Third Watsoversary – Santo Domingo, DR

A total of three months have passed since I left home, which means my first quarterly report was due to the Watson Foundation. I’ve decided to share it here, although it may seem repetitive if you’ve read the majority of my other posts. The letter is sprinkled with many little reflections though, and I really enjoyed writing it. Also, I will be writing about my time in Santo Doming later this week!

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My first guagua ride in Santo domingo!

~  ~   ~

Dear Watson Foundation,

I’m writing to you from my porch in Santo Domingo. The power went out just a couple of minutes ago so the tiny breeze from passing cars makes up for the dormant fan inside. I returned last night from a short weekend trip to the city of Constanza with two of my roommates. Constanza is located at quite a high altitude, which meant I was able to enjoy milder temperatures and beautiful mountain views, including a waterfall! To get to Constanza, we took an orange guagua (name for small local buses) that in three hours made its way across small towns and up the mountain to Constanza.

Half an hour before arriving, the guagua stopped to let a woman board. The small car she was on stopped working and let her stranded on the unpaved, uphill road. She took the last empty seat next to me and soon enough we began talking. After asking me what I was doing in the Dominican Republic, I told her I was writing stories about survivors of domestic violence, to which she let out a long sigh and said “Ah, that’s me.”

I’m always amazed by these moments. I know they are experiences we Watson fellows hope for or even count on, but each time they have happened to me they’ve marked my journey in some way. For instance, my initial weeks in Barcelona, my first project country, were very difficult. I unknowingly, arrived a week before all my contact organizations left on vacation. I saw my entire plan dissolve before my eyes on the first week, which aside from being unsettling left me feeling very lonely. I felt disappointed in myself for failing to do simple research and worse, I felt stuck and without direction. I spent a couple of weeks wandering around aimlessly, both literally and emotionally.

And then, random moments like the one that happened on my way to Constanza occurred. There was the time I passed by a community center right as it was about to close for the month and ended up joining the two women who were locking up to a neighborhood protest; that afternoon I understood how Catalan identity and tourism coalesce with immigration in messy and at times, unproductive ways. Or the other time I walked into an empty cultural center and was informed by the housekeeping lady, Yolanda, that most offices were closed but instead of leaving, ended up chatting with her for a while after learning she was an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. And the time I met Paola, a fellow paisana, a Mexican immigrant who worked at the highly rated pie place I found on Yelp and decided to splurge on for breakfast one day.

These experiences, aside from helping me to comfortably detach myself from any and all plans—something very hard for me to do—reaffirmed my desire to listen to women’s stories. Every interview, random conversation, and friendship made all those long afternoons spent inside my apartment, the lonely walks around the city, and the multiple times I was told “to come back in September” worthwhile. What I suppose has become evident, is that experiencing my day-to-day life through the lens of my project means living in extremes sometimes. The lows gnaw at my soul while the highs completely recharge me.

After spending seven weeks in Barcelona, I set off on a month of constant traveling. First I headed to Morocco where I Couchsurfed for the first time. I stayed with a beautiful family who live in Aroui, a city sprinkled with large empty houses owned by Moroccan immigrants living in Europe. On my third day here, I unfortunately got very sick and spent an entire night throwing up, first outside a café we visited and then inside my host’s bathroom. Around 4am, I got really worried that I would get dehydrated, but after two cups of a magical tea brewed by my host’s sister and ten hours of sleep I was restored, sitting at a park bench and eating a burger.

I crossed the infamous Melilla-Nador border on foot, which was a surreal experience for me, and then spent some days inside the Spanish city with another Couchsurfer and his family. The day before departing Melilla, I innocently jumped off a cement block for a picture, which turned out great although my right foot payed for it. When I woke up the next day, I couldn’t put any pressure on my heel and to make matters worse, my departure back to Spain was planned for that day. Somehow, I managed to cross continents on a ferry, take two night buses, and a couple of metro stops until I reached Madrid—all while limping!

As was expected, my foot was puffy and bruised when I arrived so I spent my week in Madrid sitting inside my hostel. I did visit the doctor to make sure nothing was broken, and received some pain medication that facilitated my walking at a two-day Immigrant Women’s conference. I even participated in the opening performance, which was a mix of an interpretive dance with spoken word and singing. I’ll never forget standing with other women and feeling so empowered as we used our bodies to speak out about violence against women. This conference was truly the perfect culmination of my time in Spain, as it smoothly transitioned me to focusing on stories of survivors of intimate partner violence.

Before departing Europe, I spent a week at Taize, a Christian pilgrimage site in France, where I was able to slow down and reflect on my journey. Not only did I experience the peace of Taize prayer, but I also met many young people from Germany working with refugees who shared amazing stories and insights with me.

The words “Try hard. Fail up.” that are written inside my Watson booklet embody what the month of September was for me and I’m very proud of that. I experienced three very challenging but full weeks, where I lived out of a backpack; slept on buses, at an airport, at a hostel, inside a freezing cabin, and at strangers’ homes; I experienced the struggle of language barriers coupled with the kindness of strangers; I was burdened by sickness and injuries but also welcomed and cared for by people who I had just met; I stopped being embarrassed about taking selfies in public; and I learned to both trust and laugh at myself like never before.

I’ve been in Santo Domingo now for three weeks and I’ve afforded myself a lot more time to settle in. In Barcelona, I visited around six organizations my first week and was devising plan B, C, and D by the second. At the end of the day, my plans only got me so far and it was mostly patience and good luck that led to all the wonderful moments I was able to share with women. I would be lying if I said I’ve got the “being patient” thing down or that I haven’t felt disappointed at all these past three weeks when I visit somewhere led me nowhere or when I was too scared of getting lost on a guagua so I stayed home. But I’m slowly getting there.

In fact, today I met with two directors of an organization that work closely with marginalized communities in Santo Domingo to strengthen their political participation and promote organizing that will allow community members themselves to advocate and find solutions to the housing inequalities they face. The organization is hoping to integrate a stronger gender perspective into their work, which is why they have decided to let me work closely with them! I will be visiting the communities they work with and talking to the women who live there. They hope that through my collection of women’s stories, I will be able to better comprehend the oppression faced by the women in the community and help guide the organization on how to more effectively address the needs of the women.

I am beyond excited about this opportunity! It’s always amazing when others affirm what is important to you and when they understand why it’s something worthwhile. I felt that today as I sat in the office of Ciudad Alternativa. It’s also what I felt when I received the Watson back in May.

Thank you for letting me experience all of these moments, for letting me hear all of these stories, and for telling me that it was worthwhile to want to do so.

~Mayra

P.S I rode a guagua and a carrito (7 people car that functions like a bus) all by myself for the first time today!

P.S.S My foot still hurts.

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