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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dominican Experience Day 5

Wednesday March 10, 2010

Today wasn't a super early start, which was nice but I find myself often up by 6:30am (what's up with that, considering the DR is an hour ahead).  Despite haivng a good nights sleep, I'm still pretty tired today.

As been our pattern these past few days it was another day on the bus with our fantastic driver, Wally.  He's been our driver since Tuesday and he's got a nice, air conditioned bus with curtians on the windows.  He obviously takes pride in his bus.  We headed back through Consuelo again and up into the mountains to Hato Mayor.

Cacao Co-Operative in Hato Mayor

In the town of Hato Mayor we got off the bus and were loaded onto the back of a truck where we stood on the fenced-in bed for the ride.  Today was a day for us to learn, instead of witnessing the poor living conditions in the slums or Batays.  The focus of today was to learn about Fair Trade and Cocoa.  First we went to Conocado, one of the fair trade Cacao Co-Operatives.  We were welcomed by our chocolate tour guide who served us real hot chocolate (its made from chocolate tablets melted in milk, not the powder we get here in North America), and a roll.  I saw some of our Dominican guides dipping their roll in the hot chocolate, quite good!  Our guide talked to us about the Cacao co-operative system and how it works.

Our Chocolate Guide

After the brief talk we were taken on a tour of the co-op facilities.  We were shown the raw cacao beans (nothing like I thought it looked) and how its fermented in a three step process then dried.  That's when it looks like what we expect it to look like, a nice dark bean.

Recently picked beans being loaded into fermenting bins

Recently harvested Cacao Beans

Cacao Beans being moved to a lower fermenting bin

First the harvested beans (which were harvested no more than six hours ago) are loaded into a large wooden box which when closed is air tight.  The beans stay here for the next 24 hours to ferment (and the area does smell like alcohol).  I was given one of the raw beans to taste/suck on, its almost sweet like a grape (its slimy).  After the beans have been in the top box for 24 hours, it is opened at the bottom front and the beans are moved down a level into a second, lower box.  Through this process the beans are turned, the ones that were on the bottom are now on the top.  The cacao now stays in this box for 48 hours.  From the second box, it goes into the final, and lowest box using the same process turning the beans.  The beans stay in this box for another 48 hours, the fermenting process takes a full 5 days.  After the 5-day process the beans are ready to be dried and are starting to look like the beans we picture.

Beans drying in a greenhouse

Beans being dried by wood fire

Dried Cacao Beans

The drying process happens in two different ways.  Either it is laid out in long greenhouse-like structures, and the sun and heat does the job.  Or they are loaded into a big tumbler and is dried by wood heat.

Stunning vistas

Cacao grows in a pod on a tree

From the co-op we climbed back into the truck and headed further into the mountains.  The vistas were just amazing, my camera just couldn't do nature justice.  The mountains were green and alive!  It was here in the mountains where we saw our first cacao tree!  I never knew that cacao grows on trees!  Its a squash-like pod that grows out of the side of the trunk of the tree, the beans are inside.  The pods are harvested when they're orange. 

Poverty is everywhere in the Dominican Republic

Despite the beauty of the mountains, the poverty was still evident.

Chocolate Education Center

Mixing cacao beans, sugar and yeast in water to make Cacao Wine

Mioced, helping to model the glass of wine

Our next stop was at a chocolate education center run by an association of women.  First we were shown how wine is made from Cacao, which we then got to sample.  It pretty much smelt and tasted like very strong alcohol, not like chocolate.

Inside of a Cacao pod where the beans are found

Marmalade made from the cacao heart

The next process we were shown is how they make a marmalade from cacao.  When the pod is cut open and the beans are removed, there is an inner fiberous stem which they call the "heart".  The heart is removed and boiled with sugar, it is strained repeatedly.  We also got to try the marmalade, again not chocolate-like.  Its supposed to be great on cookies or toast.

Beans being pounded to a paste to make cacao powder that we bake with

The final process we were shown was how cacao is made into the powdered cocoa we're familiar with and use for baking.  First the beans are taosted in a pan over a wood fire (this is the traditional method).  The beans are then peeled and put into a large wooden mortar and pestle.  The beans are pounded until they turn into a paste that has a consistancy/texture of coffee grounds.  At this point sugar is added and thoroughly mixed into the crushed cacao.  The mixture is rolled into balls and dried.  Once dry, the ball is grated into the powder we're familiar with.

Then the ladies had a lovely lunch prepared for us!  The meal consisted of moro (rice and beans), spaghetti, fried chicken, salad (their idea of salad), fruit and rolls.  This was served with passionfruit juice, water and coffee.  The food was excellent.  After lunch we had some time to let loose, shop, relax.  The kids had a great game of basketball.

It was time to get back in the truck again, and we headed deeper into the mountains.  We stopped at a quiet spot, the grounds were manicured and it looked like there was a little chapel.  Here, we were told to find a spot and we were to sit in silence for an hour.  We could use this time to write in our journals, think about the last few days, or meditate.  I was just astounded by the beauty of the mountains!  I took the time to write in my journal and just enjoyed the beauty (except for some sort of bug that was biting me!).  After our hour, it was back in the truck and back to the bus.
The view I was treated to during our hour of silence

Tonght's supper was meatballs, black beans and rice.  Again delicious, but high on carbs.

Seeing as we had our hour of silence there was no reflection tonight.  We were encouraged to spend the evening with our host families.  Us adults went to a local store with our family.  They have really neat, embellished jeans in the D.R. and one of the chaperones for the trip wanted to get a pair.  I took this chance to get some local vanilla, and hot chocolate.  I have to say we stood out like a sore thum in that store, being the only white peopole in there!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Kick Ass Concerts, the Best Way to Kick Off Your B-Day!

Today, I am 34 getting old right? (I sware I was only just 16!)

I kicked off my Birthday Weekend with a rock concert last night (what better way right?) with one of my favourite bands, Billy Talent! Christin and I had general admission tickets, which is really where all the fun is, not in the seats. I shocked the hell out of some students from work, they seemed shocked that their "librarian" would like Billy Talent but I think I proved that I can rock it out just as good as they can at almost twice their age.

First up was Cancer Bats - never heard of them before, they verge on heavy metal. They had a good beat.

Next was Against Me - they're good, they had opened up for the Foo Fighters when I saw them.

The final opening band was Alexis on Fire - again wasn't familiar with the music but still good

Finally, the headliner -- BILLY TALENT I rocked it out jumping and flailing my arms, shoving when others were shoving, singing at the top of my lungs the whole time (I knew every song on the set list). By the end of the show I was one person away from the security barrier at the stage. What a blast!

Christin was a sweetie and treated me to a concert t-shirt as part of my b-day gift (for a change they were 25$ instead of 40$ for a t-shirt)! Since she bought me my t-shirt, I treated myself to a hoodie (again, a reasonable 55$).
Christin and I have another concert coming up in two weeks : NICKLEBACK (we call them "the boys), again we'll be rocking it out on the floor in general admission.
Today I've got some great b-day plans, Christin and I will be going to the gym for a nice workout (only a masochist goes to the gym on their b-day... actually I've put on 5lbs this month and I'm beating them off .5 lbs at a time!). I'm meeting two friends from work for lunch, then I'm heading over to my parents for a pot roast dinner, a very old friend of theirs that they haven't seen since I was 6 months old is in Canada and coming by for a visit.
I think I'm going to have an enjoyable day!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Gifts and Ornaments

Saturday is my 34th Birthday, but last weekend at the Knowledge and Needles Retreat I received my first birthday gifts from my friends!

From Beatrice, a lovely stitched cushion for my smalls basket

From Rebbecca this gorgeous bag, I love bags!

From Bonnie (aka : highlighter pimp) new highlighters, and lookie they're Sharpies!
From Fran, my very own personalized sweatshirt with the Knowledge and Needles logo on it (and my name)
Tonight I started and finished my March ornament, it was a super quick stitch and it was nice to pick up needle and thread for the first time since Sunday (I've been mindlessly blog hopping all week).
Rocky Mountain Scissor Fob (finished as an ornament) - Freebie
c2001 Jeannette Douglas Designs
Stitched on 32ct Natural Linen
Using : DMC, Kreinik BF & #4

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dominican Experience Day 4

Tuesday March 9, 2010
I've got so many pictures from this day to share with you. I've tried my best to put it into words (which is so hard) so I hope my pictures will fill in the blanks.
Today was a long day! We were up around 7, and served a breakfast of ham & cheese sandwiches (with ketchup), and fruit. We boarded the bus and headed into the capital city of Santo Domingo.
Crossing the bridge into the Barrio Simon Bollivar
Fenced in school yard at La Salle
We started out with a visit to one of the schools in an area called Simon Bollivar, the school is called La Salle a square building that has a courtyard in the center. The entrance to the courtyard had steel bars, again not something we see in North America, and there was a person sitting there monitoring the comings and goings. At the school we were taken to the computer lab where we met several Dominicans who were able to overcome their poor upbringing and are now university students on their way to becoming Doctors, Tourism directors (Tourism is a University program in the D.R, one of their major industries). Also one of the teachers at the La Salle school and he talked to us about the school.
Teacher from La Salle
Students at La Salle
At this point we were given very strict instructions for the next part of our day, which was going down into the Slum of Simon Bollivar. This is a 2Km square area with 70,00 people living there! We were instructed to leave our bags behind and told to take off any jewellery we were wearing, only two people were allowed to bring cameras down into the slum (myself and our male chaperon). We were to move quickly , two by tow, photographers at the back. As we moved there would be our Dominican guides in front, behind, and in between (there was at least 5 this day). It became very obvious, that in the Dominican people with money or better means live on top of the hill, the people who don't, because shit truly goes downhill as we literally went down into the Slum towards the river.

Entering the slums in Simon Bollivar

Garbage - piled up
Our first stop along our trek was at a tiny one room school called San Pedro which was built and supported by one of the other schools in the board I work for. We had the pleasure of delivering a special suitcase from their sponsor school (they had been there a few weeks before us). Inside the suitcase was a big envelope for each of the young children at the school. Each envelope contained a portrait of the child (that had been taken during the last school's visit), a letter and a treat. It was wonderful to see their excitement and joy at receiving framed photos of themselves. We didn't stay too long as they wanted to get us through the slum in the morning.

Entering Esquela San Pedro

Robert unpacking the kid's packages

Happy to receive their portraits
The next stop in Simon Bollivar was a basic clinic for the residents. Here they could get basic first aid (stitches), vaccinations, basic dental work. It was a small building with a main room, small dispensary, dentist room, exam room, and tiny lab.

Nurse at the Clinic

Its hard to really put this all into words at this point...

Going further down into the slums

Houses made from scrap
At this point we truly entered the slum! Slowly we went lower and lower, down the steep valley and towards the river. I just couldn't believe that 70,000 people live here stacked one on top of the other. As we travelled lower you could see homes were not as well built, that people were poorer, the houses were nothing but shacks, made of scraps of wood and corrugated tin. Some of the children had clothes and shoes, some wore barely anything! Some of the faces were just bleak and sad. The contrast was the children running around with smiles and energy (despite being hungry!) shouting "Americanos! Americanos! Me Photo! Me Photo!" Of course I obligingly took their picture, I hope it was a bright point in their day. When I was taking pictures of the children, many of the boys were throwing up gang signs and the middle finger (I refused to take their picture when they were giving the bird), I think that this just shows how prevalent American media and imagery is. Even somewhere that is so poor, there's no television, or computers in the home.

Navigating the riverside
Garbage littered shores
When we got down to the river, the sewage, waste and garbage was going right into the water. When we were going down the stairs, there was "water" running down the steps in places... I'm sure that wasn't water but waste.

Clean Spring Water

After walking along the filthy river we were brought to the most amazing place amongst all this disparity. Right by the river there was a natural spring the water is clean enough to drink! This spring and the river sits side by side, and somehow the river's water has never contaminated this spring. They say that a miracle happened here, that an image of The Virgin Mary appeared in the springs cave. Not only was this a source of safe drinking water, it is always a place for the kids to play. It doesn't matter where you live or what your circumstances are, kids will be kids... who doesn't know a kid who likes to play in the water? It was just so heartening to watch.
At this point it was time to head up, up, up, back out of the slum. What a climb that was, the stairs were so steep! I thought I was in shape, I was so wrong! I met a few interesting people on the way back up. First by the river, there was a man in a boat, piled high with garbage that he had been collecting from the river. I presume that he was going to sell it, to feed his family. Its things like this that show what a lack of education does, I don't think he really had a clue at how dangerous what he was doing is. How many diseases and illnesses he could catch from that water, and that garbage! Next was a woman who was so proud to show me what she had in her bucket, shrimp from the river.
Collecting Garbage

Showing off shrimp from the river
Not only was there sights down there, but smells too. This was the first time since arriving in the DR that I actually smelt human waste. At times, the smell was almost intolerable! To contrast this I could smell the most delicious food cooking! It made my stomach growl, and also made me realize I was nowhere near as hungry as the people we were seeing were. I'm sure some of them barely ate once a day.

Once we were back at La Salle we were asked to share our one mental photo from our walk through the slum. It was interesting to hear about what stood out to each of us. Yes, conditions are very bleak, but we were there treated to the stories of several of the young Dominicans who were with us that day. One of the two girls, grew up in the slum we had just visited, she had managed to get educated beyond elementary school and through high school. Here grades were so good, that she was recommended to Experiantia Dominicana to get financial aid to continue her education. Today, she's a doctor and getting ready to head into her internship. She plans to go back to Simon Bollivar and be a doctor to those who need it. Her story showed us that yes, there is hope!

After our reflection we had lunch in the school yard. It was the same fare as we had during our Batay day... LOL and what we had for breakfast that day ham & cheese sandwiches (have I mentioned we've eaten a lot of Ham & Cheese?)!
One of the oldest cathedrals in the Western world
Inside the Cathedral
The rest of our day was the complete opposite from the morning (and I think it needed to be). We went to see the first Cathedral in the "western world". This end of the world is where Christopher Columbus first landed, they spent quite a bit of time in the D.R. to repair their ships so there are a lot of the Western firsts in the Dominican. It was a gorgeous church! From here we walked around the Colonial area, very old and touristy. We saw the home of the son of Christopher Columbus.
Home of Christopher Columbus's son

Next we went to a market where we learnt to barter the price. This was our chance to buy gifts for our families back home. That was a whirlwind shopping trip, trying to find the right gift for everyone in an hour!

Dinner with an ocean view
Finally, it was time for dinner! We went to a high end resturant right on the ocean. This was not where the tourists went for dinner, but the well to do Dominicans. Prices ranged from 200-700 Pesos for a main course (a far cry from what we had to feed a family of 6 just the other day). I had the Tropical Chicken with rice and beans, with the most delicous juice called Tropical Combination.
After dinner, we loaded in the bus for the long drive back to San Pedro de Macoris.
I'm not sure if I got the whole point of the morning, visiting the slums as I felt I was seeing it through the eye of a photographer, not the human eye.