In the last few weeks of our time studying abroad, we made the most out of every moment, filling our last days full of adventure. Some of our adventures included touring a coffee farm, hiking to a secluded waterfall, discovering Taino caves, a final weekend in Santo Domingo full of exploration and laughter, and beach day at a tiny sand island called Cayo Arena located in the middle of the ocean.
The hardest parts of the last few weeks were all of the goodbyes: to the friends we had made all across the country, to our own Comunidad 19, and, hardest of all, to our campo families. As part of reorientation week, we visited the campo for a final overnight stay to say goodbye. One of the most astonishing moments of the semester was when my little buddy, Christopher, gathered a group of us around and reenacted the entire lesson about hygiene and trash disposal that we had presented to his school three weeks earlier. Christopher remembered the exact events of the skits, for example he gave us each a piece of trash telling us to throw it on the ground then asking us if we wanted to play soccer to which all of us responded, “We can’t there’s too much trash!” He crushed leaves in his hands and shook all of our hands showing how germs spread between people (we had done this exact activity using glitter) then got a bottle of water and washed all of our hands making us sing a song to know how long we should wash our hands. It was so moving and also humbling to realize that the kids in the campo really remembered what we said and did, not only in the lessons we taught them, but also in how we interacted with them and each other. It was a very good reminder that we need to speak and act consciously because someone is always learning from our behaviors whether they are good or negative. I could not have predicted how hard leaving the campo would be. I find it so unbelievable and extraordinary that we were able to create such meaningful relationships with people who we spent a short time with and didn’t speak our native language. It was the hardest for me to say goodbye to the kids in the campo because I don’t have any way to stay in contact with them. All I can do is secure them in my prayers and hope to visit them again one day. I also pray that I had a positive impact on their life and that my leaving them doesn’t do more harm then all of the memories we created together. As per usual, Kevin quietly disappeared right before I had to say goodbye to him. At first I was upset, but then I realized that if I had to say goodbye to my little brother, I probably wouldn’t have been able to leave. I would rather remember the countless other joyful hugs than one final tearful hug. A day after returning from the campo, we had to say goodbye to our service sites. It struck me walking into the converted church for the final time, how much had changed since our first visit. The students who once regarded us with suspicion and wariness, now jumped from their seats to greet us. At the beginning it felt like we were teaching to an empty room, but by the end the students proudly raised their hands, excited to show us what they knew. Even our little toddler friend, who I was convinced for the first half of the semester didn’t know how to talk, grew so close to us that he wouldn’t stop talking even when we were trying to teach the other kids. Leaving Centro Educativo Cristiano de Pontezuela, I was hopeful for the continued achievement and growth of the talented and determined students we taught.
After saying enough goodbyes to last a lifetime, it was time to board the plane to New York. No one ever expects culture shock to hit when returning to your home country, but living in a different country changes you. Immediately, culture shock hit me when we landed in the New York airport. I found myself talking to obvious English speakers in bits of Spanish, like greeting people with “Buenos dias” or thanking the waitress for bringing me water with “Gracias” or asking people to move over with “Permiso”. I got some very confused looks. Another very strange phenomenon was how uncomfortable it felt to be in a sea of Caucasian people. It felt like I didn’t belong with them after having been surrounded by the beautiful bronze skin of Dominicans. The third strangest culture shock moment was so small and insignificant and yet made the reality of being back in the United States very concrete. I received change for a purchase and when the cashier put the American coins into my hand their foreignness sent a weird feeling through my body. The coins felt so small, light and thin compared to the Dominican coins I had used every day to buy a soda from the colmado or to pay for a guagua fare. Just like the coins felt so unfamiliar, the United States culture likewise is just as strange. I miss the community and the connectedness of the Dominican people. I miss walking down the street and seeing families and friends playing dominoes or listening to music on their front porch. I miss the friendliness and the immediate willingness to help a complete stranger. I miss the simplicity of life of the mañana culture. I miss how everone uses only what they need because they take personal responsibility for the wellbeing of their neighbors. I miss the lack of a personal bubble when strangers greet you with a warm hug and kiss on the cheek or when you are crammed into a guagua with thirty other people. I miss the liveliness and ever present music playing from some colmado or house. Most of all I miss the people who opened their homes and their hearts to a random bunch of gringos and changed my life forever. As Dominicans say, “I’m not leaving, I’m only preparing my return”.