Spring break is a time for us to relax and release ourselves from the stress of our lives. For many people, that means a trip to the beach, a cruise, or curling up to a Netflix marathon. But for 15 Stetson students (and one awesome counselor), it meant jumping on a plane, grabbing a pick, and going to work.
Upon landing in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, we had almost no idea what to expect. BLUE Missions had told us little more than what to pack. Most of us only knew a couple other people on the trip, if any at all. Some people had never been out of the United States, others didn’t know any Spanish. But as our bus began the long, bumpy drive up through the clouds to the town we’d be staying in, trip leader Richard Sixto Jr gave us a simple initiative – get away from your phones and watches and live in the moment.
We arrived in the pueblo of Cruce de Yaroa to find the entire village waiting to meet us. After years of broken promises of water from local governments, they had gone out and found a source themselves, only to have their pipe system fail. We would be assisting them in building a gravity drawn system leading from the source into a tank from which water could be filtered to every family. To the chagrin of many, spiders and cockroaches could enter into our house freely through the cracks between the walls, but we did at least have electricity for a few hours a day and even running water from the old system. Some families there had never had water at all. Despite this, the smiles on their faces when we walked in never left, and we quickly learned that the people of Cruce de Yaroa lacked for nothing.
When he was able to find a working set of batteries, Richard’s stereo blared a wake-up call. After crawling out of our cots, we were greeted by the bright-eyed face of 10-year-old queen of the world, Michel, and a breakfast of crackers, peanut butter and jam, and coffee as strong as the people making it. A round of “Saved by the Bell” followed, leading to embarrassing stories, improvised song and dance, and interesting “what ifs,” and from there the fun got started. We walked up to the water source on our first day of work and for the first time in our lives were handed picks and shovels, which we used to dig a trench from the source to the tank that was being built in one family’s backyard. We couldn’t work as fast or effectively as the Dominicans, but they were always willing to let us hack away alongside them for as long as our arms could churn. Other tasks included carrying supplies, passing buckets of mescla and concreto, laying pipe into the trenches, and spreading concrete onto the tank walls. Working morning and afternoons, we were dancing in the water flowing through the new pipes by the end of Day 3 – the fastest a BLUE project had ever been finished.
When we weren’t working, we were having downtime that could be described as anything but down. Five minutes didn’t pass without the phrase “como se dice” as everyone tried to pick up the language. Friendships were quickly built with Damarís, José, and Edwandi through über competitive games of Dominican dominoes. Groups formed for coloring, card games, and yoga, and insightful conversation was the norm all around. Locals dropped by with freshly picked citrus fruits, guanábana, and guayaba. There were baseball games and hikes to catch breathtaking views of the valley’s surrounding mountains and splash in a nearby waterfall. Women from the town spent their day cooking delicious dishes of eggplant, mofongo, yucca, and tostones for us, and on women’s day we got the opportunity to meet those women and remind them of how powerful they are. We were wowed on children’s day by the wizarding exploits of Mago and the joy of the most adorable kids you’ve ever seen. We spent a day relaxing in the white sand and crystal blue water of La Playa Caleton. And we celebrated with one final night taking in the live music and moves (oh man do those people got the groove – even the man with one leg!) of la Dominicana.
When I first laid eyes on the island, I might’ve been inclined to tell you that it was a country with little to give. With the help of our group turned family, Cruce de Yaroa now has running water, but they gave more to us than we could ever do for them. The thought of leaving brought me to tears many times before the trip was over (and as you read is probably still doing so), but I’ve never been happier or more comfortable with myself than I was during my time there. I’ve made lifelong friendships with some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met and learned that no matter what direction my life is headed in, the person I am right now is pretty amazing too. It was a week that felt like a lifetime. I would say I’m looking forward to going back, but that’s not what BLUE taught me – so until that time comes, I’ll just be living in the moment.