March 29, 2015
MOSQUITO BITE COUNT:
I got attacked. I don’t mean that figuratively. My toes and ankles are currently swollen from all of the bites. I have some nice, big suckers on my legs too.
STORY ABOUT WHAT I LEARNED:
I had arranged to spend the day with Teresa, my best and only friend here in the Dominican, today. Initially, she suggested that I take a moto (a.k.a motorcycle taxi) to her house. When she saw my reluctance, she explained that she’d also be on the moto to come and get me – essentially, there’d be three of us on one moto. Don’t worry, this is not uncommon here in the Dominican where often 4 people will be on one and sometimes when I’m lucky, I see two people and one washing machine on one. I explained that my family didn’t want me on motos but then winked at her and mentioned, “don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.” She relented and decided it’d be best to find another source of transportation so that nobody would be offended or worried.
When I woke up in the morning I was, thankfully, feeling much better. I rushed to get ready, even reluctantly downing my oatmeal. I wondered briefly if my quick eating would flare my stomach upset again but decided there wasn’t any time to worry about it. Teresa would be coming in her brother’s taxi to pick me up at the stoplights close to home.
I left home at 8:27, only 3 minutes until I was supposed to meet Teresa, for the 4 minute walk. I began my speed walk that I had perfected in Toronto over the past years. Some people on the street gave me side-glances and probably wondered, “what’s wrong with that gringa?” No matter, I had a date with my best Dominican friend and I had intended to have the day start off right. Before I got to the lights, I saw a taxi crawling beside me and recognized Teresa’s face immediately by the passenger window.
I hopped in the car and excitedly exchanged greetings with everyone. I felt so privileged to be a in a taxi like that with only three of us! As we began the 10-minute drive to the church near Teresa’s home, Teresa egged me on, begging me to please tell her brother my Latina name. “Mi nombre es, Maria Juanita Canchita Bonita Mamacita … Vargas,” rapidly rolled off my tongue as I offered a shoulder shake and much attitude. We all laughed heartily and I think I also may have heard an applause. “Okay, Mamacita Varga,” replied Teresa’s brother, “let’s get you two to church.”
On the ride there, Joely, Teresa’s 12 year old daughter, and I exchanged shy glances. She apparently understood some English but refused to speak English or Spanish, for that matter. She just sat there quietly and occasionally from my periphery, I’d catch her looking at me. Perhaps she needed time to figure me out. When we arrived at the church, Teresa stepped out and I noticed how stunning she looked in her white peasant top and white linen trousers. A different look from the worn Dove t-shirt and jeans I had been accustomed to seeing her in while in the class.
She offered to show me the procession so that I could experience something new. There were hundreds of people in a large group on the main street just ahead of the church. Several men hurriedly handed out palm bunches of palm leaves to people. The wonderful sound of singing soon began to rise and before I knew it, I was in the middle of the swarm, palm leaves in hand, moving with the procession. Emotion overcame me as the soulful singing encouraged my mind to wander. I thought about how thousands of years ago, Jesus, a king, strode into town on a donkey and people greeted him with cheers and laid palm leaves at his path. This is by no means the welcome royalty expect today but until the day he died, Jesus was an immense example of humility. Tears welled up in my eyes as the stories of the sacrifice He made for me floated through my mind. What an honour it is for me to be loved by God and to be a joint heir with Jesus to God’s throne. Sometimes the full comprehension of that is unreachable and other times, I catch glimpses of understanding and feel overwhelmed with unworthiness and joy.
The procession continued right into the church where Teresa, Joely, and I crammed ourselves into available seating. I’m really bad with estimating but I’d guess (by some calculation) there were at least 300 people there in that small church. I giggled as I saw the priest using his cellphone to take pictures of the crowd or when people from the congregation would walk right up to the singers to snap their pictures as they were singing. The congregation continued to sing with palm leaves raised as we heard the guitar, tambourine, and drums being played. This was certainly a different kind of Catholic than I’d known back home.
Though the priest was from Peru and apparently spoke much slower than Dominicans, I didn’t understand a word that was being said. Teresa, suspecting that I may have been lost during the service, joked that we were doing a lot of exercise today with all of the sitting, standing, and kneeling. I continued to giggle throughout the mass as the palm leaves from the children behind me tickled my neck and ears. By the time mass was finished at 10:30, I happily shared with Teresa the one thing I did understand – that the priest was encouraging everyone to return at 4pm for another procession. We all laughed as we walked along the dirt road to Teresa’s house …
Thankfully, I was able to stop into a store to get some Gatorade. I figured that since we had run out of drinking water in the morning and considering how I was feeling last night, Gatorade would be best. We happened to also stop at the store close to her house so that she could pick up some rice. Being in those little stores is such an interesting experience. There seems to be an abundance of things lying around and if you want a beverage, usually you’ll have to walk behind the counter to the fridge they have in a corner.
As we neared the front gate of the house, Teresa shyly announced, “Welcome to my home.” This was a very small and simple dwelling space and Teresa did her best to try to make her “guest of honour” feel comfortable. I sat on the sofa with Joely as Teresa set off to begin making lunch and Carolina, her 9 year old daughter, strayed in the corner, too shy to approach. I tried chatting with Joely but with my terrible Spanish and her unwillingness to try English we both sat there for moments quietly trying to think of things to do. I asked her to get her notebook and a pen so that we could at least try to write to each other. We scribbled things like “what’s your favourite animal”, “what is your name”, and “when is your birthday” across those pages. As Joely began warming up to our questions activity, Carolina quietly came over and sat beside her sister, peering over her shoulder to look at the paper. The English words were far beyond her but Carolina did take interest. This activity carried on for what felt like an eternity as I hurried to try to find more questions to ask and as my stomach began to call after lunch.
Teresa came in the living area occasionally to chat with me or to offer me mangoes or literally, a whole bunch of bananas. I thought I would save my appetite for the delicious lunch Teresa was preparing and I joyful sat back and watched the girls scrambling to each grab a banana. Before long, lunch was ready and Teresa called me to the table, sitting just behind the couch, to say grace over the meal. What an honour it was for me to pray over that meal and all of Teresa’s hospitality! She had prepared just for me chicken, two types of repollo, white rice, habichuela, and arrepas. We began to server ourselves and I noticed Joely doubled over and leaning against the wall by the couch. She excused herself and ran to the washroom. I suspected that she was fighting the same thing I was dealing with last night and had complete empathy. Soon after she ran to her room, which was just behind a curtain close to the table. Teresa kept calling after her and telling her to come to the table for fear that I might be insulted.
I felt compassion and empathy and asked Teresa to check on her to make sure she was okay. I’m not sure how she was able, but she mustered up enough energy to return to the table and attempt to eat with us. I constantly asked how she was doing. It’s a terrible feeling to be sick like that.
She was forced to discontinue her schooling and a year later began working at a shop as a cashier in Playa Dorada. “Sometimes I dream about going back to school but I worry that at 43 I might be too old,” she said sadly. I told her how much I believed in her and encouraged her to follow her dreams if she had the time and money to do it. Teresa explained that when she was going to school it was 1,000 pesos a month, so it was relatively inexpensive. To get a proper teaching job here she’d need her degree. As I encouraged her I saw a sparkle flicker in her eyes. I could tell that the gears were moving and she was considering.
Against Dominican norms, Teresa married when she was 30 years old. To us that sounds reasonable but here in the Dominican many girls are married off at 14 because of poverty-stricken circumstances and most of the girls in poverty have at least one child by the age of 16. As you can understand, Teresa is a very special and rare creature. She had Joely a year after marriage and Carolina followed three years later.
We spoke about the difficulties of relationships. She told me that Brad was lucky to have me and after me singing his praises she told me I was very fortunate to have him. Brad, is certainly another very special and rare creature. Teresa made further comments about how difficult the marriage was and I noticed that she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring though the girls’ father still lived in the house. We chatted about the unfortunate situations current Dominican girls were in and the poor choices they make. Teresa has been really diligent about talking to her girls about the importance of school first. She explained that Jose, the girls’ father, won’t talk to the girls about those things probably because his parents didn’t talk to him about such matters …
Teresa also spoke about her dream of moving out of her sister’s house next year. She seemed to feel as though she was infringing on her sister’s space and felt humiliated that she couldn’t have her own place. Give that Jose is a tour bus operator and that Teresa probably doesn’t get paid a lot, I wondered if her dream was feasible.
Our attention then turned to teaching at Dove and we decided to spend a little time doing some preliminary lesson planning for the month of April. She thanked me profusely for all of my ideas. “Your ideas have helped me so much. I’ve already noticed a change in the kids,” she gushed. I tried to reassure her that I’d do whatever possible to help her with plans for April. She excitedly proclaimed that she didn’t have an email address or Facebook but would create accounts just so that she could communicate with me. I would certainly love to keep in touch with Teresa and continue to share ideas if need be.
She then leapt up and announced that she’d be giving me a tour of her neighbourhood. As we stepped out she shyly giggled with the overwhelming feeling that there really wasn’t anything for me to see. I reassured her that all of it was new and exciting for me and I happily toted along my camera, ready to snap a million pictures. We walked past clearly run down places as we trekked along the stone and dirt paths. She pointed to a sign that said “Hotel” and giggled as she said, “es un hotel primero clase.” I’m pretty sure that “hotel” didn’t even have a star rating but I marvelled at Teresa’s sense of humour. Shortly after, she guided us all to some benches hedging a gaping hole filled with stale water and garbage. “Welcome to our park!” she excited exclaimed. I loved that she was able to poke fun at silly things. Certainly, my kind of lady! We continued to tour around and in spite of Teresa thinking she was lost at several points, we made it safely back to her house.
Teresa noticed that my face was flushed from the heat and the walk. She had me sit in the small front porch as one of the girls ran to plug in and direct a fan’s breeze on me. Noticing that some hair had come loose from my bun, I uncoiled my hair to fix it. At seeing the length of my hair Carolina squealed with delight and quickly went to task on fixing and playing with it. As Teresa and I chatted away, Carolina feted my hair with braids, beads, and twists. At one point she was even gently combing through my hair with a wide toothed comb. I rarely comb my unruly hair when it’s dry. I think she may have been surprised by the never ending frizz and tough knots as she began combing. Certainly not the “white” sort of hair she suspected 🙂
As the time neared 5pm I wondered how I’d get back home. I also thought about the cooking and cleaning I hoped to do before bed. I asked Teresa to show me how to get home and she insisted that she’d hop in a taxi with me to ensure I got home safely. Teresa prepared to leave and called me to come inside to look at something. She shyly passed me a long, stretchy tube dress that was similar to the one she was wearing. I was so surprised and slightly embarrassed as this lady with barely anything gave me one of her few possessions. I could tell she was slightly ashamed of the quality and worried that I might not light it as she explained that it’s good to wear around the house or at the beach. Oh Teresita, I will wear that dress with pride because you, my very special friend, have given it to me!
I thanked her a thousand times as she put the dress in a bag. Then she announced that she’d also be putting the two mangoes and the whole bunch of bananas in there too. I was frozen with shame. Surely that fruit cost her some good money. How could I take all of it when she had a family to feed? “Oh Teresa, thank you so, so much. Please, I can’t take it, it’s all too much,” I responded. Teresa quickly and sincerely explained that she got all of the fruit just for me. To be respectful and reasonable, since I really wouldn’t be able to eat all of the fruit by myself, I submitted and asked her to give me one mango and two bananas. “Okay, no problem, amiga,” she replied as I saw her slip two mangoes and two bananas into the bag 🙂
In spite of their protests, we set off without the girls in search of a taxi or if we were fortunate, a guagua. Along our journey to the main road we saw Teresa’s brother’s taxi approaching us. We happily hopped in. Teresa joyfully recounted the events from the day as I sat in the back seat sadly looking out the window. I thought about how unworthy I was to receive such love from Teresa, who I barely knew. I thought about the worried feeling I had about not being able to repay her as Teresa stuffed a plastic bag with gifts. I thought about how my time here was coming to an end just when things were staring to get so good. I thought about the dreams and hopes Teresa shared with me and I pained for a fellow woman in need.
I was home by 5:30, just as Liz, Freddie, and Billy were leaving to go to the beach. I was left alone in the quietness of the house with the loudness of my thoughts. Emotions rushed over me and I felt so alone. A sense of helplessness came over me as I began to think about how in just a few short days I wouldn’t be able to help and support my dear friend any longer …
Before I shut my eyes, exhausted from a day full of intense emotions, I privately concluded a few things. First, that sometimes in order to really give you have to receive. By receiving Teresa’s hospitality and gifts yesterday I was giving her the opportunity to show me love and care. Second, I decided that supporting Teresa’s education would be an opportunity for me to continue following my passion of empowering women.
I’m going to ask Teresa to look into her schooling options. I’d like to financially support her education. Depending on how much tuition is, I might be able to finance her education and school supplies each year. I’m telling you all of this because I want to be accountable to this promise. I hope you will remember this idea and check in on me from time to time to ask me how it’s going and if you feel compelled, to ask me how you can also support.
I could buy Teresa a gift and a thank you card but the best gift I can ever give to her is believing in her and supporting her education, empowerment, and her future.
WHAT I’M GRATEFUL FOR:
• That I woke up sans the ill feeling in my stomach. I think it’s safe to say that the sick feeling I had has mostly passed by now.
• I found water at the store and Gatorade! 🙂
• Teresa’s love and graciousness
• Guineos thanks to Teresa. I love chopping them up and putting them in my oatmeal in the morning. I would have needed one for tomorrow anyhow.
• That Teresa asked her brother to use the taxi to pick me up. Teresa was kind enough to accompany him so that she could spot me out at the designated pick up location. Her brother also dropped me off at home. Felt kind of strange having only 3 of us in the taxi considering my experience last week!
Father, there are no words that I can express to show my true gratitude for Teresa’s love. I ask that you richly bless her. I ask that her blessings be so abundant that people around her can’t help but be blessed as well. Show my dear friend more goodness than she has shown me. Thank you so much for putting this person in my life and calling me to this purpose!
• Is anyone familiar with the Dominican post-secondary education system?
• Interested in being a part of supporting Teresa’s education?