What a weekend! We had our first Retiro de Trabajo in Rio Grande Arriba. I had no idea what to expect before we left, and I never could have imagined what we actually experienced. We left Santiago in the afternoon on Friday and were welcomed in Rio Grande about an hour and a half later. Members of the community gathered in the school to greet us and divide us into groups for home stays. I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to the community. Everyone seemed so welcoming and friendly and there really was a feeling of community in the room. They put two to four of us in each home, and before we took a tour of the community we went to our houses to drop our stuff off. The house that I stayed in with two other students was really cute. It was red and it opened up into the living room area. The woman that we stayed with was so sweet. She showed us where we would be sleeping and then made us some coffee. After a few minutes our group walked by and we left to join them for the walking tour. I think that this is when most of us really felt enchanted by el campo. The area was so lush and green. The people that we walked by all gave us a smile or said hello. The air smelled clean, something that you don't experience much in Santiago. When there was a bad smell it was the smell of an animal, not the smell of garbage. We walked up to the site of last semester's project to get an idea of what we would be doing, and by the time we were heading back the sun was starting to go down. This was the best part of the first day for me. The stars and moon were so bright that they cast shadows. I can't even get a view of the sky like that back home. It was really, really incredible. I also saw a firefly for the first time in my life - something that I was maybe a little too excited about. I think the best feeling was walking with two other women and not feeling scared or unsafe. That is something that I really miss from home. Walking at night in the warm air with friends, not worrying about anything. We walked up to a colmado where we ate dinner and chatted until Ryan and José pulled us into a meeting space to have a small conversation before we all headed to sleep. I really appreciated this part of the trip as well. They facilitated two discussions, one each night, that really got me thinking about what it meant to be where I was and to be who I was, and how I can use that to find my place in the world. This wasn't the direct subject of the discussion, but the material that we covered really struck a chord with me and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. These conversations can end up being dry and cheesy, or over-facilitated, but we were able to have a conversation that felt really organic. It was really the perfect way to end the night.
The next day we woke up early to eat breakfast at our home stays and head to the work site. So far this blog post has made this trip seem like a dream, but I have to admit that there were parts that were really difficult. We were building an aquaduct to provide Rio Grande Arriba with easier access to clean water. We were on a beautiful mountain side, but we were doing hard physical labor for a large part of the day, sometimes in the sun. There were parts that were rewarding, but there were also points where it got really frustrating to be a woman trying to do manual labor in a community where that usually just doesn't happen. There were times when I felt like I was just in the way, times when men would skip the women in the procession line to hand heavy things down the hill, and times when the men would make comments about our ability to work. It got to be really frustrating at points, but it did lead to a really interesting and thought provoking discussion that night. I often have to remind myself that I am living in a totally different culture, very unlike the one that I left behind in Portland, Oregon. At times this is hard to understand. This doesn't mean that I have to accept the things that bother me, but it does mean that I have to be open to discussion about them. This did not mean that the day was wasted though! We all worked hard, sucked on lots of cacao, and in the end we went and had a beer with Ryan and some of the people from the community while we chatted and some of us played cards. I was exhausted and slept like a baby that night.
Sunday, the final day, was another early morning. We headed up to the site at about 8:30, and worked until about 1. I felt a lot more useful and a lot more productive, trying to help with a little bit of everything. Despite how sore we all were from the day before, we all worked hard and finally got the aquaduct that we were building finished. There were points when it felt like it would be impossible to finish, but when it was over time felt like it had flown by. We packed up and headed down the hill, sweaty but happy. A few of us got to ride a horse parts of the way down, which I hadn't done since I was much younger. I had a huge smile pasted on my face the whole way down. We returned to our homes, packed up our stuff and headed back to the colmado for sancocho and fresh jugo de guayaba. Most of us weren't ready to go back to Santiago. The sense of community that we felt in el campo was something that is hard to find in a big city. We were all hot and dirty, but it was well worth it to stay where we were. Despite this, we had to say goodbye and climb back in the guagua for our trip home. We have now started another school week in Santiago. My muscles are still a little sore from the work that we did, and right now I am using this as a reminder not to stop thinking about the things that we talked about and thought about this weekend. My hope as I continue on into my week and month is that although in a couple of days the physical reminder will be gone, I will continue to think about this experience and what I want it to mean for me as I continue my journey in Santiago, in the Dominican Republic, and further on into the world.