Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Las Piezas

Three months ago, when people asked me if we were going to bring Olivia to Charles' peace corps campo (village), I always said no.  In my mind it was too remote and too far.  As the weeks turned into months, I started getting more comfortable with the idea and when Charles told me he was heading up for the weekend I made a last second decision to go with Olivia.  I did not have time to share the idea with anyone which was probably a good thing since I could have been easily talked out of it.
Casita de Carlito - 2001 to 2003 Cuerpo de Paz
Every time I visit Las Piezas I am surprised how remote the campo feels, even though it's only a 45-minute drive from the nearby city of Nagua.  Maybe it's because the road is horrible, maybe it's because the communities you pass on the way do not yet have indoor plumbing, whatever the reason - you are always aware that you are visiting a way of life that is far removed from the life we left in Vermont.
Don Juan and Dona Maria's Home

As we climbed the steep mountain road to the campo, many people came out of their houses to welcome us and to gush over the smiling rubia (blonde) in our backseat.  Everyone we saw greeted us with warm handshakes and hugs and blessing of "Que Dios lo bendiga" (god bless you) for Olivia.  By the time we reached Don Juan and Dona Maria's house it was late afternoon and many of the children had started to surround our truck to play with Olivia.  We spent the next 5 hours visiting with families up and down the mountain and offering small regalos (gifts) of chocolate, coffee, and dulces to the families. 
Kerchner Artisan Chocolate tasting in Las Piezas

While visiting with the families we received updates on who had left the campo for the city, who had gotten married, and who was sick or had passed.  In return they all asked about our families in the states and were amused to hear that the scrappy, campo dog that once dug up a pig - is still alive and living in Boston with my in-laws (our dog Piper was raised in Las Piezas before Charles brought her to the US in 2003).
Visiting the families house by house is something I have become accustomed to over the years.  At first, I didn't understand why we had to walk to each one individually, and why we all just could not meet at a general location, but then I started to understand.  It is a courtesy to visit their houses, and they in return offer you something to eat or drink.  While some of the families may have more than others, it is their culture to offer you whatever they have.  I find this to be one of the sweetest gestures.  I've never experienced it anywhere else, even in the capital.  Over the course of 5 hours I had 5 cups of coffee, bread, soup, oranges, lemons, some type of super sweet juice, and habichuelas con dulce (sweet beans - an Easter treat in this country).  Needless to say, we overdid it with the coffee, and I was not a fan of the beans, but it was the hospitality that was so endearing.
After spending the night in nearby Nagua (I wasn't comfortable with Liv staying overnight in the campo - maybe overprotective, but that's me), we went back to Las Piezas the following day for some lunch, dominos, and hanging out under the mango tree.  We also got to see the school that recently installed 2 toilets (with plumbing).  They were so excited to show these to us and it is definitely a sign of progress for the community.  All in all I'm glad I relaxed a bit and was able to show Liv the campo and vice versa.  It was an experience that we will be sure to share with her for years to come, the only sad part is Olivia will only remember the visit in photos since she is so young.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


There are some places that stay with you long after you visit them, the Samana Peninsula located in the northeast part of the Dominican Republic is one of those places.  I first visited Samana in 2006 and have been daydreaming of returning ever since.  Traveling to Samana used to be a difficult and arduous trip, but a small airport and a new road have made the area much more accessible in the past few years.
We have been waiting for a weekend to escape and revisit one of our favorite spots, so once we starting talking with our good friends Matt & Danelle about a non all-inclusive trip to the island, we knew exactly where to bring them.  Samana is definitely a place for adventure and nature lovers, although it is not for all tourists as the area is still relatively undeveloped and not all amenities are available.  After some research, we decided to stay in Las Galeras at the tip of the penisula at Casa Dorado.
Las Galeras was a perfect location for the adventures we had planned for our long weekend.  There are many options for excursions in Samana - diving, snorkeling, deep-sea fishing, hiking, whale watching, boat trips to secluded beaches, etc.  With our 18-month-old in tow we decided to visit beaches, snorkel, hike a waterfall, shop, and eat every chance we could.  For a sleepy little town, we found the food in Las Galeras to be amazing.  Roberto and Catherine (owners of Casa Dorado) were great at recommending places to eat in town.  We ate at Le Tainos, L'Aventura de John, and El Pescador and enjoyed all of the meals.  The best meal by far was at a beach shack on La Playita - although I would recommend ordering your food before you are hungry (it took over an hour), the whole dorado they grilled for us was fantastic.
We started our beach tour at La Playita which is a 10-15 minute walk from Casa Dorado.  The beach is in a little cove and has a dive shop, restaurant, and chairs you can rent for the day.  The beach was very quiet and we were there on a Saturday.  There is a lot of coral reef in the bay which keeps the water calm and shallow which was perfect for Olivia and for a little snorkeling.
Traveling with a toddler can sometimes be a challenge, but luckily our daughter naps well in the car so we try to put Olivia in the car for a little bit if she has missed all of her naps during the day.  Normally this works, but sometimes we end up with her wanting to go to sleep for the night at 6pm instead of 8pm because she is so spent.  We did end up visiting Playa Las Galeras for sunset since we needed her to rest a little bit before dinner downtown and the view did not disappoint.  We drove down the beach road to the tip and found a very tranquil spot to watch the sunset.
Since we only went to Samana for a long weekend, we decided to hike El Limon waterfall and visit Playa Rincon on the same day.  It was definitely an ambitious agenda for the day, but so worth it.  El Limon waterfall is an impressive 100ft waterfall that is accessed on horseback or on foot through local farms.  We decided to hike the waterfall and take turns riding 1 horse up the trail.  The trail itself was beautiful and we passed a smaller waterfall on the way to El Limon.  After about 45 minutes of hiking we reached a spectacular waterfall that was well worth the hike in the hot midday sun.
We ended the day with a stop by one of the most amazing beaches I've ever visited - Playa Rincon.  We stopped by late on a slightly overcast day and found the road to still be in terrible shape, which made me happy because I knew it meant nobody had developed this treasure.  I am sure this place will one day be home to some fancy hotel or resort, but for now it is quiet, unspoiled, and beautiful.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The beginnings of Kerchner Artisan Chocolate

11 years ago I received the following email from Charles:

"Guess what? I got my site assignment today.  I am going to be in a small campo called Las Piezas. It is in the northern mountain range. I do not have electricity, but I do have running water. The community has 65 families and I am the first volunteer to be at the campo. I don´t have too much of an idea about my project assignment, but it has a lot to do with soil conservation and watershed management."

At the time, I remember he was excited about being near a beach, but we had no idea what his journey would lead to.  By the end of his 2-year assignment, his primary project was creating 10 cacao fermenting boxes and helping small-scale cacao farmers receive USDA organic certification.  He also built latrines, installed a community aqueduct and worked on watershed and reforestation projects in the Las Piezas area.


 While I have always loved eating chocolate, I have watched my husband establish a sometimes all-consuming obsession about making chocolate.  I joke with him that most of our friends have hobbies like skiing, or playing golf, but he is more interested in perfecting the taste of his 70% bar and hearing that perfect temper 'snap' than improving his short game.

It comes as no surprise to us that our daughter is becoming a chocolate snob.  She is one of the only toddlers I know that prefers dark chocolate (70-80%) over milk chocolate.  I think it is probably due to the amount of Kerchner Artisan Chocolate I consumed while pregnant, or maybe it is just an acquired taste, but either way, it is amusing to watch.
We recently introduced Olivia to La Red Cooperative.  They were so welcoming as always and made us some delicious hot cocoa with cinnamon when we arrived.

We are excited to think of Kerchner Artisan Chocolate's future in the DR. La Red cooperative where we currently purchase our beans from has benefited from working with many past Peace Corps Volunteers (i.e. Kate Cavallin seen in picture above). Robin Blotnick, son of Joe Blotnick, former Peace Corps Volunteer, has produced an amazing movie of La Red Cooperative - Chocolate Country Trailer.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


I know it seems redundant that we take vacation when we live in the Caribbean, but we honestly work everyday so it was a blast to have both my in-laws and our friends visit Punta Cana over the last couple weeks so we could trade the capital for the beach.  Yes, we still had work to do, but our offices looked like this:

While we did not stay at the all-inclusives, both sets of our visitors stayed at Iberostar (Bavaro & Dominicana) and seemed quite happy.  We were there a lot and enjoyed our experience as well (minus the gate security guards - that place is like Fort Knox).  We stayed in the town of Cortecito in a condo at White Sands & at Hotel Alisios.  Both places suited our needs for the 2 weeks, and we would definitely recommend the condo at White Sands Golf Course to anyone who was headed to the area.  The hotel was fine, and the location was great next to El Cortecito Beach, but the condo offered a lot more space for almost the same price and was walking distance to Iberostar on the beach.
The most amazing part of the trip was getting to spend time with Charles' parents and our friends from the Boston area.  It is such an amazing place to share such beautiful memories.


When I visit the beach I always try to take a walk on the beach first thing in the morning before it is too hot and before the crowds come out.  On the last morning I strapped Olivia onto my back in her Ergo and took a calm walk down the playa.  I had a momentary wave of sadness come over me as I knew we had to check out of the hotel and go home that day, but then I realized - we live here.   So Blessed!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Its all about a bird...

Everyone always assumes we are in the DR because of Kerchner Artisan Chocolate (read more about that here), but the real reason we are here is because of a bird.

This bird -
The Bicknell's Thrush (BITH) winters in the Dominican Republic and Charles is currently working to preserve an ecological corridor in the DR that is very important for its habitat.  Earlier this week Charles and his project partners hiked their soon-to-be acquired Finca Ortega property.  Although speculation was high if they would see a BITH, their mission proved successful.

A next stage of the project will include planting tree species in which BITH can thrive and hopefully help sustain the bird's population.

An added benefit to the project will be our ability to plant Criollo cacao varietals on the property which will one day be used to produce a Finca Ortega bar for Kerchner Artisan Chocolate.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Krispy Kreme & Netflix

I have to admit, I'm feeling spoiled this week.  Since we are heading out on vacation for 10 days soon we decided to spend the past weekend at home in the city.  At first I was not in love with the idea because if I'm not at the beach I feel like I'm missing something, but the weekend turned out great and it was very relaxing to not travel for once.

We decided to venture out and explore some parts of Santo Domingo that we have never visited.  We started at Dominican Fiesta Hotel since we heard they have day passes and a great kiddie pool.
The pool is about 12-18 inches deep and perfect for Olivia.  She had so much fun and slept for 14 hours that night!  We will definitely be visiting this pool a lot in the upcoming months.

I also introduced Charles to one of my favorite pasteleria's in the city.  I've been keeping it all to myself, but I figure that wasn't fair so we stopped by La Cuchara de Madera for some amazing dulces and cappuccinos.  The bakery is right behind Acropolis mall where Olivia and I spend lots of time on hot days since they have indoor play areas.  Both places are about 3-4 blocks from us.  (You can see our apartment building in the picture below, we are the 6-story building on the right.  Acropolis mall is the tallest building in the background.)
Besides that we took some nice walks in our neighborhood.  There is no traffic on Sundays so it is pretty easy to walk around and explore.  The street behind us is normally loud and busy during the week since there is a Montessori school located there, but on the weekend its very quiet during the afternoon.
By the end of the weekend we treated ourselves to little bit of home - Krispy Kreme and streaming season 3 of Madmen on Netflix.  We are quickly learning that Santo Domingo has a lot to offer.  It is a very large city, but with some patience and some research it is becoming a great 'temporary' home for us.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

English or Spanish?

Well just as we thought, Liv is starting to talk more and more each day.  We don't know what language it is yet, but she sure is having a blast.