Strap on your adventure shoes!

With breath-taking views, adventure shoes, and no time to lose we spent the past week exploring this incredibly diverse country. Four of us set out to Jarabacoa for a day of horse back riding. To get from Santiago to Jarabacoa we had to take a guagua from ILAC to Santiago, from Santiago to La Vega, from La Vega to Jarabacoa, and then a taxi from Jarabacoa to the ranch. I can’t even describe the immense feeling of accomplishment after navigating that many stops, having to ask strangers where to go, and ending up at our destination without a problem. The ranch we went to was located in a tropical jungle with colorful flowers and lush greenery covering every square inch of ground. The horses that we rode were pretty small, which was perfect for me because I could get onto it without a step stool! Riding through the country side felt like a dream. The picturesque scenery looked fake. I loved when my horse galloped, it was so freeing and majestic. Our guide let us ride the horses through a couple of rivers, although I had to forse my horse to get into the water! We rode to a hiking trail and then hiked through the jungle to a gorgeous waterfall. We swam in chilly pool gathering at the base of the waterfall. On our way back to our horses our guide let us rock climb up the side of the waterfall!

Carnaval is a country-wide celebration lasting for the entire month of February. Each city has a different theme with different costumes and traditions. Santiago’s Carnaval consists of a parade of people dressed up as colorful devils carrying very scary whips! Luckily, unlike in other cities, they don’t whip you they just crack the whip against the pavement. The entire city gathers in the streets to watch an endless parade of people dressed up in costumes dancing and putting on skits. Vendors sell delicious street food, including my new favorite snack, empanadas! Walking down the streets to a chorus of “Hola Americanos!”  and “Que bonita!” we attracted a ton of attention. Men line the street corners throwing confetti at all the women. After one confetti ambush, I turned to see my friend spitting confetti out of her mouth. I bent over laughing so hard and immediately a guy threw a handful of confetti into my mouth! Karma! The guy felt bad so he poured some confetti to throw at him! Carnaval is a gorgeous celebration everyone should experience!

In a mere 30 minutes we will be heading to the campos for our 10 day immersion. We are going to Los Tres Pasos to build an aqueduct for the community. This will be a challenging growing experience that will take me far outside my comfort zone. We will be living fairly simply because the community does not have running water or electricity. I am most excited for getting a first hand experience with living in poverty. I think it will be a life-changing and very  centering experience. I am sure I will have a ton to write about in my next blog post when I return. Until then adios everyone!

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Ruined for Life

The motto for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps is that being with the poor and marginalized will leave you “Ruined for Life” because once you’ve stared poverty in the face it is impossible to return to a life of comfort without eyes that only see excess and a heart that breaks for those who live without. One of my goals for my time here in the Dominican Republic is to pose questions to myself about how the way I live my life contributes to the travesties in this world and how I can change from being the problem to being part of the solution. I challenge those of you following my journey to do the same. Ask yourself the difficult questions. Don’t be afraid of uncovering the dark parts of yourself because there is no hope of eradicating those parts without first acknowledging them. Challenge yourself to question the ideals you’ve held for your whole life. And most importantly, don’t be scared to be “ruined for life”. The goal of this blog post is to reflect on the ways we live in the United States versus the way the people of the Dominican Republic live and also to tie in moments from my own life when I have felt God’s presence. Hopefully, you will be able to use this post and ones like it in the future as a challenge to begin your personal transformation.

In my class, Social Justice in the DR, we are currently reading two books Doing the Truth in Love by Michael Himes and The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times by Dean Brackley. Both books offer Earth-shaking insights into how we perceive and interact with the world and a revolutionized vision of what it means to be Christian. Doing the Truth in Love discusses God as a verb instead of a noun found in the relationships between people, “What happens when you serve your brother or your sister is that you are enacting the meaning of the word ‘God’”. The importance of this lesson has become incredibly clear to me during my time here. If I could use one word to describe life in the Dominican Republic, it would be community. Every household owns a roof-high stack of plastic chairs, which are set out in front of the house several times a day in order to enjoy the company of friends and neighbors. The Dominican Republic is a front porch community. Walking down the street, every house you pass has a cluster of people outside playing dominoes, dancing, or talking. People blast music from their cars, businesses, and houses not to be annoying or rude, but to share their music with the rest of the community. Can you imagine if someone constantly blared music from their stereos? A noise complaint would be filed in a matter of minutes. Whereas in the United States, most people look down or at their phones instead of saying hello to passersby, Dominicans shout from across the street to greet friends and strangers alike. On the guaguas, people strike up conversations with us and even persist when they learn our Spanish is limited. This sense of community warmly reminds me of the neighborhood I grew up in, where every evening a group of neighbors would set out chairs on someone’s driveway and spend hours chatting and sipping wine. I learned incredible life lessons from listening to the stories of the adults. I consider my neighbors a part of my extended family and I am very grateful for the blessings they have been in my life. My neighbors across the street, Jim and Helga, were my fill-in grandparents, coming to Grandparents lunches and band concerts since my grandparents lived in different states. Other neighbors supported the random businesses and lemonade stands my brother and I started, always offering generous tips that exceeded the actual cost of the item they bought. I am so grateful for the loving community I grew up in; unfortunately I realize my community was a novelty that most people in the United States didn’t experience. Community is God, love, in action. However, most of the time in our busy lives, we pass up an opportunity for community in order to get to a meeting on time or get to the store before dinner. My parents have both been great examples of how to live life in community with others. My dad’s business is a community unlike one I have ever witnessed in a company. Whenever I visit his office, we make the rounds to countless offices throughout the building saying hi to his co-workers and friends. From the way they know all about my life, I know my dad talks with them, forms community, on a daily basis. My mom is the perfect example of taking time out of your busy day to love others. Our trips to the grocery store often take two hours because we stop to talk to the workers that she has befriended over the years. She will regularly stop to talk to strangers especially if they look like they’re in need of support. One time she was walking out of Walgreens when she spotted a girl nervously staring at the trashcan. She went over to ask the girl if she was ok, and the girl said was looking for a monster that had supposedly crawled in the trashcan. Mom spent the next half hour talking and praying with the teenage girl who was tripping on acid and afraid to go home. There is nothing in life more important than loving your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Brackley says that modern life is a “desert of materialism”. How many times have we each heard, “You better finish your food, there are starving kids in Africa!”? The constant reminders of poverty have numbed us into being unable to truly see the poverty. We think of the poor as problems instead of people. We think we are doing our part by giving a couple dollars to the homeless man on the street corner. You may be giving him enough to treat his physical hunger, but what about the gnawing hunger of worthlessness and inhumanity. In many cases, rolling down your window, looking the man in the eye and asking his name may do a lot more good than a couple of bills. People who live in poverty may be materialistically poor, but often times they are spiritually abundant. In contrast, most people in the United States are materialistically abundant, but impoverished spiritually. In reality which is the worst form of poverty? Heartland Hope Mission in Omaha exemplifies healing the whole person. The mission of the food bank is to fill up the person’s stomach and their soul. Every person that walks through the door hears a message of hope, love and worth before receiving their food. Volunteers individually walk with each person asking them what food they would like and then serving the person by putting the item in the cart for them. The goal of Heartland Hope Mission is to let the person know that they are valued and worthy in addition to filling their pantries. Brackley states that, “The crucified people of today lead us to the center of things”. Ask yourself what that quote means to you. To me, it means that no person asked to be born into poverty, to be born with a certain color of skin, to be born into an abusive household, to be born gay, to be born male or female. Every person has a cross to bear. Some crosses are heavier than others. Those that accept the burden of their cross and act as a representation to spread awareness for those with similar struggles lead us to the center, the meaning of life. My favorite bible verse has always been Matthew 16:24, “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.’” This verse has always spoken to me, but I never really knew why. I questioned myself, thinking this verse would be more suited for someone who had experienced a lot of suffering in their life when I have experienced very little. Slowly the meaning is becoming clearer. My cross isn’t one of suffering, but one of wealth and luxury. The life that I was born into is one of extreme comfort; I have never had to go without. My fortunate circumstances are both a gift and a curse. They are a curse because it is hard for me to give up my wealth and comfort in order to help another. My cross is heavy under the weight of my opportunities and my luxuries. I don’t need to feel guilty for the life I was born with, but I need to be able to give up aspects of luxury as well as my inhibitions in order to be in solidarity with the suffering, to love those deemed unlovable, and fight for those without a voice. One week from today, I will start my first immersion, living with the poorest of the country. I am both nervous and very excited to experience this poverty and allow it to change me.

After observing or hearing about the injustices and travesties in our world, it can be almost impossible to move beyond the overwhelming devastation. To me it sometimes feels like all of my breath has escaped and my body turns into a vacuum overcome with guilt and frustration. Many people experience this state of shock, especially after disasters like hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti, however this paralyzed state doesn’t result in change, it hinders it. So how do we become part of the solution? First, we must accept our role in the evil that occurs; “Getting free to love requires facing up to our part in the sin of the world” (Brackley). We must open our eyes and accurately see how what we do affects those both near and far from us. It is not the job of a select few Saints to save those in need, we are each responsible to act, ““Responding to massive injustice according to each one’s calling is the price of being human, and Christian, today. Those looking for a privatized spirituality to shelter them from a violent world have come to the wrong place”. We need to hold each other to a high standard and challenge each other to live a life of peace and love. I’m not saying that in order to fix the world everyone needs to sell all of their possessions and move to a third world country. Each one of us can contribute to the solution of the injustices in our world by building community, by slowing down, by loving everyone including the person that drives you crazy, and by viewing every person you come across with dignity and purpose. One beneficial tool for reflecting on the direction of your life is the Ignatian Daily Examen. This prayer/meditation is a powerful technique that you may find useful for guiding your actions. Ultimately, the crucial change is to turn form selfishness to love. I want to end this very long (my apologies) reflection with an influential poem by Fr. Pedro Arrupe:

FALLING IN LOVE

Nothing is more practical than finding God,

That is, than falling in love in a quite absolute way.

What you are in love with,

What seizes your imagination,

Will affect everything.

It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,

What you will do with your evenings,

How you will spend your weekends,

What you read,

Who you know,

What breaks your heart and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

Fall in love,

stay in love and it will decide everything.

Weekend in Santo Domingo

About two hours to the South East of Santiago lies a small community called Villa Altagracia. Like so many in third world countries the people of Villa Altagracia have know the agonies of sweatshops, however unlike many they have escaped the cruel grip of unfair pay, harsh hours and unbearable working conditions. The main sweatshop in the community, BJ&B, employed 3,000 people making hats for universities in the United States. The workers joined forces with United Students Against Sweatshops to fight for fair working conditions. They won and life improved for the workers until BJ&B was forced to close because the new demands of the workers made it impossible to compete in the market. 3,000 people were now unemployed and had to travel farther from Villa Altagracia to find work which meant they barely ever saw their family. The workers and United Students Against Sweatshops worked with Knight Sports Company to open a new factory, Altagracia. Altagracia was founded on free and fair trade principals. They pay their workers fair wages, have good, safe working conditions including fans and music, they have breaks throughout the day, and the company gives them opportunities to grow. If you ask the workers what the best change from BJ&B to Altagracia was they would say the amount of time they have to spend with their families. The company also helps the employees with obtaining loans that are necessary to buy a decent house. We visited the house of one of the employees. It was made of cinderblock, which is a big step up from the wood and tin houses most people have. To us the house looked very simple, but it was clear by the pride on the man’s face that his house was one of his most prized possessions. Altagracia produces t-shirts sold in many universities across the United States including Creighton. The issue is that of the hundreds of racks of clothes in university bookstores often only one of those is from Altagracia. The other hundred are likely still made by people working in sweatshops. The way to fight this problem is not by boycotting merchandise made in sweatshops, but educating the public about these travesties and educating the company owners and employees about the benefits of a free and fair trade company. Education ignites change.

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After visiting Altagracia, we continued on to the capital of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo. Christopher Columbus and his family founded Santo Domingo. The city has a rough history of chaos, dictators, wars, and pirates. Because it is a port city, it has a lot of European influence in the architecture and the culture. We visited several museums and went on a walking tour of the city to learn about the history, which connects to what we are learning about in our classes. We all tried the local drink, Mama Juana, which is made by letting rum, red wine, and honey soak in different herbs and barks. It was surprisingly delicious! Only a few of us tried an alternative version of Mama Juana that supposedly has hallucinogenic effects and is made with some questionable ingredients like turtle. It tasted like dirt and nature; I wish someone had taken a picture of our faces. Later that night we went out to the local dancing bars and spent the night dancing away. We signed our names along with “Comunidad 19” on the wall of one of the bars. The European style hostel we stayed in felt like a huge slumber party! We stayed up laughing and talking until the early morning. The next day was free to explore the city. The girls couldn’t pass up the opportunity to shop, so we headed to the tourist areas. I bartered for a beautiful silver ring with a blue “love” stone native to the Dominican Republic asking for the Dominican price instead of the posted tourist price. We had lunch at an Italian café overlooking the bustling town square. It was so relaxing to watch the little kids chase the pigeons and listen to the rag tag band play under a twisted old tree. After visiting Christopher Columbus’s remains at the mausoleum (that ironically resembles the buildings of the Aztec people he persecuted) we headed back to Santiago.

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A few important things I’ve learned in my three weeks here:

  • Look down while you walk. If there are sidewalks in Santiago they are broken and uneven, riddled with short metal posts, and no joke have 3 feet deep holes that people use as makeshift trashcans. If you fail to examine the upcoming path, you will surely end up with skinned knees, a lesson I have learned the hard way.
  • The American influence is inescapable. A few of us went to go see the movie American Sniper. For American movies played in the Dominican Republic are either in English with Spanish subtitles or the actors lips are moving in English, but there’s a Spanish voice over. Our movie was in English with Spanish subtitles. It would be so annoying to have to read the dialogue every time you went to watch a movie. The United States truly dominates almost every industry. It was interesting to watch the reactions of the Dominicans in the theater when they showed scenes from 9/11; they seemed to have similar reactions to our disheartened shock at the cruelty. I want to ask a Dominican that has seen the movie what they think of the war scenes, seeing as the DR was occupied twice by the United States.
  • Smoking cigars takes skill and technique. We toured Santiago’s first cigar factory. Each cigar is hand made starting with deveining the tobacco leaves and ending with rolling each layer of the cigar. All of the workers chain-smoke cigars all day long while they work. The tour guide taught us all the proper technique for smoking a cigar. I enjoyed it (and felt pretty manly and cool!) however afterwards my stomach hurt a bit.
  • Teaching English is both frustrating and rewarding. Last week was the first time since starting service at the Haitian school that I have not felt completely incompetent. Most days the communication is painfully slow and difficult, but this week I felt relatively efficient and the kids seemed to understand what I was talking about. I made a lesson plan about the alphabet for the 2nd and 3rd graders consisting of worksheets where they traced the letters, songs, and games. The kids were so eager to learn and were so proud when they successfully traced a letter correctly. One boy even stayed in his seat during recess to finish his worksheet. The students are definitely warming up to us and love to play and sing with us; it is very rewarding!
  • Although we still look like tourists, we are slowly assimilating into the Dominican culture in subtle ways. For example, the guaguas are no longer uncomfortable, but a normal part of our day. We no longer frantically gaze out of the window trying to spot a familiar landmark or worry about getting the attention of the driver, but easily navigate through the city. While riding the guagua, instead of staring, the Dominicans strike up conversation. One cute boy on the guagua decided our Spanish wasn’t quite up to his standard, so he started speaking very slowly and very loudly, it was hilarious! I am also losing some of my American norms. This weekend I bartered in Spanish for the first time. Previously, I always felt awkward and cheap so I didn’t even try to barter. However, I have learned that the sticker price is only for the “extranjeros” and the merchants will knock a few hundred pesos off if you demand the Dominican price.

The more I learn about the Dominican culture, the more I love it and the more questions I start to have. It is truly an incredible and complex place.