Category Archives: Dominican Republic

But Things Just Get so Crazy, Living Life Gets Hard to do

In honor of Naman’s birthday, this is something I wrote about him while I was in Cuba earlier this summer. 

Naman in the Dominican Republic in 2011.
Naman in the Dominican Republic in 2011.

It is inconceivable to me how much harder it is to be here after Naman.  I plan for all the times I will miss him in America.  Graduation, awards ceremonies, memorials, fundraisers, whatever.  But Cuba?  I didn’t expect all of Dominican popular music to follow me here, which I suppose was naïve.

I guess I just didn’t count on it.   I didn’t count on him.

I never thought Havana could surprise me again.  Or at least, I thought it would continue to surprise me in the same sort of ways it always has.  But instead Havana had something new in store: memories of something old.  Of someone who will never grow old.

He was never even here, but now I see him all over the streets of Havana.  I think of him more than the residents of the Real World house, more than last year’s Cuba kids, more than all the Cubans I have left behind.  He’s in the music, the conversations with the people.  The boat rides and palm creations and children’s hand stands.  The silly things the students do, the choppy Spanish and the Harry Potter references.  Accio memories.

I suppose in this way, he will never grow old and will never go away.  He will keep traveling the world as I do, as we all do.  He will show up in Ghana and South Africa, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.  He will be there at every Best Buddies race, and every SEI event.  He will be there whenever I hear Prince Royce, eat a cheap taco, or sing karaoke.

No llorare, no llorare.  No, I won’t shed a tear.  Porque sé, que tu estás junto a mí. 


In October, we lost someone so magnetic that he’s still pulling us together, even in death.  Someone so funny and kind that at his funeral we laughed (almost) as much as we cried.  Someone so good to the core that he was donating as much time and money as he could, without fanfare or pretense.  Someone who is the only person who would know what to say to during all of these raw times.

I met Naman on my trip to the Dominican Republic in May and June of 2011.  He was on my team, Rojo, and immediately became the most distinctive person on the entire trip.  As many have said, everyone felt like he was their best friend on the trip, because he treated everyone like the most important person he had ever met.  As we rumbled in a hot van with too few cracked pleather seats around that wonderful island country, Naman was always there with a song, dance, or imitation to keep our spirits up.  He always took his work seriously, although he never saw it as work.

Everyone grieves in their own way.  But for people like us, people who can’t sleep at night because we can’t stop thinking of injustice in the world, people who are no fun at parties because we keep talking about this great new NGO or social business we just learned about, passive or solitary grief is not for us.  We have to do something, we have to organize, mobilize, and funderize.  We have to do this not just because it’s who we are, but also because it’s who Naman was.

So we have made the Naman Shah Memorial Fund.  The fund will be used to send students like Naman, students who are passionate, smart, kind, and want to do good by being good, back to the Dominican Republic to learn what he learned, and contribute to the organizations, people, and country to which he contributed.  Today, we will be gathering in the Alumni Center of Northeastern to learn about Akshaya Patra from its President and CEO, Ms. Madhu Sridhar.  Akshaya Patra is one of several organizations Naman supported.  They provide free, balanced meals for school children, because no child should struggle in school because they’re distracted by hunger.  We will also have a silent auction, networking, and an opportunity to donate to both Akshaya Patra and the NSM Fund.

While I would love donations, I would also love non-monetary contributions.

I ask for your connections and talents; if you are able to donate anything to our future fundraising endeavors (a gift card or service from your business, for example), it would help us raise more.

I ask for you voice; if you could publicize the event, the fund, or Naman’s life’s message of living every day to its fullest and helping others to do so as well, it will encourage others to give and keep his memory alive.

And I ask for your presence, which is strangely the hardest thing to ask.  Our SEI family has circled the wagons to care for each other and launch this fundraising effort, which sometimes means crying during meetings and other times means pretending I don’t know the person we’re doing this for because that’s the only way to get anything done.  But most of the time it feels like no one in the rest of my life has any idea that I’ve lost someone, or any comprehension of how impossible it feels for that someone to be Naman.  I would love it if you could join me tonight, to learn about a cause he cared for, to hear his family and friends tell his story, and to support this segment of the Northeastern and Boston communities that is still hurting.

For Naman’s sake, I will try to smile.  I will try not to be “so belidge!”  And I will try to do a really good job.  Because that’s all we can do anymore.

Return Traveling

I never meant to be a return traveler. The allure of more and more exotic passport stamps is pretty strong. Almost as strong as the allure of new and different countries. But at this point, I sit firmly in the category of a return traveler. I went to France in 2006 and returned in 2010. I went to Egpyt for six weeks in 2009 and returned for a long weekend in 2011. I went to Cuba in 2010 for three months and returned in 2012 for a month. I went to the Dominican Republic in 2011 and went back six weeks later. I have been to Canada and most of my domestic travel spots countless times.

It makes sense that I’ve become a return traveler. In many other ways, I am not like the typical traveler, or travel blogger. I prefer my stays to last a month at a minimum. I almost always speak the language. I research the history, culture, and politics heavily and before and during my stay. This is just another way of settling myself deeper into the places I go.

One value is that I get to see the changes. Pre- and post-Revolution Egypt look incredibly different, and I loved seeing how the place and people had changed. The progress in Cuba has been amazing, and I’ll be writing about it more later on. With the Republica Domincana, the two trips were close together but that meant everyone remember me. I had the great experience of keeping my promises and seeing Mata during the rainy season we had heard so much about. France is just a second skin, and getting to know that for sure forever erased any doubts I felt when I first visited in a sleep-deprived 16 year old haze.

If return traveling seems like a waste of time, I think it either means the place doesn’t work for you or you have a very different set of travel priorities than I do.  Maybe someday this will change for me, but for now I couldn’t be happier spending my last traces of un-adult life in Cuba, for the second time.  And I can’t wait to make my way back to Egypt, France, the Dominican and Cuba once more.

In the Time of the Butterflies Review

At its heart, In the Time of the Butterflies is a book of historical fiction about the four Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic. They went up against the dictator Trujillo and each woman became a revolutionary in her own way. This all happening in the 1930s-1960, at a time when Haitians had been massacred by the 100,000s and anyone (or the family of anyone) who disagreed with Trujillo was subject to jail time, disappearance, loss of property, torture and even death.


Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. It’s how I learned about Apartheid, China’s One Child Policy, and racial reality in the pre-Civil Rights South. In fact, for a long time I thought writing historical fiction was going to be the small way in which I would attempt to save the world. I know the history and I have seen the movie. But that doesn’t make it any less depressing when the Mirabal sisters die. Well, all but Dede, doomed to be the one who lived. And the husbands all die. And the mother dies. And the father died years ago, likely after-effects of going to prison rather than giving his Minerva to that goat of man.

I love that Alvarez shows these women as women first, even when they couldn’t admit that to themselves. They were sisters and daughters and lovers and mothers and friends. It’s not like they grew up saying how they were going to be martyrs destined for Dominican currency and to be the founding example for the UN’s Day Against Violence Towards Women. They grew up as the Mirabal Sisters, and the capital T in “The” came later. The perspective shifts from one sister to the next throughout time, giving each the time to illuminate the exaggerations and omissions of the others. Each chunk of their lives is separated into sections, and the overall effect is that you miss each sister as soon as you leave her. By the time you get to the stuff that’s already been in the papers, you no longer are unsure how asthmatic baby Maria Teresa could be the bold gun-runner who was tortured in prison after she refused a presidential pardon.

Minerva is the natural heroine, for myself as well as a less argumentative general audience. It isn’t hard to see the opinionated, authority-questioning, boundary-pushing Minerva as a revolutionary. After all, once you ask the president (whom you slapped) for permission to be the first woman in your country in law school, hiding explosives in the garden is no bit thing. But Ms. Alvarez did a rare thing with Minerva: she showed how a brave and boastful woman could be so totally broken and vulnerable inside, without losing an inch of her bravery and old self. I have no doubt that Minerva couldn’t always see it, but it is something powerful to see a powerful woman break down as much as she can without losing herself.

I highly recommend In the Time of the Butterflies to anyone who knows anything (or wishes to know) about Dominican or Caribbean history. Also, I think it is our duty as Americans to learn the bits of history that we collectively lie about to ourselves every night so we can fall asleep. While America is only peripherally referenced in the novel, it’s not hard to realize how we fit into the martyrdom of Las Mirabals. Our inaction jumps off every page, as do the allusions to our eventual occupation of the DR.

PS the film starring Salma Hayek as Minerva is also lovely. I watched it while sick one night in the DR, and I think I freaked out whoever it was who came to check on my and found me crying alone in a dark room with my teddy bear. Sorry!  It’s just a really heartbreaking story, made all the more so by it being more or less true.

A final note on gender: this book has often been expressed to me as being perhaps too focused on women. It was once a requirement for Shaugnessy’s DR trip I took last year, and apparently the discussions of menstruation, marital woes, and motherhood proved too much for some male readers. Under the category of “sorry I’m not sorry,” I don’t think a book about four women, written from their perspective, needs to explain why there are so many women in the book and why they get so many pages. Also, is it actually emphasizing women that much? Or are we just so not used to female protagonists (and especially ones of such complexity and depth who refuse to be reduced to our usual tropes or to being the props of the men in their lives) that we can’t handle good ones? And finally, I think as a whole we have gotten too comfortable with white, attractive, able-bodied men as our blank protagonists, and the concept of blank protagonists in general. If we want worthwhile minds then we need to read challenging literature, and that requires characters, whether real or imagined, that push us beyond our comfort zone. So stop feeling bad for all the men of the world who do not receive nearly enough coverage in history books, news channels, daily conversations and literature, and push yourself to see the value in the lives of these women, even the parts of their lives that are “icky.”

What We Won’t Do Abroad

The last thing to be touched by a foreign hand is the hair.”

Arian, our ACT liaison mentioned this during one of our pre-departure orientation sessions.  While I don’t think this just applies to foreign countries, as many college students prefer to cut their hair back home over break, she certainly has a point.  I know of very few people who have had their hair done while abroad for a semester or less.  A definite exception is the DR spring break and dialogue crews, which included a bunch of people who had their hair done, but not cut.

Nevertheless, few people are willing to get their hair cut abroad.  For some reason, the travelers I know are more likely to get a tattoo or piercing abroad than a hair cut.  Does that seem strange to anyone else?  Of course, a few months after Arian said this, Kathy and I died each other’s hair in the Hotel Metropolitan bathrooms, and a few students had their hair cut.  But it was fewer than 15 of us out of 151, and I feel like an at home dye job is the same no matter where you are in the world, so I don’t really count.

Others have rules about dating abroad.  Some won’t enter into a serious relationship, knowing it will likely fail when they return home, while others won’t even casually date.  Some people won’t date other people on their trips, but locals are fine; most of the time I find that the reverse is the case.

While in third world countries, many have rules about internet usage, and television tends to be vetoed by most travelers regardless of where they are.  While people often fail at their internet bans as soon as they are given the chance, many others refuse.  While in Benin, a friend said it would feel like, “cheating on Africa” to go on the internet to email or use facebook.  Of course, a quick glance in the local internet cafe would argue otherwise, as well as the prevalence of our Beninois counterparts on facebook.

In perhaps the strangest example, several people on our Benin trip would not drink the tap water in Paris.  I’m pro-germ, and Cuba made me incredibly appreciative of clean tap water, so this just confounds me.  It’s a G8 country for crying out loud!  They have a permanent seat on the security council!  The idea that Parisian tap water is somehow drastically different from the water in Boston sort of boggles my mind.

Why do we abstain from certain things while away from home?  Does it make travel feel more “real”?  Are we afraid of the outcome?  Are there things you won’t do abroad that are normal for you at home?

Mata los Indios

This cement housing is typical of bateyes, as it was once used as barracks for sugar cane workers. Now, whole families live in them. This blue section is three separate homes, with a third one not pictured.
This is a playground.
The sweet, quiet girl who came and hung out with me while I was super boring and wrote. She sat on my lap and snuggled up with me for the afternoon. She barely even let me get this picture.
Town Leadership, and a Sister Island Project rep on the left
Ubiquitous trash on the rocky road to Mata
Ninos playing basketball

Apres moi, le deluge

I awoke last week to a facebook update from Angie: Mata is underwater.  Mata is incomunicado.  My reply: come mierda.  Eat shit.  Sort of the Spanish equivalent of the f-bomb.  For Mata los Indios and other bateyes, a flood, even for a short time, can be devastating.  It means the truck with potable water cannot get through, so people go thirsty or get sick from what few water sources they have near their homes.  It means crops die, so what little subsistence farming they have is easily swept away.  It means no new supplies get through, so commerce stops.  For those who did have the money to buy food, the current supply will run out or rot soon enough.IMG_0711

 All that week, I had been working on my project plan, my final paper for the summer 1 classes that I sometimes forget are attached to this trip.  Grades seem like an after thought not because we aren’t learning, but rather because we are so very busy doing it.  We had the option of doing a research paper or some sort of proposal that would concretely help the DR and the populations we saw.  I can easily think of research IMG_0676topics, and love doing that sort of work, but for the first time in my life, a research paper seemed cowardly.  It seems imperative that I at least outline a plan for how to do something, to accomplish some goal toward the alleviation of suffering, even if it is slight.

I don’t know if my proposal is good, or big enough, or business-y enough, and the troop of freshmen who vow to adopt the idea in real life will undoubtedly surpass my goals easily.  But when I think about these faces, think about how muddy the path was in early June, which is just the beginning of the rainy season, it seems like the only option I have is to try.

When we (the capstone class that went to Mata over spring break) first heard about the flooding, we had a collective light bulb moment: build a bridge.  Duh.  How hard can that be?  And if we can’t do it, Engineers Without BIMG_0731orders (EWB) will just get right on it.  Claro.  As so often happens with international aid (because let’s face it, that’s what this is), we weren’t seeing the whole picture.  It isn’t one river that swells and must be forded.  In fact, where that is the case, there already is a bridge.  The problem is that the entire walk, which takes 20 minutes by foot when dry, becomes muddy and flooded.  In June it was taking us about 40 minutes to walk it, and it was even deemed too dangerous for Claire, in that she might slip and fall and agitate her injury.  That must have been so hard for her, to not go back to Mata .  But they were right—we were all slipping, sliding and falling the whole way.  Nonetheless, I probably would have thrown a fit if I were told I couldn’t go back.  In fact, I went every time I could to Mata.