búsqueda del Mismo Auténtico

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

– Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Address, circa 2005

Let’s get free. Dead Prez, circa 2000.

Yo, circa 2009.

Let’s get free. Free from what? ¿De qué?

Free of paralysis, of stasis. Free of fear, a fear that finds us perpetually acting (more often than not through inaction) in accordance with how the world views us, but instead acting in the faith of how, who, and where we envision ourselves to be…

You only have one life to live. So go live it. ¡Vívela!

For me, it took awhile. For me, it was a double edged sword, a double sided coin of dogma. I was paralyzed by how others, how people around me, how the world would view me for any decision I made, any step I took. And furthermore, I was in a similar stasis regarding my own self-image, and to me one of the worst things I could do, worse than taking some sort of action because the world dictated I should (a thought that often kept me motionless, and an ironic one at that, seeing as I often followed suit), was to do something vain, something to simply feed my ego, to juice my own image with anabolics.

I was lost, lost in the world of silent suffering, the smothered self that so many lives tragically become, when the dreams slowly die out, like some kind of lifelong bloodletting…

It took me awhile to figure out what I genuinely wanted. A long time. Years.

We often wish for the years back, for the time we spent in the doldrums, trying to navigate the fickle winds of life. But we all know that these times cannot be won back, and more importantly, we would not have made landfall upon the present shore in which we find ourselves, if not for the time spent wandering in search of our authentic selves, in search of happiness, in search of meaning, in search of…..more.

I originally had something else planned for a blog entry last week, something more relevant to life here, to what we are seeing and doing and living.  But after I spent a few days in the hospital (a byproduct of several bouts with la gripe, the change in climate, dehydration that crept up on me, and a little bit of Dominican….. hyperbole), a few days which I spent reflecting on being here, on the book I was reading, on life and death and living (and on the passing of Steve Jobs, and the commencement address a friend posted on Facebook)—I felt compelled to write something in this vein.

After all, what is more relevant to my presence here than the road that brought me to this point.

Sometimes we need moments to put things in perspective—-for Steve Jobs, it was the typical “live like you’re dying” mantra, up until the point in which he was actually told he was dying of pancreatic cancer, with only months left to live. And yet, in the face of that, he remained as determined as ever:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

For me, it was a bout in the hospital that put some perspective on this experience here.  Thankfully, I am not in dire straights– I am not dying anytime soon, si dios quiere.  But holed up in a hospital for a few days, I gained a handle on what it meant to me to be here, and what I want out of the experience.  I vowed to be true to myself while I am here, to not allow myself to be crippled by the perceptions of others, and to make the most of every minute. And the most important promise I made to myself from a hospital bed—I will not long for these months back.  If I pull that off, I will have known I’ve done it right.  Habré sabido.

Two years ago, I finally started living my life.  I had a burning desire to go work in the solar industry, and relocated to Arizona with my brother to work doing residential solar installations.  I remember thinking at that time that tomorrow I could die a happy man, because in that moment I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. It was the happiest I had been in a long time.

But the road often grows dark, and I soon found myself lost again back then.  I had no idea what to do next, I was lost and depressed, and struggled in the doldrums for months (think latter part of 2010).  I soon had my heart set on moving to a Spanish speaking country.  And then I read about this program.

The dots all connect.

After spending the better part of last week in bed rest, en reposo, I thought a lot about my experience here, and living it to the fullest.  About being ever-present in the moment, in doing what I am doing and being where I want to be.  In allowing conversations here not to exhaust me–which as Americans we so typically tend to do– but to energize and excite me.  In making the most of my limited time here– in the Dominican, and on this Earth–and in being faithful to the self that brought me here by allowing myself to grow with this experience.

There is an authentic self that exists within each of our hearts, lodged deep in our souls, longing to come into being, longing to get free.

As Jobs said about finding what you love in this life:

“So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

Crystallization Theory / Cada Medio


    • to make or become definite or clear

Crystallization is a separation and purification technique employed to produce a wide variety of materials. Crystallization may be defined as a phase change in which a crystalline product is obtained from a solution. A solution is a mixture of two or more species that form a homogenous single phase. Solutions are normally thought of in terms of liquids, however, solutions may include solids (in) suspension. Typically, the term solution has come to mean a liquid solution consisting (of) a solvent, which is a liquid, and a solute, which is a solid, at the conditions of interest. The solution to be ready for crystallization must be supersaturated.”

From Wikipedia:

“The term supersaturation refers to a solution that contains more of the dissolved material than could be dissolved by the solvent under normal circumstances.”

example (same entry):

“Carbonated water is a supersaturated solution of carbon dioxide gas in water. At the elevated pressure in the bottle, more carbon dioxide can dissolve in water than at atmospheric pressure.”

Ah-ha!  Well, there it is folks.  And now I am going to pretend to own and understand a bit of science for the sake of a metaphor….

Here in the Dominican, Dan, Felicia and I have taken on the reto of mastering spanish.  And at the present moment, the muddled mess inside our minds is the solution. The pila of Spanish we process ever day is the solute. Our intelligence, ability, and will to learn is the solvent.

The mastery of a foreign language, the slow and deliberate manner by which understanding begins to take shape and form in your mind, I call that crystallization theory.  And I think the only way to do it is through supersaturation.

Good thing Español is everywhere.  Literally, everywhere.  Cualquier lugar tu miras.  On every medium you can think of.  Cada medio.

The television, the radio, the web—ads, newspapers, on billboards and telephone poles and storefronts– on packaging and print material.  Overheard at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, from the backseat of the camioneta, in the form of phone calls by Inexis at the office, or coworkers charlando in the comedor at the Hogar.  And on the tip of our tongue throughout the day, as we try and employ it with some sort of efficiency and accuracy.

Learning a new idoma in small doses prescribed to yourself at your own convenience will never work.  A new phrase here or there, taken in stride as you parade around your zone of comfort, a new word-of-the-day, or a new saludo with which you can hail your friends, or even worse, half-assed ‘study’ when you have nothing better to do–these small encounters with language will never help you if you truly desire to own another language.

It’s like throwing countless pieces of undercooked pasta against the wall while cooking—they may stick, but not for more than a few seconds. Follow this gameplan and you’ll end up sounding like the proverbial broken record, spitting out ”que lo que” on repeat.

For a new language to really start to crystallize in your mind, you need it all around you.  I knew this before coming here, and it was one of the many motivations I had for doing a program like this—supersaturating my mente with Spanish. Back in the states, I would make vain attempts to re-encounter Spanish, but I knew they would be hopeless simply for the fact that Spanish was not really around me–I did not have enough exposure to it. And furthermore, I was lacking the most important dimension of learning language–employing it.

Now, however, we are fully engulfed in it.  And it is absolutely brilliant.

Learning how people express things through languages is forever intriguing to me. Aside from watching cartoons in Spanish (my guilty placer), I love dissecting copywriting in Spanish– ‘Claro, La Red donde todo es posible!‘.  Advertisements on the television, or plastered throughout the city, or on billboards on the route to Bayahibe—‘El futuro es Claro!’–they all offer small insights into how Hispanic cultures express certain concepts, inspire people, and sell services.   Perhaps from mimicking how they sell ideas to each other I can start selling myself as some sort of journeyman member of the Bilingual Spanish Guild….‘Más cerca. Más Claro!’.

At the very least, these ads give you a handle on pesky reflexive pronouns.

One of my favorite things to do is simply chat to friends we have met here via facebook or skype after work. It’s a great way to practice speaking spanish with speed.  Como mi prima Angee me sugirió.

Then there are the quirky phrases—it was absolutely downpouring yesterday, trueno rocking the sky (some of the loudest thunder I have ever heard)—and Inexis offered up this Venezuelan fraseestá cayendo un palo de aqua. Literally  ‘A stick of water is falling’.  Might have ‘raining cats and dogs’ beat…

And there is always baseball, one of my favorite things to talk about, in spite of the culmination of the-meltdown-that-shall-not-be-named late last night (thankfully, ahora soy toro).  Watching baseball, or even fútbol americano with announcers broadcasting in Spanish is always fascinating.  And the terminology, comodín (joker) for wildcard, entrada for inning, jardín (garden) for the outfield, and outfielder thus following as un jardinero

I remember watching a Yankees/Sox game this temporada with Alex and Dan at the local colmado, and taking a look at the ticker tape at the bottom of the screen.  It took me a second to realize (and it’s not the verb realizar, its dar cuenta – to give account), after watching stat lines parade across the bottom of the screen for a minute or two, that I did not comprehend any of it.  The scrolling infromation on the bottom of the screen–which I took for granted that I would subliminally process while watching the ballgame– even this was in a foreign language.

After seeing a long stat line that was obviously about lanzadores (pitchers) de Philadelphia–‘Cliff Lee 5 CL, Halladay 2 CL, Hamels 3 CL’—curiosidad finally got to me, and I had to grill Alex.  I knew carreras, literally ‘races’ was the term for ‘runs,’ but CL looked too strange to be within the realm of an educated guess.  And my inquiry was answered with yet another quirky and intriguing linguistic twist—carreras limpias, literally ”clean runs”, to express the number of earned runs (ER) a pitcher surrenders in an outing.

Here in La República, we are truly being supersaturated with Spanish.  And with this constant exposure, things are slowly starting to crystallize.

Hale Empuje (Push Pull, Pull Push)

Every morning, I grab my laptop bag and hurry out the door of my habitación, usually running a few minutes behind Dan and Felicia, on account of my chronic procrastination and my frecuentamente discombobulated and befuddled self (mornings, especially, are not my thing).

So I run out the bedroom door, turn two quick derechas, and soon stand facing the foyer door. The gateway that opens onto the balcony, the club grounds, and the pathway to the restaurant where my friends and breakfast (jummmm) await.


Sometimes it takes me a segundo, sometimes I don’t even think about it. Sometimes, when I’m particularly groggy and not yet quite awake, I stand in front of the door like a statute, staring blankly at the door, computing.

Hale. Empuje. Pull.

My middle school spanish teacher, Señor Ferro, often said that the secret to mastering a new language is to teach your mind not to process it through your native language. If someone says “el niño estaba corriendo,” to not, as your mind wants to, think “the boy was running,” but to instead picture a niño  running around a baseball diamond, or una playa, or la calle. The secret is to refrain from thinking through the foreign language in terms of you’re own in order to arrive at the intended or implied significance, but instead arrive there by somehow magically bystepping this process.

But there I find myself, staring at the door, reminding myself every early AM whether hale means push or pull in my language.  And every day I am reminded of this story, knowing that I should not be thinking in terms of these two words, but instead seeing empuje o hale and simply knowing cual acción to perform.

When you reach that plateau, when one’s mind learns to work around the middleman–one’s native tongue–this is when you arrive closer to a true understanding.  And it does happen, but in small doses, and not all at once. Listening to our driver Lupo, or Sandra at the Hogar, or Inexis at the office recount stories and things about their life is at times draining in the attention and energy it can require, but it is also perhaps one of best ways to try and simply understand, and a good gauge of one’s progress in this endeavor.  I am grateful for the few times when I hear a story and just know what action transpired, who got robbed or what was built or where some accident happened.

Yet despite these moments of understanding, I still regress, standing dumbfounded at the door on some mornings.

It’s a struggle, a push and pull if you will, but I know that soon enough I will be walking through doorways and not thinking twice about it.

Llamame Bryan (Brayan)

You would think my name would be easy.

Four letters. And an R to roll up front, si se quiere.

Au contraire, mi amigo.

Llamame Bryan.

We are now about a month and a half into our adventure here, and I have officially given up on trying to explain that my name is Ryan. Con ‘ehrrey’ (R). Sin ‘bay’ (B).

I actually surrendered my identity as Ryan awhile back, when I realized that it was going to be impossible for anyone here to say my first name. Ryan was pronounced more like ‘ree-in,’ or instantly morphed into Brayan, which is actually a name here unlike its shorter brother, and my former first name.

And Tilley—forget Tilley. That either gets pronounced as ‘Tillis’ or ‘Tyler’.  Drop that one too.

So now am I known here, for better or worse, as Brayan. Dan and Felicia have even started calling me Brayan, not as a joke or to draw attention to my rebranded self, but out of the simple habit of hearing it all day long from everyone else.

Names are a funny thing here in the Dominican.  For starters, being a hispanic country, everyone here has a million names (usually 4, but they are always a mouthful).  And to be fair, I think we have as much trouble with some of the students names as they do with ours, though Felicia y Daniel were fortunate enough to have easy transitions (our surnames, another story).

Yafriesy, Maikol, Deulin, Breyner– a small sample of the more challenging names, from what we can remember.  Some names are said and immediately chalked up as a loss, they are so baffling.  ¿Cómo se deletrea?  Forget it.  Even if you knew how to spell it you’d still have a hell of a time trying to say it.  Like trying to tease Tilley from Tillis.  Hopeless.  Some things are just too damn hard to pronounce.

Now, given four names, the first name is not always the one that people refer to themselves by.  It could be their last name, or their third name, or some family name, or some random nickname bestowed upon them by a relative since childhood.

Or better yet, something completely arbitrary, such as “gossip girl”  or “funboy” or “opportunity girl” or “purple bunny,”  some clever type of reinvention of self-identity that is completely within the rules.  If you want to be called something, roll with it. For example, I could start referring to myself tomorrow as “el capitán” and that would be completely acceptable, and might even gain some traction.  Though “coco loco” (‘crazy coconut’)–a nickname bestowed upon me a few weeks back by little Yuri–is already quite popular with the younger kids.  And I think I am going to keep it.

Names are certainly a funny thing here, if not only for the oddity with which people sometimes refer to themselves (sidenote: the royal we is another commonality), but also for the bluntness with which the Dominicans describe and define others.  If someone is fat, they are gordito.  They think you look ugly, you’ll be feo.  No harm, no foul–it’s just the way it is, and they will say it to your face.  That said, Dan is el flaco (‘the skinny one’), and I have been branded as gringuito (‘little gringo’).

While such bluntness may by our cultural standards make one feel taken aback, it is, in reality, quite comical.   It hurdles right over the overprotective, P.C. social norms that we have in our society, saying out in the open what everyone thinks and knows anyways.

And beyond that, it can be quite liberating.

I kinda like gringuito.  I think I may keep that one too.

Diálogo Recíproco (A French Friend)

A friend of mine who had ventured to Quebec for a semester at Université Laval had a dire warning for me before I departed for el caribe.

“The immersion thing is hard,” he said solemnly.  “Really hard.  The only thing that you can share about yourself, the only funny or interesting thing about you for people, for the longest time, is your complete lack of understanding, your inability to converse.”

He would know.  And as a French and Literature major at UMass Amherst, he would know better than most.

The hardship he recounted reminded me of a passage by David Sedaris a girlfriend once shared with me.  In his collection of essays entitled “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” Sedaris chronicles his early life in Carolina, struggling with a lisp during his childhood.  The book then turns to his life in New York City before departing into Partie Deux, which follows his relocation to Paris with his significant other. There, armed with only a month long crash course in French prior to his depature, and reinforced with some half-baked self study, Sedaris struggles trying to survive the immersion classes he attends soon after his arrival.  His schooling, however, has at first the adverse effect of making him feel entirely helpless re: el idioma francés:

“My fear and discomfort crept beyond the borders of the classroom and accompanied me out onto the wide boulevards. Stopping for a coffee, asking directions, depositing money in my bank account: these things were out of the question, as they involved having to speak. Before beginning school, there’d been no shutting me up, but now I was convinced that everything I said was wrong. When the phone rang, I ignored it. If someone asked me a question, I pretended to be deaf. I knew my fear was getting the best of me when I started wondering why they don’t sell cuts of meat in vending machines.  My only comfort was the knowledge that I was not alone. Huddled in the hallways and making the most of our pathetic French, my fellow students and I engaged in the sort of conversation commonly overhead in refugee camps.

‘Sometimes me cry alone at night.’

‘That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty. People start love you soon. Maybe tomorrow, okay.’ “

Sedaris’ account of his hardship with French has a beautiful universality to it, as anyone who has struggled with the immersion, trial por fuego method of assimilating language knows. The ever present fear of looking like a payaso that Sedaris describes is all so real, a creeping emotion that one must struggle to conquer day in and day out if one wishes to improve, to perhaps one day ‘talk pretty’.   It is a fear that manifests itself in the simplest of dialogue, typical exchanges that should be easy and fluid become rigid and suffocating, and make you want to retreat inward. It is as if every day were the first day of school.

For the first few weeks here I didn’t say much, merely observing and trying to listen as I tend to do at first anyways, regardless of the language medium.  But as I began to try to emerge from my introverted self, which I have learned over a lifetime to do in English (and am still learning), I began to struggle with this very same fear. Fear of saying things wrong, fear of looking like a loco, fear of not being able to even remotely express what I sought to convey.

In our second month here, though, I’m happy to say that most of that fear has dissipated.  I had known it was something that I would inevitably feel, but it is certainly a struggle nonetheless. What eventually has to occur is an internal resolve to speak even when you are aware it is all wrong– even when it does not sound pretty–to talk even when you sound like a five year old, and to try and improve day in and day out, paso a paso.

What Sedaris perhaps lacked, though, at the outset of his experience in Paris, was a ‘french friend’.   Like Sedaris and his classmates, Dan, Felicia and I have each other–and a handful of other gringos–with whom we can practice conversing, develop a common knowledge, and simply share our small victories and defeats. But beyond that, we already have among us a great group of native Spanish speakers as well, friends with whom we can casually chat and converse, build up a base of knowledge, and whom we can look to when we want to be corrected or to learn a new way of expressing something.

It is impossible to quantify how refreshing it is to sit around with Alex Perez  and talk about the Red Sox (¿Sabes si los yankees perdieron anoche?), trying new verb structures, incorporating new vocabulary, or practicing forms that should already be committed to memory but aren’t.   Or to converse casually with teachers regarding their day, or with friends about their plans for the coming weekend.  To talk about interests: tennis, baseball, books—to share things about family with one another.

Our friend Valerie shared with us before she departed a term that I feel I understood before learning it—a weird sort of déjà vu feeling that happens when, for example, you conceive a book plot or storyline to soon find that the entire thing has already been written.  It is something I think I understood, however, prior to learning the ‘term’ for it, from my time in Phoenix, where I spent a lot of time with foreign students conversing with them in English, and trying to build a dialogue with good friends from far away places.

What she alluded to is known as DOGME Language Teaching, a term that borrows it’s title from a film movement of the late 1990’s that stressed a sort of ‘authentic’ approach to filmmaking.  The DOGME language theory, in somewhat of the same vein, stresses an ‘authentic’ learning of language, the basic theory being that language is learned not through textbooks, but through conversation.

And conversation, as this theory so eloquently puts it, is the place where learning of language occurs through the “co-construction of knowledge and skills”.  It is a dialogic process, reciprocated between two or more persons.

It is one thing, therefore, to try and learn a language by absorbing it in passing from people one briefly encounters in a foreign place, from bits of conversation that fly by so fast that you are lucky to catch but one word.  But to have friends, friends who are native speakers, who can help you to build up your skills, who can explain grammatical anomalies, and who will take the time and effort to talk around ideas you don’t know or understand with verbs and vocabulary that they know you do—these friends are priceless, for they make talking pretty someday seem a very real and tangible possibility.