Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Day 2: Basic Human Needs

I am thankful that all of my basic human needs are met; clean water and electricity are things I take for granted.... until I travel to an area where these needs are not met. Then I realize how lucky I am to live in America.

I never thought about electricity and clean water as resources to be thankful for until I traveled to the Dominican Republic for 10 days in March of 2006.

When I mention the Dominican Republic, it conjures of visions of this for many people:

With its beautiful beaches, it's a popular vacation destination. While I did go there to take in some sand and surf, the main reason I went to the DR was to visit my friend Ali, a Peace Corp volunteer. She had been in the country for just over a year by the time I came to visit and was fluent in Spanish so was a great tour guide. She also showed me a side of the DR that I might not have seen otherwise.

Ali spent her first of 3 years with the Peace Corp living in a "campo" up in the mountains of the DR. We were hours away from the beach resorts visited by many tourist, but her campo was truly worlds away from those lush, exclusive resorts. She didn't have electricity, but had running water thanks to an aqueduct project completed by the previous Peace Corp volunteer. Her project was teaching the Dominicans how to build a stove - previously the women were cooking over open fires. I spent about 5 days with Ali in her campo before we headed to the coast for some relaxation; those 5 days were very eye opening!

Ali didn't seem to mind not having electricity. She said once you got used to not having it, it really wasn't a big deal. Her days began and ended based on the setting of the sun. Many areas of the DR have electricity, but it is very unreliable, so she said it was actually better to not have it than to have unreliable electricity.

She had a little kitchen in one part of her house, where we made lots of great meals. I actually never got sick on this trip - we just had to be careful about washing everything with sterile water. Ali is an awesome cook and is great at working within her means - one night she made an excellent curry dish on her camping stove that was seasoned with lemon grass that grew in her yard!

Ali was quite the celebrity in the campo. We had lots of visitors during my time there. Even though I wasn't able to talk with them due to my limited vocabulary, we still found ways to communicate.

They kicked my butt EVERY time we played Dominoes...

and they had lots of fun styling mine & Ali's hair.

There was also a little girl that was a bit of an outcast in the Campo. Ali wasn't sure, but thought she probably had some sort of developmental disability. She never talked when she came to visit - she'd just come and sit by me while I read my book in the afternoons/evenings. The first day I saw her, she was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but after that first day, she wore a little dress every day that she must have been pretty proud of. She really enjoyed getting her pictures taken - especially when she got to see it in the viewing window on my digital camera.

Towards the end of my stay, Ali took me to see the school. She warned me that it would be a quite a hike. She wasn't kidding! It probably took us about 30-40 minutes to get there, which involved following a narrow path through the forest, crossing a couple of rivers before arriving at our final destination.

We didn't stay long since we didn't want to interrupt their day. As I was walking back to Ali's hut, I couldn't imagine what American kids would think if they saw how far these kids had to walk to get to this small school house. I can't say for certain, but hope that they would realize how lucky they were to have things like school buses, paved roads, and school supplies!!!

These pictures and stories don't even begin to tell how much this trip impacted me. When I got off the plane in NYC, I wanted to get down and kiss the ground. I'm not kidding. I came back feeling like a spoiled American. There are so many times when I let myself give into feelings of self-pity when I should just be thankful to have been born in a country that affords me so many opportunities. My eyes were also opened by the amazing spirit of the Dominicans that I met. They have next to nothing but are so thankful for all that they have and want to share it with others. One day Ali took me to visit some of the people in her Campo - they all invited us in with open arms and insisted on serving us coffee and a treat of some sort.

I don't reflect back on this trip nearly enough. Ali ended up extending her Peace Corp commitment for an additional 12 months. After those 12 months were up, she worked for a Non-Profit Organization called "Infante Sano" which loosely translates to "Safe Baby." The organization improves the health and well-being of mothers and newborns in Latin America and the Caribbean. It's a pretty cool organization - you can sponsor a mother's birth for only $25!

Now Ali is working on her Masters in Public Health at Columbia University. She's fallen in love with the DR (and a Dominican man!) so I am pretty confident I'll have future opportunities to visit that country! I'm lucky to have a friend that has opened my eyes to a part of the world I wouldn't have seen otherwise.

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