Side by Side

It is raining on our last morning. A warm spray from the fat Caribbean raindrops that hit the louvers at the foot of my bunk mists my feet. Through the night, the wet air magnified the smell of cinnamon wafting from the kitchen below. This was the sweet scent that engulfed us all evening, instead of chicken poop, it was a welcome relief.

Our team leader leans into her daughter’s bunk next to mine, waking her gently.  Then I overhear her speaking in low tones to another member of our team.  She shares there was a terrible car crash involving a drunk driver as they drove home. They were on the new (unopened) freeway heading back to the school when the driver crossed into them. They avoided a head-on, with the drunk driver just barely skimming their car. But the truck behind them was not so lucky, although they did see the driver get out of the truck after being hit. We are grateful they are ok. Further conversation about the crash reveals that no one involved seemed to stop, at least not as far as our team leader and others in her car could see in their rearview. And it seems to be the norm, we uncover as we speak with others later about the incidence. Someone probably called 911 but it’s not a full-on disaster reaction like we would find in the US. This island is on the razor’s edge of primitive. Such a juxtaposition of Christ-like love and self-preservation. More primitive than I anticipated.

We pack as we get up, wash up, and dress. Breakfast is at 7am and the van arrives at 7:30 for our departure to La Romana. I pull the band from my hair- I’m still trying to tame this mess in this climate and condition- and peer one last time into the single mirror in our dorm room. Seeing keenly through the foggy glass, peeling mercury back, and the grime, peering back at me is someone I maybe remember. Someone who once didn’t require thirteen different hair products and designer face wash. Someone who spent warm summer days barefoot in the New England grass, digging her toes into the dirt pushed up by earthworms into little mounds. The face of a girl who braved cold mornings to muck a stall, feed, and water a horse, before even brushing her teeth. Someone who was connected to more spiritually revealing and soul-nourishing things- like listening to others chatter about nothing of any importance and yet knowing it truly mattered. She blinks back at me and smiles. I invite her to stay.

Down in the dining hall, the morning’s breakfast is rushed, as the guys are moving quickly to pack the van. We peek into the kitchen to hug Mari and others goodbye. The morning seems anti-climactic.  After last night’s let down- no departure talks, no debriefing from the week-  I’m sad it ends like this.

Yada enters the hall, smiles hello and says “I go with you today!” I notice her little black wheelie suitcase, and Neomi and Emanuel and Jadiel in tow. I’m thrilled she and others will join us at the resort. I look forward to sharing fellowship in downtime with them all. It’s funny how quickly you can make an attachment to people, desiring to know more about them and seeking their friendship. Especially with so little in common on earthly comparisons.  God-driven.

We fill our water bottles one last time from the bubbler, the rush of clear water from Juan Tomas for our trip. I reflect on my arrival just a short week earlier, I was so concerned about the quality of the water in Juan Tomas. It felt like potential poison, pain, and distress.  Little did I know that the Juan Tomas water at the Fountain of Life school would be so sweet. So fresh, so thirst-quenching. So reliable. I take two big swigs and refill my bottle. For the road.

Our bags get tucked into the trailer attached to the now-familiar white van. The same van that spirited us away from the Santo Domingo airport. In reverse play, we now load back into the van, with a few extra. A van that I thought was built to hold 15, held 17 on the way here, no holds 21 on our departure with Richard, Yada, her niece Haiti, their daughter Neomi and sons Jadiel and Emanuel, as well as Pumpa. I marvel at how but leave that little miracle to God. We are full.

The van is now surrounded by villagers. Now our friends. Yoan. Willi. Anabelle. Ingrid. Rosmery. More than I can name gather around the van. As we pull away, they smile and wave and step forward. We arch our necks to continue our goodbyes and then turn to settle into our long ride.  We still have a full day of visiting a mission in La Romana before we can rejuvenate ourselves at the resort. We guard ourselves for the final stretch.

Soon we turn off the red dirt-packed road and onto the tarmac. The narrow-paved street widens and then we are back in the Santo Domingo city center traffic. It’s even crazier than it was last week. Slowly, as I watch the passing traffic and buildings in various states of disrepair, the pillars of the overhead highways, and the crowds of people passing by, I am reminded of the Bronx. The similarity is now undeniable and for a moment I think I am driving under the el on Jerome Ave near Yankee Stadium. I realize that our immigrant citizens recreate the land of their comfort and familiarity. My grandfather did the same at one time. I close my eyes to the swirl of activity outside my seat window and the rocking, jolting images through the front windshield and try to rest for the two-hour ride east.

An hour in, I have to pee. I open my eyes and see the ocean ahead. As the van veers left, the ocean is vast and the small narrow park that runs along it is empty. How is no one there—it’s beautiful. The day is sunny. The water is sparkling. The sand looks like sugar. Every metaphor known to man about the blue ocean is true here.  I reflect that we immortalize the Caribbean ocean and yet it is just home to the people of Hispaniola. Just the saltwater that surrounds this hot rock in the middle of the south sea.

I lean forward and ask if we can possibly stop somewhere. Richard translates to Javier our driver and they talk for a minute. I receive no response, but I am confident we are ok.  Soon we are pulling into a Sunoco on the left side of the highway that runs along the ocean. We pile out, aware of how much we look like tourists. Except for our hosts. This is the first time in seven days we have seen commercial food. It looks pale and weak in its bright packaged cellophane and foil bags- Doritos, Sour Cream Chips, Gummy Bears. Cokes. The young girls gather bags of chips and soda, thrilled at this chance. I spend time waiting in line for the bano thinking about how fortunate we truly are to be able to obtain such food at will. Or maybe not.

We are all packed into the van and continue our trek east. Another forty-five minutes and we arrive at La Romana. This part of the trip is mostly for the two volunteers who have been our team leaders here. They support a school and church and hospital here with another mission trip in which they participate. The countryside here is so vastly different- the jungles of Juan Tomas and the parched, fauna-less, pale pink dust and cement of La Romana.  The streets are not so dissimilar, they are the same narrow, hilly, and pothole-filled paths that crisscross Juan Tomas. But as you gaze over the landscape you can see farther, sightlines uninterrupted by the palm trees and brush with which we have become accustomed.

The van lurches forward up a steep hill, past a landfill and some whitewashed factory looking building, Recycling Factory I am told.  We turn right and merge left, resting briefly along a curb in front of a gated schoolyard, with a looming cement building at its center, the color of Band-Aids. The name of this school stands out in contrast against its flesh-colored walls, “Colegio Evangelica Joe Hartman”.

The gates roll back and our van enters into the courtyard, coming to a halt. We pile out in groups, our leaders first in eager anticipation of seeing their friends once again. I think I get that now. I’m not even gone and I already anticipate with joy my return to Juan Tomas.  As I step down onto the white crushed rock driveway, they are greeting everyone at the school. Our leaders are thrilled to see their friends.

Escorted into the building, which is pristine compared to Fountain of Life, we are greeted and quickly given the history of the school. This building is much more contemporary than Juan Tomas. It is a self-contained, single building with three floors, with a central courtyard open to the sky, and outside hallways around the perimeter. Our guide continues with her tour, and we follow along class to class. It is strikingly beautiful when I compare it to Fountain of Life.  But it doesn’t feel like family here. It feels like a school.

The children are sharp in their uniforms. The teachers are friendly. We move from the school building to the preschool area. Children rush forth out the classroom and scramble in the yard way, their eyes scanning the crowd, seeking out someone to grab onto and hug. I’m not sure how to react and so I hang back. It doesn’t feel authentic. But then again, this is a sharp juxtaposition from where we have just spent seven days. The tour moves on, some of my teammates peeling arms and children off from around their waists. We enter the newly built cafeteria. It is gorgeous and big and empty. It was finished last year, and our leaders seem momentarily surprised that it is not in use. The director of the school mentions that they cannot use it until they have something in place in the kitchen that the government demands. Before this particular thing, it was something else. And before that something else again. At that moment I am happy for the little Fountain of Life school, hidden from government eyes in the jungles of Juan Tomas. Richard and Yada talk to the school’s director about the new and gleaming cafeteria.  I can see their eyes dreaming.

Today, thanks to the coordination of our volunteer leaders, we are serving lunch to the 198 kids at this school. While our team waits, sipping our bottles of Juan Tomas water at pristine tables in the new cafeteria, our kitchen team from Fountain of Life arrives with tubs of beans and rice, chicken, pasta, and salad. We are called into the kitchen space, empty except for a sink and a line of small tables, groaning under the weight of the tubs of food, now uncovered and steaming into the damp air. Some of our team are organized into an assembly line and begin to make massive plates, bugger than I can imagine any child of the age of 10 and under could eat! Each plate has no less than a cup of rice, a cup of beans, a large chicken leg, a cup of pasta with a creamy red sauce and a cup of dressed salad. A large slice of bread is tossed on top for good measure. I turn to my teammates and question the size of these portions- how can such little people eat so much I wonder?

Kids begin to file in, in orderly lines, directed by their classroom teachers. We won’t see this in Juan Tomas, I think!  They are seated at tables by class- pre-K, 1st, 2nd, all the way up to 8th grade. I notice sadly this last class level is much, much smaller than the elementary classes.

The noise level slowly rises and soon exceeds 100 decibels! We scurry to place plates in front of children. Someone hosts to extra-large Gatorade orange-colored water coolers onto the new granite counter. We shift it closer to the edge and begin to pour fruit juice from the spigot into plastic cups. Pretty soon we are scurrying behind plate fetchers, dropping cups of juice in front of hungry children.  

Within minutes everyone is served. We retreat to the kitchen central and grab the last of the stack of plates once piled high a few shorts minutes ago.  We look to make our own lunch plates, but the buckets once heaped with beans and rice and chicken are now clearly empty We scrape some rice from the edges and bean and chicken juice from the corners and eat, observing the noisy, joyful, Festa happening just on the other side of the service window. A line begins again at the Gatorade cooler and we move to help out, pouring until the cooler is dry. I just can’t imagine this happening in America’s schools for lunchtime. I’m still fretting about the size of the dishes, waste is such a present concern for me now when I see a young boy, no older than 6, ask for an empty plate. A teacher scrounges up a clean on and he carefully covers the remains of his dish and, balancing it between his two small hands, goes to stand in line with his class. I look around and notice more teachers helping more students to do the same.  Aside from the piles of rice and beans that hit the floor, none of these plates will be wasted These precious gifts are for Moms, and maybe Dads or siblings, back home. No sense worrying about refrigeration or careful packaging. If just a portion makes it home, that is a feast. Food is scarce in this community, and it is not only appreciated by shared.

My water bottle is empty and I check on the water tub next to the kitchen, to ensure it is good to drink. I’m feeling dehydrated, tired, and somehow lacking purpose. I look around to be productive and see the cleanup crew from this school in action. I join in to begin to clear tables and chairs and sweep floors. Piles of rice and beans collect in mounds across the shiny tile floor. I see a plastic garbage bag filling up with the remains and ask how this will be used. Animals I am told. I feel satisfied that this is sound. It’s such a unique concern for me, I guess.

Soon we are called outside as our volunteer leaders hand out gifts from large trash bags to the children and teachers assembled. It starts to rain.

I sneak a peek at my watch and see it is only 12:30 pm. Just an hour and a half has passed since we arrived. The team is being encouraged to go visit the director’s new house, built last year by the mission our leaders were on. I want to be excited and pleased, but I am just not connecting. My mind wanders back to the orange crème homes of Richard and Argenis, across the red dirt path road, and feel that anything new and shiny just wouldn’t feel grounded right now. I check in with God- is this judgment on my part?  Jealousy? I pray for him to clear my heart and reveal my purpose as I sit out the house visit. Argenis, who also has passed on the home tour, sits down beside me and the few other teammates resting on the low stone wall next to the school courtyard and we begin to talk.  I’m not so eager to move on from Juan Tomas.

Argenis suddenly asks me to pray for him as his role changes in the school. He feels more drawn, more inspired to be the school advocate, the one reaching out to mission leaders, and churches, and donors, to help grow, through God’s grace, the finances and facilities of the school, church, and medical mission. We discuss how to connect with people who want to help the school, who desire to support their mission. He asks me to read 1Samuel 3:9 to understand what he is feeling. Later in the night, I do. It reads in part “If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’.  So, Samuel went and lay down in his place.”

God’s word revealed to a woman, in a foreign land, struggling with purpose in the moment, by a man struggling with his own purpose in his role. Speak Lord for your servant is listening. I pray that God will shout into my ears and glean my path of everything NOT in his will for my purpose. Dangerous, risky, and bold prayers with abandon!

As we chat, Argenis disciplines Emanuel, Richard’s son, and I’m amazed again at how fluid parenting is in this community. Everyone is a parent to anyone. Argenis reveals that it’s because they are all grounded on God’s word and trust each other. They all have the same foundational belief and they all believe that God, in this community, is leading their thoughts and actions every day. Dear Lord, please lead me to this.

The house tour group returns and we reload people into our van for the hospital tour. Our travels through La Romana are narrated by Javier our driver. He shares that it is the hotspot of the area, these narrow city streets with boutiques and bodegas, next to trimmed parks and classic stone sculptures. Just 40 minutes from the slums in which the school sat, we arrive at a tall hospital in a city that is decidedly more civilized than Santo Domingo and certainly much more than Juan Tomas. We enter an open-air lobby and are guided on our tour by a man known well by our volunteer leaders. The hospital has no working elevator it appears, so we slowly trudge up one, two, four, five flights of stairs. We lose half our team on each floor as they choose to sit the tour out. This day doesn’t feel connected to the purpose of this trip at all, and I think the team all feels that now. Just a few more hours until we can rest.

The hospital is lovely and it is very meaningful to our leaders who helped build it. It is shiny and new and still being built. The raw construction is happening right next to the patient rooms, exposing sky, bird, and bacteria to everything in reach. So close to quality and yet so far.

The hospital guide is asked if the group can see a room. The first room he shows us is occupied, but that doesn’t stop him. I remain in the hall. A second room houses an infant child born with hydro encephalitis. He has a bacterial infection. The very young parents ask us to come in and pray for him. Of course, this we will do, it has a purpose. Yada leads us in prayer. She speaks with the parents once we are through. It turns out they live near Juan Tomas. Yada invites them to her church. I am reminded that I should not stress when this trip seems to brush against the grain of my moral fibers. God knows what he is doing and uses all things for his purpose.

The hospital tour completes and we are back in the van for the hour and a half ride back to the resort we will stay in tonight, courtesy of Richard and Yada. For the entire ride, the van is deathly silent. We have reached the end of our resiliency as a team. We need to rest.

The van exits in Juan Dolio, drives 10km east then does a u-turn and drives 5km west, exits again and we turn off the exit ramp amongst the hotels that cover the shoreline of the Dominican Republic. Things are decidedly commercial here. Bursting floral plants in brilliant oranges, and pinks, and greens, overflowing from ceramic tureens four feet high. Amber glass front stores and neon signs compelling tourists to come inside. Soon we pull into a small gate with the name of our resort. We are here.

In an instant, we can see that our van and trailer are a stark visual contrast to the black SUVs and silver Mercedes sedans pulling into the Porte Cochere of the resort. Javier squeezes the white box van for 15, seating 21, into a space between two luxury cars. He jumps out of the driver’s seat and begins to open our passenger doors. We disembark, blinking into the sun and the glare of the commercial space surrounding us: tropical print fabrics against dark wood wicker settees, glass ball lamps hanging from brass chains, planters and ceramic tile screening the electrical boxes of the resort from the eyes of guests. In Juan Tomas, the metal box covering the well mechanics is home base in stickball. We gather under the outside seating area for resort arrivals. Richard takes the copies that have been made of our passports and heads inside, telling us to wait. Time passes. A hotel waitress mingles around the Porte Cochere, greeting new guests with a tray of mesmerizing ruby pink drinks. But she avoids us. Our clothes are markedly more camp counselor than camp. And our hair and nails are in desperate need of a wash and trim.

We wander a bit to view the pool, bars, restaurants and coffee shops of this all-inclusive. Soon Richard emerges and calls us into the cool lobby. It is understated and filled with foreign languages, guests speaking amongst themselves in German, Dutch, French, Spanish. Richard is at the desk speaking with a friend who helps book these rooms for mission workers on their last night in Juan Tomas. As a thank you for their work. Grace and Mercy received, thank you very much!

One by one, we are called up to the lobby desk to get registered and receive our keys. We sign, get wristbands and are set free. My roommate and I head up to our VIP suite on the beach overlooking the bars and pools. We enter, drop our bags and shower. Forever.

My roommate and I have booked massages at the resort spa for 6PM. With glowing skin, scrubbed free of red dirt in the powerful and warm shower, almost too warm for me, we wander through the resort toward our muscle rejuvenation. The quietness of the spa sinks into our souls and we are in meditation for the next two hours.

Our crew is at the buffet when we emerge and we join them for some interesting cuisine. Shortly after, Argenis approaches our table and invites everyone out to the beachfront for an evening meeting. Argenis leads us in a sharing circle to debrief from the week on blessings, God’s insight, and our dreams. There under the yellow light circles cast from the palm tree floods, with beetles, and palmettos, and other bugs hopping around the sand at our feet, the spirit that is Juan Tomas is unpacked and shared. The trip feels complete.

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