(Editor’s note: Originally from Louisville, Jim Wheatley and his wife Vickie Wheatley work as Peace Corps volunteers in the Dominican Republic. This post represents his thoughts and views and is in no way connected to the Peace Corps or the United States Government.)
You can always count on your friends.
For example the last thing my friend the editor of Insider Louisville said to me as I was boarding the plane to serve with the Peace Corps for two years in the Dominican Republic was, “Send me cigars.”
Come to think of it that was also the first thing he said when he heard I was going.
Well, I’ve been here for two and a half months now, and I’ve yet to see a cigar; I’ve hardly seen a cigarette. It is not because of some government anti-smoking campaign. Cigars are expensive.
They are for export.
We Americans believe – I included – the Third World exists, really, because people there just don’t get it. They don’t understand what it takes. They just need to be smarter about it, work harder.
I never would have admitted that before. Didn’t really understand it. But being immersed in a poor community strips away one’s carefully constructed world view and leaves you feeling kind of raw, like standing naked in a sand storm.
The thing is there is nothing here. There is just so damn little to work with. There is no infrastructure. It is difficult to get water. You only have electricity about half of the time. The roads are terrible, and it is hard to get good food.
But, nothing gets wasted.
If you see a couple of guys playing checkers on the side of the road, the board is homemade and the pieces are white and green bottle caps. Toys? The kids have homemade tops like my grandfather used to tell me about, or they roll an old motorcycle tire down the street with a stick.
Everything here is difficult. Each morning at about 7:30 a stream of people starts flowing past my house.
Men, women, children, young and old. And they are carrying every kind of container imaginable – old 5-gallon buckets, Clorox bottles, anything. They are all making the half-mile round trip to get water…water for cooking, cleaning, flushing toilets, bathing.
It takes about a gallon and a half to flush a toilet (trust me on this) and about two gallons to take a bucket bath (trust me on this, too). I have no idea how much it takes for cooking and cleaning. There are 8 people living in the house across the street.
Think about that!
We live here with a host family. Mom, the head of the house, is about 50 years old and a professional teacher trainer. She also has an apartment she rents out and runs a small family business.
Son-in-law is an electrician and daughter (with baby) works part-time as a secretary.
Great granddad watches the kid.
Besides all of this, mom boards us, preparing three meals a day and washing our clothes. The washing machine is a manual affair. She beats the excess water out of my jeans on the rocks beside the kitchen door. Everything is line dried. Dryers don’t exist here.
Did I mention she carries the water?
Daughter is up every Saturday morning at 4:30 to catch the 5:30 bus to the capitol, two hours away, so she can attend an 8-hour session at the university there.
The family SUV is a 125 cc motorbike. It is not uncommon to see it going down the street carrying 4 people.
These folks work so hard it wears me out just to watch.
In the U.S. they would be solid middle class professionals. Here, they are the haves. But they have very little, and life is hard. Their problem, they are paid a Dominican wage.
You see, supply and demand is a real thing. And, for every decent job available in this country there are probably 50 qualified people who would love to have it.
It is a definite buyers’ market.
The two main sources of income here are tourism (Punta Cana and the like) and remittances from Dominicans living abroad. Estimates vary wildly, but there are probably two million to three million Dominicans living in the United States. Other than that, there are a few factories – not enough to matter – and government and education jobs.
Americans talk about corruption here and for sure it exists, just like in the US. The difference is, in the US there is so much excess that even with all the institutional corruption (remember, corporations are people), there is still plenty to go around. I am convinced that if there was absolutely zero graft and corruption here it wouldn’t make a significant difference in the lives of the people.
There is no infrastructure and no money to provide it and no one is going to build a factory where there is no water, no electricity and no access to markets.
It is hopeless really.
And on that happy note I am going to go to work with some teenagers to help enhance their education so they can carry water – and while doing so, think about philosophy.