- The Caribbean, Dominican Republic
- Personal Essay
I wake to the sound of voices now. I used to wake with the roosters and to the sounds of anxious donkeys in the morning. But I wake at dawn, with almost every other human being in the mountains, to begin work and the daily struggle for a better life. I crawl out of my blanket reluctantly, the morning air chilling my skin. By the time I open my door, my boots and machete are strapped on, my water bottle full. In the United States, I usually knew what I was going to do the next day, but in the Dominican Republic, even when I think I have made plans, I always consider the unexpected.
An ordinary day consists of walking around the mountain with my machete and my dog, talking to the farmers and working on my projects. My primary project entails establishing agroforestry plots. These are pieces of land that a farmer uses for growing grow long- or short-term crops, but wishes to use more efficiently. First we measure the land, which is mostly sloped, because of the mountains, and build soil barriers on the contour of the land, or terraces, out of dead material or live plants. Next we diversify the types of trees in the plot by planting various species. Currently, we are experimenting with a type of fruit tree called zapote and macadamia, which have never been grown in these mountains. While the trees are growing, the farmer can grow bananas, beans, or lentils to make use of the land. The goal is to provide an alternative to the traditional slashing and burning for short-term crops.
In addition, I try to encourage the farmers to dedicate certain pieces of land to reforestation. Less than 40 years ago, all of the surrounding mountains were filled with old native pine trees. Today, there are only five original pine trees still remaining. Reforesting is difficult because there are only two rainy seasons a year, and without rain, the young trees will die.
My best days are those in which the community works together, organized days when everyone gathers to work on a single project. The men laugh and joke while they work. It's always the same three topics: politics, food, and women. By noon, the women have prepared the food and everyone puts down his tools to eat rice and beans. They always eat fast, although there is no hurry. They always save room, however, for concon, the burned rice scraped off the bottom of the pot; it is crunchy, salty, and oily, and the Dominicans love it. After lunch, a few try to motivate the others to return to work. If they do return, they stay about two hours and then go home or out to their land to look for green bananas or squash to bring home for their family.
The days are never the same. So much depends on the season. The village is located in the southwestern part of the country, where the air is hot and dry. In the mountains, however, the weather is dramatically different. There are two rainy seasons a year, from April to June, and from September to November. During these seasons, the farmers plant beans, corn, and lentils. These months are busy, full of hard work and muddy boots. The farmers spend their other months picking fruit to sell or waiting for rain. In January, the coffee ripens; in March, grapefruit; in August, avocado.
In the United States, I rarely thought about rain—or sun. My plans were rarely affected by the weather. But here, in the mountains, if there is no rain for weeks, there is no planting, and sometimes, there is simply no work.