Bless the Lord oh my soul, oh my soul, worship his holy name.
Day six in Juan Tomas, Santo Domingo Norte, no street address, DR. Our mission trip is coming to a close. Last day here before we head over to La Romana to visit a different mission our leaders support. Tomorrow we tour a hospital and school which they helped to build.
But today is still here. Today we work with the kids. And paint.
The nights have become very short. Last nights worship service ended at 9pm. I went straight to bed when we got to the dorm at 9:30. And then it was 7am. Seventy five tarantulas could have clung to my mosquito netting and I would not have stirred. I’m going to miss such sound sleep back in the states.
Our little group is very quiet this morning in the dining hall. We are dotted across the benches, in our own cocoons of thought and morning grogginess. Worship music emanates from our leaders Bluetooth speaker. The electricity gets turned on and the fans begin to hum. We hear Mari and her team in the kitchen behind the sheeted gates, rattling off conversation periodically dotted with peals of laughter. Joy. We pray before breakfast, the serving window opens but not one of us moves. We sit huddled over our coffees, the ache of our bones and muscles extinguishing our hunger. The school staff and team are fresh faced and energetic in contrast to our sad bunch. I’m humiliated at my lack of resiliency. Lol.
Argenis sits aside us and we share coffee and conversation about his changing role here (teacher to ambassador), travel, the possibility he might visit Cornerstone in the coming months, and how to make the best pasta sauce. He cooks the garlic in oil until it is dark brown. He uses pork and tomato paste. He also adds a little coconut milk at the end. We agree, when he comes, he should cook us sauce.
After breakfast we try to find Yada. She is to take us to the last house to deliver the food. Ashley tells us she is in Richards office so we call in through the louvres of the front window. Yada shouts back that she will be right out. Which means within the next hour. Or so.
The night was cool so we are bundled still in sweat shirts and pants. We meander past the 5th grade classrooms and head into the courtyard. The sun becomes a bit stronger and so we walk into the shade and settle into two of the five school desks out on the cement. We watch children buying chips and water (in bags) at the little cement block store. We watch the upper grades pose and flirt. About an hour in, we see Yada approach carrying Emanuel, her 18 month old son. She tells us she needs to wait for a response from the woman’s friend. So we all sit and chat for a bit, watching Emanuel play in the cement. Some students come up to us shyly, gazing into our faces and say “Halo”. They hug us and hang on our shoulders, as if we are their aunties or staff here at the very least. I think it’s the intentionality of the gaze, the open, vulnerable eye contact, hanging in anticipation, that I will remember. Joy speaks for the eyes of these children. It beams from their faces even when they are not smiling.
Yada wanders off and we think this may be longer than we thought. But soon she is back carrying a bag of salami from the fridge, and we know we are now leaving. She hands me the keys as we cross into her gated yard. Her van sits in front of her orange creme colored cement home, with white iron ornate grates on the windows and doors, and wet clothing hanging all along the iron swirls like pendant flags.
Her van is tucked under some banana leaf plants. We get in – my teammate, Yada and I – and I release the parking brake beginning to back out. I tell Yada that today she learns how to drive and she laughs “Really? Ok!”
A group of men have gathered at the driveway gate which closes off Yada and Richards yard from the street. I back up slowly, not wanting to hit anyone as I maneuver out to the red dirt road. But these men aren’t moving. Yada says “Is ok, go, go”. I can’t beleive she means it and I continue to back slowly. My teammate videos the second drive of the week, and as she is speaking and aiming her phone camera, Yada is chattering and I am watching the group of men. As if in slow motion, suddenly a loud crunch and the whole van shifts to a stop and rocks for a moment. All three of us women stop talking. I stop breathing. The moment hangs like a judgement in the air. No one moves.
Yada speaks first “Oh” is all she says.
“Oh my God” I croak out, just above a whisper but not quite a howl, and put my hands to my face. In the rear window I see the side of a red SUV, stuck up against the back hatchway of the van. “Oh my God” I say again, because I can’t remember if I already said it. And for good measure, once more “Oh. My. God”
My teammate exclaims my name from her post in the back seat– “SONDRA!”, and Yada turns to me in a wide eyed stare. I’ve never seen her get excited, but at this moment her face is expressing humor, surprise, even excitement. I turn to her and declare, in a voice much louder than required or even intended, what we all now know and what everyone on the red dirt road knows “I hit a car!”
In the commotion of the backing out and female chatter and avoiding the men, I never even saw the red SUV parked across the road from Yada’s driveway gate. “Is ok” Yada says again. I cannot conceive that it is, and remain frozen with my hands against my face, mouth open in horror. “Go up, go up” she says. I put the van in drive and pull forward. “Ok “ Yada says and makes a motion with her left hand somewhere down around my right knee, “Wait here”. She opens her door before I even stop the van. She leaves her door open as she slides off the passenger seat and walks toward the back of the car. I want to crawl under the seat. I’m humiliated and saddened by what I have done. Yada comes back and slides back into her seat “Go, go” she chastises as she waves her hands in a swiping motion toward the front of the van. I slowly pull forward to where she is now pointing and stop on her cue. She gets out again. I momentarily think to get out too, but realize that I am not the best negotiator in this moment. A few minutes later she gets back to the van “Is ok. I told him we take care of it. Is not bad, just paint scratch.” I cannot believe it’s just paint, given the sound and jolt of the impact. But then again it may be my paranoia interpreting that moment so…
I slowly- oh so slowly– inch south down the road, until Yada yelps “Wait” at which point I slam on the brakes causing us all to wrench forward like a trio of crazy spring loaded dolls. Apparently we are picking up one person. Of course we are. I have learned that in Juan Tomas, every excursion becomes an adventurous journey, attracting friends and neighbors like lemmings.
We wait mid road journey and shortly, the Haitian pastors wife Liliana approaches with one of her children and they both climb into the van. “She is bringing breakfast to her husband at the farm” Yada says. The door slams shut and we head off down the road. I am rambling to Yada my apologies, my regret, my sorrow at the “accidente de carro”, to which she says repeatedly “Is OK, Sondra”. I love how she says my name. It feels more rich when she trolls it in he Dominican accent.
Graciously, Yada takes the blame. And shares it with my teammate. “Me y Gabriella were talking to you”, she explains. I’m still mortified and begin to try to calculate how much I should give each of them – Yada and the car owner– to cover the cost. 50 Dominican pesos is about one American dollar. But 50 Dominican pesos goes so much farther. So $50 American dollars is about 2,500 Dominican pesos. Each. Is that enough? I just don’t know.
As I am doing these mental recompense finance calculations in my mind, we reach the end of the red dirt road. Yada tells me to turn left onto the tarmac road, which I do. The traffic is light but the sides of the roads are littered with people walking, milling in groups, and generally hanging out. A little 3×4 foot cement cafeteria kiosk built on the edge of the break down area of the two lane street has cars and people gathered around it. The van rattled over a speed bump, which I find a comical attempt at controlling traffic on this island. Yada points to a dirt road on the right. “Here” she says “Lilliana’s husband works down here”.
We ease down this narrow road, the van rumbling and bouncing up and down the rivets in the dirt worn by rain and tires. We pass some men on the left behind fencing, working in the brush with long sticks. They reach up into tall palm trees. “Coconuts” Yada says. Here she points out a parcel of land to our right, cordoned off with hurricane fencing “We are building our house here” she says “My brother is building over there” she points to another parcel secured behind fencing. “And Argenis and Rosmery over there”. Yada gazes our onto the mostly treeless field of grass behind the fence. “I don’t like to move here but Richard says we need space from the school”
The parcels are beautiful, they sit atop a hill with open space surrounding them. Views and breezes abound. “My brother owns this parcel too. He has too many lands” Yada says, with a scoffing laugh as she flaps here hands in dismissal. Then she points to a freshly plowed field, with even divots in rows of black soil running from street to back acres. “Yucca” she says “This is my brothers farm” We come over a hill and down a slope. At the bottom is a baseball field filled with men playing. “Slow” Yada says “Lilliana’s husband is working in this field somewhere.” We all peer into the dark earth backdrop, straining for a sighting of a man. Then Yada sees him and we pull up along the fencing. Lilliana jumps out with a plastic bag filled with foil covered bowls and hands them to her husband. She quickly bounces back into the van and we back up slowly and k-turn to head back up the road.
On the main road again Yada points to another dirt road on the right. This one is even more narrow. As we turn onto it I see two beautiful white stucco porches affront homes being built behind fencing. The gleam of the whitewash primer on the cement is jarring against the filth in the streets and the hovels that are houses across the road and down the small hill. I ask Yada about these newly built homes, as palaces along this slash of road, and she says, people are trying to move in. They make no where for people to live when they buy their home and build. I think she means that this area is being gentrified. Like Brooklyn, I consider.
We bounce down to a dead end. I slow the van to a halt, having no further ability to drive forward on this strip of dirt. Lilliana and Yada are suddenly animated, chattering back and forth between the front and back seat in Spanish, hands flying. Then they both stop
talking. “Ok” Yada says turning to me, “I understand now. Go forward and turn right”. I follow carefully and there to our right appears a narrow alley. Or road as it may be in the DR. I turn cautiously and soon we are heading back up the hill from which we came, on a different road. Lilliana reaches forward and simultaneously points and thrusts her hand into a stop position. I stop the car, but there is no where to pull over, so we just park it. Right there. In the middle of this narrow dirt road. This is the Dominican way. If someone comes along they will either wait or try to drive around it, navigating the side grass-knolls and low cement walls that frame the van.
Yada and I open the hatch and hoist the bag from the back of the van. She puts in two big salami’s and we begin to walk where Lilliana is pointing. My teammate, Lilliana and her son follow.
The path on which we walk is littered in broken glass. Shacks are nestled into the slight angle of the land all around us. To the left and right of the path are mounds of bottles. All sorted by types. Green bottles that used to hold sparkling water in one pile. Brown bottles of ale in another pile. An interesting pile of glass bottles that have a decorative weave of rope around them like netting. Clear bottles from refresco de naranja. All neatly piled into mounds by style, amidst plantings and black earth.
We soon approach a shack painted shades of blue, its walls of hand ripped boards from trees and aluminum sheeting. A door of aluminum is held closed on the back with a stone. Lilliana goes along the side of the house to a little ground level front porch at the far end. We cannot see her know, but hear her as she calls loudly, then knocks. She waits and calls again. Turning around the corner back into our view, she shakes her head and
raises her arms and shoulders. “No one is home” Yada says out loud. “She is pregnant and at the hospital maybe”. I’m not sure if this is a story Yada is fabricating or an actual explanation for the empty home.
We turn and make our way back through the Willy Wonka playland of
Glass. I suggest Yada keep the bag of food and try again tomorrow or Saturday after we leave. She agrees.
We emerge from this small community, driving carefully past more dogs then I have ever seen. Puppies even, here. Two men watch us quizzically. I say to Yada that this small group is so much easier than the big parade of people we had a few days ago. She nods in agreement. “Yes” she says “That’s too many. And people talk about us”. We agree that smaller is better. I think our volunteer leaders will be happy too.
We bump along in relative silence for a spell. Periodically Yada gestures to the steering wheel, flapping her left hand gesturing for me to stop. As I do, she rolls down her window to talk with someone along the road. A couple walking with their three yr old boy. A single woman, very thin. “She was Pentecostal and fasted too much. Now she is sick”. I don’t disagree or try to correct, although I am aware of how
primitive some of their beliefs and explanations are, very similar to things and ways my immigrant grandmother believed.
We drive a bit more and stop a bit more. I fear we will pick up more passengers, but no, it’s just Yada on tour. I forgot I am driving the unofficial mayor around the communities here. I remind myself to ask Yada again for the rest of her story about Juan Tomas and Richard.
On a flat space of road, back in the outskirts
of the village, I stop the car and gesture to Yada– “You drive now”, I say. At first she feigns to turn the offer down, but quickly is opening her door to come around the van to the drivers side. I crawl over the center console and assess how easily I might be able to save us from disaster with this driving lesson.
Yada settles into the seat and moves it closer to the wheel. I show her the brake and the gas. I tell her to punch the silver button on the side of the shifter and pull it down to D. As she does so, I instruct her to remove her foot from the brake. The van slowly lurches forward. Yada moves the wheel back and forth in animation as the straight section of the road dictates. Wildly ricocheting between both road aides, but she is driving!!