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How I Changed My Own Life

This past spring break I went on a UDaB trip, although that isn’t really the main point. Yes, the trip was amazing. Yes, I made 40 new best friends. Yes, it was the freaking Everglades. But the point really isn’t what I did this spring break. The point is what I didn’t do this spring break.

Just like any other college student –scratch that, just like any other human- I have had my fair share of struggles with positivity. I’ll be the first to admit that some weeks it just feels like the world is out to get me and nothing can go my way. I’ve had those days where I have to force myself to get out of bed. Those moments where the stress bears down on me and I’m ready to quit college/run away/become an exotic dancer. This spring break, though, I decided that I was going to throw all of my negativity away. Literally. During the first day of the trip, we did a group exercise in which we wrote our anxieties down on a piece of paper, ripped them up, and threw them away. From that point on, I made a personal vow to myself that for one week I was going to try to make the best out of every situation. No longer would I let myself be controlled by my own unconstructive mindset. So, through all the poisonous plants, thousands of bug bites, and sunburn the Florida Everglades had to offer, I stayed positive. For the first time in my life I listened to the cliché advice all those YouTube self-help guru’s preach: happiness is a choice. Choose to be happy and you will be.

The Florida Everglades provided an inspired setting for an inspirational experience

The Florida Everglades provided an inspired setting for an inspirational experience

I have been trying to take step back from everything in my life that has become the “norm.” Instead of settling for the usual and getting sucked into bad habits, I’ve been looking at situations and trying to decide, really decide, if they are adding to my overall well-being. I no longer want to be put into circumstances that bring out the negativity in me. I’ve learned that it is much easier to be positive when the influences around me are positive. With more positive influences, I’ve noticed that everything that has happened to me has been able to be flipped on its head and looked at differently. Yes, I got a ticket today at a parking meter. At least I have a car to be ticketed. Yes, I was late to work and forgot to take my eyebrow ring out. At least I have a job with a forgiving manager.

I wouldn’t quite say that I have made it to happiness yet. What I will say though, is that deciding to look at the world differently has made the world different. Since making this personal choice I have started doing a lot more things for me. I’ve gone back to the gym, begun eating healthier, ended a few toxic relationships, and become more active in my commitments here on campus. All of this is possible because of an influential trip, with a great organization, and fantastic people. They showed me how easy it can be to take charge of my own life for the better. It does take courage though. I’m just glad I was able to find mine.

~Madeline Williams

Day 8: Santo Domingo

Here it is, the final day of the trip! Most of the day was spent touring around and shopping around the touristy El Conde, the pedestrian-only street lined by shops and more cheap canvas paintings than you can count.

 

We started the day by heading past the Puerta del Conde, the location where Francisco del Rosario Sánchez supposedly declared independence from Haitian occupation in 1844. We then walked down El Conde (which was much busier than last night, as expected) to the Catedral Primada de America, which directly translates to First Cathedral of America. Unfortunately, the cathedral wasn’t open yet, so we headed over to a nice little art shop with all sorts of metallurgy, tile paintings, canvas work, and more. I picked up a nice tile painting of a typical Dominican man riding an overloaded motorcycle.

Puerta del Conde

Puerta del Conde

After picking up some artwork to take home, we walked over to the Fortaleza Ozama, a very typical 16th century fortress which guards the mouth of the Ozama River to the Caribbean Sea. It is a small, tall, and sturdy castle which has been occupied by seven different countries and most recently served as a prison until opened to tourists in the late 20th century. While there wasn’t anything inside the castle, we got some beautiful group pictures with the Dominican Flag on top of the castle.

 

Fortaleza Ozama

Fortaleza Ozama

 Walking further along Calle las Damas, America’s oldest paved street, we took a tour of Museo de Las Casas Reales, an administrative building which served as a government office from the time of Spanish colonization until the 1970s. We had a very good Spanish tour-guide who called us out on our exhaustion, but cracked a few jokes to keep the tour fun. As we were looking at a map of Christopher Columbus’s voyages, he joked that Columbus always stopped in the Canary Islands to visit his girlfriend there. Later in a room with old medical equipment, he told us that any volunteers could have a free enema from their ancient device. For me, highlights of the museum included Trujillo’s weapon collection, which included strange combinations like a pistol-sabre and a crossbow-rifle. The ballroom was also a very beautiful and impressive room, decorated with large paintings and large glass chandeliers.

Las Casas Reales ballroom

Las Casas Reales ballroom

 We took a break to grab lunch at a very Caribbean buffet-style restaurant. Like many of our dining experiences this week, we were one of the only groups in the restaurant at 1:00. I’m not sure if this is because we were late to lunch, the restaurant isn’t popular, or both, but it’s never a bad thing to have the place to ourselves. I ate yellow rice, Dominican spaghetti, salad, and some small cake cubes. We had a cat sleeping above our heads, and until it moved in its sleep, we thought it was dead, which didn’t help our appetites. It must be a heavy sleeper, because it didn’t react when Camilo touched the tail. I also captured a significant amount of blackmail pictures on the camera, which can always come in handy.

Dominican spaghetti!

Dominican spaghetti!

 

After lunch, we stopped by a specialty chocolate store, but very few people walked away with any chocolate because of the expensive prices that come with nice chocolate. The group split a little at this point, with a few people heading back to the art store while everyone else visited the Catedral Primada. After the girls with short skirts and Camilo covered their knees with blankets, we absorbed the atmosphere, both the Gothic and Baroque architecture and the very crisp and refreshing temperature, thanks to some great air-conditioning.

 Catedral Primada

Catedral Primada

 And then the shopping commenced. I think most everyone had their share of bargaining: Nick replaced his pair of sunglasses he gave away, Kisha picked up two canvasses and some bracelets with Alex, I got an artsy wooden plate, Juli found a nice sombrero, and more. Kisha demonstrated her experience and persuasion by bargaining from 500 pesos per canvas down to 550 pesos for two. Obviously they start their prices high in order to make a large profit on unaware tourists, but cutting the asking price by almost half isn’t easy by anyone’s standards. I talked with Kisha after this feat and asked her about the morality and necessity of bargaining with these merchants. Is it morally right and is it financially worthwhile to negotiate over 50 pesos, a little over 1 USD? Is it healthy for their economy to bargain with them? These kinds of questions are difficult to answer, but between the two of us, we agreed that these “tourist” goods are likely obtained in bulk for a very cheap price, so even after being bargained down, they’re still making a large profit. The system is difficult to understand because it’s so much more difficult than our own; bargaining is very rarely a part of the American consumer market, where prices and profit margins are generally non-negotiable. In the Dominican Republic, bargaining is a perfectly normal part of street selling. Our presence and willingness to buy is what allows the tourism industry to thrive; individual negotiations play a small role from the grand perspective.

 

Kisha and Alex negotiating

Kisha and Alex negotiating

 Perspective is a very important concept for being internationally-aware, and enhancing our awareness was a large part of this trip. We dedicated much more time on this trip towards learning about and understanding the economic climate, Haitian relations, and educational system than we did directly assisting Yspaniola because our attitudes and awareness of the situation in the Dominican Republic is much more important than any number of flashcards we could have created in that time. There are many distinct levels of economic status on the island of  Hispaniola, and it’s often shocking to compare them amongst themselves and then to our American lifestyle.

Let me break it down with a simple example: showers. On the Haitian side of the border in Dajabon, we saw children bathing in an unclean river. In Batey Libertad, almost everyone bathes by pouring buckets of water over their heads after the water is pumped down from the mountains. In the city of Santo Domingo, they shower in low-pressure cold or lukewarm water, if the water is turned on that day. Even in the Santo Domingo airport, there are no water fountains because the tap water is never safe to drink. To us, access to clean tap water is an assumed amenity, but for the Batey, any kind of running water would drastically improve their quality of life. We were not only humbled by our quality of life, but even embarrassed at how little we think about how much water we actually use and how much less the people of Hispaniola have, just a few hours from anywhere in the United States. For every day we wake up, take a shower, eat breakfast, and head to class or work, they go through the same process at basically the same time, but in very different conditions. Our lives are more connected and similar than we would think, yet a few miles of ocean separate our two worlds. It’s mind-boggling to think that, during any given evening, there are people in the Batey sitting without electricity and without running water, playing cards by candlelight where I once sat. For me, the people of the Batey will always be a reminder that it’s possible to live a happy and fulfilling lifestyle with or without wealth; it all depends on your mindset and willingness to be happy.

~Tim West, 2016

 

Day 7: The Transition, Batey Libertad, Santo Domingo

We kicked off our last day in the Batey with a visit with Caco Pelau, the local vodou priest.  We walked into the place of worship, where the walls were covered with murals of Catholic saints and there were offerings to the spirits.  Caco Pelau really emphasized the relationship between Christianity and vodou; in places like the DR and Haiti they are not two separate religions, but are practiced concurrently.  He emphasized that both religions have the same God and that in vodou, Catholic saints have spirits behind them that act as intermediaries between worshippers and the holy entity.  We learned that the impression of vodou as simply magic used to harm your enemies is entirely false and unfair.  The minority that practice vodou with bad intentions are deeply rejected by most priests and followers. It was a fascinating cultural experience and really brought to light the misconceptions of vodou that the media perpetuates.

 

 

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After lunch, we met in the calle principal to say goodbye to our new friends and host families.  Four of the volunteers were to come with us to the capital, so it was time to say goodbye to all the others. Despite the language barriers and the fact that we had only met 4 days before, we had become close to the volunteers, local children, and our host families, so saying goodbye was very hard.  This whole week, I have been struck by the strong sense of community in the Batey and how easy it has been to form friendships across languages and cultures.  The hardest part for me was saying goodbye to Francis, my host mom’s nephew who had become like a little brother to Danielle and me in our short week in the Batey.

 

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Driving into Santo Domingo felt very strange, like we were entering a whole different world.  It was obviously much more touristy than Santiago, Dajabón, and the Batey! The traffic and city sounds made me miss the relative quiet of the Batey (besides the crowing of roosters… I definitely didn’t miss that!).  Even though my hotel room didn’t have any light bulbs, the fact that it had running water made it feel almost luxurious.  We had an amazing dinner at a restaurant on the waterfront and spent the evening exploring the Zona Colonial.  It was sad to think that the next day would be the last of the trip, but we were excited to explore Santo Domingo in the daylight!

~Sarah Mottram, 2016

 

Day 6: Batey Libertad

Alarm went off at 6:30am this morning, waking me up to our last official day in Batey Libertad. I don’t want to think about. Thankfully, there is plenty to do. Waking up at 6:30 is not as exhausting as it sounds—at least, not as exhausting as it would sound to my pre-trip self!

 

Breakfast was simple bread rolls and avena (a sweet drink that is kind of like oatmeal in a cup). It might not sound like much, but it was plenty food to fill our bellies. Probably because we are up so early, mornings are spent journaling and/or reading and playing with Dawenza our “host niece” or whatever little kid stops by.

 

Our first activity of the day was to talk with Pepito.  Pepito is the unofficial leader of the Batey. His family has lived there from the time it was called San Rafael. He spent a few minutes of the morning telling us all about the history of the Batey and how it has developed over the course of time.

 

 As Pepito spoke, I grew to understand the importance of the readings we had done before traveling. The batey started out being a place for Haitian migrant workers to live during planting and harvesting season, when they travelled into the Dominican Republic to work for the sugar cane companies. Over time, it became a place for people to live instead of only for temporary lodging, that is when the name changed from San Rafael to Batey Libertad. Without having the context of the readings beforehand, I think Pepito’s story would have been harder for me to understand.

 

 It is interesting to think about how much the Batey has changed. While by American standards the Batey may be terribly impoverished, there has been improvement over time. As Pepito described it, I began to feel renewed appreciation for the people who lived there and the place they called home. Whereas before, people would have had to carry water from a distance, there are now standing pipes where people can get water two times a week. It is limited to those times because the water has to be accessed by a gasoline pump that the community pays to operate. Also, most of the original barracks where people used to live are gone, replaced by block (concrete brick) homes.

 

 Still, despite the improvements, there is still so much more that can and should be done. Originally, the sugar companies were in charge of maintaining the bateys, but when the sugar industry in the Dominican Republic collapsed under pressure from US competitors, so did the supervising body for many bateys. Even now, the government has not stepped in to replace the sugar companies and has not been supportive of the communities efforts to improve the conditions in Batey Libertad. In fact, it took four years for the government to run water pipes the 2 kilometers from Esperanza to the Batey. Even with this improvement, the water pipes still sit across the road, unconnected to the Batey water system; leaving the community to rely on the gasoline pump. It is a situation that smarts with the discrimination faced by people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic. That is why, when Pepito explained that many in Batey Libertad want to change the name to just Libertad, I wanted to clap my hands in agreement.

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After meeting with Pepito, we had the opportunity to buy some of the merchandise made in the batey. The students sold bracelets that they made with plastic straps and yarn. They also sold a CD put together by Felix and Wilson. The women, including Nick and Tim Dagastino’s host mom, TiMami, sold candles and purses that they had made. All of the money that they made either went toward the Batey women’s fund or to pay for school expenses. I bought two bracelets , a purse and the CD (which I can’t wait to take advantage of!). Looking at all the merchandise, I was once again impressed with the industriousness of the people that live in the batey as I have been so many times on this trip.

 

After lunch of arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) Juli and I joined the others to continue doing resource development. Kisha and I were assigned to contact paper word cards for the students. It is much harder than it sounds, but it was so worth it, and we were never lacking for willing helpers! The Batey kids were always up for a craft.

 

We were also able to read with the children in during reading hour in the (El Centro de Aprendizaje) Learning Center’s library. As an elementary education major, it was fun to interact with the kids in an education setting. The skills of the children run the gamut from way below age-appropriate reading level to above reading level. I began to look at the work that Yspaniola was doing in the learning center in a new light. In an education system as broken and dysfunctional as the Dominican Republic’s, it is reassuring to know that there are programs in place to enrich the kids’ education. Learning is something that is dear to my heart and I feel both sad and happy at once thinking about the children I met. I am glad they have the center, but sadden by the obstacles they have to overcome to receive quality education.

 

 

On another note, the English exchange was a lot of fun. I got to speak in English, Spanish and Creole. Amy, one of the Yspaniola interns, facilitated the whole exercise. We had about a short amount of time with each person, which was split between languages. If we were exchanging Creole and English, for example, some time was spent on each language. We each had a list of questions that we could ask like, what is your name? how many brothers and sisters do you have? Etc. After each interaction we would rotate tables until we made it all the way around the circle of tables.

 

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At the end, Nick, both Tims and I all engaged in an impromptu Creole-Spanish exchange with some of the girls in the batey. It was so much fun!

 

 Finally, after dinner, we enjoyed our despedida (going away party)! The night opened with a traditional Haitian Folk play. Although it was performed in Haitian Creole with Rosa’s help, I was able to piece together to story.

 

It was a simple tale about a young woman who, on advice of her friend, acquired many suitors. Each came to her promising money—although some, like the poor farmer, clearly did not have any. Now she did not really want to marry these men so she told them all to come at four for her decision. Being faithful suitors, they all arrived at four only to be cast out of the house by the young woman’s irate father. It was a hysterical rendition of the tale complete with outrageous costumes and a final dance.

 

Right afterwards, we gave out the shirts to the Yspaniola volunteers.

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Then it was time for our own dance party in front of the Learning Center. It was so much fun! Emilio (one of my host brothers) did much of the music selection and as a result we ended up dancing the night away in 3 languages!

 

I also learned how to dance Bachata! It is surprisingly simple but nonetheless enjoyable. At the end, we all went out on the Play (open field in the Batey) and continued talking and laughing until our tired bodies forced us to bed. It was a wonderful night to end on.

 

I’ll never forget talking and laughing under the stars, distinguishing each other by voices alone at times, relishing every minute and not even caring if the Spanish wasn’t quite right. I will never forget it, and I will miss it when I think of it. I will miss the Play too, and the Learning Center. I will miss it all, but mostly, I will miss the people here.

 

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Batey Libertad. There is no place like it in the whole world.

~Camille Fontenelle, 2016

 

 

Day 5: Batey Libertad y El Chorro

This morning, my roommate and I woke up, sweaty as usual, and had ourselves a breakfast of penne pasta, bread and some sort of instant fruit juice mix. An interesting selection, but I wasn’t really hungry till lunchtime so I guess it did its job. We got ready, even with though there were little squirts begging us to play with them constantly. They were intrigued with our stuff, always popping into our bedroom, fishing through the stuff on the bedside table and acting as nice walking hazards. They were adorable but we definitely had to add an extra 10 minutes every morning to ensure we would make the meeting times.

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This particular morning, the group met at the learning center in the batey to do more resource creation, in addition to some class observation. Since I was one of the people who didn’t go yesterday, I went into the learning center in the morning to observe the class that was being taught by Cory, one of the Yspaniola workers. The class was for younger kids (maybe around ages 6-8?) and it was focused on learning the alphabet. They had a set of exercise that went through sets of letters and the kids learned the name, the pronunciation and a word that starts with the letter. There was also a volunteer from the batey who was probably about 12 years old that was running an activity for the other half of the students on the other side of the room. A die was thrown and the kids had to provide the same information on whatever letter showed up. After half the time, the two groups of students switched and in total, class lasted about an hour.

 

 

 Being in this classroom confirmed my feelings that I could never be a teacher. Though I can’t say I’ve been in an American kindergarten classroom lately, I can imagine a lot of the same situations are encountered and those teachers also need very high patience levels. They were so energetic – talking constantly, yelling, clapping, causing mischief, not participating, pouting, hiding under the table – and Cory was a pro at handling it. There were some very well-behaved students, as you may expect to find in any classroom, but I could only focus on the prominent ones that required special attention. For whatever reason, the kids were more well-behaved at the 12 year old’s station, which I found to be very interesting. However, in the end, most of the students had grasped the material and understood the concepts that Cory was trying to get across.

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 After my group finished observing in the classroom, we headed back outside to work on some more flash cards and bananas while the final group went in to observe for the last hour. Nothing too interesting to report other than that we are getting really good at using contact paper by this point. We are also pros at keeping the scissors from the kids to make sure they don’t hurt themselves. Unfortunately, we are less successful with the markers and there are currently some arms that could rival Miami ink.

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 Once everyone was out of the classroom and our supplies were cleaned up, we headed to the building where we had Deportes Para la Vida for the town-wide rice eating competition. We all gathered into this tiny building and plates and utensils were passed out. There were approximately 20 participants including all of the guys from our trip and even Kisha and Alex! Then the food was brought out. I have never seen a larger portion of rice in my entire life. A platter about two feet wide was piled a foot high with white rice. Everybody then dished themselves a very generous helping of rice and a pot of chicken was passed around as well to add some flavor to the rice. Then it began. Everyone was stuffing their faces. Some dropped out early, others just kept eating and even went back for more. The Americans held their own pretty well, and Kisha definitely impressed people with her stomach capacity. There was no judging criteria so it was difficult to tell who won, but it was just a lot of fun to get the town together and eat some really good food.

 

 

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 Once the competitors’ digestive systems had some time to recuperate after the gargantuan lunch, a large group of both Americans and bateyeros piled into a van for a 15 minute drive to the trailhead for el chorro, the waterfall. The hike was along the river; constantly crossing it led to many wet feet. People in flip-flops had no issue, but those in sneakers were a bit less fortunate. The hike was mostly among the trees; so it was fairly shady and, therefore, not too hot– though you can’t escape the humidity.

 

 After a 30 minute walk or so, we reached the waterfall.  At the base of the waterfall, it got to about 6 feet deep so you could do some swimming in there. Some people climbed a few feet up the rock and jumped in, others played chicken, and some just sat and watched the shenanigans. It was very refreshing to get in the water and being under the waterfall was a great back massage. Many a Facebook profile picture came from this hike, and rightfully so – it was beautiful and everyone there was having a great time, celebrating being in the batey.

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When we got back, we had some free time, so I went back to the play to join in on the soccer game for day number 3. By this point, my legs were starting to be sore, but they were starting to trust me with the ball and weren’t afraid to pass it to me. I even got two assists which was awesome! These kids are so incredibly good that I was thrilled that I contributed. Just like at home, mom called us for supper during the game so Tim W. and I headed back to our house for a delicious spaghetti dinner.

 

 Once dinner was over, the group assembled at the center for tutoring hours. This is where kids from the batey would bring their homework that they have trouble with and the volunteers help them work through their issues. I set up camp with two girls who were having math homework woes and together, we figured out how to solve adding problems with 3 numbers. It was a very rewarding experience watching the kids do the problems on their own and I almost felt like a proud big brother. Other people helped out with reading, writing and I thought I saw a history book out but I could be wrong. Overall, it was a fun way to spend the evening and as I said, it was quite rewarding.

 

 When we had finished tutoring hours, we made our nightly pilgrimage to the play for some activities. Usually this just meant standing around talking with some of the older volunteers while the young kids ran in between our legs. But occasionally, there would be some sort of physical game that was initiated. Tonight though, it began to rain shortly after we arrived so that put the kibosh on the play for the evening. We gathered under a little hut in the center of the town but I left shortly after at the request of my host sister. We sat in the house and played card games by candlelight until, for whatever reason, the lights came on. The electricity schedule in my house confused me but I wasn’t about to complain about it. My host brothers and I found the USA vs. Mexico soccer match on TV so we watched that till it was time for bed.

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All in all, it was a very eventful day for us travelers. I know for me personally, this was the first time I got to work directly with the kids on their schoolwork and it was a great experience. In addition, I think everyone’s Spanish has grown throughout the trip. Again, I know I don’t speak for everyone, but it’s amazing how much of the language I can remember when English just isn’t an option. The trip so far has been enlightening and so much fun and I can’t wait to see what the last few days have in store for us!

~Eric Wiscount. 2016

 

 

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