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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

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Drip Diplomacy

The Caribbean, Dominican Republic
Personal Essay

Strange and subtle sometimes are the habits of courtesy. Water is a precious commodity out here in the campo(countryside). So there is a whole culture built around its acquisition and usage. If you go to any store or wait for aguagua (bus), the custom, usually, is to push or shove your way to the front. When it comes to water, at least in my community, the rules are different. I spent the morning collecting water for myself at the communal tap. The samedoñas who elbowed me aside in the colmado (corner store) last night made sure I got my water when it was my turn—first come, first served.

Water is one of the first things you offer a visiting Volunteer, water to drink and to wash off the dusty road. A good host is not stingy with his water, even if he has to go to great effort to get it. A good guest notices how difficult it is to get the water and limits her usage accordingly. Even better, the guest helps replace the water used.

Volunteers from water-poor communities are often quick to notice the lavish habits of Volunteers from water-rich communities. "I can't believe she used three full gallons to take a bath. You'd think she were washing an elephant." On the other hand, Volunteers from waterrich communities are struck by the stinginess of the waterpoor. "He hoarded water like it was gold at Fort Knox, rationing it out drop by drop."

I consider myself a decent host in this area. I keep about 15 gallons in my house almost all the time. Since the average Volunteer uses about three to four gallons a day, that's a pretty good quantity.

I never tire of marveling at the combinations of strength and grace displayed by the women and girls, who carry five gallons on their heads, with a gallon in each hand. My favorite is when they casually turn to chat with a neighbor, blithely ignoring the burden with which they are laden. I once watched a woman gracefully bend down and pluck a peso without spilling a precious drop!

I carry the water on my shoulder. I've assumed that the wide berth the folks give me is not due to unpleasant body odor, but because of the constant splashes that leap forth from my bucket. But I'm improving. Now, people rarely ask me if I've recently gone swimming after I've actually been carrying water. And the water source is one of the best places to catch the latest gossip. I have concluded that chesmes (rumors) are flying due to the occasional, "No me digas!" ("Don't tell me!") and "Adquerosa!" ("Gross!") that escapes from their mouths while they are huddled over the tap.

I suppose that's what I like best about the water collection process. It's one of the places where I fit into the community best. My Spanish is what it is, and I do remain the gringo. Yet, I understand the rules at the tap and even some of the subtleties. The community sees I am on even ground with them and ask no privileges. It is a calm and orderly place. Maybe I will fondly remember the communal tap when I am reaching for the hot water faucet in the shower. And then again...

webkit-text-stroke-width: 0px;background-position:initial initial;background-repeat: initial initial;word-spacing:0px'>Because I took the chance to teach English abroad, I now have many memories—like that of my student Jana, who approached me with a homework question early in my Peace Corps teaching experience. Since she was shy, she asked a classmate to translate her question into English. Over the year, her confidence in her ability to speak English increased dramatically. When I spoke with her just before she returned to school the following year, she told me of her summer travels to Croatia and how proud she was that she had been able to communicate with young people from many countries because she spoke English. Now, long after I have left Levoča, I receive letters from Jana describing her international travels attending conferences all around the world. Sharing my dream of volunteering to teach English in another country has helped her own dreams to become reality. I was proud of myself for taking the chance as a person with a disability to live in another country, teaching English and learning Slovak. Now, I can be proud of Jana for learning a foreign language and traveling the world, too.

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