Submitted by Anna
Last weekend, I met my new hero. Paulina is an amazing French-Canadian woman who used to work in business and travel all around the world. Then, one year, she took a vacation to the Dominican Republic, where she fell in love - both with the country and with the children she met who were living in extreme poverty in the rural areas. She was so moved that, when she got back to Canada, she quit her job and used all of her savings to move to the DR. In the 26 years she has been living here, she has started two schools that reach out to children in rural areas who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford school clothes or textbooks, and she has adopted 22 Dominican and Haitian children, many of whom are now grown up and working as teachers at her schools. She also runs a second-hand store, where she gives away clothes and appliances to people who can't afford them and uses the money she does earn to help the community. In short, she is amazing.
Anyway, we went to her family's house/the site of El Jardín de los Niños, one of the two schools, to help repair and build a mosaic on the walls and benches of the entrance way that were being broken up by plants. It was the first time that many of us had been to the Dominican campo (countryside), so we also had many exciting first-time-in-the-campo experiences. Here are some of the highlights...
The bus ride up to the house was absolutely breathtaking. We drove through the suburbs of Santiago for about 20 minutes before hitting the foothills of the mountains. We then spent an hour climbing up thin roads that wound through tangled forests and dense cassava fields and lone houses with worn jeans drying on clotheslines. Almost the entire time, to one side or the other of our bus, we could see the mountain gently sloping down to a valley or dropping down just a little before swooping back up again to form another peak, standing out against gigantic white puffy clouds and a baby blue sky.
Playing Beach Baseball
The first afternoon we got there, it was too late to start working, so we played a game of baseball with the kids along the sandy bank of the river. It was certainly unlike any game of baseball I'd played before in my life: My team captain was a scrawny ten-year-old wearing nothing but his underwear who liked to jump into the river to cool off between innings. To hit the slightly soggy (tennis) ball, we could choose between an aluminum bat and a large stick. We had to strategically place the bases to avoid running through a pile of cow poop in our bare feet. I got tagged out because an escaped dog dragging a long chain behind him came bolting in front of second base right before I could reach it. It was the most fun game of baseball I've ever played.
Mixing Cement by Hand
To do this, first a few of Paulina's sons and a few of us not-nearly-as-strong girls headed along the gravel path from the house to the river about a quarter of a mile down the mountain. There, we scooped shovels full of sand into old rice sacks, slung them over our shoulders, and lugged them back up the mountain.
Next, we set out buckets where we mixed together three scoops of sand to four scoops of cement powder from huge gray paper bags.
After that came the most difficult part: adding the water. Each scoop of water that we splashed from the big trashcan full of water into our buckets made the cement and sand mixture more dense. I'd nearly fill the bucket with cement and sand and mix them together with no problem, but as soon as I added the water, the bucket would only be half-full and 10 times harder to stir.
The entire family, even by the very high Dominican standards, was extraordinarily warm, welcoming, and friendly. And, while the kids were some of the nicest people I've met in a country full of incredibly kind people, they also spent the entire weekend teasing each other and us in a merciless (but good-natured) way. It was super fun, made me feel right at home, and was a great challenge, Spanish-wise: Not only did I have to listen closely to know when I needed to jump in to defend myself, but I also had to think very quickly about the right verb form to use with each response, or I risked accidentally insulting myself. And, of course, there wasn't a lot of room to make mistakes. When someone blames you after a tile that the two of you had put up falls back down, if you want to defend yourself by insisting that it must have been their fault because you, and not they, are the one who's perfect in every way, you tend to lose the argument pretty quickly if you mispronounce a word.
The food was amazing, especially after being tired and hungry from hauling around buckets of cement all day. It was also some of the most food I've ever seen at once - one afternoon for lunch we had spaghetti that filled a bowl that must have literally been a foot high and two feet in diameter. We also had coconut milk straight from the coconut. To get the coconuts, Paulina's oldest son shimmied up a palm tree as tall as a four-story building and used a machete to cut off coconuts and drop them down to the ground. We ate them that night with the tops cut off so we could first drink the water that was inside them, then use spoons to scoop out the fruit part on the inside of the husk.
Our Sleeping Arrangements
This part was so much fun! Paulina's house is actually more of a complex than a single home - there's a main building, a patio/dining room where we ate all our meals, an outdoor kitchen, a school, a set of bathroom stalls, and three or four little one-room houses that are full of beds for her kids, visiting students, and groups like us. We slept in this huge, open-air patio right above the school, with nothing in it except 13 beds forming a ring along the outside and a few chairs placed between them. As we went to bed, we could feel the breeze and hear all kinds of campo noises - mooing cows, clucking chickens, chirping crickets, a neighbor playing merengue music on a crackly radio. In the mornings, we could feel the dew and look out of our beds to see the beautiful early-morning fog. It was incredible (not least of all because, surprisingly, with just a little bit of bug spray, I avoided getting bit even once)!
Learning to Play Dominican Dominoes
Both nights, by the time we'd finished dinner, it was too dark to keep working. Since the dining room - a huge, open air patio with a gas stove along one wall, a gigantic sink and counter in the middle, and big sturdy tables with benches against the half-walls - was one of the few places with electricity, we spent the rest of both nights playing games there, under the light of dim bulbs, a work lamp clamped to the door, and a hand-powered flashlight. I taught the kids how to play Chinese checkers (and, embarrassingly, immediately lost at it), and they taught me how to play Dominican-style dominoes.
Dominoes is extremely popular here and involves a lot of strategy. Luckily for me, there were more people wanting to play than are technically allowed to, so I ended up sharing a hand of dominoes with one of the teenagers. Through conferring with him over moves, I learned many of the basic techniques (such as getting rid of doubles as soon as possible), and when he got bored and left me on my own, I wasn't doing too terribly. My team just barely lost (in Dominican dominoes, you're on a team with the person across the table from you, and the team that has the most combined wins at the end of a set of games wins the round), but because my teammate, as adorable and charming as he was, was 9-years-old and only won once that round, I think we performed admirably enough.
Swimming in the River
To cool off and get clean after working, we bathed and swam in this river. These pictures don't do it justice - you can't tell, for example, that the water was crystal clear, so you could see your feet resting on smooth tan stones 4 feet below the surface, and that as you lay on your back in it, all you could see were the tops of the tree-and-vine covered hills to each side and the perfectly blue sky with gigantic clouds floating across it. It was also the perfect temperature - cold enough to cool us off after hours in the sun but still perfectly comfortable. There were also all kinds of coves along the bank with big boulders, where the kids would scramble up and jump off, doing perfect (but terrifying) back flips before they hit the water. The river seemed to be a big gathering place for the community - in our visits to it, we ran into tons of kids from nearby families, men getting buckets of water to carry back up to their homes, and several cows grazing by the shores and, in one case, getting into the water to have a drink (thankfully, downstream from us).
Our Finished bench
Actually, as cheesy as it is, in all honesty, seeing the finished bench was one of my least favorite parts of the trip, as it meant we were done with our work and had to head back to Santiago.
And here's all of us in the entrance way...