After a long day of flying, sitting in airports, flight delays, more sitting in airports, flying again, and arriving in Santiago at 1am, our Eco-solutions group finally made it to our first full day of CIEE programming on Monday. The room is buzzing with the plethora of different emotions and sensations emanating from participants, program leaders, and CIEE staff alike: sleepiness, excitement, anxiety, nervousness, perhaps a little bit of apprehension. It’s hot, it’s humid, we’re sweaty, our host families and CIEE staff - Dominican and American alike – are warm and friendly. We. Are. Here.
While most of orientation takes place in an air-conditioned room (a rare luxury, as we are quickly finding out), the most interesting part of day is the City tour of Santiago, led in English by our guide, Oscar. Our small Eco-Solutions piles into a bus where we meet Rafael, our driver for the next 3 weeks. A gregarious man with a grey beard and wide smile, he greets us as his “beautiful people” and as we drive, he flips through the radio channels, pointing out the differences between bachata, merengue, and Dembow (Dominican trap).
Our first stop is the central monument of the city. A large white building sitting atop a hill, it is surrounded by statues of past Dominican leaders and we learn that it houses a museum inside which is unfortunately closed at the time of our visit. From the steps of the monument, we have a magnificent view of the city and the lush green mountains that surround it.
After a quick group photo, we pile back into the bus and make our way to the center of the city. Rafa deftly navigates the busy streets as we pass many colorful buildings, businesses, street vendors selling fruit and cold drinks. We stop on the side of a pedestrian street, decorated on either side by a series of beautiful murals depicting musicians playing merengue, colorful portraits, and a floral mural painted by Oscar himself! One of the mural walls belongs to a building that houses the Casa de Arte (House of Art). An old Victorian house turned museum, the Casa de Arte features paintings by many different Dominican artists representing a range of artistic styles.
After leaving the museum and strolling along the rest of the pedestrian walkway, we pile back into the bus and head to the last stop on our tour: a gated area that houses a number of governmental buildings, including Santiago’s Ministry of Defense. The buildings are laid out in a large rectangle with a small green area in the center which is surrounded by busts of famous Dominican artists, politicians, and military leaders. Oscar has us stop in front of another large mural, this one depicting female Dominican historical figures, including the Mirabal sisters, Mamá Tingó, Anacoana (A Taino indigenous leader predating Colombus’ invasion). He tells us about each one before leading us to the old prison, which was operational from 1905-1907 (?). Local artists now use the building as a workshop and a place to store their materials, and local cats use it as a hangout. After much oo-ing and aw-ing (mostly at the kittens), we finally pile back on the bus, our heads buzzing and full of all the information we took in on our first day.