It’s taken me a few weeks to fully digest and acclimate to life back on the ground here in New York. Recently, a few colleagues and I flew over 1,000 miles and drove five hours to the rural town of Derrumbadero for a service trip with the organization, Bridges to Community. There, we worked side-by-side with local contractors, families, and our fearless NGO coordinators, including a church group from Derry, Pennsylvania, to construct a home for a well-deserving family. The fourteen of us had originally set out to do the same work in the town of Nindiri, Nicaragua, a town just outside the main province of Managua. However, just weeks before we were to embark, political and civil unrest broke out in the capital and nearby cities. Most groups hoping to do mission work in Nicaragua were either forced to postpone their efforts or volunteer to take part in the on-going projects in Derrumbadero, San Juan, Dominican Republic. The news coming out of Nicaragua was disheartening and tragic by all accounts, but I am glad we were still able to leave our mark, or rather, for the community of Derrumbadero to leave a mark on us. A couple of weeks before our journey, the seven of us, from across several different business units within the company, met for the first time in a conference room to go over the details, dos & don’ts, and smart items to bring for the trip. God bless our trip organizer for mentioning the invention that is a solar heated shower bag, or this would be an entirely different blog post. We all chatted, asked questions, and were either pumped or nervous to head to the remote, rural town miles away from the big city. The day quickly came. Our departure seemed so far away while counting the days. We passed the time fundraising, recruiting volunteers, and going about business as usual. Before we knew it, June was upon us, and we were scrambling to pack, set automatic out-of-office replies, and close out the work week.
After a lovely morning with my son chattering at our favorite cafe, climbing park jungle gyms, and shoe shopping (I bought my hiking boots that day; talk about last minute), I made one last bag check and headed off to the airport. The car ride to the airport was peaceful and cathartic. I took in the traffic, the scenery, the perfect weather, and the beauty of my city before I reached JFK international airport, reflecting on the days past. I’ve never gone camping, built a home, or lived in a rural area before, so the thought of spending a good part of a week off the urban jungle grid seemed exhilarating and exotic.
A seamless transition from curbside check-in, airport security, and a juicy cheeseburger at the Palms near the gate could only have been met by a less than tranquil plane ride. I couldn’t have predicted the long, shabby-haired toddler, giving his caretaker a run for his money at the gate, would be my row mate aboard the flight. All hopes of getting a few hours of shut-eye had vanished. My noisy and restless companion reminded me how far I’ve come in practicing patience and developing catlike reflexes. There was a moment where my eye wandered from the screen ahead to find his tray veering up and his complimentary apple juice veering south. I grabbed the tray immediately, returned his apple juice to the upright position and tried to close my eyes. Instead of a much-needed nap, I was subjected to the animated feature film, Cars, without sound, three times in a row, and hand-fed Cheezits. Approximately three hours later, we landed in Santo Domingo. I said farewell to my in-cabin entertainment pal and hello to a colleague, whom I met at the gate just before our departure. We accompanied each other through customs as we headed to baggage claim to recover our luggage and locate our hotel transfers. When we left the customs area, we were both touched and taken aback by how many locals were waiting at arrivals with flowers, balloons, and signs to greet their loved ones—something you don’t see that often here in the states.
We were relieved to see our own little welcome party: the driver, and one of the coordinators from Bridges to Community, the NGO, we’d be working with on the project. Our flight was the second to land, and most of our group had arrived to DR hours earlier. The two gentlemen, both fluent Spanish speakers, chitchatted the entire drive, being sure to include us when the driver’s English could oblige. My colleague and I took on the views of the colonial city and the sea. The driver pointed out landmarks, precious stones, and architecture along the way. The city of Santo Domingo, the island known as the Dominican Republic, was spectacular.
We arrived at our quaint hotel for the evening. Immediately, we were greeted by the rest of our coordinating staff and our colleagues. Elated to see my coworker from my department and our resident drama queen, we headed to the poolside canteen for cold beverages. There was sure to be no shortage of laughter. We found our way to our room where we’d be slowly introduced to the bunk life. That evening, we slept, three young women to a room: my colleague, with whom I shared the flight, myself, and a co-ed from the Derry group. I freshened up and joined my constituents at the lobby bar and pool. We chattered breathlessly under the treetops directly above the courtyard. The hotel reminded me of an elaborate, adult treehouse. There was a net covering the pool high above in the trees to shelter swimmers from the falling fruit above. The rooms surrounded the pool in a courtyard-like configuration. Even when in the rooms, it felt like you were still among the elements, the trees, and the stars. We had dinner at a nearby restaurant, then returned for an evening dip and a good night’s rest.
By the morning, all 14 of us were together, including the Derry group. We had breakfast, circled up to discuss the trip, the agenda, and to welcome one another. Then we went for the walking tour of the colonial city, Santo Domingo. I always find it fascinating and important to become familiar with an island or country’s history. The city of Santo Domingo did not disappoint.
The colonial city was founded in 1498 by Bartholomew Columbus, the brother of Christopher.1 Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic, is the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the Americas. As we toured the city, it was evident how rich the history and culture was. Santo Domingo has a winding history of settlement, ruin, slavery, pirates, and dictatorship. If you have a chance to read up on the history, it is a fascinating one, and it articulates the prelude of our history as Americans.
Once we walked the beautiful city and toured the preserved forts, churches, universities, and tombs, it was time to do some souvenir shopping and local eating. We returned to our hotel, grabbed our bags, and packed our way into what could only be called the ‘Aventura Van’. It was similar to a retro van you’d see with bands that toured long ago, circa 1970’s or 1980’s. It had a blue and white satin, or likely polyester, curtains. But it had air-conditioning and tunes. What else could we have possibly needed?
We all slept for most of the five-hour drive. The walk prior, the beating sun, and the lull of the road took care of any reservations we might have had about leaving our bodies and the contents of the bus in the hands of complete strangers. I opened my eyes briefly to peer out the window when we hit a bustling town or truck stop. Local vendors would hang off the bus, pedaling cashews, mangos, and other snacks to the tour buses that would slow down. We eventually made it to our humble abode for the next four days and four nights. It was a large one-floor building that looked to be an office-turned-dormitory, just steps away from the community center. The community center was built by the organization a few years prior and was a staple in the Communial area, a town adjacent to Derrumbadero. It was what I imagined summer camp would be—rows of bunk beds, an outhouse, and no running water. I’ll let you all confirm or bring me to earth, but that’s my humble hypothesis of what true camping is like.
As we unpacked and picked our bunks, we all looked at each other partly in disbelief and partly in. For many of us, we expected more, and for others, we expected less, so the medium left us with indifference. There was no going back. We headed to dinner at a nearby home. The head woman of the household—I’ll call her Dona—prepared all our meals for the duration of our stay. Dona and her family were entrusted with taking care and keeping an eye on the grounds that belonged to the community and Bridges. The meals she prepared were humble and simple, but delicious. I was almost ashamed to look forward to them as they were cozily nostalgic. They transported me to the meals my great-grandmother prepared for us out of love with the little means she had. They also weren’t too different than the meals I prepared on the weeks that money needed to be stretched. Meals consisted of mostly rice and beans, mangu (mashed plantains prepared like garlic mashed potatoes), banana, salad, melon and/or pineapple. These are staples in my home. The meals were a departure from the norm for most of the volunteers. After dinner concluded and we all got a bit more acquainted and said goodnight to living easy, we turned into our beds to rest for the big day. My colleagues, one from California and the other from Brazil, reached for their journals and began to record the day. I did the same. Before I knew it, it was lights out. The dawn was quickly upon us and I was very much grateful to the earplugs I brought with me. You see, roosters don’t just crow at sunrise or 5am like most of us urban kids have been led to believe. They crow ‘cual quieran’, which means whenever they want, so the plugs were helpful when I heard the faint crow at 2am. They also staved against the sounds of a bunkmate that I’m convinced suffers from sleep apnea. At first, the snoring was aggravating; however, as the days went on, I was more concerned with the flow of oxygen to his brain. Dios Mio! I digress.
We all arose at 6am. I had awoken about 30 minutes earlier because I was too petrified to use the outhouse in the wee hours, so I held my pee until the sun rose. I ran to the outhouse, brushed my teeth by the fields and changed into my work clothes. Many were in the same rhythm, and so we made our way to Dona, the grounds caretaker, for breakfast. I was hopeful for avena (oatmeal in Spanish), but I believe it was eggs and salami with mangu, which did not disappoint. We drank the strong coffee, chugged the sweet limeade, and hopped into the truck with our gear, water bottles, and sunscreen in hand. Day one was grueling, partly because my Mondays are much more sedentary and air-conditioned, but mostly because my body has not known that level of physical labor. We dug holes with picks and shovels, and when on our hands and knees with stainless steel bowls. We hammered nails and barbwire into the framing to create a foundation for the concrete walls. We measured, cut, and layered wood panels to create interior and external walls. We painted the roofing sheets with zinc to avoid rusting. All this for six hours a day in the beating sun. Rinse and repeat for 4 days straight. What do you get? You get a team that was once two separate groups but came together as one. You get a home built with your bare hands and a sense of completion and accomplishment that matches no other. You get smiles and inside jokes with the locals and the children who came to pitch in where they could. You get dancing and singing in the sun while painting a house the sweetest shade of pink and blue. You create bonds and memories that last a lifetime.
On our last day with the Derrumbadero community, we took pictures, both digitally, and thanks to the Derry group, printed Polaroids for the families and children—a gesture that was a huge deal because most if not all of the families did not own a smartphone, a camera, or in some cases, even a full-length mirror. We took pictures of the home, the family, and most importantly, all the talented youth we encountered. Their work ethic, their pride, and their resilience matched no other I have ever seen. After our closing dinner at Dona’s house, we were sent off with a congo drum band and a dance or three with local kids in the community. I must say, the last dance made me homesick. It made me appreciate my son’s energy so much more. We packed up that evening, or more importantly, unpacked, giving the community most of the clothing we came with. I brought clothes specifically from my son’s closet for the children. I left that to the community to divide as needed. I left the boots I worked so diligently in so that a young man or woman (I bought them in the men’s section of my local shoe store) could hike the hills or the roads toward school, work, or the store for their family. I left all my athleisure apparel and a bevy of branded volunteer shirts from my company, as well as the clothes I cherry-picked from my closet to give to the community, including bras, which our coordinator was ecstatic about (yes, honey, ain’t nothing like a good bra).
In the AM we had our final breakfast, said our thank you’s and our goodbyes, then filed back into the van, feeling physically, emotionally, and mentally lighter. This time, we drove 6 hours to the beaches near Santo of Boca Chica. I certainly slept like a baby for most of the ride, getting up only for the restroom and a silly photo op at the truck stop. When we got to the resort mid-day, I collected my keys and immediately changed into my bathing suit. The sand, the waves, and the pool were calling me. I’ve always had this connection to the water, and so it was like a whole new homecoming. The whole time I felt somewhere between out of my comfort zone and right at home. It can only be explained as the connection we all feel to one another and the places where community and love live: the mother earth. We all want the same things for ourselves and our families. We all want a safe place to live. We all want clothes on our backs and food in our bellies. We all want to love and to feel understood. We all want stability. We all want to know that we can make a difference and fulfill a higher purpose. This trip did all that for me and more. It pushed me to a place where my metaphoric walls were stripped down as I put actual walls up for the safety of another. There is no feeling like it in the world. I hope to serve in my own backyard, in my own country of origin, and whenever and wherever I can. If you are interested in participating in such a project, please visit Bridges to Community for more info on how to get involved, donate, or book a group trip for your business, family, and friends.