Thursday May 29, 2014
Imagine giving up bagels for 2 years. If they’re one of your favorite foods, as they are for South Burlington resident Ben Wargo, that might be a challenge. So it made perfect sense while we were sitting in the Burlington Bagel Bakery 2 weeks ago, enveloped in garlic and rye, when he said, “I missed bagels” while volunteering for the Peace Corps. Ben spent 27 months, the average length of time volunteers serve in the corps, in Elias Piña, the poorest province in the Dominican Republic. The nearest bagel was hundreds of miles away. But Ben did not meet with me to discuss bagels; he was there to share how he delivered water to a thirsty community.
In 2011, Ben graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in civil engineering. He joined the Peace Corps because he wanted the opportunity to learn about a culture in a way that he had never before experienced.
The Peace Corps notifies volunteers of their destination and projects only 2 months before they leave. Ben arrived in the Dominican Republic in February 2012, where he attended classes for the first month to learn about the country’s culture. “When you enter someone’s house, or a business, you’re supposed to shake hands with everyone,” he said. He rubbed his shadowed jawline thoughtfully. “I think I’ll start making it a practice to shake everyone’s hand.”
For the next two months, Ben attended technical classes. He was assigned to Appropriate Technology, environmentally sound applications that promote self-sufficiency. For example, Ben mentioned the Universal Nut Sheller – a hand operated machine developed by Jock Brandis in 2002, which shells up to 110 pounds of peanuts per hour. Shelling peanuts for 27 months? “I’m not sure I would have lasted,” Ben said, but “being in the Peace Corps is about being flexible.”
Ben’s positive attitude paid off. At the last minute, he was spared the Sheller, and assigned to design water systems, a project germane to engineering. How did the Peace Corps finance the project? The government provided some support, but Ben obtained most of the funds through a local church. He worked every day designing water systems, surveying the land, and supervising seven local volunteers. But convincing the locals to work on water projects was a challenge. “They have other important things to do,” he said. The locals eke out a living by trading crops – coffee, beans rice, and peas – with Haiti. Since the closest major grocery store is 2 hours away, they also rely on crops to feed their families.
According to Ben, the water system, constructed of eleven hundred yards of tubing, 29 outdoor faucets, and a fifteen thousand liter cement tank, served a community of nearly 170 people. He also supervised the building of a 50-meter gabion, or “big cage” in Italian. A gabion is a retaining wall made of wire boxes and rocks to prevent road erosion.
Volunteers stay with their host families for the first 6 months then move into their own apartment. Some even build their own homes. Ben stayed with his host family. “I wanted to immerse myself in their culture,” he said. His host family did not speak English, so Ben had no choice but to learn Spanish. He also learned to dance the Merengue and Bachata. “I’ve never been much of a dancer,” Ben said. “But to fit in, you had to. Children in the Dominican Republic grow up dancing.” Ben also witnessed cockfights. This blood sport is legal in the Dominican Republic. According to a New York Times article, Dominicans consider it a “symbol of their country’s warrior spirit.”
Even though he knew his bagel-conditioned stomach would not tolerate certain Dominican foods, Ben still ate empanadas and other traditional foods cooked by his host family. “I didn’t want to offend them,” he said. He endured stomach ailments that sent him running to the woods – there was no bathroom in the sun-scorched hut in which he lived. He even stood strong through a bout of Dengue Fever, called “Break-bone fever” for the muscle and joint pain it induces.
Ben endured other inconveniences that many in the US have never experienced. In Elias Piña, electricity is available for only 7 hours a day. When the water started flowing, “people rushed to the buckets,” he said. Imagine young children running across the dry earth for a sip of muddy water. Ben would pour a bucket of water over his head, what the Dominicans call “bucket showers.” But he learned to exercise first to warm up, because the water was so cold. Explaining how only dribbles of water were left in the bucket to wash his hands during the day, Ben put down his coffee, rubbed his palms together, then examined his thickened skin, as if they still held the poverty of Elias Piña.
After finishing his work with the Peace Corps, on May 9 Ben returned to Vermont with a new self-awareness: “I didn’t realize what I was capable of,” he said. His experience increased his confidence. “As long as I have the resources, I now feel as if I can do anything.” Ben also returned with a sense of satisfaction: “It was rewarding to watch children drink clean water,” he said.
As Ben spoke, I envisioned children standing beneath the faucet, their mouths wide open, their bottomless black eyes glistening, catching crystalline water on their parched tongues.
“We don’t think about how much water we use here as much as we should,” Ben said. He came home with an acute awareness beyond the self. “It seems like we have unlimited water.” While people in most areas of the world manage on 3 gallons of water per day, we use 90 per day, mostly to flush toilets. If we keep flushing, we won’t have enough water.
As Ben and I left the bakery, he thanked me for meeting with him. Then we both reached out to shake one another’s hand.
SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor