1600 miles around the corner

I recently had the honor of being part of a small group of people headed down to the Dominican Republic to work beside a team from the area expanding on a school, teaching children and caring for those in the village center. The next few days, I’ll be posting a series of reflections on this trip from my daily journal.

Fountain of Life School Juan Tomas, Santo Domingo Nort, Dominican Republic

Dia Uno

First of all the Dominican Republic- away from the resorts- is another world. I can’t quite describe the smell- earth, and animal, and plants. Musky, jungle smell, deep and resonant. The ground is hard and absent much vegetation. The buildings are cement and in disrepair. The people are vibrant and alive.

The usual chaos at JFK as we arrive at 5am and prepare to depart the US – TSA two miles long, extra care given with bomb and drug sniffing dogs. We stand in a line of no less than two hundred watching the agents periodically play ball with the beautiful chocolate brown pup in front of us. We try to guess its breed- Weimereiner? Coonhound? Lab mix? We decide it would be fun to watch the dog catch a bomb. Or at least some drugs. We’re disappointed that it doesn’t happen during our watch and we make plans to come back someday just to watch again.

We have arrived plenty early and have two hours before our 8:15am flight. We settle in at our gate until we are called.

The flight to Santo Domingo is unremarkable. Easy take off and landing. We fly a very large 737 which takes forever to load and unload. About 45 minutes before we land, the stewards come through with two forms, one slightly larger blue form and one small blue form. They ask if we are born in America and if we say yes, they hand these two forms to us. My seat mates set about filling them out. Squinting at the tiny print, smaller than 6 font at least, I barely make out the indicators under each line: name, birthday, country of origin, residency. Address of where we are staying stumps me. All we have is The Fountain of Life School, Juan Tomas, Santo Domingo Nort. So I enter that and place both papers into my passport as I see others doing. I gather I will need them later.

The humidity and heat hit us on the gangway disembarking in Santo Domingo. This airport means business. All very stark as we enter the country- no shops or food booths when you get off the plane. Just directions to customs. I need a restroom but none is to be found, yet.

When we round the last corner to customs, the mass of humanity spread out before us is unsettling. Here there is no efficiency. There is no order or rules either it seems. Just a swarm of travelers with backpacks and bags and passports and papers. I follow our volunteer leaders into what passes as a semblance of a line. A cluster more like it.

And here we wait.

And wait

And wait.

Three hours later, I step over the red line at the front of this swarm and walk up to the immigration booth. I face a young women who points to my passport. I give her the booklet and all the papers in it as well. I pray silently that she doesn’t seek an address for the school. She hands the papers back to me without even looking at them. She looks at me. Looks at my passport. Then points to an electronic box with a screen and symbols of hands in three different positions. As a green light ignites atop each symbol, I place the corresponding hand in the corresponding position. It scans and the light blinks off.

She smiles at me and nods as she hands me my passport. I am through.

One of our colleagues is not so lucky. Facing a different agent she is being grilled on the address of where we were staying. That dreaded question on the form. Her agent calls someone else over. Our colleague being retained speaks fluent Spanish. She has citizenship in both El Salvador and the US. I can hear and see the voices and actions rising. Her agent suddenly waves a hand at her as if to shoo her away. Our colleague approaches our group and states that she has to get the address of the school, and go back to him with it, or she can’t go through. Our volunteer leader quickly places calls to our contacts. No, no address. Just the schools name, and the village of Juan Tomas. Our colleague returns to the agent who impatiently shoos her away once more. We all start Googling but find nothing to help. Suddenly, the agent who passed me through leaves her booth at the far end of the row of sequential booths each filled with an agent or two. She strides confidently over to the obstinate agent and in a firm voice says something in Spanish that changes the whole dynamic. Suddenly our colleagues passport is stamped and she is through.

We emerge from customs, to locate our bags. Retrieved, we approach another check point. I hand my passport and the papers, which are again immediately returned to me without review. I’m feeling a little offended now- my efforts to write in less than 6 point font was an arduous task that I would like someone to appreciate!Plus I don’t know the address. Doesn’t that matter? We run through two more check points with passport reviews and this time a paper is snatched up at each one. I am satisfied. One final check of our bags tags and then we are in!

We enter the commercial part of the airport where bar kiosks and fruit stands and fast food places surround us. Our Spanish speaking colleague and I go to purchase 12 waters for us all. Seeing no price board, my colleague asks “Que Cuesta?“. The attendant counts up the bottles and replies “Ochocientos Cincuenta y uno”. 851 dollars!? “No, no” my colleague quickly responds “En dolares Americanos” “Ah, dieciseis dolares” Sixteen dollars. We peel off the bills and hand them over. As we were turning to leave, a Dominican woman approaches the same kiosk and also orders a bottle of water. My Spanish speaking colleague hears the attendant say “eso será cincuenta centavos”. That will be fifty cents.

Our first lesson in being foreigners.

David and his wife Stephanie met us outside the doors of the airport arrivals gate. He is with Converge church and they just moved their family- the two of them and their three teenage children- to the Dominican Republic in June for his work. They’ll live thee for the next five years. He serves the Latin American region supporting pastors.

We greet hello and introductions all around, then David guides us to a large white van with a trailer attached. It’s enclosed and locked. We load into the van. Two young Dominican boys help to haul the luggage into the trailer and lock it. The van seats 12 but we squeeze in 16, with David, the two young boys, and their father Richard.

What happens over the next 45 minutes is beyond description. I will not do it justice but I will try.

Let me start by saying, driving in this country is an art. Or a challenge. There are no lanes. I’m not exaggerating – no painted lanes and none of the drivers create lanes. Also there are no streets signs. At all. No wonder we couldn’t fill out our forms- the customs agent was just playing with us because not a Street has a Sign.

Speaking of signs there are no stop signs. Or very few. And the ones that are there are merely suggestions. Not only does no one stop for the few stop signs that do exist, but they don’t stop for each other not stopping for the stop signs either.

And the people. And the mini bikes. They are everywhere and they are fearless. Maybe they don’t know the cars don’t stop for the stop signs and that they don’t stop for other cars either, because if the pedestrians knew this they certainly would realize that they aren’t going to stop for them as well! But apparently they haven’t noticed. A colleague remarks how much better the traffic would be if people walked on the sidewalks. Indeed. Better traffic perhaps, but not as interesting and heart raising as this real life game of Frogger we are participating in!

We narrowly miss no less than a dozen people and mini bikes as we navigate through Santo Domingo. I believe our driver Javier is a God. His van glides through without so much as a scratch. That’s more than I can say for the other cars on the road, most of which look like competitors in a demolition derby. Cross streets are clogged with vehicles as we weave and nudge our way through. Despite the traffic nightmare, there is no road rage. None at all. Instead drivers wave and signal thumbs up. It’s surreal.

The streets of this city of Santo Domingo are a visual mirage of color, sound, and smells. Open air markets burning meats, scrap built stands selling bananas and mangos. Trucks heralding from 1978, with beds filled with yams and yucca and taro. Hawkers ignoring traffic and knocking on your window to sell wipers, and feather dusters, and steering wheel covers. Yes, I thought it an odd combo too. People shouting and crossing and sitting and waving.

At one intersection, we pass no less than 100 people all dressed in purple, white, and green, waving flags marked PLD. The Dominican Liberation Party. This is the current governing political party in the Dominican Republic. They are a Social democracy platform founded in 1973 by former president Juan Bosch, and have pretty much dominated politics in the country since the establishment of democracy.

Election season is upon the island. There are no less than 62 different parties running this year. The PLD people are all wearing beautiful clothes rich in color and brand new. They are a clean and healthy looking group. Quite jarring against the squalor and unavoidable poverty we have driven through. In Spanish, Javier tells us that they are given clothes and food to stand out here. Our colleague interprets.

Snippets of music from open air cars pass public buses with their fancy curtained windows – rides 25 cents one way. And then rising above a crest on the main Road- Gondolas.

Yes. I have video here to prove it. Gondolas strung over the road and into the palm trees and brush. Javier tells us it’s local transportation and it goes from East to West on the island.

I want gondolas in my state. They would resolve a lot about I95.

Our overloaded van takes a sharp turn and suddenly the pavement is gone and there are wire fences. And goats. And chickens. And dogs. Lots and lots of dogs. The busy city streets have given way to countryside, with shacks tucked into the hills. We turn again and the road narrows. A group of women move aside to let us pass. The van dips and shakes. I fear we may not make it up the next knoll but we do and there in the country is a long low blue wall topped with hurricane fencing and barbed wire. The Fountain of Life School.

An older gentleman waves us over along the wall where a solid metal door stands ajar and the van lurches to a halt. We are no sooner out than a swarm of young men descend on the trailer and move our luggage quickly into the compound. We follow. The metal door closes behind us.

The yard inside is filled with young people playing volleyball and children tottering over the cement, stone, red dirt, and rubble. A toddler in heavy shoes waddles by carrying a plastic bowl with what appear to be latex gloves in it. She stops and crouches down to add some stones from the dirt into the bowl and gloves.

Two girls no older than 5 and 7 stride by on a small bicycle. The younger, in a brilliant purple sleeveless dress festooned with yellow flowers, peddles as the older girl pushes her along. They smile widely and wave as they pass. “Hola!”

David and Stephanie introduce us to the staff on site. Richard the administrator and his wife Yajaira, their children Jariel, Neomi, and baby Emanuel. Argenis the school principal, his wife Rosmery. A half dozen other teachers and aides and facility crew. Many live right nearby. I look beyond the cement slab that currently serves as the volleyball court to a far wall of one of the many buildings inside this compound. A group of young people hang out at this wall, lounging on old desks and plastic picnic chairs, watching the volleyball players, teasing each other. Comfortable in their togetherness.

After introductions, we are guided to our dorm by Stephanie. She also teaches at the school. English. Our dorm is above the small kitchen and dining hall, up a set of crumbling cement stairs. I note no windows, just jalousie louvres. The door to the dorm has a lock on the outside. Two kittens sit on the tin corrugated roof of the dining hall that abuts the small cement balcony outside our door, their stature unmoving, their faces curious.

Although private, this school is not Hogwarts. It’s barely even identifiable as a school. And yet it teaches and educates exceptionally well, graduating dozens of students each year who go into college and masters programs, underscoring the fact that learning is not about a building.

Our dorm is cluttered with bunkbeds, each equipped with mosquito netting. Stephanie has given us a welcome basket of prepackaged cookies, granola bars and some personal products. It sits next to the single sink with the dangling water spigot.

Do not drink the water she reminds us again. In the dining hall below is a water cooler with fresh purified water, which the school produces.

The toilets are behind a half door. Do not put the toilet paper in the toilet after use. Place it in the waste bin next to you.

The showers have a single pipe coming out of the wall and one temperature. Cool. Not warm. Not cold. Just cool.

We set up our beds quickly, positioning the netting so bugs won’t get in, and head back down to the volleyball game. We sit and observe and attempt to chat with the older kids. I sense a wariness. Of course. I would too if a bunch of white Americans traipsed into my school all cheery faced and dew-eyed. I remind myself to listen to God, seek counsel, open up and encourage the Holy Spirit.

Stephanie and I chat for a while about their life back in Ohio and the transition of her kids to this new life. We realize she and her husband stayed at our house through Air BnB last summer while we were gone, as they visited our church. God is funny like this.

We’re called into dinner where we pray and then receive a plate of mangu, iceberg lettuce and tomato salad, and what looks like fried chunks of salami. Which they turn out to be. They are fried and then sautéed in a red pepper sauce. The mangu is a mash of plantains and other goodness. And the salad is just a salad. It is filling. It is now 6:45 and we still have a youth service to attend. David collects our passports and wallets to place in the safe. He warns us to hold onto our phone at all time.

Dinner finished, we head down the road outside the compound to a small tin barn like building. The church. Inside we hear singing. Loud vibrant singing from young voices. The pews are filled with the volleyball kids, now singing from their hearts. Soon the pastor steps up. Another young man proudly goes up and stands next to him. He will use his English lessons from the school to translate for us. He beams as he does this. He is proud. A young girl gazing and giggling at him in the front row is proud. We are proud.

During this service, the electricity goes off no less than a dozen times. Each time, we see a young man spring to the back and hear the whine of a generator. And yet through it all, the service and the singing continues, not missing a note, praising Jesus.

I have so much to learn.

After the service, on the wall behind the pastor, an LCD projection of a baseball game in progress suddenly appears. The girls go wild and the boys cheer. It’s clearly a Latin team they favor. As their team makes a play, the ancient Dell computer freezes in a buffer. The group erupts in noise and action. Boys run out and sprint down the road to pastors house to try to catch the game there.

We walk down the road behind this whooping and running group of kids and we re-enter the compound. Although only 8pm it feels like midnight. A quick cool shower and we crawl into our netted beds. Sleep.

#santodomingo #dominicanrepublic #Missiontrip #FountainofLifeSchool

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