Negotiating My Way Through DR Customs
I recently traveled to the Dominican Republic to implement an audio program I helped produce called English for Latin America (ELA). This program uses songs, dramas, games and interactive activities to help teachers teach English in a fun and effective way. We were to spend a week training 185 teachers on how to use ELA, give them the equipment they would need to play it, and send them home to use it in their classroom. But before I could make it to the teacher training workshop, I’d have to make it through customs.
I’ve been escorted by a few men to the back of the Santo Domingo airport, into a large, dimly lit room that looks as if it once was crawling with happy travelers coming and going. Now only a few overweight men and a middle-aged woman stand guard, waiting for someone like me to come through the double doors. My driver, Mauricio, spotted me at the gate and was able to follow me back to this point, although we haven’t done a very good job of understanding each other yet. Nevertheless, it’s comforting to have a local with me. As we enter the main room Mauricio is told he can no longer accompany me and is forced to leave. As he pushes his way through the door he makes one final turn towards me, pointing two times at a widened eye (the universal sign for watch out), and then vanishes. No phone, no internet, nobody… this is about to get interesting.
I’ve spent about thirty minutes letting my eyes wander from the fading yellow walls, to the ants roaming across the desk, to the bolt cutters leaning suspiciously against a chair. Bolt cutters? Really? There’s a large mirror that I can’t help thinking has a man behind it staring at me. The TV in the corner of the room is uncomfortably loud and has terrible reception, a horrific combination. I think they’re trying to get to me. The sign over the door reads “nogocio”. I’m not sure exactly how strong my negotiating skills are in Spanish or what exactly I’m going to have to negotiate for, so I’m shifting around in my chair like a kid at church. The door opens slowly and a woman enters, holding a stack of papers and wearing a numb expression. She sits across from me, folds her legs while pushing her glasses up her nose, and begins speaking in Spanish.
“So tell me, what do you have in your bags?” she says while nestling into her seat as if she expects to make it home for a while.
“Audio equipment to teach English in schools here in the Dominican Republic,” I reply. “About 200 speakers and MP3 players.”
She looks down at her stack of papers, then back to me. “Anything else?”
“No, that’s it,” I assure her.
“Okay, lets take a look.”
The next few hours were spent taking every single item out of my three, 98 pound suitcases. It took me about a week to unbox, organize, and pack all of this equipment, and I cringed as an assembly line of men dumped everything onto an old baggage check conveyor belt. Every item came with a question, and every answer with another. I can’t blame them though, this whole things looked awfully suspicious. The mood in the room became even tenser as a mountain of a man came around the corner and cast his sober shadow over us. This was definitely the man in charge. He had one cloudy eye and the face I imagined Leroy Brown having. He stood there, hardly saying a word, watching me like a dog waiting to be told he can eat. I imagine when they do find something tasty in a bag he gets to take the first bite. But I’m no drug dealer, no smuggler, just a guy with a bunch of speakers. Easyyyy boy.
Eventually every bag had been opened, every item examined, and there was nothing left to do but let me go. They tried to make me pay a fee, but I came prepared with a letter from the Ministry of Education saying I didn’t have to. They tried to take one of the speakers and MP3 players, but I insisted that we had none to spare. They stood there unsatisfied as I piled my three bags back onto the cart and rolled out of the building with a posse of young men hoping to get a tip. Over three hours had passed and it was 6 pm when I saw the Dominican sun for the first time, with an empty stomach and adjusting eyes. What a welcome party.
I finally made it to the teacher training workshop, stuffed my face with pork and rice, and jumped into the mix of showing teachers how to use ELA. Their reaction to it was everything I had hoped for. They were dancing, singing, laughing, and visibly excited to go back to their classroom and use it with their students. They made a Facebook page on the first day to connect with us and eachother, wrote and shared poems about how much they enjoy the program, and one even went home and produced a song about how teaching with it is so much fun. Imagine you spent two years baking a cake and everyone at the party loved it. Now imagine everyone at that party gets to go back home with their own cake and share it with another 30 people. I’m one happy chef.
The Day English for Latin America (ELA) Was Set Free – August 18th, 2014
Today was the first day of school in the Dominican Republic and a very exciting day for my team. Our audio program (English for Latin America) was used in classrooms for the first time today, and will be used throughout the entire school year in 185 schools from all regions of the country. If you averaged 30 students per class, that’s 5500 students learning English using our program every week. The 4000 minutes of audio we produced (100, 40 minute programs) are out there helping students learn and teachers teach. As our VP told me, “today the DR, tomorrow the world.”
Once the work is done, the exploring begins
An afternoon in Santo Domingo:
the whole town throws dominoes down
slapping a table to the offbeat rhythm of competition
we watch from the shade of a fading wall
as kids walk back from somewhere
wearing baseball gloves as hats
dirty streets and clean uniforms
drums echo off the church walls
the preacher takes the stage
screaming a prayer as if ridding himself of a burden
cars race to the horizon
street lines are just suggestions
merengue is a passenger in every vehicle
we crack our presidentes
the clink of company
everyone is playing something
I like my adventures coupled with my achievements, and this is one of the sweetest marriages yet.