At the ranch I feel like we were clueless tourists discovering a new place. “Whoaaaa!” we exclaimed as we walked through the gates to see endless lush green mountains right outside our balconies. We didn’t know the country yet, everything was new, and we started to adjust to our new environment. We were surrounded by Spanish and had to communicate in a foreign language. We couldn’t flush paper down the toilet and didn’t have hot showers. We embraced the amazing local cuisine: mangu, pollo guisado, yaniqueques, habichuelas, sancocho, you name it. It felt like being in a different world, and to some extent it was. There we were, 3,200 miles away from home, surrounded by strangers, living a new life. For me, the highlight of our first week in Jarabacoa was the scavenger hunt.
Our Program Leaders took us to town on an open air bus and handed us that paper. “Alright, pair up and you’re free to go do this.” I was scared at first because, I mean, we were in a random city far away from anyone we knew. Motorcycles were zipping around, and I thought I couldn’t speak the language. The first three steps were easy, we could figure them out just by looking around. But, when we got to task four, that’s when we would need to approach locals for directions to Tienda La Cancha. I scanned a crowd leaving church and approached the nicest looking person I could find. It took a little bit to muster up the courage to ask the old lady in Spanish where the store was, but when I did, she smiled, took my arm, walked me to the street, and pointed out where I needed to go. I listened carefully and smiled when I realized that I could understand what she was saying.
It took a little bit to muster up the courage to ask the old lady in Spanish where the store was, but when I did, she smiled, took my arm, walked me to the street, and pointed out where I needed to go. I listened carefully and smiled when I realized that I could understand what she was saying.
I walked across the street and into the store and from that point on, I felt no fear in going up to people and asking them questions. Everyone I asked was happy to help me out and I felt comfortable communicating in Spanish to the people of the city. By the time we got through all 14 steps (Well, 13. We couldn’t figure out the bus times because we thought a lottery ticket booth was a bus stop!), I felt very familiar with the small town and knew that I could get around just fine, if I needed to. As the weeks went on, our cohort became close with one another and caught on to the cultures and customs of the Dominican Republic. Once we got a little comfortable with our new home we were taken to our next challenge.
Our next destination was the small village of Angostura. Our bus took us deep into the mountains and into a lodge in front of a long dirt road. Sutton and I met our host mother, Miguelina, and we walked down the road for 15 minutes to her house. To be completely frank, I was shocked when I saw my new house. At the top of a steep flight of rocky, muddy stairs was a small shack made of wooden boards and a metal sheet for the roof. The room Sutton and I would share was separate from Miguelina’s house. Our room was about 12 x 18 feet wide, had two beds and one outlet. I was super scared at first because I’d never lived anywhere nearly as remote as this. I remember a feeling of nervousness in my chest the first night. I was in a stranger’s home away from any civilization or technology. But my mood quickly changed after dinner. After speaking to her for a little bit, I soon found out that Miguelina was one of the sweetest women I know and her son Deño was quite funny. During the days we worked on an aqueduct project that would bring clean water to the locals. We mixed cement to build a water container, dug a long ditch, and connected the tubing. I’ll be honest I didn’t like doing the work at first. It was tough manual labor and I was not used to sweating outside of sports. “Why am I doing this?” I thought to myself during the first two days of service.
I found the answers to my questions in the people of Angostura. After meeting and talking to the locals and chatting with Miguelina every night, I got to feel really comfortable in Angostura and really enjoyed being around the locals. Seeing the simple ways of life and talking to the masons, as we dug trenches together, helped me find meaning in my work. The aqueduct we were building would give over 150 people access to clean water for a long time. Suddenly, the impact we were making felt way bigger than the energy I expended digging and mixing cement. I looked forward to getting to work because it was a way I could give back to a village that welcomed me with open arms. By the end of the 8 days, I had really gotten to enjoy the simple life. The early morning service, light meals, engaging classes, and calm nights gave me a sense of fulfillment and a sense of appreciation for all I had back home. On our last day, our cohort and the locals got together to connect the new tube to the natural reservoir and we cheered as water flowed out the plastic pipe. Grifo the village leader thanked us for our contributions and showered us with blessings. We all felt a great sense of accomplishment of getting through the week in the mountains together as we watched the crystal clear water flow.
I was bummed to say goodbye to Miguelina (we still text each other!) but excited for our next chapter. We’d gotten through the hardest part, but there was a lot more adventure to come.
The next week we traveled to the capital, Santo Domingo. Here we stayed in a quaint bed and breakfast and enjoyed exploring the busy town. The Colonial Zone was a beautiful place with a rich history.
Throughout the week, we visited NGOs in the morning and continued our classes in the afternoons. It was amazing to learn from people who were passionate about helping others and applying their skills in different situations. One of the standouts was Colectiva Mujer y Salud. Colectiva is a feminist organization fighting towards protecting women’s rights. A big issue in the Dominican Republic is “machismo” culture and femicide. Dominican women are often viewed as objects whose sole purpose is to please a man and raise a family. Women are often not valued and men will murder their spouses when they view them as a burden. Men are not punished for their actions as authorities often turn a blind eye to such crimes. As many as 6 femicides happen per week. The women of Colectiva work to educate and empower women and advocates for their rights. It was jarring to be exposed to such a serious issue that we never see in the U.S. and it was reassuring to see that there are people who are passionate to change their country for the better. Another fascinating NGO was Mudha, a non-profit that fights for the rights of Haitian-born Dominicans. Haitians and Dominicans have historically held misguided tension towards each other. In 2010, the Dominican government declared that people of Haitian descent no longer held the rights of a Dominican citizen. This stripped Haitians of a chance at a decent life. Having no rights or documentation means that Haitians can’t obtain work, education, healthcare, or legal representation. It leaves Haitians living with unimaginably difficult lives with few means towards upward mobility. It’s hard to fathom being trapped in such a helpless cycle. Seeing the problems that the NGOs were facing gave us a better understanding of what we were working towards as we went to our next stop in Juan Dolio.
Weeks 4-6 were spent in Juan Dolio, a beach town in the San Pedro de Marcoris province. Here, we stayed at Rustic Pathway’s beautiful base house. For the first two weeks there, we’d take a bus every morning into the Bateyes-villages originally created as short term settlements inhabited by Haitian sugar cane cutters. I was shocked when we first got to Monte Coca, the Batey in which we’d be helping to build latrines alongside local masons. The people of the village made a living off of cutting sugar cane from dawn to dusk and made only a few dollars for a day’s work. An issue in the bateyes is sanitation. Without somewhere to defecate, people living in the Bateyes often poop in the fields. This leads to sanitation concerns as bacteria can spread very easily through something as simple as a fly landing in feces and then landing in someone’s food. Having latrines around helps to keep the Bateyes sanitary.
Our work was tough. We’d arrive early every morning to move rocks, mix cement, and stack cinderblocks. Our shirts would be drenched by the end of every morning and we’d be ravenously hungry by the time we got back to our home. It was so rewarding. Seeing the progress we made every day as our 20-foot hole rise up into a -dare I say beautiful- latrine made us eager to pour our sweat and effort into the project. By the time we were finished, I felt proud looking at our new latrine and thinking about our sweat that rolled down our heads into the cement we mixed to build it.
But the best part wasn’t even the latrine, it was the connections that we got to build with the people of Monte Coca. Every day during breaks, I’d play baseball with the little kids of the village. Then, when it was time to work, they were eager to help. I’d have a kid on each side of me holding onto the wheelbarrow I was pushing around. When we had to shovel rocks into the wheelbarrow, they’d get out their tiny plastic beach shovels and help with getting those rocks in there. I got to know all of them in the time we spent there and it was awesome being greeted every morning with five little kids yelling “Mateo! Mateo!”. Another highlight was playing basketball with some of the older guys before we had a big lunch with everyone from the community. They prepared a great meal and we all sat together at a long table and asked each other questions about our lives. Everyone was so open and friendly and it was an experience I’ll cherish.
Something about the Bateyes that struck me was how happy everyone seemed despite their circumstances. Dejection and desperation was the first thing that came to my mind when I thought about what life in a Batey would be like, and I was so wrong. Everyone we spoke to was so kind and positive I’d totally forget how tough their lives were. Seeing tears roll down a local health provider’s eyes as she explained the lack of food and proper healthcare that her village dealt with was a jarring reminder of the challenges people in the Bateyes faced and a testament to their strength and resilience.
For our last week in Juan Dolio, we ran health workshops in the different Bateyes. We handed out anti-parasite medicine and multivitamins in addition to measuring and weighing babies so their mothers could check if they were growing properly. In 3 days we were able to help almost 300 people. It didn’t take a lot on our end, but it was really rewarding to be able to help these kind people be a little bit healthier.
Of course, we couldn’t leave before saying a final goodbye to our friends in Monte Coca so we closed off our last day in Juan Dolio with a fiesta. After cake and jugo de chinola, we said our thanks to the village for having us and got to dancing! They showed us how to dance merengue, bachata, and salsa, and we got to look silly trying to keep up. It was an awesome experience that made us feel like a community. I was quite sad to leave such an amazing place.
For our last week in the DR, we went to the beautiful Bayahibe and it was smooth sailing from there. We took a tour of the Saona islands, snorkeled in crystal clear waters, and swam in an amazing cave. The island was your classic tropical paradise. Blue skies, soft sand, amazing marine life. Our tour guides were warm and knowledgeable and told us all about the history of the islands and the mangrove systems. After 6 long weeks, the perfect weather and water were bliss. Of course, it wouldn’t be Verto If we weren’t learning, so we got to visit Fun De Mar, an NGO focused on preserving and cultivating coral reefs. Again, they were super knowledgeable and passionate about what they did and it’s always inspiring to see people doing good simply because it’s the right thing to do.
These last 7 weeks in the Dominican Republic have already been life-changing. We’re learning every day in our classes and seeing the material from our lessons applied first hand in our fieldwork and NGO visits. Being in a totally new environment in a foreign country offers its own set of challenges that we adapt to every day. I already feel like a more confident and independent than I was in September and I’ve seen similar growth in all my peers too. We’re becoming travelers rather than tourists and college students rather than high school grads. It’s been an amazing journey so and we’re only halfway through. I’m going to miss the Dominican Republic but I’m looking forward to learning, growing, and discovering a new culture in Costa Rica. Pura Vida!