My last two weeks on the island before the holiday break were a whirlwind. I took advantage of every moment I have left with my friends.
The first week of December was my last week of classes. It was filled with finals, presentations, and essays. Although I turned in a lot of work and took a handful of exams, I have to say this was the most relaxed finals week I have ever experienced.
Thursday the 4th was our Fiesta de Despedida with CIEE and our host families. Before the fiesta we had a group meeting to talk about reverse culture shock. We remeniced about our experiences and what we learned during our time here. This reflection has really changed the way I have looked at my time here. I have cherished every moment since then and have enjoyed reflecting on how much I have grown over the semester. After our meeting our families arrived. We had a great party in a function section of a local restaurant. Of course there were lots of thank-yous and gift exchanges during the party but for the most part lots dancing and laughs. After dinner the host families made their way back home while all of the students in the program and Estudiantes de Apoyo (our friends from the university) danced the night away. We danced in the party hall until it closed at 12; however a handful of us went out to continue the celebration at a club afterward. This party was a great way to kick of the last 2 weeks I we had left together.
On Saturday, I got to help one of my best friends, Riley, get ready for a Dominican wedding. Annie’s host mom, Caridad, and her neighbors helped put together her whole outfit. This wedding was much more formal than we had expected. Riley wore a gorgeous black and white full length dress that was accessorized perfectly, thanks to Caridad. Riley and I left her room all ready to go after doing her hair and makeup. Her host mom had just got back from work and told Riley she wanted to do her hair and makeup. Riley repliied "But I just got ready". We both got a kick out of the experience as her host mom did her make up to look “more sexy” and crafted a beautiful up-do. Although the end product may have been different that Riley expected, she looked stunning. Her host mom was so excited and sung around the house until Riley's boyfriend came to pick her up.
That night I went out to a bar with some of my closest Dominican friends. We ended up having a blast and going to a concert at a nearby club. I originally planned Sunday to be a day of rest and studying however my friends convinced me to come over for a barbeque instead. My exams on Monday actually went really well despite the fact that I did not spend all Sunday studying. It was well worth spending Sunday relaxing with my friends.
Tuesday ended up being filled with some of my favorite memories. My sister presented her thesis in arquetecture that morning. I got to go and support her with my host mom and her friends. I felt so lucky to share the excitement with everyone as Alejandra received an A! My mom’s face was glowing with pride all day. I couldn’t have been more proud of her either. It also warmed my heart to see that my sister wore the earrings my mom had given her when my parents came last month. We had the family and friends come over for lunch after the presentation. The joy of that day filled every nook and cranny of the apartment. After the lunch was over and the guest headed back home the family hung out in the living room. It was nice to see my sister so relaxed again after a long semester of stressful all-nighters and piles of work.
Tuesday night I, along with a handful of other students, went over to one of our professor’s house to make cookies, drink homemade hot chocolate, and chat. We had a blast and one of the students make gluten-free dough so I could eat some of the cookies. It was a nice way to say good-bye to some of my friends in the program. After our get together I went with my friend Valerie to her sister’s dance recital. It was so much fun to watch all the performances and wonderful to see the confidence and love of dance the young women and girls exuded while they were on stage.
Wednesday morning was my last exam. Right after I passed in my exam I went home, packed, and made my way to the South with my friends Riley and Tim. Tim and I had both volunteered with the sustainable development organization Bridges to Community, in Nicaragua, when we were in high school. Since then the organization has expanded to the Dominican Republic and one of the trip leaders Tim had during one of his service trips to Nicaragua is now working in the DR. She invited us to visit her in the South and to join her on a day in the community that Bridges was working with.
We made the long journey down to the providence of San Juan which geographically is really close to Santiago. When looking at a map the two locations are extremely close, however, they are separated by a huge mountain range that does not have any roads through it. So we had to travel southeast to the capital and northwest again to arrive at our destination. After a long day of travel we made it to the small city of San Juan de las Maguanas. Sabrina, the trip leader, met us at the bus station and took us to a local restaurant. I got to try chinchin, a local polenta-like dish that was delicious, creamy, and perfect for a late night dinner. She took us around the city and we got to see a bunch of beautiful parks the were designed by a local artist, most of which had interesting social, political, or cultural themes.
Bright and early the next morning we head out to the community Sabrina works in. On our way we picked up one of her co-workers and stopped at an extremely interesting landmark called El Corral de los Indios. San Juan is the providence that was once home to the post powerful chiefdom of Taino Indians on the island. The landmark we visited was a legendary rock that is located in the very center of the island surrounded by a perfect ring of rocks that are 7 meters aprart and the circle measures 757 meters in circumfrance. Thousands of years ago this, relatively phallic-looking, rock stood straight up and was used for many fertility rituals by the Tainos. Rumor has it that when the Spanish first arrived to the island the rock fell down. Since then the rock has never been erect, not even with the help of a cement foundation. Another eerie rumor is that once, when the rock was moved to be displayed in the Museum of Human History in Santo Domingo, there were seismic storms that did not cease until the rock was returned to its original spot.
I find this legend to be an extremely poignant metaphor in relation to the history of exploitation the violation of the island that began when the Spanish arrived. Not only did the Spanish rape and pillage the Tainos, they extracted the majority of gold from the island and continued to exploit the earth with sugar cane production. The environmental exploitation continues today with the extraction of natural resources through mining and tilling. Moreover, the tourist industry, a huge part of the Dominican Republic’s GDP, pollutes, disrupts, and kills delicate ecosystems while overusing scarce resources. In a way the discovery of the new world has lead to the slow death of the new world through the exploitation of its people and environment.
After stopping at the landmark we drove through beautiful farmland and up windy hillsides to get to the community. We made a quick stop at a market filled with colorful produce and homemade elixirs. Upon arriving at the community we made many stops to chat with local community leaders. Sabrina gave us a tour of the projects that Bridges to Community has worked on such as building more classrooms and schools, constructing latrines, installing environmentally friendly stoves, and creating a collective organic farm to promote biodiversity along the deforested hillside. One project that was in progress was the construction of a youth center. Instead of using cement blocks, Sabrina had the idea to construct it from plastic water bottles filled with sand. Not only does this use less cement but it also repurposes discarded plastic bottles and shows the community how much they consume and throw away.
We had the opportunity to attend community meetings with Sabrina and see what goes on behind the scenes of an organization like Bridges and the challenges organizations face when recreating a development model to function well in a different culture. We had an amazing lunch in the house of one of the community leaders who hosts and cooks for service groups. To say the least, lunch was spectacular. We also met the oldest person in the community who is somewhere between 104 and 108 years old. Although no one remembers when he was born, he remembers an epidemic that took place in 1914. He was still very sharp and extremely kind. I wish I had more time to speak with him.
That evening Riley and I started our journey to Barahona, a small coastal city in the southwest of the country. We had to catch a guaguita and then change gauguitas half way through. On the first leg of the trip we drove through the countryside during sunset. We literally got to see the country through rose-tinted glasses. It was stunning! Everything glowed in the pink light. We arrived at Quince, a crossing point, and waited for the second guaguita for a long time. It starting to get darkre bought come casave and ate that with some peanut butter we bought from a women’s collective we passed along the way. It ended up being a surprisingly satisfying dinner.
We finally caught a packed guaguita just as the night became extremely dark. The bus was so packed that I had to sit on Riley’s lap almost the entire ride. We did make friends with a handful of Dominicans as we were all squeezed in the back of the bus. One of the young women on the bus offered to give us a ride to the hotel we were staying at seeing as it was unsafe to travel as foreigners at night in the city. We were extremely grateful and lucky to have met someone so kind. When we got to our hotel, we settled in and went to sleep within an hour. Unfortunately the hotel was located next to a gallero (a cock fighting club). The roosters started calling at 2am and did not stop all night. I stuffed paper towel in my ears which cut some of the sound. Let's just say we were not very well rested that morning.
Early the next morning Riley and I made our way to San Rafael, a gorgeous beach 30 minutes outside Baraona. The ride there via guagua was breathtaking. The guaguita wove in and out of a jungle passing by small communities perched on the mountainsides with the stunning aquamarine Caribbean Sea twinkling in the morning light. Since there is no formal/ well-functioning postal service, guaguas often function as a local delivery service. It was interesting to see how our driver knew where and when to drop things off. We drove down to see the stunning beach just ahead. We got off the bus and walked down the hill to realized we were the only people on the beach except for the few people working at the fishshacks. It was beyond stunning. Instead of sand, the beach was covered in the smoothest rounded stones you could imagine. Walking along the beach was like getting a foot massage. Although the giant waves made it a little too dangerous for swimming, the mist from the waves cooled us off as we rested on the warm smooth rocks. I had never been at such peace. Unfortunately we could only stay there for the morning since we had a long journey back to Santiago. Although the ride back was long and exhausting, it gave me ample time to reflect on all of what I had seen.
Somehow Riley and I mustered up the energy to go out with our friends for one last time as a group that night. We had a blast and danced the night away. The days up until my departure were lived to the fullest. I was able to support my two best Dominican friends present their thesis, celebrate with them, spend time with my closest American friends and have an absolutely fabulous time. I lived in the present and learned how to appreciate the moment. Although the tear-filled good-byes pulled at my heartstrings, I know that the experiences I shared with my friends here and the depth of our friendships will be something that are going to last a life time.