Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Our Lives are a Bridge, Let’s Build Bridges to Each Other.

It’s so strange to know that I am writing this on my last day here. I can’t believe this semester flew by so fast. This was one of the best experiences of my life and it’s hard to take in the fact that it’s over. We spent two days this weekend at an all-inclusive resort on the north side of the island. The way that our leaders talked about it made me think that I was going to hate it and have a really bad attitude about  the other people staying there and the resort itself. I think because I was expecting to feel that way, I didn’t. I wouldn’t want to stay at a resort like that for a vacation, but I have a feeling that it will be the only down time I will have for a while, so I took it in anyways. People said we might struggle with things like the idea of wasted food, living in excess and general rudeness of people, but I think I expected that so it didn’t get to me when it actually happened. I hope that my attitude will be that good when I get back to the US.

Yesterday night we had some time where we were able to say goodbye to the other members of our team. Before we did it, I thought it was so weird to be saying goodbye to people that I would still be with for two days and people that I hope to see all the time at school next semester. After having that time though, I see the purpose. After having such an incredible experience with a group of people, I think it is important to be intentional about telling them the things you have enjoyed about them or the ways that they have impacted you. I am terrible at goodbyes and I hate them more than anything, but I think having that time will provide a good feeling of closure for me on this part of my experience. It was so great to have a space where I was able to tell people what I love about them and how they’ve affected me. I wasn’t sad about that yet, though I’m sure that time will absolutely come.

Yesterday night we had some time to say goodbye to the other people on our team. At first I thought it would be really weird to say goodbye to everyone two days before we actually left, but it ended up being so good. I think that I was intentional with people in a way that I wouldn’t have been had we not had specific time for it. One of the hardest parts for me about realizing that this experience is over is that I know that I will never be the same again. I will never return to this place and be with the same group of people again ever in my life. I feel so sad about that. I feel like there is going to be a avoid in me when I leave this place because I have been looking forward to this trip for so long, and I have been living it for the past four months. There will be such loss when this is all over.

One of my opinions that has changed dramatically since coming here is my view on poverty. I know I’ve blogged about this before, but I still feel that it has been so important in my experience here. I feel that since I’ve worked in an impoverished neighborhood, and by some standards, lived in poverty myself, that my opinion about poverty was bound to change. Instead of pitying people who live lives with less money, I’ve exchanged that for feelings of compassion. Pity requires an attitude of superiority or judgment and having lived and worked with people in that life has shown me that they are not lacking in so many ways. They still eat, sleep and work just like we do. They have incredible relationships and other things that they experience so much more richly than we do in American culture. The people that I’ve known here who live on much less seem so much happier than a lot of people I know who make significantly more money. There is something so profound in that.

The community of El Callejon has taught me so much about community as well. I’ve realized that we don’t have community in the states like they have here. People here would drop anything to help a friend out. If someone doesn’t get paid until Friday but needs dinner on Wednesday, people open their homes and kitchens to one another. Granted there are some negatives to this kind of community, like everyone knowing your dirt, I still think there is so much to be learned from this community style of living. I hope that when I come home I will incorporate some of these ideas into my friendships and the community that I have at school.

One last thing that I have been thinking a lot about lately especially in light of the fact that I’m going home right before Christmas, is the difference between need and want. I’ve learned a lot about what I actually need to live on while being here, and it is so much less than what we would call “comfortable” in the US. I only actually need two pairs of jeans, or a few pairs of shoes. We are so accustomed to living in excess in the US, even with things like food, electricity and water. Just something to think about..

It’s hard to finish up a blog about an experience as large and influential in my life as this one. I think this will be my last blog on here, at least until I take my next grand adventure. This experience has been one of the best that I have ever experienced in my life. I have learned so much about myself, my family, poverty, community and God. I hope that when I look back, I can see that this was a turning point in my life, that I was forever changed by this experience.

Peace and love from the Dominican Republic for the last time.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Catalyst in this Stagnant Generation.

There have been so many changes in the weddings in El Callejon in the past week. As of right now, none of the three couples are legally married and a new date for the wedding celebrations is yet to be determined. I probably won’t be able to be at the weddings, and I am so disappointed about that. For any of you who want to read the next few paragraphs, I’ll let you know about the messed up governmental system here and the reasons why each of these three couples are having so much trouble getting married. A little bit of information, each couple needs a valid birth certificate and their “cedula” which is an identification card. When they go to sign their marriage license, they need two witnesses to be present to sign with them.

Tona and Cencio are a couple who have been living together as a couple for 18 years. They have four kids and have lived in El Callejon for a long time. To marry them, we needed to get valid birth certificates for each of them, because they can expire. We got Tona’s last week in Santiago, it only cost 6 dollars. Cencio’s birth certificate does not exist, his parents apparently did not register him with the government when he was an infant. We have visited at least 6 different government centers looking for a way to get his birth certificate and we finally found out on Friday that the only way to get a birth certificate for him would be to go to Santo Domingo and have them make him one for the first time. That’s where it stands with them right now.

Kathy and her boyfriend are a young couple who recently moved in together. Kathy is the daughter of Tona and Cencio and she is only seventeen years old. Because she is only 17, she doesn’t yet have her identification card, and she sent away to get one. However, doing this will take 2 months unless she goes to Santo Domingo to get her ID number before they send it to her. Another thing that she will have to do when she has her ID is that she will have to go with Cencio, her father, to Santiago to have him sign a document, approving her marriage as a minor. Kathy is waiting right now and that is where it stands with her and her boyfriend.

The third couple is an older couple named Sila and Jose. They have two grown sons together and have been living as a married couple for over 30 years. They are the couple that is the closest to actually being married. They have all of their paperwork and have done their interview with the lawyer. They went to sign their marriage license on Thursday but their witnesses couldn’t make it so they had others come and the lawyer would not let them sign for the marriage.

This whole experience with these weddings has been so exciting from the start, but there have also been so many let downs and disappointments in the midst of it. I am so excited that there are three couples from the community of El Callejon that desire to follow God’s will and be legally married. Daisy told me recently that two more couples have come to her recently and told her that they are interested in getting married as well. The work that we are doing with these weddings matters and it is making an impact on many people’s lives. We had a talk with one of the leaders at the base today and he encouraged Daisy and Caroline in the work that they are doing in El Callejon and the work with these weddings. It would be so easy for them to get so discouraged because nothing seems to be working out correctly. I think that it is important to remember that we are trying to change a cultural custom, and change that big does not come easily. These couples are living together without being married because that’s what their paretns did before them and it’s also what all of the other couples in the community are doing as well. Many of Dominicans do not understand why it is important to be legally married, and I also understand so well now that many of them don’t want to go through the hassle of getting married. The government here is obviously not interested in helping people be married. It costs 2,500 pesos to get married and only 300 to be divorced. I feel like I have learned so much from this wedding experience, about patience, about perseverance, and about disappointment.

Last night we celebrated my sister Katherine’s wedding. One wedding I was planning on having actually worked out! It was so incredible. It was white and a dark red, the decorations were all so gorgeous. Some of the ladies made fresh wildflower arrangements for each of the tables outside, and they made walls out of palm fronds. It was actually really tropical. While Katherine was walking down the aisle in the church at the ceremony, she had a microphone and seven or eight girls in front of her. As she was talking, she sent each girl to Julio, her husband, with a gift for their marriage. She sent things like love, happiness and her purity to Julio through the girls that walked down the aisle. It was such a beautiful visual of their hopes for marriage. I have so many beautiful pictures of the couple and the decorations, but no time to post them, so ask me if you want to see them J

It was so weird to say goodbye to my family and my friend Amy’s family while at the wedding. There were so many people there and not enough space. It was chaos. We missed out on having dinner and cake, but we were able to visit with a lot of people too. I was kind of glad that our last day was spent doing something, because it would have been awful to have just sat around the house all day waiting to say goodbye. It was difficult saying goodbye knowing that there is a good chance that I will never see those people again, but I also know that I have learned so much from them and have had such an incredible experience with them.

Our last week here will be full of team exercises and debriefing. We are going to stay at an all-inclusive resort on the north side of the island. Going to somewhere really nice where they treat us as tourists is part of letting go of our time here and to help us start thinking about American culture again. I am so excited for our excursion today, we are going to a place called 27 waterfalls, where we will hike and do a number of cliff jumps during the morning. I am looking forward to spending a lot of time with the group this week and just thinking about finishing up this experience well.

It is so difficult coming to the realization that this trip is 4 days from being over. I have been looking forward to it for so long, planning for it, saving for it and now experiencing it. There will be a huge hole in my heart after finishing out this experience. It has been incredible and I have learned so much. I have been so blessed by my time here, I’ve loved every minute of it, well almost every minute. I wouldn’t trade my time here for anything and I would do it again if I had another chance. Being here makes me think about my future. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up doing something like this long term..

Sunday, December 5, 2010

I am Seen, I am Known

Last Saturday, after our Thanksgiving weekend together I went with some friends to Santiago (a big city about an hour away) to just get away and hang out. It was so nice to be with some different people, because even though I love my group so much, I have been with the same 20 or so people for the past three months, so it was nice to have a change. We went to a mall, and it was so strange to be inside a place that felt so American. It wasn’t bad or uncomfortable; it just felt weird to be in a place where everything cost so much money. We went and saw a movie and went bowling, we did so much! It was fun to experience the Dominican with a different, smaller group of people and just be able to do what we wanted, not to follow a schedule or to get home by a certain time. Freedom, I miss that J

Last night, our group had a Christmas party together. Some of my family members will be glad to hear that I watched Holiday Inn and Elf and am planning on watching White Christmas this afternoon at a friend’s hose. I have successfully watched three of my favorite Christmas movies; I just have a couple to go when I get home. We made and decorated sugar cookies, listened to Christmas music, and had Pica Pollo for dinner (which isn’t Christmas-y at all, but it was delicious). I am getting so excited to come home and celebrate Christmas with my family. I can’t wait to get home and smell a Christmas tree, or see the snow (I’ll probably regret that comment really quickly). There is a “Christmas feeling” and I’m starting to have it. I’m also so excited that Christmas will provide a great way for me to see a lot of my family all at once. I’m praying that it won’t be difficult to have to make decisions about which families I have time to see, that’s the hardest thing about the holidays for me. I hope that it works out that everything is spread out enough that I can do it all. We’ll see I guess.

All of last week we worked on getting things ready for the weddings next week. There have been some difficulties that have come up with getting everything together with the marriage licenses. Each individual needs two things to get a marriage license: a birth certificate and their ID card. Some of the couples don’t possess both of these items, because they really have no use for them. We had to go to Santiago one day last week to get two people’s birth certificates because they didn’t have them for themselves. For another couple, the woman is under 18 so she needed to get special permission to get married, and it also cost more money. There have been a lot of legal complications with the couples, and I now have a better understanding of why people don’t get legally married here. It is difficult and expensive. They don’t believe that it is necessary anyways, so I understand why many people don’t bother. By Friday though, many of the problems started fixing themselves, with much work done by Daisy, and it looks like we should be able to have the weddings on schedule next week on Wednesday. I hope that they’re beautiful and that the couples have a wonderful time.

I have been making so much progress on the policy book that I am putting together for the social work center. I don’t remember how much I’ve written about it before, but  Caroline and I are working on a resource book that topically gives some ideas and Bible verses about common problems in El Callejon. Some of our topics are adultery, gossip and parenting. The book isn’t meant to be something that a person can hand out to another as “self-help”, but it’s meant to be a resource to start a conversation and build a relationship. The book itself is almost 85 pages long and it should be an incredible tool for people working at the social work site to have. I will format it before I leave, but in the future, Caroline will also translate all of our work into Spanish so that Daisy and other Spanish speakers can use the resource as well.

I think that one of my biggest fears about leaving here is that I will look back and it will feel like it was all a dream. I want to look back on this experience with clarity, remembering lots of the small details and the little things that made me fall in love with this place. I hope that writing blogs every week and keeping a journal will help me to this end, but I know that it will be different. Because Dominican culture is so far removed from American culture, it’s so different that it will be hard to remember what it feels like to live here. I don’t know what kinds of things that I can do to remember with clarity my time here, but I’m hoping and praying that I will be able to. I don’t want this to be a trip I took once, but an experience that changes me forever, a turning point. I hope that it is.

The next time I write, I will have said goodbye to my family for the last time. I am kind of terrified of this, because it will probably be goodbye forever. I hate goodbyes more than anything, and it will be so much harder knowing that it’s so final. There’s a lot of anxiety for me about leaving too because my family has started to put the pressure on about staying in contact. Katherine and Denise have started asking me about how much I’m going to call them on the phone when I get back, and this week I am going to have to sit down with them and be realistic about the fact that it will not be very often, if at all. The hard thing is that my family had a student live with them last year, and they still talk to that student probably once a month. First of all, I don’t know if I will remember any Spanish by then, and I also can’t afford to call down here. It’s ridiculously expensive to call here. It’s not that I don’t want to stay in touch with my family; I just don’t know if it’s possible. There aren’t really good alternatives to calling either, there is no mail system and they can only get internet at an internet café or something like that. This is just a frustrating thing that I will have to deal with as it comes up, but I am not looking forward to having that conversation.

At this point, with one real week left here, I feel at peace about coming home. I feel like I’m ready and I’ve accomplished all that I felt that I needed to here. We have about 5 days of team time and debriefing here after we move out of our host homes and it will be so hard to say goodbye to everyone in our group. 7 of the 15 people from our group are from other schools, so I know that I won’t be able to see them very much, which is so hard. It’s so strange to think about something like this coming to an end, because it will never be the same again. There will never be the same group of people in the same place ever again in this life, that’s so sad to think about. I’m starting to mourn the fact that this trip is almost over, because I know that I can never truly revisit this experience.

However, I am so excited to come home for other reasons. I finally have all of my Christmas presents ready to bring back to the states. Graham, you were the tricky one, as always. Talking with friends and family and being able to start making plans for when I get home is so exciting. I think that being away for this long and on this type of trip has really strengthened some of my relationships, or at least made me value them so much more. One of the things I have really missed being here is just being able to be with friends who know me well; who I am completely comfortable with. I am looking forward to just being comfortable with the people around me, that and having carpeting under my feet J

This week ahead will be a lot of “last times” for me, but I am looking forward to coming home and reconnecting with everyone. Less than two weeks everyone, prepare yourselves!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Guard Your Heart and Watch the Wind

This week has been incredible as life here always seems to be. I feel so blessed and excited that I am still in the process of making memories, and being intentional about continuing in my relationships has truly paid off. I haven’t checked out yet from being in this place, though it is so exciting to think about going home and being with friends and family for the holidays. I’m kind of afraid that I’m going to look back on this entire experience and it’s going to feel like a dream. I am so far removed from anything normal or familiar; that I feel like when I am back home and comfortable again, that looking back on this experience will seem surreal. Granted, there are absolutely still moments where I have a difficult time believing that this is my life and I really do live in this beautiful place.

This week in El Callejon, we had all of our Christmas parties. They were all so much fun, and it was great to see everyone dressed up with makeup on, looking their best. It’s interesting too to observe the women at the parties. There were some women who were there to genuinely invest their time in celebrating Christmas and their relationships. It was sad to see however that there were a number of women who were clearly there just to receive the gifts that Students International collected for them. Daisy and Caroline tried to compensate for those women who don’t attend class and just come for the parties for special days by making their gifts different or smaller than the other women’s.

All of the parties this week were really bittersweet. Although I’ll be working in El Callejon for two more weeks, we won’t be having any classes with the girls or the women. I’m sure that I’ll see them around town, but it won’t be the same because I won’t have time to spend with them as much. It was so sad to say goodbye to the teenage girls. I saw all of them twice a week for English class so I felt that I was able to build stronger relationships with them than I was with any of the other classes. At the end of our party, two of the girls specifically said thank you to me for spending time with them every week and being a good teacher. They then told me that they want me to come back in January to teach them and two of the girls said that I could stay at their houses if I wanted to. It was so sweet, and incredible to know that even though the girls probably didn’t learn a lot of English, they had a good time and we were able to get to know each other and laugh together.

Starting on Monday, we’ll begin working with the couples in El Callejon that want to get married. We will hold the weddings at the social work center during the week before I leave. Some of our preparations will be giving facials and manicures/pedicures to the women, as well as making decorations for the social work site to make their days more special. As of right now, there are 4 couples that are planning on getting married. If you think of it, if you could pray specifically for two of the couples, that would be great. The girls are under 18 and Daisy was unaware that it would cost significantly more to get a marriage license, as well as a trip to Santo Domingo to get special permission to be married. I hope that this will not discourage the two girls from getting married, because they are so young and it would be so beneficial to them to be in a more committed relationship. I am so looking forward to being a part of this journey with these women. Most of them have so little security and trust in their relationships that the fact that their boyfriends are willing to get married means that they are ready to truly commit to them.

This pattern of moving in with a boyfriend and never getting legally married is a thing that has been going on in El Callejon for a long time, and most of the people don’t see the value in being legally married. Daisy and Caroline’s purpose in starting to host weddings every year is to break this cycle and to help the women especially see the worth in being legally married. It will be more difficult for their men to simply walk out on them and their families, and hopefully the men will think more carefully before cheating, which is also a huge problem that couples face in El Callejon. Their ideas about marriage and relationships are so different from ours in America, it’s interesting to talk to the women and try to understand their perspective. The way I see it, legal marriage insures a sense of security and shows that both people are committed to the relationship. They don’t see it that way here. To many Dominicans, legal marriage is unnecessary and expensive, they don’t understand the deeper implications of being bound legally to another person.

Spending Thanksgiving here was actually not as weird as I thought it would be. During the morning I went to my site leader Caroline’s house and spent the morning with her husband Ryan, and his interns from our group at the microfinance site. We watched the Thanksgiving Day parade, the office, played Settlers of Catan and ate a ton of pizza for lunch. It was a very American morning, so don’t think I missed out because I was here. We went to El Callejon for a party in the afternoon with the teenage girls, but then we went back to Ryan and Caroline’s to hang out some more before dinner. We had the ultimate American dinner here at the base, complete with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, salad, rolls and pumpkin pie. It was incredible! All of the Students International staff was invited to dinner with us as well, so it was fun to talk with them and share the Thanksgiving tradition with the Dominican staff. We had a few minutes to talk with our tables about the things that we are thankful for, and I am amazed at how blessed I am. Being in this situation, it would be ignorant and obnoxious to not realize that, but I am blessed beyond measure in so many more ways than just having this opportunity and experience. We had some coffee to counteract the tryptophan sleepiness, and were able to spend the rest of the night hanging out.

For my day on Black Friday, we drove up to a beach on the north side of the island called Cabarete, which was so nice. It was a little bit touristy, but not nearly as bad as Boca Chica, which we went to during travel week. It was a perfect day to be at the beach, sunny but not too hot with a little bit of wind. I found peace in knowing that while many people were out in the cold shopping like maniacs to get the best deals for Christmas, I was sitting on a beach chair relaxing and enjoying the incredible people that I am here with. I definitely had one of those surreal moments where I couldn’t believe that I was there.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Bible verse in Romans 12:18, which says “So far as it depends on me, live at peace with everyone”. Thinking about what this means in my life is really convicting, because it means that I need to do my part to resolve conflicts. I need learn to do the best thing in all of my relationships, laying aside my pride or my hurt feelings, which can be really hard. It’s so convicting in light of certain conflicts during this trip. It’s encouraging though because I know that I can only be held accountable for my part of a relationship. It takes two people to make a conflict, and I know that I can only be in control of my actions and beyond that is not my fault because I cannot change it. I don’t think that this is asking me to allow people to walk all over me or to not voice my opinion when I’m upset, I think it’s just saying that I need to be mindful of doing the right thing in all of my relationships, even when it’s really hard sometimes, just a thought.

As always, I’m so looking forward to seeing everyone when I get home in less than three weeks!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Some Things Only Shine With Time..

I’ve recently come to the realization that I have less than four weeks left here. Coming with that idea is a grand mix of excitement and mourning, but I’m trying not to think about it too much because I don’t want to take away from what time I have left here. There have been three sunny days this week, which is apparently a miracle here. For some reason, we’ve had a really cloudy fall here; everyone who lives here is saying that it’s not common to have this much rain and so many cloudy days. It just makes me more grateful for the days that we do have sun; it’s so encouraging to feel the sun on my face.

Something that has given me great joy while being here has been teaching my Dominican mom, Denise how to say certain phrases in English. My sister, Katherine, is almost finished with her yearlong English class, so Denise always asks Kara and I how to tell Katherine to do things in English. She always wants to be reminded how to say “wash the dishes”, which ends up sounding like “wach da diches”. My personal favorite is when she says “Katherine, pay attention to me”. She always points with one finger and squints her eyes to look really mean, but she says “Kafreene, pen ten ten chu me”. I have spent so many nights laughing with her about her attempts to speak English, and we have plans for this Sunday to make videos of her English. I’ve tried to get her to let me record her before, but she refuses to do it until her hair is done, and she has makeup on and nice clothes. Love her J

I have had to keep myself in check this week about thinking about leaving. I’m realizing that something that I do when I know that relationships are going to come to an end is that i begin to pull away before I leave to make leaving easier and less painful. That is such an awful way to end such a beautiful semester. I have been reminding myself to be intentional with my family, with spending time with them and enjoying them while I can. I think that my pulling away is a defense mechanism that makes things hurt less when I have to leave, but it’s so unfair to my family and friends that I have made here. It has become a daily decision to spend time with people and keep making sure that I’m pouring into my relationships here as much as I can.

For a long weekend this weekend there are a group of Bethel and Taylor University professors here to check out what the program down here looks like for the semester students. Last night we had dinner with one of them at Paula’s house. It’s interesting to see the way that the teachers interact with Dominicans, because life and customs here have become so comfortable to us. It’s also interesting to see how they have interacted with our families as many of them don’t speak Spanish. It’s such a different experience because they can’t communicate and speak in order to build relationships, which is such a huge part of Dominican culture.

Last week I was able to find time with two of the teenage girls in my English class, Annerys and Patricia, to just talk to them about themselves. It was such a great time! Because we’re always in class and working on projects, I feel that we don’t get that much time to just sit and talk to each other. I was able to ask them about their families, school and their dreams. Annerys wants to be a singer/actress/model and Patricia wants to be an actress. It’s so sweet to hear about their dreams and how they plan on getting there. It was so nice to be able to talk to them without an agenda or a lesson behind it, just talking like friends.

Something that I’ve been thinking about as we’re preparing for Christmas parties in El Callejon next week is the idea of giving gifts. I’m only talking about it specifically in this context, because I think it’s a really different scenario. It’s hard to give gifts that the people know are from Americans, because there is such a stereotype that all Americans are rich, so I think the gifts are more expected than they are appreciated. We talked a lot before we came here about we, as Americans and part of their stereotype, need to be careful of how we give to people and the ways that we use our money in front of people who don’t have much. All of the gifts that we are giving to the 100 plus women and girls that come to class every week are the result of donations from America throughout the year, which is incredible. On Friday Caroline and I put together so many gift bags with toothbrushes, toothpaste and then a bunch of smaller age-appropriate gifts. It’s been a hard stereotype for me, as well as the long-term missionaries to overcome that we all have money, though it’s cool that people are starting to understand that we’re not here to give them material things, but rather to build relationships with them and spend time with them. Those are the kinds of gifts that we have brought to give; I am giving myself to these beautiful women, not just things bought on clearance in a store in the states.

Kind of following that, we read a book before we came here about how a lot of short term missions can actually be harmful to people rather than helpful. When a group of people go to a poor community for a week or two weeks, they do some good, but sometimes it can teach people learned helplessness, that if they let things go long enough, that eventually someone will come in and do it for them. Something that we have talked about a lot here with our ministry is that we should never do something for an individual that he or she could do for themselves. Think about that. We shouldn’t hand out money to someone who is able-bodied and capable of finding a job and providing for himself. That’s a hard thing for me to reconcile with when I see dirty children and clothes little better than rags. A much more valuable and lasting way to live is to pour into relationships with people, “teaching a man to fish”. This goes back to my idea that there is a poverty here of spirit that is much more pressing than a material poverty. There are deeper roots to material poverty, and throwing money or materials at people does not solve the problem over the long-term. Sorry if none of this makes sense, just some thoughts I’m having about whether or not I’m actually making any impact here.

On a closing note, if any of you were wondering, I have absolutely no regrets about climbing El Mogote last week, and I’m so glad that I pushed myself so hard to do something that i never thought would be physically possible for me. Now that the soreness is gone, I can really appreciate this view and look back at what an incredible experience it was:

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Hear Me Willow and Weep for Me

Hello world! These past few days have been so full and so incredible. I am still in awe of the fact that I live her e and I have a life here. I have been making so many more relationships with the people who live in El Callejon, there are always women greeting me by name and wanting to talk to me as I walk through town every day. It’s such an incredible feeling to be a part of something in this way and to be recognized by name, not just as the American who works with Daisy.
Next week is my last week of regular classes with the women at the social work site. I am excited to tackle next week and then have four days of Christmas parties with all of the classes. After that we’ll have two weeks to prepare for the weddings in El Callejon, which I am so excited about. Daisy and Caroline have been meeting with a number of couples about their interest in becoming legally married. It’s such a privilege for me to be able to see all of these different times at the social work center. I get to see their regular classes and be a part of their normal routine, but I also get to contribute to something really special in their community. I feel like it’s such an honor that I get to be here during this time.
For some reason, all of our classes this week were really crazy. I don’t know if the women are realizing that we’re getting close to the end of the year, but they were nuts! We started a new project with the women, a Christmas decorative pillow, and I think that all of the other classes might be kind of jealous of it, which is probably some of the problem. It’s so great to see the women get really excited about something that we are doing. This project is also a lot simpler than the ones that we have been working on finishing, so I am a little relieved for that.  
As I think some of you know, the girl that I was working with named Rachel had to return home to the United States a few weeks early because of some medical problems. It has been such a different experience at my ministry site without her. I miss her dearly; it’s hard sometimes to know that I’m the only one there and that I don’t have another American to share my experience with. It’s been hard having her gone too, because for a lot of reasons, she was my sanity. It’s definitely been an adjustment going from expecting to be with a friend all semester to doing more things on my own. Daisy and Caroline have been so incredible with working with me and lessening the load of things that I do each week. I am so blessed to be surrounded by such incredible women who are committed into pouring into me as much as I am committed to pouring out to the women here.
Something that I’ve been thinking and praying about for when I get home is finding a church to go to. I’ve struggled for the past three or more years about finding a church that I like. I’ve been kind of disillusioned with church, church can be such a judgmental legalistic place, and I think I’ve been running from that judgment instead of honestly seeking a place where I can be comfortable. Another thought that I’ve been having is finding a way to serve my community weekly. I think that when I get back to school, I want to find a soup kitchen, homeless shelter or tutoring center where I can volunteer once a week. While I am at school, it is so easy to get caught up in my own life and my homework and grades and forget that there is a whole big world out there. It’s so easy to live in my safe little dorm room on my safe college campus and forget that I live in a community where people are hurting and don’t have places to sleep, food to eat, or parents or siblings to help them with their homework. Being in a country where there is so much need has opened my eyes to how selfish I can be when I am at school. Going to school is a great thing, don’t get me wrong. But I feel like I am called to so much more than that, and after having had this experience and living in the conditions that I have, I don’t think that I can go back to being so selfish. These are just some thoughts about changes that I think I need to make when I get back.
I’ve realized in the last few days that we really only have four full weeks left here. There are so many emotions that come with that idea. The one that hit me hard today is that I only have four weeks to finish all of the homework that I have, so that is why I’m alone at the base today, locked up in a room working hard. It’s so strange to know that this experience will come to an end, I have gotten so used to being here. The day that I have to say goodbye to this place will be a sad one, but I find joy in knowing that I will go home and be surrounded by people that love me so much. I’m so excited to see all of you!
One really fun thing that I did this week is that I climbed a mountain yesterday, literally. It is the highest peak near Jarabacoa, though I don’t know how many feet exactly. It took us 2 ½ hours to climb up and 2 ½ hours to climb down. It was muddy both ways, and I’m pretty sure I slid most of the way down instead of hiking it. I think it was the most physically demanding thing that I’ve done in a really long time, maybe because it was over such a long period of time. I climbed on Saturday, and as I write this on Sunday, most of the muscles in my body are sore. I hit my knee pretty hard on a rock so it’s a little swollen and bruised, but otherwise I made it. Overall, it was incredible! There is definitely a new meaning for me in the phrase “mountaintop experience”, because it was such hard work, but totally worth it in the end. I’ll probably have even better feelings about it when my body stops hurting every time I take a deep breath. At the top, I had another one of those moments where I couldn’t believe that I’m here and these are the kinds of things that I get to do on the weekends, I’m so blessed! 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

This time I hope it's different. This time I hope I change.

Well I’m sure that all of you have been worried sick about the tropical storm that is in our area. J You shouldn’t. It’s been rainy all week, but we didn’t really catch any other weather from the storm besides that. It was kind of interesting thought that all of the public schools and many of the private schools were cancelled on Friday, because that was the day that the hurricane was closest to us. I think that hurricane days are a lot like snow days in the Midwest. I do however think that Dominicans view rain as a legitimate reason to not to go school, to work or to meetings. Dominicans hate rain, being wet, and ruining their hair, so they just don’t go out when it’s raining. It’s so different from the US, where we go to work or school every day, rain or shine because we committed to being there.

Everything has been so wet the past week because of all the rain that we have gotten. In late summer it rained fairly often, but it would just be an afternoon shower with sun most of the rest of the day. It has been overcast here for days; I’ll give credit to the hurricane for that one. Our Dominican mom did laundry for us on Monday and it took until Thursday to dry because of the rain and the humidity. It was the first time that Kara and I had to wait so long for our laundry to be done, but I think during the rainy seasons here that’s just a fact of life here. I guess I’ll have to learn to ration my underwear better next week when she does laundry. I’m realizing that any time I feel homesick it’s for the comforts of American life. I’m not trying to say that I don’t miss my family and friends, but the things I miss are simple. I miss heated dryers that shrink my clothes that are getting to big, and I miss the convenience of driving or transportation that we have in the states. I miss my cell phone and being able to get ahold of people instead of making plans a week in advance and hoping the other person remembers. It’s an adjustment here to not have small comforts like that, and I’m at the point where I’m feeling a little bit exhausted by it.

On a much more positive note, on Thursday night this week Kara and I went out with the boys from the microfinance site to celebrate our victory dinner for winning the photo scavenger hunt last week. It was so fun to be able to eat American food and hang out with friends. We played games at Ryan and Caroline’s house, the husband and wife couple who are the leaders of our two sites. Ryan taught Kara and I how to play Settlers of Catan, and though it’s been said that that’s a “boy’s game”, I’m a huge fan of it. We also watched a few episodes of the office after we had dinner, which was straight up food for my soul.

This week I worked on an article that I am sending to be in Bethel’s Semester Abroad/Task Force newsletter. I was asked to write a one page article on some aspect of the Dominican Republic or my experience here that has changed or affected me. Wow, talk about vague. It was really difficult to try to sum up my experience in one page or to choose just one thing to talk about to give an honest representation of my experience here. It’s something that I need to start thinking about because I know that every person that I talk to when I get home won’t want to hear about each and every experience that I had here. We’ve talked before about having a 2 minute summary of my trip, a 10 minute summary and a 30 minute summary, and I don’t know how to come up with any of those time frames. It’s so hard to think about summing up my trip with any amount of time, but to try to put it into one page or two minutes is kind of overwhelming. Yikes!

This week has been kind of a long week. It’s been a focus of mine to try to find some ways to relax and release stress. On Sunday I went with a group of people to play ultimate Frisbee and that was an awesome way to release stress. It’s nice to meet different people and just change up my routine. I spent the night again with my friends who graduated from Bethel and are now teachers at one of the schools here. It’s so great to just be able to sit and talk with people and share about our lives her e and our experiences. Another way that I have been focusing on relaxing is making sure that I find time to be quite and ready my Bible each morning. My favorite place to do that is on our front porch at home, because I get to see the new morning sun and smell the fresh mountain air. It’s so still in the mornings and it’s been great to just have that time to be still and relax.  I’m learning a lot about what it means to really relax; I think that’s something that culturally, America is bad at. When we have time off we want to do something, to be with friends or go somewhere. But I think there’s so much value in just having a conversation with someone else, or reading a book in a quiet place to just calm your mind. Hopefully this philosophy will come home with me when I reenter college life J

On Tuesday night of this week, Daisy and Caroline started having weekly meetings for the couples in El Callejon who are interested in getting married this winter. They said that about 6 couples went, but that there are probably more who didn’t come because of the rain (there’s that excuse again). Last year they had about 10 couples who were interested, and three of them ended up getting married. I’m excited to see what this year’s weddings have in store for us, I don’t know exactly what to expect but I am so excited to be a part of something so beautiful.

This past week has been a great time for building stronger relationships with our site leaders, Daisy and Caroline. I’m learning more and more about what their hearts really are for El Callejon and the women living there. Daisy has this wonderful way of asking great questions that make me think so much more deeply about the women, about poverty, about change in general. This experience would be great without questions like that, but they cause me to form my own opinions about what’s going on in the community and what work the social work is actually doing there.

Another thing that has been a really great learning experience is leading Bible studies in Spanish and teaching English classes. We lead Bible study for two groups of young girls and two groups of teenage girls. It honestly wouldn’t be that bad except that I’ve never led a Bible study before and I’ve definitely never done so in Spanish. We have talked a lot about “heart languages” and the way that your first language is your heart language because it is what you know best. With that first language you can best express yourself and talk about your feelings and what is deepest within you. Trying to connect with people in this way while speaking a language that I am only just learning is a daunting task. It’s been interesting to try to express myself and share my heart with these girls while trying to do so in broken Spanish and incorrect words. It’s definitely been a stretching experience!

This week has been kind of a long, hard week, but I think it’s just part of this process. I never expected this to be easy, and I never expected to feel great all the time. I’m not saying that I hated this week; I just think that this was a week of growth where I was stretched in a number of ways that were uncomfortable. I am grateful for this struggle because I know that the hard times are when I grow the most, I am so looking forward to coming home as a changed person, hopefully all or most of that change will be for the better.

This is the waterfall that we went to last weekend, so gorgeous :)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

i need your sun to dry up the rain.

It’s been so great to be moved back in with my Dominican family. I was a little bit anxious about moving back in with my family, because I knew that it would be an adjustment again to go from living at the base all the time with running water and always having electricity, to moving back to the “campo”, or country where such basic things cannot always be counted on. My readjustment was significantly easier than I thought it would be. It felt in a way like I was just coming home, or back to a place that I was already comfortable being myself in. I’m so glad that I didn’t have to change homes in the middle of the semester, because it would have been so stressful to have to adjust to a new family at that time, but I love my Dominican family and I can see that I have been placed perfectly with them. I love that my siblings are my age and that we don’t have any crazy kids running around all the time, only on the weekends. J My house is a very peaceful place and I’m learning to love that so much. I am so looking forward to reading more this part of my semester, and I can’t wait to learn to relax even more.

Yesterday marked the last day of my first week at my ministry site. I work in a very poor community called El Callejon, which literally means an alley. There are about 400 – 500 people (which is about 120 families) that live there without permits. They are squatters who have constructed their houses out of boards, tin and whatever other materials that they could come up with. The level of poverty is pretty high there, similar to what I was picturing in my head when I decided to go to a third world country. The level of cleanliness and respect for one’s property is pretty low, though the level of relationship and connectedness within the community is so incredibly strong. I am working each day at a women’s social work site, where we meet with women and girls and have Bible studies, and then spend some time making crafts and things that they can display with pride in their homes as something that they did. It is a beautiful place to make relationships and learn about a different way of life.

 This week has been incredible! It’s been a kind of stressful an emotional week for a number of reasons, but I am blown away at the beauty of the women that I have the privilege of working with each week. There are six groups of women that come to the social work site each week: a group of adult women (25 – 60), a group of young married women (16 – 25), two groups of teenaged girls (13 – 20), and two groups of young girls (5 – 12). Our days are split up by the mornings and the afternoons, and we often have one group in the morning and another in the afternoon. The group of women is the only group that comes twice a week, once for a Bible study and the other time for crafts. All of the other groups are split half and half with their hour and half that they spend at the site. This week we started all of the women on their Christmas projects, because they only have three more weeks until we have our Christmas parties and then are finished for the year.

After all of the women stop coming to “class” at their regular times each week, we will be working to prepare for the six weddings that Students International is conducting this December. In El Callejon, many people live together as couples but are never married. Individuals could live together for 30 years and call one another husband and wife, but one of the goals of the site that I work with is to promote healthy relationships. A marriage relationship cannot be fully functional until there is a level of trust, respect and commitment to one another. Many of the relationships fall apart because of cheating, fighting or the man just leaving. All of these problems are less easily committed if there is more of a commitment present in a relationship. Six couples have signed up so far to become legally married, and the group of people that I am working with is going to make a special day for them. In the two weeks before the wedding celebrations, we will be making decorations with the brides and giving them facials and manicures/pedicures to prepare them for their special day. I am so excited to be a part of this journey for them, because for many of the women it’s a giant step in realizing their self-worth and recognizing their need for security in their relationships.

On Wednesday we had a photo scavenger hunt in El Callejon. Our team consisted of Rachel and I from our social work site, along with my roommate Kara who works at the preschool in El Callejon. The other team was the three students from our group, Nate, Neil and Amy, who are working at the microfinance site. The two Students International staff that we all work under at each of our sites are Caroline and Ryan, who are married to one another, so needless to say there was a little bit of healthy competition. It rained for the first hour or so of our competition, but it was still so fun. It was so interesting to see the ways that people wanted to help us. We had to take pictures we certain people, touching a pig or standing in certain locations. Because we are very new to the community, we had to ask for help from people in the community. An 8 year old girl named Rosa and a 15 year old boy named Francis went with us almost the whole time and helped us find people, things and specific places. It was so interesting that people were so quick to invite us into their homes and to take pictures with them or with a special item of theirs. It was also interesting to see how Rosa and Francis knew each person or special thing that we needed to find. I think this just illustrates further the closeness that they experience in their community. It is so beautiful! At the end of our two hours, our team ended up demolishing the other team, earning almost twice as many points, thank you very much. We won a lunch or dinner at Pizza Pepperoni in town within the next few weeks. More than winning that though we made some great memories and continued down our path of building relationships with people in the community.

Although I have only been going to El Callejon for a week now, I’m realizing that the more time I spend there, the more that I am accepted. It’s been beautiful to be able to start saying hello to women by name because I have spent time with them at our social work site. There are probably about 100 women who come to class with us, and in a community of 500 that’s a lot of people that I have met and spoken to. It’s so exciting to walk to work and be able to see familiar faces and be recognized by young girls and old women. I feel like I am less of a spectacle as an American if people know who I am and see me regularly. I am so excited that I feel like I am becoming part of a community and less like a visitor. I am starting to build those relationships that drew me to this country, and I am so excited to continue getting to know these beautiful people!

As I’m sure you all know, I celebrated my 21st birthday here on Thursday. It was a cold rainy day; apparently the Dominican weather wanted me to feel like I was at home for my birthday. J I woke up in the morning to a huge hug from Denise, my Dominican mom. I opened up some gifts and letters that were sent with me from home, which both encouraged me and saddened me at the same time. It was totally bittersweet to celebrate such a special day away from home. At the morning at my site, Caroline and Daisy gave me a plate of brownies that they made for me, which is a super special thing here because none of the chocolate here tastes like normal chocolate. I eat lunch every day at Rachel and Amy’s house, two girls from Bethel who live with a family who is really close to El Callejon. When I got to Paula’s house for lunch on Thursday, the microfinance students were there, along with Rachel and Amy’s whole Dominican family. They all sang happy birthday to me as soon as I walked in, and we all had a really nice lunch together.

When I got home from work in the afternoon I was kind of bummed that I didn’t have plans to go out for dinner or doing anything special at night for my birthday. Kara and I decided that we would get a taxi and take our family out to dinner in the city. We asked Denise about it and she was really vague in her answers. When my sister Katherine finally got home and we were ready to go, I went to the bathroom real fast and when I came out they had turned all the lights out. They started singing happy birthday and they showed me the cake that they had made for me, which said “Felicidades, Margie” or congratulations. They had planned a little surprise party with our family. Our older brother, Aneudys was here, along with Katherine’s fiancé Julio. They had the most ridiculous collection of “American” foods for dinner. They had doritos, plain potato chips, plain white bread sandwiches with pineapple jelly, cheese and salami cubes and orange Fanta soda. Denise also made this “salsa”, which I’m pretty sure was just ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together, but they all loved it. It was such a fun time! We put some music on and talked and laughed and ate. It was pretty late when we got done so we watched part of a movie and then Kara and I went to bed. Reading all of my letters from friends at home made me a little bit sad that I wasn’t home today, but the lovely party that my family here threw me wiped all of that sadness away. I feel so loved and accepted by them.

I think it’s interesting that all day on Thursday; no one actually gave me any gifts. I love that birthday celebrations here are centered on spending time with friends and family. Also, it is centered on food! I love that people celebrate one another by being with them, and taking time out of their day to make someone else’s birthday special. They show one another how they care by being physically present during special times in each other’s lives, not by giving gifts or sending cards. I love that this is yet another example of how relationships are so important in the culture here, it’s so beautiful!

I have been thinking a lot about poverty since I’ve started working in El Callejon. I’ve been thinking about not just what poverty is, but whether or not it is God’s will, what starts poverty, what other types of poverty there are besides material poverty, and how living in a state of poverty affects people. Daisy and Caroline asked Rachel and I the question on our first day about whether we think that it is God’s will that people live in conditions such as those in El Callejon. Biblically, God promises that our basic needs will be taken care of: something to eat, clothes to cover our bodies and a roof over our heads. Beyond that though, we are not guaranteed a life of comfort or luxury. The people of El Callejon have those necessities, even if just barely. God desires progress in the lives of these people, but he does not promise that money will fall from the sky and they will all have rich futures. It is hard for me to think these thoughts and write these words knowing the circumstances that I come from, but I think that my opinions of what I actually need are being radically transformed by this experience.

More than material poverty, the thing that seems more pressing to me in the lives of the women that I’m working with is a poverty of spirit or relationships. Many women do not recognize their self-worth. They stay at home cooking, cleaning, taking care of children and are given little or no thanks for all of this hard work. It is a cultural expectation for them to do these things and to do them without thanks or praise. I think it would be hard to have self-worth if no one ever told you thank you, or told you that you were beautiful. Another type of poverty that I see in the lives of these women is a lack of positive and healthy relationships. Friendships where encouragement and accountability are present. Relationships that are not conditional on completing certain tasks. Friends that can laugh until they cry and trust one another with complete honesty. We as human beings have been created to be in relationship with other people, and when these positive relationships are not present in our lives, I think there is a serious deficit. The work that Students International is doing in this community is in the business of redemption, in redeeming these different types of poverty and restoring right relationships. I am so excited to be a part of something so beautiful and full of hope.

One beautiful story of redemption in El Callejon is the wall. There is this wall in El Callejon that was constructed years ago to basically stop the community from growing in one certain direction because some view it as an eyesore. Maybe it was too hard for people to view that kind of poverty and sleep well at night, but for whatever reason it was built to keep the people of El Callejon within certain limits. It used to be this long, grey, ugly concrete wall about 8 feet high and many hundreds of feet long. The beautiful thing is that in the past few years, a group of people working with Students International, along with people who have come here with short term trips have started painting murals on it in small sections. Now, instead of being a shameful wall, it has been turned into something beautiful, something to be celebrated. I love the testimony of redemption and change that can be taken from that story. Something that was once shameful and ugly has been turned into something beautiful, something to be proud of. What a beautiful model of my hope for my time in El Callejon. I don’t expect to revolutionize the entire community, but I hope to help just one woman or young girl realize her own self-beauty and self-worth, changing her thoughts about herself into something beautiful, something of great worth which is meant to be treasured.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

save up your hopes, friends.

This morning I went white water rafting with five other girls from our group. I was absolutely terrified but it was so much fun! Dad, I'm glad that I took your advice on going :) Our guides, Luis and Carlos were telling us that the river we went on, El Yaque, had some of the best rapids in the Dominican Republic. We went down a ton of drops and each of us jumped off a 7 meter high rock, which is about 23 feet into the river. I was the only one who fell out of the boat, but our guide was super fast with helping me get back in because the boat would have gone over me. Carlos took a bunch of pictures for us so I should be able to post pictures from it soon!

There has been great community within our group in the past two weeks. Being at travel week with everyone and a week here at the base, we have really gotten to know one another. Before, we saw one another every day at Spanish class, but spending time with one another all the time really helped us to bond as a group. I love the community that we have with one another and the relationships that I am building with each person that is going through this experience with me. There were a lot of really great times of conversation and honesty in the past two weeks which really allowed for our group to grow closer. I’m so glad that I am here with such an incredible group of people, I think my experience would look a lot different if the people around me weren’t so caring and fun.

There were three days at the beginning of this past week where a professor from Bethel was here to teach us for the ministry credit that we will receive this semester. Kent is such a fun professor and was able to make 6 hours of class each day interesting. At the end of the class we had a question and answer time with Kent (who was a missionary to Russia for 13 years), Lowell (the director of the base here), Josh, Vicki and Jim Ralstin (a Bethel graduate who works here with shoeshine boys). It was really interesting to understand more about long-term trips and to learn more about the difficulties and realities that come with them. Overall ministry class was good, though it was at times difficult to sit in a hot room all day.

For three more days we had culture class with a Dominican man named Samuel Luna. He is the founder of a ministry here called NET (nations in transformation), which helps “to end the cycle of poverty” through various services that they provide. Samuel grew up in Santiago, but has lived stayed for extended periods in more than 40 countries. He was a really interesting teacher because he has experienced so many different cultures and his worldview is very broad. He took us to see the Mirabál sister’s museum. I recommend that if anyone is looking for a book to read or a movie to watch “In the Time of Butterflies”. It’s an incredible retelling of the impact that those four women had on the history of the Dominican Republic.

Samuel also took us to a local coffee factory just outside of town. The brand of coffee they make is called “Monte Alta” (High Mountain) because they grow all of their coffee beans high up on the mountains here to prevent any contamination of the beans. It was a really interesting experience to see what a small, locally owned factory operated in a third world country. There were 23 women who worked there 8 hours a day and made about 300 pesos for an entire day’s work, which is about 8 dollars. They sorted the beans which were then put into the best roasts or the less expensive roasts. None of the coffee made there is sold here unless you go to the factory; most of it is exported to seven different countries, including the US.

This whole week we were staying at the base with three other groups that are just here for a week. It’s mostly adults from different churches who went out to the ministry sites here for five days and don’t know that much Spanish or very much about Dominican culture. On Tuesday night we took the group into downtown Jarabacoa for an hour of shopping and then dinner in town at a restaurant. We went with them because they didn’t know their way around town and most of them speak virtually no Spanish. I had a really difficult time with this experience. It wasn’t that the people that we were helping didn’t know Spanish or didn’t know their way around town. It was hard to realize that they were completely ignorant to the culture here and were often really rude in the way that they interacted with shop owners or servers. I saw in action the way that Americans can impose their culture on other people, even when they are in the middle of another country. This was an experience that has been really hard to find peace in, because I know that is the culture that I come from. I know that I haven’t acted in ways like that, but I pray that I do not grow bitter towards people like this.

I am realizing more and more that one of the biggest sacrifices that I’ve made in coming here is that I have put all of my relationships on hold. It’s kind of a bummer to get on Facebook and read about all of the good memories that people are making and the other relationships that they are building, though I know that I am absolutely doing the same thing and having the time of my life too. The hard thing is that while I’m away, I am changing, and everyone else is changing too. I know that I am looking forward to going back home and digging into my friendships and relationships again, but I’m beginning to expect that there will be a period of adjustment for a while after I return.

I hope this satisfies all of my readers. Next time I post I will be 21!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

I Will Use Love to Overcome this Dark World.

How do I even describe all of the things that happened this week? We spent a week travelling the island a little bit. We spent three nights in Santo Domingo, the capital, in a hostel in the colonial district. We visited a lot of museums and important historical sights while we were there. It was incredible to see and visit buildings that were 500 years old. Santo Domingo was an important place in the voyages of Christopher Columbus, and is home to the first Catholic cathedral in the “New World”. Although I wouldn’t call myself a history buff, it was really interesting to visit all of these places that were so full of history. Unlike a lot of American museums and historical sites, we were allowed to enter into most of the homes, forts and the cathedral. The history of the city was very accessible to the public, whereas in America I feel that museums are much more guarded.

We also visited a number of caves. We are studying a people group called “Los Tainos”, which were the indigenous people of Hispaniola before Columbus landed and colonies were established. Within about 25 years, the population of Tainos went from 400,000 to roughly 2,500. The caves that we visited were important because all of them had cave paintings from the Tainos. Most of the paintings were about 2,500 years old, and were very basic and crude. We questioned the authenticity of some of the paintings, because some of the lines were very dark or bold where others around them weren’t. It was interesting to think of us entering into another era and place where people had lived so long ago.

After we spent three days in Santo Domingo, we went to the northeast side of the island to a resort near Los Haitises, a national park. The resort that we stayed in was so gorgeous, probably the nicest and most interesting place I have ever stayed. They redirected a nearby river so that it feel through a series of pools on either side of the resort. The cool thing was that the pools were specifically shaped to be used as swimming pools with steps in and out of them and places to sit. The bottoms of the pools were kept clean and the crystal clear chilly water felt wonderful after the unbearably hot days. The first day we were there we took a 4km hike through the park and were able to climb through a cave. We had a guide who told us a lot about the history of the park and the wildlife that live there. We were able to taste coffee beans off the tree and the fruit that cocoa is made from. It was a really fun hike, and we were able to learn a lot as well. When we reached the end of our hike, a boat from the resort was waiting for us and drove us through the Bay of Samaná to a place in walking distance from our hotel. The water was gorgeous! The next day when we were in the bay we saw a pod of dolphins swimming and we were able to kayak into the bay further.

We returned for the last night of our trip to Santo Domingo again where we went to a few more museums before leaving to come back to the base on Friday. It has been so good to be able to spend time and build relationships with more people that I am here with. We stayed awake a lot of nights learning ridiculous group games and doing life together. I learned to play the greatest game called silent football, and it can be counted on that I will bring it back to the states with me. So if you want to play and learn, just let me know. Building this fellowship and community never really happened until this past week because we spent all of our time together in class over the past 5 weeks. It has been incredible to build relationships with different people that I haven’t been able to in the past. There are so many good memories and funny jokes to remember for a long time.

Something that I thought was really fun about being in Santo Domingo was bartering. If I didn’t like the price of something I could just name a different price, and eventually we would land on some kind of agreement. I bought a hammock this week, though I don’t exactly know where I’m going to put it, and I was able to reduce the price of it by 200 pesos, which is about six dollars. It’s kind of fun to see that the girls in our group often got better deals on the same items, as well as the prices that different types of personalities were able to negotiate. Because Dominicans can tell from looking at me that I am an American, they would double or triple the price of something before selling it to me. Each time before I would buy something, I would “research” it at different vendors before buying it for a good price.

Dominicans assume that I am an American tourist with a lot of money to blow on cheap souvenirs. It was interesting to watch their reactions when they saw that I knew what it was talking about. Many people were also surprised that we spoke Spanish at all. All of this just makes me think that there are a large number of tourists who come to the Dominican Republic with no or little knowledge of its culture or customs. I feel good knowing that I am not one of those people who enter into life here ignorantly.

During this next week, we will stay at the base. A professor named Kent Eby is here for this week to teach us our ministry class. For the next couple of days we will have class for five or six hours each day to get some class time in for the semester. Later in the week we will go to Santiago to visit a museum about the Maribal sisters, and we will also visit a coffee factory. Something that I find interesting about Dominican history is that it is all very recent. From 1930 – 1961 there was a terrible dictator here named Trujillo. Although he brought economic stability to the country, he was also the cause of the deaths of many people who disagreed with him. This was a very turbulent time in Dominican history. It is interesting to me because this history is very recent for them. There are many people who are alive now that experienced the pain of Trujillo’s rule. We are going to a museum about the Maribal sisters (“In the Time of Butterflies” is a movie about their lives if anyone wants to watch it) next week. Our trip leaders told us that the fourth Maribal sister is still living and she spends a lot of her time at the museum, and there is a chance that we will be able to meet her. It is so different from the US because a lot of our very important history is far in the past for many of us, but here it is very recent.

One of the things that was very different while we were in Santo Domingo and Los Haitises is the way that we were identified and treated as Americans. While we are in Jarabacoa, we stick out as a minority, but we are treated as a novelty. People want to talk to us and get to know us. While we were in the capital, people saw us and assumed that we were Americans, but they simply viewed us as a huge dollar sign. People wanted to sell us stuff, and they wanted to make a lot of money. It was a very different experience to be treated as a tourist rather than a new person to get to know, it was kind of awful actually.

Something that I have been learning about a lot is strength. I think that because of certain things in my life growing up, there are certain parts of my life where I have become ultra-independent. An example of this is the way that I hate asking for help, I hate it more than anything. However, I have been reading in my Bible in II Samuel. The end of chapter 2 verse 9 says, “it is not by strength that one prevails.” This is just an interesting encouragement to me to stop trying to go it alone, or to be too independent, or prideful at times, to ask for help. There is such beauty in building community and relationships, I cause myself to miss out on this beauty when I tell myself that I can do it alone. It is a humbling and vulnerable thing to ask for help at times, and I think that is good for me. Vulnerability is difficult because I have been hurt a lot of times. I think a lot of people can relate to that, but my response to it has been to stop being vulnerable with anyone.

I am also learning about the way that my family growing up has shaped me into the person that I am. I have struggled a lot through my life with different emotions with my parent’s divorce and growing up in blended families. I can see now that I could have ended up very bitter and angry, but I think that my story has turned into something beautiful. I am so thankful that I have had my faith and a wonderful group of people to surround me as I grew up.

These are only two of the things that I am learning about myself while I’m here, and trust me, there’s a lot more. There is a song that has been really speaking to me through all of these changes. It’s called Hallow Eyes and it’s by a band called Take It Back!:

And now I realize
That all of this means nothing without action
I will not just sing
I refuse to just sing songs about how hard life can be
While others lead lives that are more difficult than I can imagine
I will be a source of light in this dark world
A catalyst in this stagnant generation
I will use love to overcome this world

Reading and listening to lyrics like this validate for me the reason why I am here. i will be honest in saying that one of the reasons that I am here is for self-transformation, but more importantly I am here to reach out. I want to impact or make a difference in someone’s life. Like the lyrics of this song, I don’t just want to talk about the injustices or tragedies that I see in this world, I want to go and do something to make a difference in the lives of those people. I don’t expect to end poverty or war, but I do plan to bring joy and light to people’s lives. Oh that I would make a difference..

Friday, October 8, 2010

there's a train that's bound for glory!

I’m sitting at the base right now getting ready for travel week. In the next few days we will be in Santo Domingo, the capital, going to museums and experiencing a different side of the culture here. We will also spend two days in a place called Los Haitises, which sounds like a time when we will spend outdoors more and some time at the beach. We will be experiencing a different kind of Dominican culture, the tourist side. My experience this far has been as close to regular, ordinary Dominican life as possible. I have lived with a normal family in a city that is exciting, but where a lot of wealth isn’t present. Although I always stand out here as an American, we will stand out in a different way in the capitol, being seen as tourists with a lot of money. I am excited to spend time with the whole group and the opportunity that we have to build different relationships.

Another thing that is exciting right now is that we had our graduation party for Spanish classes. Not to sound too dramatic, I don’t think it had really hit me that we’re done. Spanish class has been such an intense stretching experience. We crammed so much information into 5 weeks’ time and it’s such a relief that it’s over. For the most part, I don’t have a lot of homework left for this semester. Only one more paper is due when I’m here and I’m just excited to be able to spend my evenings from now on enjoying my family instead of working on papers or homework assignments. We’re done!!!! During our end of class party tonight, our Spanish program director Arelis said a few words about our program. It was so nice. She told us that working with students with us is why she is a professor of Spanish. She told us that it brings her joy to be able to help students learn a way to make connections and build relationships with more people. It’s always nice to hear that a teacher or professor cares deeply about the work that they are doing with their students. It’s hard to make that connection with a professor right when I class is over, but she did invite us to spend a day at her cabana!

I have been thinking that there are certain things about my time here that I want to make sure that I remember, like the sound of the frogs all croaking together at night after it rains. It’s kind of a beautiful sound out in the country where nothing else is breaking the dead silence of mountain life. Although I love the way they sound, we had another frog in our house last night, which threw all of the other girls in my house into a panic. Another thing that I love about being here is the way that all Dominicans play their music super loud. If a Dominican has some music on, all of their neighbors can hear it. Maybe they just want everyone to be able to enjoy their music with them J Dominicans also love sitting on their front porches. It’s one of the ways that they pass time with each other. If a family has a few minutes to spend together, they’ll sit outside and watch cars pass. Maybe it’s because they’re a breeze outside, but it’s another example of the way that Dominicans just enjoy spending time together.

I have been noticing some of the differences between my American worldview and the Dominican worldview lately in small ways. One of those is the way that Dominicans are extremely superstitious and have local myths about ridiculous things. For example, last Sunday my sister had a friend over and they were blow drying one another’s hair for the week. Sunday was ridiculously hot so both of them were working outside just sweating. After they were ready to switch, Katherine came inside to get a drink, but she asked me to get the water out of the fridge. I didn’t really think about it while I was doing it, but when I handed her the pitcher, I asked her why she wanted me to get it. She told me that she didn’t want her face to freeze. I won’t deny that I laughed, but I didn’t understand that she honestly believes this. Some Dominicans believe that if your body is really hot from working or exerting yourself, that if you open the fridge and the cold air hits your face, that your face will freeze in whatever position it was in when you opened the fridge. They also believe that if you shower when your body is really hot that you will get really sick. I have a hard time understanding that they actually believe things like this. I want to just think that they just trying to trick me, but the look in their eyes says that they honestly believe what they are saying to me.