August 2009: It was sunny, hot, and humid-a typical gorgeous day in the Dominican Republic. The sun was high in the sky, sparkling through the broad, palm leaves above me as I made my way from the work site to my home where I knew the biggest meal of the day awaited me. I glanced down at my clothes. My shoes and ankles were covered in dirt, and my legs and shorts were covered in cement. My shirt was dirty and sweaty. Dirty seemed to be a common theme, running from the top of my head down to my feet. I decided I should stop by the piscina to get cleaned up before lunch. Besides, the fresh, cool mountain water would be absolutely amazing.
I passed a young girl, probably about ten years old. She had several sections of her hair pulled into neat twists, colorful hair ties holding each one in place. She smiled shyly as we exchanged “Hola’s”-what I felt I’d done with practically everybody in the town of La Descubierta. But this little girl did something unexpected after our friendly greeting. As I walked on, she stayed where she was, hesitating before she called out “Hey!” I stopped, turned slightly, and looked into her beautiful, sparkling eyes as she quietly asked me, “¿ Abraza?” For a moment, I froze. I had no idea what she wanted of me, yet there she stood, staring expectedly about a foot away from me. Then I understood. This little girl was asking me for a hug.
I smiled as it dawned on me. So despite my sweaty, dirty, cement-covered body, our lives momentarily blended as we hugged. We pulled apart, and I asked her name. “Geci” she replied. It sounded like “Hacey.” She returned the question to me. “Becca.” I told her. I had shortened my name from “Rebecca” to “Becca” because so many people had trouble with “Rebecca.” I hoped “Becca” would be better. This was an experiment. Her reaction wasn’t what I expected. “Bocca?” she seemed surprised. “Becca…with an ‘eh’” I told her. Her mouth slowly formed “Bocca again.” I figured it was just hard for the Dominicans to pronounce my name because several others had similar problems with it before this little girl. Finally, I just said, “Sí, Bocca.” I left her looking perplexed as I waved goodbye.
I met her at the work site the next day. We were working on the first parts of the house, laying the first cinderblocks. As usual, the entire neighborhood was gathered in the yard of the person we were doing work for. This particular day, there were about ten to fifteen women, girls, and babies sitting clumped together on some rocks nearby. The women had their exotic, dark hair pulled up into colorful curlers. My “Bocca girl” was amongst all the curler women. I smiled at her as I began to carry cinderblocks one at a time from the large pile in the front to where we were actually building the house.
Each time I walked past that group, they would ask my name, or whisper, “Bocca.” Every one person sitting on those rocks would burst out in uncontrollable laughter that would finally begin to die down when I would have to walk past again. After about fifteen minutes of this, I actually started to get annoyed, so it was time for a break. Frustrated, I took cover under a porch in the shade where some of my friends were drinking water. I threw down my gloves and asked, “What the heck does “Bocca” mean?”
One girl looked at me and slowly replied, “Cow?”
It hit me. They were saying “Vaca.” Although I wished I could have caught onto that right away, I found it more amusing than anything else. We all had a good laugh about it, and I brought my mischievous little friend over. We had our picture taken together after I let on that I understood.
While the photo was taken, I was mooing, Geci was suppressing a grin next to me, and my friend A was making cow horns behind my head.
It was with my “Vaca Girl” that I made one of my most vivid memories. At unexpected moments, it will colorfully replay, and my heart will be touched all over again.
I was walking to my home around lunchtime during my last few days in the Dominican Republic. Once again the sun was high in the sky, I was covered in dirt, but this time, my heart had been experiencing the first pangs of sadness, knowing that I was leaving shortly.
I was so immersed in my thoughts I didn’t even see Geci come up to me. She startled me when I felt her small hand curl firmly around mine. Seconds later, her younger friend took my free hand. The smaller girl informed me that her name was Diana.
I slowed my pace slightly so that they could fall in step with me. I had no idea how long they intended to walk with me, but my house was a good ten minutes away. As we continued on their street, with their free hands, each girl motioned to other little girls to join us. Before I knew it, I had eight little girls linked to me, their small dark hands attached to my large, light ones.
I stopped at the end of their street and told Geci, the oldest in the group, that my house was far away. I had no idea what the mothers would think when they saw their four year olds at the end of the chain walking away with me. Geci almost looked puzzled when she understood that the distance was a concern for me.
“No importa,” she said to me. “It doesn’t matter.”
That became one of my favorite Domincan sayings.
So we walked on. The little girls chatted amongst themselves, occasionally drawing me into their conversations, asking me questions, telling me about their families, who is related to who, etc. I didn’t feel self conscious about my poor Spanish because the children didn’t care. They turned it into a guessing game to interpret was I was trying to tell them. I don’t know how much was understood, but we shared lots of laughs. Remember these moments of conversation. One of the key things occurred at this point in my memory.
We arrived at my house and they all stood, sixteen pairs of inquisitive eyes watching my every movement as I said my thanks you’s and hugged each tiny person goodbye, ages ranging from four to ten years old.
That one incident, as small as it was, is so ingrained in my head. It speaks so strongly of the beautiful, Dominican Culture in ways more than one.
For instance, the fact that the little girls’ mothers didn’t feel the need to come running after them, wanting to know exactly where they were going and when they’d be back is an example of trust. The silence of the mothers as we were walking away speaks of the trust each woman has for the other women. They know that if their children were to encounter a problem, they would be taken care of. They all know each other, care for each other, and trust each other.
Geci’s response, “No importa,” was not the first time I had heard it. Those two words artfully describe the thoughtfulness expressed by just about everybody I encountered in the La Descubierta. They are willing to set aside whatever they are doing at any moment to do something thoughtful for somebody else, no strings attached, so expectations implied. Those little girls were probably waiting for lunch, playing a game, helping their families with a variety of tasks, yet they stopped what they were doing to walk me home, time and distance not an issue.
Now this is the part I said to remember. In our conversations on the way home that day, I said to Geci and her friends two simple words that held such depth: “Mis Hermanas,” I told them. “My Sisters.” In those two words, I gave not just a piece of my heart to each of them, but my whole heart, all my love. They chattered excitedly as they each repeated the same to me. “Mi Hermana,” “My Sister,” they all told me, smiling brightly.
The ten to fifteen minutes I shared with those girls that day gives me one more reason to add to my list of reasons to return to the Dominican Republic again: I have eight little sisters I left behind; sixteen pairs of small dark hands, holding my heart.