Yes, I’m finally settled here in Spain. Some of you think I’ve disappeared off the face of the earth, and that’s partly true. Honestly, this past year has been such a crazy adventure that I’m only now catching my breath enough to process everything that has taken me to up this point.
The adventure started last winter when my initial gap year plans crashed, leaving me with a thousand possibilities and zero certainties. I frantically searched for an alternative gap year option, desperate to have a plan. Those were scary, soul-searching times. At one point, I even considered going to China for a year, but that’s another story…
After a long and complicated journey, I ended up in a teeny village in Spain called Moreruela de Tábara, a village so small that it barely makes the map. Before coming here to Moreruela, however, my sister and I spent a week sightseeing in Madrid and Barcelona, only days before the terrorist attack on La Rambla of Barcelona.
Madrid is a clean, sophisticated city with stunning architecture and narrow, quaint streets. Our apartment was located within walking distance of a lovely cathedral, an art museum, and a botanical garden. I generally don’t fall in love with big cities, but I could imagine myself living in Madrid. The atmosphere is very different from, say, New York City – more relaxed, more congenial. Here people spend hours sitting in open-air restaurants chatting and watching the world go by.
One of the highlights of the trip was el Palacio Real, a magnificent edifice full of ornate furniture and beautiful artwork. Walking through el Palacio Real is like taking a tour through a Medieval conception of Heaven, complete with a Stradivarius violin and statues of Ferdinand and Isabella. I now understand the awe and respect with which 17th century peasants viewed their sovereigns; the palace breathed dignity.
Of course, the awe-inspiring aura of el Palacio Real didn’t prevent us from enjoying the traditional hot chocolate and chorros of la Chocolatería in Madrid, which were absolutely delicious.
After an 8-hour train ride to Barcelona, we spent a day visiting the beach and walking along La Rambla, a famous line of shops and stalls in the heart of the city. Surprisingly, although Barcelona is a famous tourist destination for Americans, Spanish natives don’t consider it as a prime city to visit.
Getting to the beach was trickier than we imagined, since we took the wrong bus two or three times before finally getting to our destination. But no worries – at least we got an informal tour of the city!
We experienced a bit of a shock at a seafood restaurant after our afternoon at the beach when the waiter brought us a plate of little fish (heads and tails included) as an appetizer. Not only that, but I made the mistake of ordering “arroz negro,” thinking that there couldn’t possibly be anything dangerous about rice…until I was presented with a platter of rice smeared with black squid ink. Let’s just say that when dessert came around, I was happy not to find any surprises with my lemon sorbet.
Here in Spain street musicians liven up city squares and subway tunnels with the sounds of violin, flute, cello, and guitar. For any student interested in the arts, Spain is a utopia of cultural experiences.
Now that I’m here in Moreruela, life couldn’t be more tranquil. I feel like I’ve been planted right in the middle of Belle’s “little town, it’s a quiet village, every day like the one before…”. The majority of the population here is at least 40, so I haven’t met many people my age. My days are filled with picking vegetables from the garden, visiting the animals, reading, and, of course, speaking English with two-year-old Julia. We have two horses, Poppy and Mistral, three dogs, and a guinea pig named Florindo.
My Spanish host family is extremely nice, and immediately accepted me as one of their own. I have my own little house, including a kitchen and an office where I can teach online Spanish classes, write poetry, and sketch. Little Julia is sweet, stubborn, and adorable, and has already begun to repeat some words in English (including her favorite
Julia and I at a birthday party
food, “peanut”). I’ve loved entering into village life: going to a Spanish birthday party, walking around the historic city of Zamora, signing up for my library card so I can borrow books from the Bibliobus (a mobile library), riding our horses…
One thing that took me by surprise is the traditional Spanish greeting: two kisses, one on either cheek. People here rarely shake hands, let alone hug. Everyone kisses you when you’re introduced, which can be awkward at first. The culture here in the village is warm and relaxed, perhaps overly so. When Marta and I asked the mayor to sign an important document for my visa during a local gathering, he cheerfully set down his bottle of beer to sign the paper without even reading it.
Another thing that surprised me is the Spanish meal schedule: breakfast in the morning, a snack at 12:00, lunch at 3:00, a snack at 6:00, and dinner at around 9:00-9:30 (or later, as generally happens in our case). For a morning bird, it’s been an interesting adjustment to make, since 9:00 for a Spanish native is still practically daytime. But I’m not complaining about the scheduled snacks; that’s something I can definitely handle! We have an endless supply of fresh vegetables from our garden, a leg of cured ham on the counter (technically it’s raw, but preserved with salt), a Tupperware of blackberries picked from bushes not far from our house, and a basket of nuts above the refrigerator: peanuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios. I still haven’t gotten used to the lines of whole fish (heads, eyes, tales, fins, and everything in-between) in the supermarket, but I’m taking it one step at a time…
Okay, I’m finally sitting down to write about this summer and to be honest, it’s a daunting task. I feel like I lived a lifetime in the past six weeks, and to come home and find everything the same (even my car keys were still sitting on my desk, exactly where I’d left them) is jarring. But now is the time to step back and thank God for the rich blessings He gave me this summer…
After a few days of training in Jarabacoa, I headed off with the other interns on my team to Constanza, a little farming town nestled in a valley and surrounded on all sides by mountains.
The place where we worked, the Ark, is both a school (open to community and orphanage kids) and an orphanage. The Ark is very unique in that the orphanage is made up of four separate houses, each of which has house “parents” and several children. That way, each child feels like he is part of a real family. Each child has a place to belong.
I was placed with four other interns in Constanza: Grace, Mac, Erin, and Augustyna. All of us except Grace and Mac, who were younger, lived in the director’s house (the old director had left, so the house was open) inside the Ark compound, which enabled us to be a part of the orphanage community. Erin was a mother of three children (adopted from Guatemala), so I had three little siblings for the summer!
I helped teach second grade in the mornings, which was a difficult but also a beautiful and rewarding job. The curriculum we used focused on a different Asian country each week, with coloring pages and activities to go along with each country.
The community kids came from difficult home environments, which meant that we had several discipline issues; there were days when it was extremely difficult to maintain any degree of calmness in the classroom, let alone actually teach. However, it was encouraging to see the way God softened their hearts as the summer progressed.
One little boy in particular, Feivi, could be very difficult to work with and sometimes displayed aggressive behavior. One day he was having so many behavioral issues that I stayed in the classroom with him while the others went out for recess. At first, he paced the room knocking over chairs and kicking things aside, refusing to look me in the eyes and pulling away from me when I touched him. Eventually, however, as I spoke to him gently and let him sift through his frustration, he calmed down enough to read a simple picture book describing God’s love with me. That time with him, when he calmly listened to me explain how much God loved him, when he looked at the sweet drawings in the book, was a beautiful moment for me. After that day, he was more open to building a relationship with me and more open to physical touch. Even though he eventually was kicked out of summer school for violent behavior and so I was no longer able to reach him, I know he’s in God’s hands. The seeds that have been sown will continue to grow and hopefully will bear fruit some day. As Vick and Lesley, a missionary couple in Jarabacoa, explained, it’s hard to let go of those kids, but you have to recognize that God has them even when you don’t.
Another of my students, Yorlenis, was a sweet little girl who always listened and who sat quietly while the others misbehaved. Twice I walked home with her after school was over, which showed her I was invested in her as a person, not just as a student. That act of friendship strengthened our relationship and enabled me to understand her, and other kids, better. When a relationship extends beyond the school walls and into a child’s personal life, that relationship has a great deal of power.
It was hard to see the more difficult kids wasting time and preventing good students like Yorlenis from learning, to spend so much time addressing behavioral issues that there wasn’t much time left to teach. But God views productivity differently than we do. What really mattered to Him wasn’t memorizing facts about China and Japan, but instead pouring into each child’s life day in and day out, even when it didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere. What God really cared about were the relationships I formed with each of those children, relationships in which each child knew he could trust me to discipline him in love. When a child realizes that you’re dedicated to helping him change his behavior for the better, he trusts you more, even when discipline hurts.
One of the little boys I worked with, Kirobe, was simply a bundle of love. He was what the Dominicans call “special.” That is, he didn’t relate to others like a normal child or necessarily understand what was going on in the same way that other children did, but he constantly looked for an affirming smile and a warm hug, even when he misbehaved. That little boy showed me so much about gentleness and patience this summer; he was the kind of boy who picked the little fruit growing on the tree by the gate and offered it to me with a huge smile, just because he wanted to give me something.
In the afternoon we offered different workshops to the older kids depending on their interests: sports, cooking, sewing, etc. I volunteered to help with the dance class, not knowing that I would actually be the one teaching the class! Teaching ballet in another language was a challenge, and we faced some attitude issues along the way, but by the end I had become very close with my girls. What struck me was that one of the more difficult girls, Yennery, wanted me to take a video of her thanking me for teaching her…It was such an encouragement to know that all those days of pouring love into each beautiful girl payed off. Of course, I couldn’t have gotten through the summer without Keila, my faithful Dominican friend and assistant. Her patience, gentleness and humility kept our class together. At the end of the summer, my class had a “recital” and presented the dance to “Océanos” (“Oceans”) we had choreographed throughout the five weeks, and it was beautiful to see everything come together.
Outside of teaching, we developed countless rich relationship in the community with other young people, with adults, and with kids. Our nights were filled with ice cream outings, worship nights, youth group, and just sharing life. For me one of the big differences between going to Constanza for a week and going for an entire summer was the ability to integrate fully in the community. Rather than being tourists, we were living in the community and taking part in community life: buying fruits and vegetables at the colmados (little stands on the side of the road), going to the salon with Dominican friends to get my nails done, rushing out to buy soda before having people over our house… Whenever I walked along the streets, there was always someone (or several people) I knew who I could greet. Constanza was my home, and the people of Constanza became my family. I even attended a wedding during my time there! I also celebrated my 18th birthday in Constanza, so I invited several of my Dominican friends over and we all gathered in a circle to play guitar (or listen) and eat fried plantains. What a special birthday!
One of the biggest things God taught me this summer was the value of community – of simply being, rather than doing. If I entered the school each day with a mindset of productivity, I was quickly disappointed by the kids’ lack of attention and by their behavioral issues, and quickly discouraged by how little we got done. But when I entered the school with relationships as my top priority, I had the freedom to focus on the needs of each individual child rather than worrying about how little we accomplished.
But as much as it’s important to build into the lives of other people, you also need to let others build into you and help you when you’re ready to give up. We can’t do this alone, and as much as we Americans like to be strong and independent – to utilize our talents and resources for a good cause – sometimes we just need to learn how to receive.
Hopefully this post gives you a glimpse of what my experience was like this summer, but of course there were so many things I wasn’t able to say here, and so many things I’m still trying to process. I would absolutely love to go back to Constanza (on the next plane!), but we’ll have to see what God has in store…
The train is rumbling along the curves of the mountain outside the screened-in porch where I’m sitting; the birds are singing (it’s been so long since I’ve heard sustained birdsong that it almost feels unreal); and a gentle spring breeze stirs the loose thread on my seat cushion every few moments.
With spring comes lots of decisions. I visited one college today, and I’m off to another one tomorrow. That would be, if I have counted correctly, the sixth college so far. I don’t exactly know why, but college visits leave me utterly exhausted, physically and emotionally. Physically speaking, I only listened to a lecture on Macbeth, chatted with the Education and English professors, got a salad and a dish of rice and stir fry for lunch, and walked around campus. But a college visit involves so much more than observing a class or getting to know possible future professors. It’s a journey of the soul; it takes you deep into yourself, making you question your future and all the plans you have set out for yourself.
What if I make a mistake and choose the wrong path?
My appointment with the Education professor was the last event on my schedule. At a little before 3:00, I walked into a little office with potted plants sitting drowsily on a windowsill and sat down at a round, black table. A whiteboard with a marker drawing of a girl in speakers and a blue and green earth hung on the wall, directly below a poster with the smiling faces of several Grove City graduates, now teachers, and their students.
“You’ve probably already heard a lot about Grove City,” Dr. Nichols began. She had a friendly face with brilliant blue eyes and an endearing smile. “I want this session to be as helpful as possible. Let’s start with any questions you might have.”
That question always intimidates me, since I feel pressured to ask some extremely discerning question and impress my potential future professor with my intelligence. I glanced sideways for inspiration. No intellectual, discerning question popped into my head. Instead, my heart was bursting to know, how on earth do I know if I’m called to be a teacher? The words that actually came out of my mouth were more diplomatic, but still confused and maybe a little desperate.
She smiled reassuringly and assured me that God will inevitably bring to fruition His calling on my life, and that I don’t need to have it all figured out. “You probably have friends you say that have it all planned out,” she explained, “but that’s so unrealistic.”
But it’s so much more comfortable to have it all figured out, to have some kind of a plan. People are capable of making huge mistakes. Would I really have the same future if I went to Grove City as if I opted for, say, a secular community college? Or if I decided not to go to college at all?
My Spanish teacher sent me an email the other day that shed perspective on the process of discerning God’s will. Paraphrasing the message of Kevin DeYoung’s book, Just Do Something, he explained that “God has not planned out a specific course for us that He expects us to follow, but then hidden that course so that we need to be wracking our brains and scrutinizing every sign to make sure we don’t miss it. Yes, He knows each of our days and is sovereign over them. But ‘determining His will’ is not about trying to unscramble the clues he has given us so that we can follow the path he marked out…If we have multiple good options to choose from, we can freely consult our own desires with a view to loving and serving God in every situation.”
I don’t need to look for omens, or signs, or some miraculous proof that I’m choosing the right path. How freeing. God gave us a mind and a heart for a reason, and He expects us to use them. And regardless of the mistakes we make, He will ultimately bring us into the calling He has designed specifically for us.
I still have questions (lot’s of them), and I’m still dreading that May 1st decision deadline, when I’ll have to commit to one college and say no to all the others, which means slamming all those doors on my own fingers. I’m still terrified of making the wrong decision, of choosing the wrong college and thereby missing my dream calling and flunking my future. But at the same time, I also have a kind of stillness inside – a sense of being guided, and protected, and deeply loved by Someone greater than colleges and career paths and even the future. It doesn’t depend on me at all, not really. And that’s comforting.
The Dominican Republic is located on the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with Haiti. Its capital is Santo Domingo, the first city established in the New World by the Europeans. Because of its great beauty, it shouldn’t surprise us that Christopher Columbus loved this island more than any of the other places he discovered.
The Cordillera Central (mountain range) separates the country into two parts: the eastern part is very developed while the western part is virtually unexplored. Although the people living in this underdeveloped are live in extreme poverty, this part of the island is extremely beautiful.
Pico Duarte, the highest peak in the region (3,174 meters) is a popular place for tourists. In addition to mountains, there are various lakes, many beaches, and 108 rivers in the Dominican Republic. It is believed that Lago Enriquillo, a lake located below sea level, has as much salt as the Dead Sea. Because of its fertility, Cibao Valley is the center of a lot of agricultural work, such as livestock farming and the cultivation of tobacco. Sugar, fruit, coffee, meat, tobacco, and cacao are the most exported products in the country.
When the Spaniards arrived at the island of Hispaniola, they encountered the Taínos, an
indigenous group whose culture was fairly developed. In fact, their culture was in the process of becoming an advanced civilization. The Taínos were very skilled at pottery, the making of gold jewelry, and manipulating stone. The majority earned a living by hunting, fishing, and farming, and each village was directed by a leader that was called the cacique. These villages were grouped in districts directed by a single, powerful cacique. If the cacique directed a large village, he received advice by a witch doctor (the behique).
The Taínos valued the capacity of contributing something to the community. For example, even children had to work at taking care of the conuco, a section of land in which yucca was grown. Elderly people were thrown out of the community if they couldn’t work. Nevertheless, the Taínos were a peaceful people and they didn’t have slaves.
According to Christopher Columbus, the Taínos were a generous and beautiful people. Thus, it was easy to take advantage of them. After the arrival of the Spaniards, many Taínos died because of abuse, war, and sickness. It is calculated that about 85% of the population had been exterminated by the beginning of the 16th century. Nevertheless, the influence of the Taínos survives in the language, art, agriculture, and religion of the modern Dominican Republic.
Food and music
The Dominican Republic has a large variety of foods. Some basic ingredients in the Dominican gastronomy, of course, are beans and meet. Beef and chicken are quite common, but goat and pig meat are also eaten. La bandera, for example, is a typical dish composed of rice, beans, and meat, and is eaten with a salad and fried plantains. If you like coffee, you would love the Dominican Republic, where people take a cafecito (cup of coffee) during any part of the day. Dominican coffee is extremely rich and thick.
Music is a central part of Dominican culture – you can hear music everywhere. In fact, many musicians play in the streets! In regards to folkloric music, this genre has roots in the music of the Taínos, Africans, and Europeans. Some common instruments are pallitos (little sticks), maracas, the guayo, and the güiro. La bachata is a type of Spanish music/dance in which the guitar is the principle instrument. It’s a bit sentimental and melancholic because it often focuses on themes of love and rural life. The national dance is el merengue.
Traditions and celebrations
Like other Latin American countries, the Dominican Republic has many holidays and
celebrations. The national festivals are Independence Day (February 27) and Restoration Day (August 16). Although Christmas and Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter) are the most popular holidays, there are several unique celebrations as well. For example, the Day of the Virgin of Altagracia (the country’s patron saint) is celebrated on August 10th. On this day, many pilgrims travel to the Basilica at Higüey and venerate the saint. This tradition, which comes from the Spaniards, is extremely important. In fact, about 8% of Dominicans are named in honor of the Virgin of Altagracia. During the journey, the pilgrims spend time together, dance, and taker care of the bulls that they bring as an offering to the Virgin. The pilgrims hope that the Virgin will help them amidst the pains and difficulties of life.
Carnival, which is celebrated before Ash Wednesday, is another important festival. This week is characterized by parades, masks, floats, and excitement because for a moment the barriers between societal classes are forgotten. Carnival was a pagan tradition until the Spaniards converted it into a Catholic celebration.
The Dominican Republic is a representative democracy with three branches like those of the United States: executive, legislative, and judicial. Its capital is, of course, Santo Doming. The current president is Danilo Medina Sánchez, who was elected in 2012. Since the country so small, many of the politicians are related and personal connects are very important.
Although the Dominican government has tried to establish good relationships with other countries in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Western Europe, there is a great deal of political (and social) tension between the Dominican Republic and its neighbor, Haiti. Still, the country has a close relationship with the United States. The two countries work together to combat drug trafficking, prevent illegal immigration, etc.
In 2014, the Dominican Republic was classified as a 32 in a range from 0 (very corrupt) to 100 (very clean). Evidently, corruption continues being a problem in spite of the democratic advances of the country, especially in the security forces, private businesses, and civil government. Notwithstanding, many governmental groups are striving to combat corruption, such as the National Ethics and Anti-Corruption Committee (created in 2005).
Like many other countries, poverty is a huge problem in the Dominican Republic. In fact,
more than 1/3 of the population survives on less that %1.25 every day. Of course, rural areas suffer more from poverty than do urban areas. Farmers don’t have the technology and the resources they need to make a profit, and the government doesn’t invest much in the rural areas because it is focused on tourism.
Because of its economic problems, the country also suffers from social and economic inequality. Only 30% of children finish their primary education. Without an education, these children aren’t capable of improving their situation and they will never be able to reach a higher status in society.
Another problem is the lack of drinking water and clean toilets. According to one person, “At times, some women have come to me and told me, ‘I turned the faucet on in my house to drink water and I saw some birds and water insects'” (Inzaurralde). The influx of Haitian immigrants has only made the problem worse. In fact, the cholera epidemic that has caused so much devastation in Haiti is spreading to the Dominican Republic.
In addition, it is difficult to receive proper medical attention, especially in rural areas. Unfortunately, President Sánchez doesn’t seem to be worrying himself over rural communities. He is more focused on increasing tourism.
A young boy draws near to a car parked at the traffic light and washes the windshield to receive a few coins. His family had left the fields to move to the city in search of a better life. Upon arriving, they discovered that the city did not offer many job opportunities because of overpopulation and the class system, in which people with darker skin face more obstacles in improving their economic situation. Although the boy’s father has a small food vending business and his sister works as a servant, the family has a hard time making a living.
Note: the above story is fictional, but it is based on the experiences of many people living in the Dominican Republic.
It is common in the Dominican Republic to see various people sitting outside, evidently not doing anything. In reality, these people do not have jobs and cannot do much because of the heat. Because of that, they sit outside and spend time together. The sense of community they create is essential for the well-being of the people.
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The bustling panorama of Constanza, a Dominican town a few hours to the northwest of Santo Domingo, stretched along the mountains opposite. Standing by the statue of el Divino Niño, I inhaled the breeze, which (having shed the motorcycle fumes and street dust from Constanza on its way up the mountain) tasted like August sun and the vapor rising from a faraway river.
Some man erected the statue years ago as a way of thanking God for healing him of cancer. He never took God seriously before that experience, but one night during the chemotherapy stage, his deceased mother appeared to him in a vision and urged him to cling to the Divine Child for healing. The man did, and his cancer left him. Some people donate to charity when they’re healed of cancer; they send money to starving kids in Africa to prove that their lives are useful to the rest of us. Instead, this man advertised his healing by erecting a monument on top of a mountain in the middle of the Dominican Republic to prove that miracles are possible. We all need that reminder.
The strange thing about el Divino Niño is that rather than facing outward to embrace Constanza, the statue turns his back on the little town. What did those hundreds of poverty-stricken people do to make el Divino Niño turn away? In stories, he always welcomed the sick, the lame, and the blind. But that was, after all, 2,000 years ago. Maybe el Divino Niño got tired of dealing with humanity’s messiness and gave up on us all. Maybe healing that man’s cancer was the last miracle that he was willing to perform.
During the ride up the mountain our truck had jerked and lurched and rattled, constantly threatening to eject us out of our seats. Our entire mission team had hopped onto that truck: Heather, with her t-shirt and a pair of neon sunglasses; Lucas, with his ruffled blonde hair and the intensely introverted look he always wore; Sue, Adam, Lauren, Kiki, Bethany, Chris, my mom, me – so many clashing personalities thrust together in a single truck. We hadn’t known each other very well at the beginning of the trip, but we shared our testimonies throughout the week – our testimonies of how we had come to this place, this placing of going up the mountain to see el Divino Niño. I whipped out my phone and tried to capture the ride on video, but nothing could reproduce those bumps, the earthy air, and the mountains rippling over each other. I felt so alive, as if my life in America was all a dream and this was the only real thing. Had I never been alive before?
Finally, the truck eased to a stop and we all looked expectantly toward el Divino Niño, a huge and somewhat disproportionate statue of Christ set onto a platform. Robed in rose-petal pink and wearing a spikey halo around his head, the statue wasn’t exactly a Doryphoros, but the radiant expression of his face gave him a unique attractiveness. Each culture, including the Greeks, has manufactured its own standards of beauty, but that of el Divino Niño is Classic in the fullest sense. Unlike the mole dotting Marilyn Monroe’s artificial upper lip, no one will ever get tired of el Divino Niño’s smile.
Under the influence of that gentle smile I examined the poor town of Constanza, which lay sprawled out like an open briefcase full of papers that some businessman had dropped: a mess of squares and rectangles surrounded by green fields and humping mountain-tops. I couldn’t make out the therapy clinic where I worked as translator or the shop where we bought ice cream flavored like coconut and pastel de tres leches. Someone pointed out the orphanage and school where we led VBS, but the individual faces of the children had melted into the stone walls of the buildings, too miniscule to pick out. Where was Wilson with the scar on his face? Or the boy with the piercing green eyes and freckles, the one who always watched me like a sly cat? Or all the little girls with their braids and happy, dirty faces? If I, standing on this mountaintop and straining my eyes, couldn’t glimpse them, then how on earth could el Divino Niño see them with his back turned?
In the Dominican Republic every year, thousands of men and women go on pilgrimage to the Basilica of Higüey to venerate la Virgen de Altagracia (their patron saint), hoping that she will alleviate the immense suffering that encompasses their daily lives. I’ve never been to the Basilica of Higüey, but I wonder if la Virgin’s back is turned like that of el Divino Niño. I suppose that people go on these pilgrimages because they believe their prayers won’t get heard any other way. They think they have to push themselves into la Virgen’s face for her to notice them. I wonder if that’s how they feel with el Divino Niño.
Inside the statue I found a little room full of candles of all different shades of pink and red: vermillion, coral, salmon, crimson. I admired those little flames, the embodied prayers of Dominicans begging el Divino Niño for the health of a loved one, for their daily bread, or for a job that payed more than a few pesos.
One day during that mission trip we visited a young widow who was trying to scrape enough money together to finish the construction of her house. Her husband, a pastor, had been killed in a motorcycle accident, leaving her alone with her two little girls. It was a barren place without doors or windows (just openings cut out of the chalky-white walls), probably smaller than the size of my living room and kitchen combined. Her two little girls played among the dirt and rubble inside the house where the floor should have been. Did that widow venture to el Divino Niño to light a candle, asking for enough money to finish that house?
Wherever you go in the Dominican Republic, you run into a cluster of children staring at you with smiling faces. It isn’t like in America, where children don’t bother to glance at you, or their own mothers, over their iPads. Dominican children at the bottom of the social hierarchy – illiterate children, campesinos – don’t have iPads, and you don’t usually see them with their mothers (or fathers, if they have any). They don’t seem to belong to anyone except to the mountains, or the streets, or even the little ravines sighing away from the road. The moment that these children see a friendly face they latch onto it, like a dewdrop attaches itself to a rose. I don’t understand much about the relationships between organisms, but I’d call this one symbiotic: the rose prevents the dewdrop from melting into the dirt, and the dewdrop softens, irrigates, and bejewels the rose. I don’t know much about psychology, either. I’ve just observed people, and street children in the Dominican Republic are like those dewdrops: fragile, hopeful, beautiful, transitory. Looking into their faces as they latch onto you, you’re afraid that they’re going to dribble into that mud and be absorbed at any moment. And most of the time, the earth does swallow them. There’s nothing really that you can do about it.
I was standing in the gift shop at el Divino Niño and glancing at the trinkets for sale when a little boy latched onto me (not physically, min
d you, but emotionally). Once our eyes met there was no avoiding it. I like to imagine that he thought me kind, or gentle, or something eloquent, but he probably just liked me because I was “una americana.” The boy, aged about ten or eleven, observed me with a pair of chocolate-mocha eyes that were deep, serious, and lighthearted at the same time. You see that combination with children everywhere in the Dominican Republic – their childishness just manages to hold its head above the waters of abuse and misfortune, of street gangs and unclean water polluted by floating bird carcasses. Tall and lanky, the boy wore a baseball cap and a red shirt with Mario characters on it. Did he even know who Mario was? Some innocent American boy probably donated that shirt to the Haitians without realizing that the Dominicans would sell it on the black market.
We started a conversation in Spanish about something; I think I asked him about his family, but we both sensed intuitively that the words themselves didn’t matter. We were assessing each other amiably, determined to like each other. My little friend followed us back to the truck, and Fred (the missionary) invited an entire cluster of children onto the back to ride down the mountain with us. In America, some well-meaning elderly lady would have labeled us as kidnappers and called the police, but here those kids didn’t belong to anybody anyway (except, perhaps, to el Divino Niño). I asked one of them, a little boy (I can’t remember if it was my Mario friend), if he had any pets, and he shook his head. “¿Por qué? (Why not)?” I probed, gazing at his wistful face, even though I should have known the answer. He smiled and held up his hand, rubbing his fingers together. Of course – they didn’t have money for pets. Is that why he walked up the mountain to see el Divino Niño? To ask for enough money to buy a pet goat?
We smiled at each other the entire way down from el Divino Niño. If I could have, I think I would have adopted them all right then and there. But eventually we reached the bottom and had to say goodbye. The dewdrops rapidly dribbled into the dirt and disappeared. They all hopped out of the truck and scattered to tell their families that they had just seen a bunch of Americans. I wonder what they thought of us, with our iPhones and spare sneakers?
Whenever we drove through the city in our truck, we always waved and smiled at all the Dominicans in the various stages of mundane life: an entire family piled on top of a motorcycle; a group of men drinking in the shade; a bunch of dusty children wandering through the streets; a woman with her groceries piled on top of her head. When they saw us, their faces lit up and they waved back, their eyes following us down the road. Why do I look back at those faces and feel a throb of dissatisfaction, perhaps even guilt? Why do I somehow connect those smiles with a row of candles in a little chamber on top of a mountain? And why does my back as it rumbles away from each successive face remind me of the back of el Divino Niño, turned upon the town of Constanza? I wonder whether we, like el Divino Niño, were to those people more than a simple tourist attraction.
Our team leader warned us girls to be very careful around Dominican boys because they snatch up any opportunity to get on good terms with “las americanas.” Their attentions are hardly flattering. In reality, they see us as a fast and easy pass to the United States, the Land of Opportunity. It’s strange to be treated like a ticket, like some secret password for success.
Once again I think of the candles, el Divino Niño, and the pilgrims to the Basilica of Higüey. I wonder whether Jesus likes being treated like a ticket or a secret password. I wonder whether the people who hustle up the large steps to look at the statue’s face secretly harbor the hope that el Divino Niño will heal them, just like he healed the man with cancer. And when he doesn’t take them out of poverty, or prevent their family member from dying, or give them a good crop harvest, do they shake their heads and throw away the ticket as defective? No, because the flames of the candles keep on burning, day after day and year after year, and people keep on visiting that monument with its back turned to Constanza.
In America, too, we have tickets, but of a different kind. We have the tickets of luxury, and intelligence, and success – of impressive job resumes and Bath and Body lotion bottles with pretty flowers on the front. No one knows what the tickets are for in the end, but no one really cares. It doesn’t matter if they’re worth anything or not. The Dominicans look at us as tickets to material advancement, but if they lived in America, they would see all the dissatisfaction, depression, and anger and wonder what on earth they had traded their Divino Niño tickets in for. Not much, I’d say. The whole concept of tickets – the whole ticket industry – is skewed. You can’t trade in your ticket of materialism for happiness any more than you can go on a pilgrimage to Higüey hoping that all your problems will melt away. Maybe it’s time that we stopped treating Christ – or people – like tickets.
Why did the man make el Divino Niño face away from Constanza? Supposedly, the people who erected el Divino Niño turned him the wrong way by accident and the man didn’t have enough money to change it. On the other hand, el Divino Niño might have told the man to let it be; he might have chosen that position. That way, the only people smothered by that radiant smile are those who trek up the mountain seeking it. Each Dominican in Constanza knows that he’s there; they can feel his influence over the town even with his back turned. They understand that in order to see his face, they must hike up the mountain to meet him. El Divino Niño wants them to prove their loyalty to him. He wants to be adored for the sake of his beauty, not for his ticket-value, so he tests them. It’s like with the pilgrims to Higüey. No one promises those pilgrims that they will get what they ask for, but they continue to make that journey year after year. Why? Maybe they want to prove to la Virgen that they love her even when she doesn’t stop the street gangs or wipe out corrupt government officials.
I have a friend who has wandered away from the faith slowly but steadily; she seems to have given up on the idea of a faithful God.
“Have you ever tried to seek Him?” I asked her.
“Yes, I tried. And nothing happened.”
No, that’s all wrong! You can’t take just one step up that mountain and be overwhelmed by the presence of el Divino Niño. Don’t you realize that at first you must be content to see his back, knowing that you’ll soon see him face to face? Don’t you know that sometimes, on the curves of the mountain, you lose site of him altogether? He’s still there, I tell you, and he’s waiting for you. But he doesn’t want to be treated like a ticket.
I will never see that boy in the red Mario shirt again. I will never again look into the faces of those children who melted like dewdrops into the parched and thirsty soil of the Dominican Republic. And yet, I hope that little boy stayed far away from the witch doctor’s house that we passed on our way to the airport, with its satanic symbols dangling from the trees. Did he ever venture to travel up the mountain to el Divino Niño again? Did he ever put his candle inside the monument’s bosom? I don’t know. I also can’t stop thinking about those people whose eyes followed us as we chugged down the road in our truck. Did they ever get sick and tired of looking at the back of el Divino Niño? Did they ever trudge up the mountain to see his face – not to get something from him, but just to belong to him? I can’t say. But I hope so.