Note: This is my account of the first two days of my service learning trip to a Dominican Republic Batey (a shantytown) over the summer. The two weeks I spent there changed my life, and I really want to submit this or a variation of it for some of my college apps.
I touch down. As I walk off the airplane, I feel the immediate rush of heavily fortified air engulfing my lungs. I look around and I see a modern setting. Pretty ladies with plastic eagles pinned to their chests, which stare at me blankly, greet me as my feet first touch the Dominican laminate.
The ride to the hotel changes everything. My mind seems as dark as my surroundings as I try to make out the foreign individuals who walk upon the streets outside of the vehicle; these fifteen minutes of blindness precede my first steps onto Dominican trash in the gutters of Santiago. This doesn’t bother me as much as my first encounter with the people of Santiago: a barely clothed two year-old walking barefoot down an alley. I am shooed into the comfort of my hotel where I am told that I need to eat, bathe, and sleep.
I wake up to the sound of my roommate snoring. It is 6:30 AM. I can hear Spanish being spoken. I can’t distinguish whether it is coming from the TV or real people, but in either case I am equally fascinated. I walk out onto the balcony only to find 3 men with machine rifles (for my protection) lounging about on the sidewalk below me.
My iPod shuffles to Coldplay as our bus crushes the dusty gravel and rolls into the village. In my ignorant excitement, I snatch my belongings and rush outside. This time, hot dry air invades my lungs and I catch my breath once more as I see what surrounds me. Eyes, feet, chickens, and blowing trash follow me. I am nervous and yet interested in this new place. My first sense is to let my mind project typical middle-class thoughts onto the people, which I do.
Francisco, a small but exuberant 4 year-old, holds my hand in hopes that I will pick him up, but the electronics that I am carrying prevent that. He forgets his attempts and begins to speak in Creole about (I assume) who and what he is. I nod and I arrogantly speak what little Creole I do know. He laughs with slight confusion in response.
His house is a two bedroom cinder block building. I enter this place with deep curiosity. Used cans and pesos scatter the peeling cement floor, and he invites me to sit down. Through the dusty wooden blinds, I can see his mom washing his clothes in a metal canister outside. He runs to a 10 inch black-and-white TV and turns it on. The TV show depicts wealthy people speaking French, the language that only the rich Dominicans and Haitians seem to know. He just laughs hysterically.
Trust is what keeps this community together: it’s like one big extended family. Futbol (soccer) prevails in the batey; it brings people together: elder women frolic with the children, kicking partially deflated balls. Men chatter in Spanish as they grab some mangoes for their family. This community is sustained, but I am not. I find myself consumed with jealousy. These people seem happier than I am! How could this be? My jumbled mind pushes these thoughts aside as I eat fresh pork that was slaughtered that day. It’s 5:00 in the evening. I have been in the batey for seven hours.
It is time to go, but surely I cannot be leaving this place. We show our passports at the military checkpoint, whose soldiers seem unhappy despite their power and influence. The sun sets over the hills, and we head back to Santiago. Seeing the batey has dislodged previous personal values from my brain, and in their place a new way of thinking about what poverty is has situated itself permanently.