Thursday, June 19, 2014

A semester in the Dominican Republic

When I decided to study abroad in the Dominican Republic, I honestly knew very little about it. The semi-Spanglish, Dominican-centric novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is one of my favorite books, so that seemed like pretty good signpost. Beyond that, I wanted to speak Spanish, be in Latin America, and have a hands-on experience, not just an easy sprinkling of classes and an overload of partying. But when I arrived at my program, CIEE Service-Learning in Santiago, DR, I got a lot more than I bargained for: rapid-fire and sometimes incomprehensible Dominican dialect, primary school students who challenged me in more ways than I could have imagined, celebrations that consumed entire months, and travel that pushed me, broadened my mind, and healed me. My semester was incredibly intense and undoubtedly challenging, but it was also, overwhelmingly, amazing.

I lived in Santiago de los Caballeros, the second-largest city in the Dominican Republic.  Pictured is the Monument, which helped me orient myself in unfamiliar neighborhoods because from pretty much anywhere in Santiago, it pops out above the skyline.

Although I was enrolled in university classes, my program was focused on community development, so I spent two days each week with these kiddos at la Escuela Comunitaria Arturo Jimenes, a community school run by Oné Respe (honor, respect in Creole), a nonprofit focused on racial and gender justice. I facilitated art projects using accessible materials and of course became the americana fixture in the yard at recess.

My father, who studied abroad in London, was a little bummed that I forewent Europe and all of its majestic history for my own study abroad experience. Of course, Dominican history isn't really taught in the US, but it's fascinating and inspiring. I became particularly captivated by the 14 de junio movement for the resistance against Rafael Leónidas Trujillo's dictatorship, led in part by the Mirabal sisters (Minerva, Patria, and María Teresa). The above image, which shows the photos of fallen revolutionaries as well as busts of the Mirabal sisters in the background, was taken at the Mirabal house, which was turned into a museum I was lucky enough to visit. I was and am still ensnared by the passion and bravery of these great female leaders, whom I'd never encountered before because they're Caribbean heroines, not European ones.

I found during my semester that one of the best ways to get to know Dominican culture was to engage in its celebrations. Carnaval marks the time right before Catholic Lent, and through ornate masks and costumes it pays homage to all things carnal and indulgent. One Carnaval tradition in the city of La Vega, pictured above, is for the masked participants to slap festival-goers on the backside with leathery balloons that are actually inflated intestines. My friends and I definitely had bruises and definitely had a blast.

To provide contrast to my very urban day-to-day experience, my program included a week in Rio Limpio, a rural town near the Haitian border. We learned all about sustainable agriculture and began to understand how Dominican life looks similar and different in urban versus rural contexts. Motos, or motorcycles, for example, are ubiquitous. 

It was certainly valuable to learn about agricultural production in the DR, but mostly I just enjoyed the insanely delicious tropical fruit. This photo was taken at a stand on the side of the highway. My host mom gave me homemade passionfruit juice on the regular. (Passionfruit juice, or jugo de chinola natural, is pretty much as common in the DR as orange juice in the States.) Fruit just hasn't been the same since I've returned.

The other way the DR spoiled me: the beach. Although Santiago is landlocked, I was never more than two hours from the ocean, and I definitely took advantage of that, both through educational excursions with my program to regions like the Southwest, pictured above, and on weekend trips with my friends. We stumbled upon this white-stone beach on a road trip when we needed to find a bathroom. Quite literally, this was our pit stop.  During this semester beauty was just inescapable.

Probably the highlight of my semester took place outside the Dominican Republic, when I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Haiti during Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Having spent three months in the DR mulling over the fraught, and often troubling, relations between Dominicans and Haitians, this trip was especially meaningful. I experienced vibrancy and grace on walks through the city of Cap-Haïtien, sampled Creole food, climbed to breathtaking views, and most importantly, gained new perspective on the border tensions. Even though I feel a great affection for the DR, Haiti really stole my heart at the end of my semester, and I hope to return as soon as possible.

- Amy '15