If only I could loan you my eyes, my ears, my hands, my nose, and my mouth, you could truly share the profound experiences I have had this far. I will do my best with my words and pictures to capture some of the most amazing moments. Where should I begin?
This past weekend a group of CIEE students had the opportunity to embark on a three day work retreat in “el campo”. Friday we arrived in La Solapa, a small town located in the middle of the beautiful countryside. With the support of multiple community organizations we were able to help build a farmacia with the goal to improve the community’s access to health supplies. Solapa is known primarily for its organic cacao production. Yes, organic cocoa. I can’t believe that, before this weekend, I had no idea how my favorite sweet was actually produced, or even what a cocoa tree looked like! Now I have seen first had what it takes to harvest, dry, ferment, and EAT cocoa.
In el campo, a traditional breakfast consists of a FRESH cup of “leche de cocoa” or what you may call hot chocolate milk, bread, and coffee. Hot chocolate I used to conjure of fond memories of cozy fire places, winter, and the holiday season. For some reason, maybe because I am a New Englander, I had a special pride about my relationship with hot cocoa. I must admit, I had no idea what I was talking about.
For breakfast I sipped a mug of hot chocolate milk as if I had never tasted something so delicious in my life. The leche de cacao is warmed in a giant pot over a fire and spiced with fresh cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and of course sugar. I think I died and went to heaven with every sip. The flavors of this weekend are enough to populate a blog for the entire year! I tried so many new things. I ate limón dulce (sweet lime) which tastes like limeade in fruit form and is so basic that it is actually used as eyewash by many of the locals! I gnawed on sugar cane, consumed so many fresh avocados, mandarin oranges, and at least 4 fruits that I don’t know how to translate into English. I ate the gel around cacao seeds that tastes like candy and sun roasted cacao seeds (a true treat for any dark chocolate lover). I also had sancocho, a traditional Dominican stew with chicken, rice, yucca, taro and plantain, for the first time. I am simply going to have to leave the food experience here because I could go on for hours. “Barriga llena, corazón contento.” A full stomach, a happy heart.
We were greeted with open arms and a heartwarming welcome when we arrived at our worksite. We divided into groups and brought our bags to the homes where we would be staying for the next two nights. After changing into work clothes we wasted no time as we took advantage of the daylight, mixing cement to prep the walls for the next day of work.
Before we knew it, it was time for dinner. We were served at a long table a delicious spread of traditional Dominican food; fried cheese, spiced chicken, yucca, plantain, sautéed red onions, salad, rice and habichuelas (red beans). I’ve never seen a group of people eat so quickly and intently.
We continued to chat after dinner and had some great conversations about sustainable development. I cannot emphasize enough how happy I am to be a part of a program that helps me reflect on my experiences and pushes me out of my comfort zone (into my “learning zone”). Although I have kept most of the topics on my blog light, my experiences here have already allowed me to explore so much about race, education, politics, privilege, development, corruption, poverty, fidelity, global citizenship, religion, culture, vulnerability, humility, nationality, language, relationships, awareness and mindfulness. I have already opened my mind to so many new things and I know that there are so many more experiences and learning yet to come.
After dinner, the girls in the community were waiting for us outside. They loved to play with our hair. They were equipped with hair ties, brushed, bows, and smiles. We giggled together the whole time, even when they adopted more aggressive braiding techniques that my scalp was not used to. La Solapa is part of the safest region in the entire country. The sense of community pride and support is evident. After our braiding party, the girls took us by the hand and led us down the road in the pitch dark, laughing as we ran down hills lit up by fireflies. We ended up at a community building where we all sang together and danced. Smiles were contagious and I fell asleep that night grinning to myself, in awe of all the love in one community.
Saturday was a long, tiring, exciting and rewarding day of work. After waking up to the rooster’s calls and a delicious breakfast we divided into groups; some of us, working on the farmacia, and others, creating cacao tree starters at the local nursery. When there was a lull in the afternoon, the kids in the community took us on a hike up one of the mountains. We made our way up with steep countryside to see the most stunning view of the campo. As far as we could see were rolling mountains. No camera can eloquently capture the beauty of the campo and the depth of the experience I have only scratched the surface of.
We had another opportunity to take a hike to see some of the projects done in the past. We hiked up a mountain to see the aqueduct that had been created several years ago. High up the mountain is a natural spring with delicious, sweet water. Much of the water makes its way—via gravity—down a series of pipes that fill the tank and help capture more water for the community to utilize. On our way up the mountain we stopped in a community members’ yard and got to try so many of the delicious fruits grown on his land. Organic farming in the campo is simply utilizing the natural biodiversity. All the trees and plants are intertwined, not only creating a beautiful array of colors and the ideal place to take a snack break, but function as a perfect ecosystem, as it should.
After feasting on another delicious meal and chatting about our day we were invited to a wonderful community party where we danced the night away!
Sunday was another day of hard work but the progress made was so wonderful to see. We were able to cover all the interior walls and half the exterior with stucco, make a bridge to the front of the building, finish the roof, the floor, and some exterior aesthetics. We said a bitter sweet goodbye to the community before we boarded back onto the guagua.
The personal connections that are made across cultures with experiences like this one are something I find so profound. To me, bridging the cultural gap starts with making relationships that foster fond memories and peaceful futures.