Monday, January 14, 2013

¿Qué es esa vaina?

My first introduction to Dominican slang was, well, a greeting – “¿Qué lo que?” This translates roughly to “what that which?” – in other words, it makes no sense whatsoever. It is, in fact, an example of word-cutting, in which either parts of words or entire, lesser, words are omitted from a phrase because they are deemed useless. In this example, the entire “phrase” would be “¿Qué es lo que hay?” (“what is it?” – literally, “what is that which is?”) or “¿Qué es lo que pasa?” (“what is happening?” – literally, “what is that which is happening?”) Evidently, it was decided that these phrases had to be cut down to size, and where better to start than those useless verbs.

There were also some awkward moments early on. Once, I was heartily confused by people asking me "¿Porqué estás tan guapo?" Now, while I do like taking care of myself, I was naturally somewhat confused as to why people were asking me why I was so attractive -- and in a fairly accusatory tone, too. I quickly learned that "guapo" here means "angry", rather than "sexy", as it does in Mexico. Apparently I had been looking a little moody and not greeting people as enthusiastically as I should have. Another odd one was that people continually talked about coger-ing things. They coger buses, taxis, or things off of shelves. This was strange to me, because in the Spanish I had learned, coger was something of a rude word, similar in meaning and cuss level to our F-word. Certainly, no one was fucking a bus here (as far as I could tell). Rather, coger in Dominican Spanish means to catch or retrieve. 

Another popular favourite is the “vaina”. A vaina is the shell of any sort of legume, the kind of thing that you discard to get to the goodness within. It makes sense, then, that in the common parlance a “vaina” is something useless or burdensome. When giving workshops or presentations, I usually track my success or lack thereof by how often the subject matter is referred to as a vaina – which is usually.

¡Que vaina!

Knowing is important in the Dominican Republic. Well, knowing is pretty important anywhere, but whether you are “one who knows” around here determines your place in the social order. “Él que sabe” or “Ella que sabe” (he/she who knows) is the one who gives the orders. Knowing is what separates the movers and shakers from the vaina. “Tú no sabes” is usually used to bar someone from an activity which they are obviously incapable of, such as riding a motorcycle, making a table, or hammering a nail. Any interaction is a transfer of knowledge, and this is codified by the traditional closure of a conversation – “ya tu sabes” (now you know). This is important; because unless you have become “él que sabe”, you’ll never get to do anything fun.

We have, until this point, limited our discussion to the verbal. This leaves out by far the best part of the language, the written word. You see, Spanish as a language has a number of minimal pairs – letters that have interchangeable sounds, essentially. It is minimal pairs that cause confusion in Indian languages between v and w, or in some Asian languages between r and l.

In Spanish, b and v generally have the same sound, although there are some conventions as to when one is used as opposed to the other. The same goes for y, i, and the double-l. In Cibaeño, the dialect that is spoken throughout the Cibao region of the Dominican Republic, r and l are often given the same sound – not only that, but the sound they are given is neither r nor l – but rather y. This also only happens when the r or l falls at the end of a syllable. Finally, the letter s is usually not pronounced when it falls at the end of a word.

Now, this wouldn’t be so confusing usually, since Spanish usually has strict rules on spelling – however, the written word in the Cibao region goes by the rule that if you can use them interchangeably in the spoken word, you should be able to use them interchangeably when writing, too. Let’s see some examples:

Bienvenidos – welcome – can be spelled any of the following ways: Vienvenidos, Bienbenidos, or Vienbenidos (the hotel next to our apartment also has, inexplicably, ‘Biembenidos’)

Bachillerato – high school – could also be spelled vachillerato or bachiyerato

The phrase “se alquila” (for rent) has been spelled in almost every variant imaginable: “se arquila”, “c alquila” “se alkila” and so forth.

"Proibido bajar la silla a la arena"

For a non-native speaker coming to Cibao, the language can be a bit of a rollercoaster ride. The first reaction is usually despair, since whatever language skills you may have possessed before arriving will be of limited use in understanding what people are saying. Next, upon understanding the way Cibaeño is spoken, some newcomers get a little cocky. They realize that their Spanish, refined in university classes and summers abroad in Barcelona, is far more 'advanced' than the common person’s, what with their correct usage of the subjunctive and conditional moods and pronunciation of each and every letter in the correctly-spelled word. These hoity-toity airs, however, are quickly blown away by the blank stares that meet any phrase such as “pudiera darme una cerveza” (would you be able to give me a beer), when the persona was clearly expecting either “dame una” (give me one [beer]) or, better yet, the gesture that indicates a large bottle of Presidente. Finally, one begins to fit in, noticing the s’s slowly dropping away from their words, “¿cómo estás?” gradually becoming “¿cómo e’tá’?” and forgetting that there ever was any difference between an r and an l. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

¡Feliz año nuevo!

Happy New Year, everyone! It is a little hard to believe that so much has happened in the last year. At this time in 2012, I was still in school working on my thesis. I invigilated exams and worked at a coffee shop. Going to the forests of Ontario and New Brunswick was a distant dream, and all I knew about the Dominican Republic was that it was on an island in the Caribbean. 2012 has been really good to me, and I hope to all of you as well!

In my correspondence with people back home, I am still asked, three months in, what exactly it is that I am doing on my internship here. I think that attests to both my poor record in communicating with people while away, as well as my failure to update this blog sufficiently. So, without further ado, here's a little taste of intern life in the Dominican Republic.

Most of our work has been in the area of documenting enda's existing projects in order to promote them to the wider community. Most of the existing documentation is very technical in nature – number of trees planted, areas under management, that kind of thing. Our work has been to promote some of the stories of the people involved in the reforestation project on the Model Forest website. We've also been working on a new design of the website, which we will have online soon. A big part of the website project has been training people to take over the website once we interns leave. This is a bit of a daunting task, since I have been learning this stuff more or less on the fly.

A secondary project for me has been working on an upcoming project that enda will be working on in the forestry sector. A bit of background: the Dominican Republic is in a special situation as far as forestry goes. Given its tropical, humid environment, a variety of valuable, quick-growing tree species are available. However, it is very difficult to obtain permission to harvest wood for lumber. Ever since the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (1931-1961), there have been extremely restrictive laws around the felling of trees – it is sometimes said that a person would be punished more severely for killing a mahogany tree than for killing a person. The result of these laws has been positive on the one hand, since the Dominican Republic has been spared the massive deforestation that has afflicted some of its neighbours, most notably Haiti. However, it has crippled the local lumber industry, to the point that the Dominican Republic imports an immense quantity of wood for construction and furniture making. Since the supply of Dominican wood is so scarce, few sawmills have been able to operate in the country. Those that do mainly sell very basic products, such as untreated, green wood that few customers outside of the countryside would want to buy.

The project that enda has envisioned for the forestry sector is one that works with woodlot owners and small sawmills to upgrade their production – increasing the volume and quality of their product while maintaining a sustainable yield. Recently, I attended the first meeting of the newly-formed wood producer's co-op, and helped put together a funding proposal for some of the initial workshops. In the new year, we should be starting with new meetings and workshops, and working on business plans with some of the companies that are interested. Here, again, the work is a mix of things I am familiar with and things that I had never imagined myself doing, which keeps the work exciting.

As well, the new year should hold some more good old-fashioned environmental monitoring work, on forest plantations and some of the older agroforestry sites. We've put the fieldwork side of things on hold since early November because other projects took priority, so it will be good to get back out there soon!

In any case, that's the kind of thing that I've been doing for the last few months, and will continue into 2013! Once again, the very best to all for the new year!