It’s hard to sufficiently describe the vast amount of feelings that have
entered and enveloped me since and during my experience in the Dominican
Republic. From Day 1 to the final evening it seemed that everything was
happening all at once yet so far apart from each other. I seemed to have no concept of time or daily progression, and was thus not bound by those daily worries and urgencies. It is tough to look back and fully recollect all the emotions and thoughts that took over and changed me without the smell of fresh Dominican mountainside and smiling villagers to remind me. However, here’s the best I can do.
We started our trip the same way any average person would begin a typical vacation: bus ride across an overcast 407 to a crowded airport. Of course, the atmosphere surrounding our group of 30 odd students and chaperones was more than just relaxed, as any normal acationer would be. There was a buzz of unsettled yet happy conversation coming from my colleagues (who I was at this point still generally unfamiliar with) during our flight south. At this point, I must admit, even I was jittery with excitement.
When our flight landed and we arrived at our destination, we were in awe at our hotel: essentially a palace that was perfect to the last detail. Compared to
any and every resort/hotel I’ve ever stayed at, 5 stars was easily an understatement – until the next day, when I soon realized that the hotel was
meant to suit an American/European tourist, and not in any way indicative of
Dominican culture. But, that is to be expected of any resort, 5 star or not.
After an amazing sunny day at a beautiful beach on the Atlantic, we departed
for our 5 hour bus ride up to San Jose d’Ocoa.
Before I continue, it must be made clear that up until this very point in the
trip, I had experienced nothing truly new or invigorating. I had been on enough vacations and family outings to have been familiar with these experiences. However, it was not until we arrived at the convent that I started feeling different emotions, subtle feelings that I couldn’t quite recognize.
Upon arrival at the convent in Ocoa, we had our first meeting with Mr. John
Labatte. Disappointingly, I never got to formally meet with him or converse
with him over the course of the week. But he is a fantastic gentleman, and
every aspect of him seemed friendly and jovial. Upon exiting our bus, a massive rush of excitement and cheer seemed to spread out upon everybody. I don’t know what it was that changed the mood in our group from tired and exhausted to immediately energetic and rowdy, but my suspicion was that we all felt that we had arrived home. Sure, we obviously haven’t ever been here, but there was just this feeling of safety and comfort surrounding the compound that was just like being cozy in one’s own house, as if the bed that I was sleeping in was my own.
The other thing that seemed to come together as if there was some hidden force within the convent was our group chemistry. People who had never talked to each other in their lives (and wouldn’t ever have, if not for this trip) seemed to be together as if they’d been best friends for years. It was a eautiful thing that I’ve never seen happen so quickly and flawlessly at any event or team that I’ve ever been involved with. From this moment on, we were all friends.
That first night I had my first personal experience with Dominican residents. A child, no more than 12 years old, found our group and the local phone outlet. At this time, I was playing hacky-sack with some of the other group members. Of course, if anyone with any sort of heart sees a 12 year old kid with size way-too-big shoes and jeans that looked like they belonged to a largely built older sibling, you can’t decline a quick game with him! And by quick I mean an hour or so. Sure, he was better than me and most of my group members at hacky-sack, but what struck me most about him was his comfort with these total strangers that he’d never once met. I realize now as I look back, that I wasn’t so much amazed at his skill as to how much he lit up every time I gave him a turn. Of course, I knew as soon as he touched the sack that it was his. I didn’t mind leaving the convent with one less trinket. It’s interesting that something that I had so little regard for made a child light up and hopefully entertain him for a good few days.
The next day came, and the second most heartbreaking moment of the week
occurred. Our group of 32 was split perfectly in half. Our newly built
chemistry was forced into a truck and up the side of a mountain. It was
disheartening, but in the end everything worked out for the best. Shortly after
March 2’s departure, we had our first baseball game with the Dominican
children. Here’s the thing: I am both a player and an umpire in Little League
Baseball. I have seen American teams and Canadian teams play. I have played
with and against both American and Canadian teams. And never once in 9 years of baseball have I seen any human being hit a ball more than 200 feet with an aluminum bat that is the size of his torso and legs combined. Not only have I witnessed this but it came from a kid who in the Dominican is an equivalent of grade 4. Similar to the previous night’s experience, it wasn’t a matter of skill that impressed me (although I had believed it to be at the time), it was their ability to remove all of their worries and poverty and simply have fun. Even as a child, that was never something I could do.
Skip to a day ahead, when we are already up in the beautiful Cruz de Santana.
Every morning we had the privilege of waking up in a cloud, causing a cool,
beautiful, and refreshing start to the day. If I were to attempt to explain
every detail of our week up in the mountain, I would be writing a short novel.
Therefore, here is my summary of the week.
The villagers were absolutely amazing, kind hearted, spiritual, pure, and
beautiful. Even though they had little to nothing, they could share a smile, a
laugh, or a game of baseball at any time, any day. There was never any
complaint about the rough rocks under their bare feet, no complaints that they were hungry or thirsty, nothing about their derelict shack-sized houses –
nothing. It completely humbled me once I understood that these people could be happy with so little and yet I and my colleagues would complain with so much. Until now, I have never understood why third world, impoverished people could be so grateful for their lives. It wasn’t until that trip that I began to see the truth in all of the writings of the bible, the Beatitudes and Jesus’ teachings. I realized that wealth and happiness isn’t a measure of how much material goods one owns.
The villagers had each other. They had their community, the smile on each child and elderly person, waking up each morning to a wonderful cook, the nightly bonfires and get-togethers, the makeshift yet immensely fun baseball games: the wealth of the people in this village came from each other. There was no question, these were extremely happy people because they had more than anyone obsessed with success and money will ever be. It is just like the Zen Buddhists believed: to become enlightened is to let go of everything one owns and see the world as a simple human. These people were enlightened alright, and as a result, we all became enlightened as well.
Finally, I understand the feelings that I felt upon arrival at our convent, and
arrival at our village. Our group experienced true, pure, unshifted happiness
for the first time in our lives. It started as a vacation, and ended as nothing
more than a surreal dream. We left home as colleagues, lived as friends, and
returned as one unit. We didn’t enjoy the trip because it was to a tropical
country in the middle of a chilly March. We don’t remember the experience by the food we ate or the places we slept. It was the amazing people that we met – their perpetual happiness and their beautiful souls – everyone from the
villagers to each other. Sure, we slept in a hut and did our business in a
cement hole. Sure, we were forced to walk 20 minutes up steep and never-ending hills daily. But we didn’t stop smiling. Not once did we complain. It’s just as the bible says: happy are the poor, happy are the meek, and happy are those who hunger for righteousness.
Someone once said that there is no word in the English or Spanish language that could describe this experience. But in 12 years of trying to understand
scriptures, in 4 years of hearing Jesus’ words in church and school, in 2
months of endless reflection on that one, life-changing week, I am inclined to
disagree with that statement. There is one word I can think of that can
describe D.R.E.A.M.S.: it is nothing short of heaven.
D.R.E.A.M.S. the (Dominican Republic Education and Medical Support) is a program in which grade 12 students at St. Mary Catholic Secondary School of Hamelton, Canada. Groups of students go to the mountains of the Dominican Republic to build homes and help in other ways. These witnesses are sent to me from time to time by my friend Don Hall