Jeff, one of the business volunteers who came in with my group decided to ET and recently returned home to Nevada. His site, which happens to be home to the tallest waterfall in the Caribbean, was in a small pueblo of 5 families and 200 people, 30 minutes outside of Constanza. As I had heard great things from a few other volunteers who had visited his site, I wanted to see him and his site before he headed home, and figured I might not get out to Constanza during the rest of my service if I didn’t aprovechar the opportunity now. So I headed north to the coldest part of the country, which is also home to about 70-80% of the country’s agricultural production. As I was on the bus out to his site, I texted “Whereabouts” to let the Peace Corps know where I would be. Literally seconds after my text sent, I received a text warning me of protests in my region and to stay in my site … As I was already out of my site, and had received similar texts before but had never seen any protests in my tranquil community, I continued on with my journey. I arrived in Abanico, the transit point between the capital and Constanza and boarded the back of a pickup truck with a Haitian who was on my bus from the capital and waited for the driver, who told us that he wouldn’t leave for another 2 hours until the truck was full. I called Jeff to let him know I was stuck and he replied “Oh, yeah that happens sometimes.”
Probably spoiled by my location near the capital, I was baffled that such an important transit route in the country had such little transportation options. A few more Haitians climbed into the back of the truck to wait with us, one carrying three pillow cases full of live roosters and another with a plate of chicharron and yucca which he offered to the rest of us before spilling it all over the dirty bed of the truck. He ate the parts which didn’t touch the floor, and his friend would occasionally pick a piece up off the floor and eat it. I found it strange, not that he was eating the meat after it hit the floor (it is chicharron after all – a tasty and relatively expensive lunch), but that in complete violation of the 5 second rule, he didn’t pick all the pieces up at once. Instead, he let them sit on the floor and over the course of the next 5-10 minutes would occasionally pick a piece up and eat it.
Annoyed at the driver for holding all of us up for 2 hours in order to make a few extra pesos, I was happy when the truck finally took off and held on for dear life as we whipped up a mountain and around curves with gorgeous views of a river and town down below, before finally entering Constanza an hour and a half and 53km later.
Most people remark how different my site is from theirs or from what they expected, but for me Constanza was by far and away the most unique of sites I have seen. Nearly everyone was either Haitian or White. With the green rolling hills, potatoes everywhere and freckily white Dominicans it felt at times like a pseudo Ireland. The ride was rough, but the scenery breathtaking. The waterfall was awesome as well, although the water was freezing, it was fun and definitely worth the visit.
Although I spent less than 24 hours there, I really enjoyed the time hanging out with Jeff’s vecinos and taking in the scenery.
After Jeff’s host Dad was late in picking us up the next morning, we missed the direct bus back to the capital and again rode in the back of a pickup truck to Abanico. This time 8 of us in the back with the luggage (and a bundle of roses which we would pick up along the way), having seen more people and things crammed into the back of these trucks, Jeff wasn’t as impressed as I was.
After lunch along the way back to the capital we passed a bad accident, in which I saw the police drag a motionless man whose face was covered in blood into the back of their pickup truck and take off. No ambulance or stretcher or anything securing the man.
While waiting for the bus back to my site from the capital, I saw the bumper of a guaguita fall off, causing an argument between the chofer and the car behind him. About 5-10 minutes later I boarded my La Pared bus back to my site and we passed that same guaguita which now had the rear bumped tied to the front one. Back in my site, protests were indeed underway. I headed straight home and stayed out of harm’s way. I asked a neighbor who once sold drugs in Rochester, NY but who is now an Evangelical Christian known as “The Crazy Dog” what was going on, to which he replied that the police were terrorizing the citizens for peacefully exercising their right to protest the water (we are currently in our second consecutive week without water). From what I later heard, it didn’t seem as though there was any “peaceful protesting” or really any “protesting” by U.S. standards. Instead, I was told groups of tigueres set tires on fire in Sabaneta (down the road from me) and caused enough chaos in my neighborhood for the police to show up, whom they then threw rocks at. The police responded with tear gas and by firing shots over the heads of a crowd of running kids. 10 people from my neighborhood were arrested and I heard on the news that one student was killed in a similar protest in the capital. I have heard various reasons for the protests: lack of running water, lack of electricity, recent raise in taxes. (http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/dominican-republic-student-s-killing-underscores-urgent-need-police-reform-2012-11-09)
That said, from the little I saw, I didn’t see any signs of citizens protesting, it just seemed as though the police were driving through our neighborhood and terrorizing its residents, not necessarily caring whether they were the ones involved in the stone throwing or not. One young boy popped his bicycle tire trying to escape the shots from the police, but the general atmosphere was festive as if the police v. citizens was some sort of game with little consequence. Neighbors and youth laughed at the popped bicycle tire and at the doña who held up a portion of chain from the police motorcycle which fell off as they sped away. The confrontation did little to help already bad police/citizen relations in the community, as the police seemed to do more harm than good.
The tear gas had blown down the hill into the neighborhood, forced little kids to cover their faces with their shirts and stung not only stung the eyes but also the insides of your nose and the sensitive skin right below your eyes. After the protesting had finished, I spoke with Enrique, the sandwich shop owner who was cleaning his counter top as the police tear gas had dirtied up his locale. Firefighters came through and cleaned up the remaining tear gas with their hoses, but the gas still lingered for hours.
I couldn’t help but think of the irresponsibility of the police to throw two tear gas bombs in the middle of a busy intersection, as every passing motorcycle would have their sight impaired as they unknowingly entered the intersection. Both Enri and Tony the pollo al carbon guy were just as disappointed in the rioters as the police. That is no way to solve the problem, was the sentiment from the two men whose businesses were unfairly put in the middle of the conflict. That said, I have heard that these “protests” do have some success and whether by coincidence or not, we did get our water back for a short while last night before it went out again (it recently came back on again THANK GOD!). From what I’ve heard, there was some sort of accident damaging pipes and 2 of the 3 have been fixed, hopefully meaning it won’t be long before we have our water back permanently (if it isn’t already)!