This past summer, after perusing through Latin American service trip opportunities, I decided to sign up for one. Two weeks later, I found myself in the small village of Cruz Verde, about an hour outside of Santo Domingo, armed with only the basic necessities and a Spanish-English Dictionary. I hadn’t known any of the other volunteers attending, possessed only choppy conversational Spanish, and had flown solo all the way from Louisville, Kentucky.
I was immediately overwhelmed by the rapid pace of the language and the lazy execution of Dominican Spanish. I found myself frequently repeating “No se, no se” (I don’t know, I don’t know), and receiving quizzical stares when I tried to form coherent sentences.
At first, I arrived promptly to meetings and meals, but quickly discovered that schedules don’t exist south of the Florida coast. If breakfast was at seven, you were better off leaving your house around seven-thirty. This dilatory tendency made trying to plan an art camp for the children of the community difficult and frustrating at times, but I was ultimately able to play a large role in setting up activities.
For the next week, life was nothing but a blur of small, elated kids running from station to station making bracelets, necklaces, paper airplanes, pipe cleaner animals, and watercolor paintings. It was a lot like baby-sitting, but in Spanish. After each full day of craft projects, with kids screaming for more colored paper and demanding more piggy back rides, I welcomed the moment when I could collapse onto my mosquito-netted mattress and drift to sleep in the muggy darkness. However, it was a fulfilling exhaustion that generated warmth within that I had taken a part in creating this event for the Dominican children. While I may not want to be a caballo, or horse giving rides for the rest of my life, I can definitely see myself working with children in the future.
I had come to the Dominican Republic for several reasons: to share my love of art and to help the less fortunate, to improve my Spanish, and to recount my adventures in a glowing college application. But what I received was much, much more than what I had expected. Sure, I volunteered and grew more comfortable understanding Spanish at a faster pace, but more importantly, I glimpsed a culture truly different from my own. I came to appreciate the relaxed atmosphere and the friendly, welcoming approach toward strangers that permeated throughout Cruz Verde, which is something I now adapt to my own life.
Friends and family are extremely precious in Dominican culture, and new acquaintances are received with open arms. I treasure the time I spend with my own friends and relatives more after observing my Dominican hosts. And when it comes to promptness, what’s five minutes here and there? It’s not how fast you arrive at your destination; it’s the journey itself that matters.
Last summer, I went on a journey. I did it all on my own, submerged myself into a completely diverse situation, and had only my instincts and independence to guide me. I rode a horse without a saddle (not recommended), drank the water (puked my guts out), danced the Bachata (without any rhythm whatsoever), showered with two gallons of water (yeah, that’s hard to do), and experienced the best summer of my life. Who knew that I would find all this on a small island in the Caribbean? It only took a fourteen-hour round trip flight, a suitcase full of art supplies, and the warming embrace of the Dominicans to discover.
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