La Descubierta. The name inspires a passion in my heart, reminding me of a very real love among a very real people. It reminds me of a time that is now a mere faded reality in my mind, the colors, sights, sounds, and conversations tucked safely away, but nevertheless, a memory I will never forget. It’s a memory I could not forget even if I tried.
You see, there is this small island that you’ve probably heard of because of the earthquake that occurred on it, devastating millions of lives, lives that seemed as though they could not have been devastated more than they already were. The island is called Hispaniola and sits, for the most part, quietly in the Caribbean, the music, thoughts, language, culture, pains, and trials unheard of by much of the world-not out of ignorance or maliciousness, I must clarify, but rather, because most people are quite occupied in their own cultures and societies. But if you should ever have the opportunity to stand up, stretch your back, and look around, you may see this little island, glistening in the sunlight, its mixture of lush, green tropics and harsh, barren soil contrasting quite dramatically against the rich blue waters of the Caribbean Ocean. And if you were to see it, you may love the very same people that I loved, walk the very same streets that I walked along, and dance to the very same music I danced to. That special place I could never forget is called La Descubierta, Dominican Republic.
Prior to the summer I traveled to the Dominican Republic, I had been intrigued by the country due to a relationship I had with a woman at my church named B whose eyes sparkled when she spoke of the people and the places, and the things she experienced. Out of curiosity, I wrote a report on the Dominican Republic for a Spanish class, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I did not even have a picture in my mind of what the land or the people looked like. I could tell you some small facts about their government, their diet, their poverty, but it was all at a very impersonal level, a level quite similar to that of a friend telling another friend about an article they read in the paper and found sort of interesting. My plans for the particular summer I traveled to that country had come crashing around me. First, I auditioned for a choral/dance group called the Continental Singers who were touring, and I was even accepted-but I couldn’t find a peace in my heart about it. God was telling me, “No. This is not what I have in store for you,” each time I came to Him about it. Check no. Next, I called a summer camp where I had many cheerful childhood memories, and where I met God quite personally for one of the first times. I had been given the opportunity by the owners to live there on the camp for a portion of my summer so that I could work in the kitchen and with the children. I called a couple of times, but my calls were never returned. Check no. Again. “Okay, God. I give up. I’ll just read some nice books and relax this summer,” is basically what I told Him with much of the frustration and rebelliousness of a child who does not get her way.
One Saturday afternoon, I was at B’s house listening to her as she shared with our pastor’s wife, J, about her trips to the town of La Descubierta. Suddenly, B glanced up, and for the first time in that conversation, acknowledged me: “Hey, you know, I miscalculated and I purchased six extra tickets to the Dominican Republic. You should go!” In my mind I was remembering the cost she once shared, and knew all chance was out. My dad’s job wasn’t exactly what I would call stable, but I also remembered my dad once telling me never to close any doors permanently. Instead of saying, “No, I can’t,” I said, “I don’t think I can swing it financially this time, but it sounds like a great opportunity. Maybe another year,” I offered cheerfully, even though inside, my heart, which had been momentarily hopeful, was really feeling the weighted effects of reality bringing me back down to earth. But B surprised me by saying, “What if finances were not an issue?” My heart leaped within me. “Of course I’d love to go!” I blurted. Those words…I had no idea what I would be in store for me. I went home that night wondering what Barbra meant by her “What if”. Had I heard the price wrong? Was there a fund somewhere I did not know about?
Sunday morning I was getting some breakfast, shuffling around in the kitchen before church, and my mom suddenly broke the peaceful silence by asking me, “Hey…would you go to the Dominican Republic if money wasn’t an issue?” I stopped dead in my tracks wondering if she had really said what I had thought she had said. She must have been talking with B. “Well, of course I’d go, Mom, but we both know money is an issue, so I can’t go.” End of story. I was getting tired of having my heart going up and down, up and down.
At church that morning, several women approached me after the ladies Bible study finished, and said things like, “Hey, I heard you were going to the Dominican Republic this summer, and I wanted to pay your airfare,” or “I wanted to give you some money for your trip.” They just kept coming, and I finally had to break away in a sprint across the room to where my mom, B, and the pastor were all talking…or conspiring was it? I say that with all affection and genuine love and light- heartedness. Apparently, the ladies Bible study talked and prayed, and all came to the conclusion that this was what God wanted me to do. It was so heavy upon their hearts and the way was paved clear in the blink of an eye, so I knew it must be God’s will. My trip was paid for in the course of one morning, and all I had left to do was get a passport. I was speechless. Absolutely speechless. I sat back watching God take the reins of my life and lead me where He wanted me to go. There is nothing better or more exciting in life than giving God the reins and surrendering to His plans which are absolutely perfect. There are times when I think my plans are better, but I am quickly reminded when I see God’s plans blow mine out of the water. This time, however, God’s plans for me would blow me over the water, over an ocean and onto an island where God would reveal so much about Himself and about His world.
I said goodbye to my parents at the airport, and as the plane’s engines fired up, I sat rigid in my seat, gripping the sides, wide-eyed. I glanced over at my childhood friend, J. He was the only person out of fifty-five who I knew. J looked over at me, and said something along the lines of, “Are you excited?” I honestly didn’t know what say in response. Was I excited? I didn’t even know what to expect!
After a sleepless red-eye, another three hour flight, and a five hour bus ride, we arrived in La Descubierta at dark, and it seemed like half the town stood outside Monica’s house (B’s host-mom’s house) greeting us as we got off the bus. Some of the returning people were greeted with the biggest, longest, most meaningful hugs, but the depth of their meaning I would not come to understand until I returned home. I stood off to the side, tired and disoriented, making out the shadowy figures of people in the moonlight. Somebody approached me in the darkness and hugged me, welcoming me to the town, and somebody else came and gave me some juice. We were informed that the truck with our baggage had some problems, so the first night we wouldn’t have any of our bags. I had my backpack with my Bible and a few other small items (my flashlight, thank goodness).
One of the men from the church led us to our host families and it was rather anti-climactic. My parents were waiting on their porch and greeted my roommate, M, with enthusiasm, as she was returning to them. Now I can only dream of that day, but at the time, I didn’t understand what their brief exchange meant. They each gave me a hug each and showed us our bedroom where we were soon left alone, the hum of the fan droning on, swirling around the thick, suffocating humidity. M turned off the lights and we lay atop the sheets side by side in silence. My eyes were open, but there were no lights anywhere, and I could not even see my own hand in front of my face. When I realized I was in a country where I couldn’t even drink the water from the sinks, with people I didn’t know whose language I barely spoke…I was laying in a bed next to a girl I hardly knew, three thousand miles away from home with no contact whatsoever with my parents for the next two weeks…The only person I could find comfort in, B, was in a house somewhere fifteen minutes away from where I was, so I couldn’t even run to her if I wanted to.. I was completely stuck, and when this all hit me, the humidity I’d been working to ignore almost overwhelmed me. I could hardly breathe, my heart was racing, tears were building behind my eyes, but I couldn’t cry because I was too frightened and tired. I listened to M’s calm, regular breaths as she slept next to me. I hadn’t slept for more than twenty-four hours and knew I would be getting up in just a short six or seven hours. I needed to sleep, and as soon as I convinced myself it was important, the exhaustion washed over me and I closed my eyes.
I would open my eyes the next morning, both physically and figuratively speaking. The first day was easy, mostly a simple tour of the town. We walked in groups, seeing houses that our group had previously built. We visited old friends and walked through the school that the group had painted on another trip.
The streets of La Descubierta are colorful and lively. The houses, all simple, some broken, but all beautiful because of the people who live within them, are painted bright colors that catch the eye and create a rainbow along every road. Music plays from several houses per street, sometimes the same catchy rhythm drifting from multiple houses at a time. Children run along the roads barefooted and in their underwear, chasing after one another, laughing. Some of the little boys have old motorcycle tires they push along with sticks making revving sound effects, mimicking their fathers and older brothers. A couple of little girls stand on a porch dancing to music, and one or two little boys join in, smiles reaching their ears. Goats meander along the broken sidewalks, munching at the grass that pokes through the staggered fencing, ignoring the children running all around them. Mothers stand in their yards with infants resting on their hips, one hand free to hang some tattered, freshly washed clothing along their fences, visiting with one another, catching up on whatever had happened with their families in the night. Some fathers and young men stand around some motorcycles visiting quietly and respectfully, and older men sit on chairs lining the edges of the street beneath the shade of beautiful, overarching trees, playing dominoes with their teenage grandchildren, daughters, and daughters-in-law.
As we walked through this town, and as I took all this in, I was surprised by the welcoming smiles, waves and “Buen dia’s” I received as I walked along. There is something I discovered in those first few hours in the Dominican Republic. Upon meeting people, one does not have to earn anybody’s trust or respect. It is automatically granted. If I were to walk into any of their yards, I would have been offered a meal and a place to sit and rest, a family to be a part of and to spend the afternoon with. I would have had little girls playing with my hair, little boys asking me to play with them and dance, a mother offering food to me, and a father rocking on the porch watching all the interactions, much involved in his own thoughts, but offering a kind smile if I were to look his way.
As I walked along the streets, I observed a tight-knit community, a group of people who were intimately involved in each other’s lives, and they were welcoming me into it. Yet, if I were to walk into any of their houses, I would have found it simply furnished, containing cement floors, an old refrigerator, a sink with water that is not clean enough for an American’s immune system to handle, a shower connected to a bucket of water on the roof, a toilet that can either flush or be force flushed, a couple of beds and maybe a chest or mirror or a small cabinet. The homes are places to eat and places to sleep. The porches and the streets are the places to live, interacting with one another, enjoying relationships. They have so little, only what is necessary, yet they live so richly. Their lives are simple in the sense of material possessions, but so deeply complex in the sense of relationships and joy. There are individuals, but those individuals are connected to a bigger picture, a body of people who genuinely love and support one another.
I bathed in the piscina, pool, each day, rather than use the shower which would cause more work for my host parents. The water in the piscina runs from various sources in the mountains, collecting in a man-made pool area where people can wash. It is the only place in all of La Descubierta where I ever saw a Dominican shivering because I shivered right there alongside many of them. This became one of my places of relief from the harsh, direct sun, a place where I would jump in just to wash off the morning’s dust and cement and dirt before returning home for lunch. To give you a feel for the weather, I’d be completely dry by the time I was home.
After day one, the work began, and we laid the foundations for the home we would be building. As I helped lay that foundation, I was also laying the foundation for friendships that were like no other I had ever taken part in. The neighbors would come and watch us work, some helping, some content to sit in the shade and watch the excitement. Many of the women sat clumped together, their hair pulled up in exotic curlers, whispering and giggling to each other. The children sat in groups, making music with sticks and rocks, singing or laughing. The men were content to stay at home and do whatever jobs they had to do or to join in, picking up a shovel or some cinder-blocks, anything that would help.
If I wasn’t working at the site where we were building the house, I was traveling with two or three other people and a Dominican to more obscure sites, deeper into the hills of La Descubierta and more off the beaten path. There we’d find a small home filled with children, and a mother busily working, the father off at work. We’d pour a latrine floor or a house floor so they would have cement to walk on rather than dirt. A typical latrine will last a family about 3-5 years depending on its level of use. But even though the work was hard, it was incredibly fun. I was able to practice my conversational Spanish and joke with the Dominican workers and make small-talk. But beyond words, I discovered, you can speak to a person through the eyes.
At night, when the work was over, we’d return to our families, wash, eat, and dress up. Then people would sit out and visit on porches, go dancing at the disco, or go to church. Whenever there was a service, I opted to go to the church because I was enraptured by the love those believers had for each other and for God. It reminded me very much of the early church of the Bible. These people had simple lives, and cared so deeply for one another. They worked together, ate together, laughed together, and I’m sure spent many evenings with one another sitting on somebody’s porch talking or letting the day drift by in comfortable silence. And best of all, they worshiped together. They weren’t as concerned as to how the service went or the course it took. The men rotated turns preaching, teaching the people about God’s word and encouraging and uplifting them, both the men and women took turns leading worship songs solo and some of the younger men would play instruments. But everybody was in love with God. I could see it in their faces, in the warmth that generated from them as they took my hand into theirs, pulling me into an embrace. I could see it in their eyes. They loved God. These were my brothers and sisters.
For the first time, I realized on a tangible level that the church I took part in at home was part of a bigger body, the body of Christ. Sure, I’d been told that. But now I saw it firsthand. I saw another part of the body of Christ. I saw these brothers and sisters who spoke a different language, who sang different types of songs, who had a different culture and a different place of living, who looked different and had different customs, but one thing was the same: the Spirit of God within both of us. And we gathered together in that tiny, simple building with the same purpose in mind: to love and worship God together.
So we did. I joined my voice with theirs. I listened to and understood most of the sermons (much to my surprise). Along with them, I fell into an even deeper love for the God who created us for His pleasure, who guided our lives on different paths, but for whatever reason, chose those two weeks of that particular summer, to join us together, to interweave our hearts, to gather us together to glorify and praise Him. I knew that being there with my brothers and sisters, I was right in the center of God’s will, I was there by His hand, and I relished in every moment of it, living life to the full just like Jesus did. I took part in a joy that goes beyond circumstances, a joy that knows no end, and I have remembered that joy. It is the joy of Christ, it is a joy born of a hope for Heaven, a joy that comes out of love and gratitude for what Jesus did on the cross for us. I experienced this joy for one of the first times in my life with people, who, even if I do not ever see them again on this earth, I will be able to eternity with. I think of an analogy of our lives being two ropes heading the same direction, and somewhere along the line, they are tied together with a knot tied by the very hand of God, a tie that cannot be broken, even by time or death.
Sometimes after the church services were over, a couple of us would stay back with the young men who could play the instruments and we would teach them English worship songs and sing with them in Spanish. Sometimes we sang the same song in two different languages.
Then we’d step outside and I’d walk home, taking my time, glancing up at the stars every once and awhile, content to be quiet with whoever was walking next to me that particular night. I’d get home and sometimes sit on my porch, rocking quietly beside Papá or Mamá. The mosquitoes would begin to buzz and we’d retreat indoors where I’d fall into an exhausted sleep, listening to the hens outside my window cooing softly and almost rhythmically, the goats off in the distance letting out an occasional bleat, the mother next door or somewhere nearby trying to soothe a fitful baby. About half way into the trip, I laid in my bed in the darkness, probably long after M had fallen asleep, and tried to remember life at home in America. I was amazed at how quickly I had adjusted to this new life, and how I had barely even a pang of homesickness except for that first night of frantic fear of the unknown. I realized that home is a community. A group of people you love and who love you. Now I had two homes, and if you have any sense at all, you know that you cannot be two places at once. I could not be home in America and home in La Descubierta, and I would have to leave one home to be with another. Would every moment of my life be bittersweet after this? I wondered if while I was enjoying being with one home, I would be terribly missing the other. This was such a painful thought that I’d push it aside and focus on falling asleep.
Yet try as I might to stop time, the days continued, the sun rose, and the sun set on that little lively town, one day of work after another. The house was soon completed, and before I knew it, I was sitting in the church on my last night in La Descubierta which translated, means, “The Discovered.” Tears streamed down my face and one woman came up to me, knowing I was heartbroken, just like every other American in that room, tears streaming down all of our faces, some even sobbing, and she took me into her arms and told me in her language, “No more tears.” Just like a mother. “Próximo Año,” People reassured me, hopefully, tears filling their own eyes. “Next year.” Three hundred sixty-five days. That is a lot of days, especially for somebody who had just given her heart away like never before.
After staying at a hostel in the capital, we flew home and I spent the entire flight penning a letter to my parents explaining that I couldn’t explain to them what I had experienced. I needed time to process.
And it took me months to process those two weeks. It took me even longer to cope with that passionate desire to return, that constant, nagging, unsatisfied longing, and to trust that my God had a plan beyond my own. His plans for my next summer did not involve La Descubierta, but surprisingly, I was fine with that. I was excited for what God had in store for me. What I learned is that God may close one door, but that only means He has something greater in mind, even if it means a sad close to another chapter. My plans for this next summer, and hopefully they are His too, are too return to the Dominican Republic, to that island in the Caribbean that is no longer silent to me, but whose heart beats to a rhythm much the same as my own, whose music fills my ears from 3,000 miles away, and whose hands I hold onto while I wait for the day I can be together with them again.
That day will come.