It’s been almost exactly 12 years since I first stepped onto the tarmac and inhaled the muggy, cigarsmoke air of the Dominican Republic.
It wasn’t love at first sight by any means. I spent sleepless nights cringing at the sound of rats scurrying in the ceiling mere inches from my bunkbed. Mornings were punctuated by rooster crows and donkey brays, and runny oatmeal did little to improve my perspective. But then I got to know the mischievous neighbor boys who could catch lightening-fast lizards, and I held fast to fuzzy-haired clinging toddlers. I ate habichuelas y arroz and I explored jungled mountainsides. I played baseball with oranges and cardboard mitts and something got down in my soul and cemented me to that place.
Two weeks later, the jet peeling off the runway ripped my heart out and I knew I’d be back.
View of the barrio from my window
A mere 4 years later, I found myself bumping down a dirt street in a beat-up Toyota Tacoma bound for the barrio. Half-naked kids ran alongside and slapped the truck with brown hands as it struggled through the mud and the potholes. Women in brightly colored curlers lazed in doorways, midriffs showing as they hitched their babies up on their hips. Merengue music poured out of colmado stores in decibels of nearly tangible levels.
I was simultaneously terrified and exuberant.
Me (17) with my host family in the barrio
I was proficient in ghetto Spanish in three months. Every day was an unparalleled experience of Life. Nothing shakes up a 17-year-old’s life like residing in the dead center of a third-world slum. My world was a page torn straight out of a National Geographic magazine. I’d be lying if I said I loved every moment, for that is simply not possible. I begged God for months not to “ask me to be a long-term missionary”. Certainly I was no Mother Teresa. I yelled at kids peeking in my windows at dawn, spent more time hanging in the street with good-looking teenage boys than visiting single moms in need, and griped at having to handwash my laundry every week on my scorching hot front porch.
Barrio punks - blonde hair indicates severe lack of nutrition.
God has a sneaky way of weaseling into your heart though. As though it were mere moments, a year passed. I found myself lying on my flat roof staring up at the stars. I was surrounded by people who I now counted as close friends. The barrio was unusually silent, interrupted only by the distant cough of the occasional motorcycle. We lay quietly, savoring the peacefulness of the night, pressed down by the weight of goodbyes.
On the rare cloudless Oregon night, I often look up at those same constellations (tilted slightly in the celestial sphere) and remember mi patria over 3500 miles away. Now the marvel of technology allows the rug-rat kids in the barrio (all grown up now and applying to college!) to share their lives with me via Facebook chat. It’s been the privilege of my life to be one of them.
Juana roasting coffee over open flame
Someday, I know I’ll be back for good. I dream: of working the land alongside Dominican farmers. Of watching my future children kick soccer balls in the Pley with Haitian boys and girls. Of making extra-sugary espresso in my own greca and serving it to friends in my own home. Of dreaming in Spanish again.
Pig farm in the mountains