As the runway fell away beneath the plane my stomach dropped with it. I shut my eyes and fought the fear creeping into my mind as the flight attendant alerted us that we’d land in Santo Domingo in two hours. I exhaled and opened my eyes, suddenly acknowledging how real it all was.
I’d be living in the Dominican Republic for two months, teaching children and organizing service projects in a tiny town with one dirt road and no electricity or running water. Our extensive Amigos program training covered safety regulations, cultural sensitivity, and codes of conduct, but never once did they mention the moment when everything you’ve ever known slips away behind a cloud. It’s a moment where you are left with a horizon so wide open that it’s utterly daunting, unimaginable and unpredictable.
â–º honorable mention 2012 TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
Yet as frightening as it was, I also felt braver than ever before. I’d purposely put myself in a situation where I had to be. I’d shouldered my backpack and traded my comfortable Colorado world for something unknown. I thought I was going to the developing world to help people change their communities, but in reality it was their world that was going to change me.
As the bus bumped down the muddy road to my community for the first time, I stuck my head out the smudged window and gazed at one-room houses with tin roofs and wooden walls as children cheered during a game of baseball with their treasured, homemade cloth ball. Seeing this I realized it was a real place with a community that existed before I got here and would be there after I left.
As crowds of dark faces grinned their aged and weathered smiles at me, a complete stranger, I suddenly realized it wasn’t all about me. Until then all I’d thought about was how I would handle it, what I would do, and how I would help these people. Then I realized they have brilliant, fully functioning lives of their own. I met some of the most humble, fascinating and remarkably sage people I’ve ever known. And they didn’t gain these qualities through IB courses or extracurricular activities. In fact, many of them were illiterate. But it didn’t matter. They’d gained their wisdom in the real world, a world where I traded my iPod for singing while cooking plantains and my homecoming dress for barefoot dancing during Tropical Storm Emily. Being exposed to this simple and unburdened culture made me realize that the problems in my life are not an accurate representation of the problems in the world. It burst my self-focused bubble and opened my eyes to the world as it is and not as I wish to see it.
Talking in seminars used to give me butterflies, but after two months speaking a foreign language to adult community leaders, organizing town meetings, leading projects, and teaching children about their rights, those butterflies have flown away. Before I left I never thought I could pull together a community like that, yet they not only understood me, they respected me. Now I recognize I have something valuable to contribute. That new-found confidence gives me insights into how the world works and who I am. I’ve learned that the world is a fascinatingly diverse place and that I can make a home anywhere in it.
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