Today is the day I fall in love with the Dominican Republic. It is hot. It is noisy. BUT...the people. The people are so wonderful!
Most of us got a little more sleep last night than we have gotten so far. We have a breakfast of mashed potatoes, yes, you read that right. There is also a tray of room temperature rolled slices of ham and cheese. And a platter of pineapple and papaya. We drink mango juice and strong coffee with canned milk. Then we are off to a church near the Ebeneezer school in Santa Fe.
The church is a cement and wood structure with open rafters above and a steel roof that allows you to see the sky in places. We start right off dancing and shouting and sweating here at church. (Parents--I wish you could see your children. Yes, your shy, reserved children. I wish you could see them dancing their little hearts out--hands in the air, swaying and jumping and singing with all their might. I was reminded of David who danced before the Lord when the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Israel. He had nothing on this group of young Americanos.)
This particular service is geared towards children who are all out of school enjoying the Easter holiday. For an hour or so, they wander in off the streets, presumably from houses very nearby. Some mothers come with smaller children and babies. All of the children are polished and shiny in their Sunday best.
It is easy to see how much these people love their children. They are not considered a nuisance but a blessing and incorporated into every aspect of the service and they do so with great enthusiasm. Another thing that strikes me is how trusting and generous the mothers are with their children. I admired one precious four month-old and the mother handed her off to me. I sucked in the sweet baby scent and marveled at her beautiful eyes and flawless, soft skin. She had pierced ears, and wore a tiny necklace and bangle bracelets on her chubby wrists.
Several of our teens share their testimonies through an interpreter. Then we pray over the children. They smile at us, not having a clue what is being said. Next, we split up into three groups to go out into the village and speak with the people From house to house.
The children from church do not leave us. They follow us, taking turns holding our hands. I tell them, in my VERY limited Spanish that I am "abuela" to "Nueve grande ninos." They are impressed and hang on even tighter to me. I wish I had more than two hands.
Down the streets we go, like a parade of tall white giants with a horde of colorful, chattering escorts. The street is dirt. Skinny dogs that seem to belong to no one hang out everywhere like part of a movie set. They aren't particularly interested in us. There are goats eating trash and chickens scurrying here and there. One hen is being chased by many fluffy babies. I identify with her at this moment.
It is very important to the children that we know their names. They touch their chest with a grand flourish and announce, "My. Name. Is..." I meet Nicole and Stephanie and Mariana and too many others to count. Oh but their eyes, who can forget? Their shining, trusting eyes, their snowy white smiles, their beaded braids.
The people in the houses along the roads do not give us the reception you'd expect in the States. If I saw a parade of people coming to my door I'd lock it and pretend to be away. Not so in the D.R.. People are mostly outside anyway, sitting in plastic chairs, enjoying the day. When we come up to them they smile warmly. Some of them invite us in to their homes.
They are very proud of where they live and how they have been blessed--some of them by two whole rooms or more. Most the houses/huts are surrounded by some kind of fence. People are SO creative about material they use for fences and make use of whatever is available--mattress springs, sticks and wire, tin and pallets. There really isn't grass growing, but there are flowering trees and shrubs in places you wouldn't expect that add so much color and beauty--a veritable patchwork quilt of human ingenuity.
Further away from the church building we see more and more people who did not attend the service. We ask them about their faith. Many of them say that they used to be Christians but that God has let them down and now they no longer believe. We are able to pray with some of them.
We see naked children playing in puddles. I pick up one little guy who can't be more than a year old. Standing off a bit, I see what must be his sister, shyly watching this dusty little brother. I pick him up and he is fascinated with the gum in my mouth. Motorbikes whizz by at random times and nobody seems too alarmed that there are babies playing in the street. Nobody gets run over or killed and I am glad.
After we pack our hot and sweaty selves into the bus, we make a side stop at the sea. My nose immediately picks up the smell of surf and salt before I even see the water. And oh! the WATER!!! Gloriously blue green like I have only seen in pictures. The surf is wild and we are not allowed to get too close today but I am transfixed by the crashing of the waves against the shore. That's when I notice a man with a cart of what looks like light green bowling balls--coconuts!!!
I run over to him with a fistful of "fake" money and buy four coconuts. He uses a machete to cut off the tops and sticks a straw in each one. I pass them around to my friends. It makes for an exciting experience and some great photos but the actual coconut water is something of a disappointment. It smells like what a raw pumpkin smells like when you carve into it. Back at the mission house we pour it over ice and add cane sugar. Still not a fan.
Lunch was rice with beans and fried peppers and eggplant. Also, there was mashed potatoes or plantains flavored with onions. After a short rest and change of clothes, we are off to another church. More singing, more dancing, more shouting, more testimonies through interpreters. Some of us are running out of battery at this point from the heat.
It is almost impossible to drink enough water and we cart it everywhere we go in big coolers. Across from the church building, five naked little boys are playing in a plastic pool that they refill from a hose. I seriously wish I could get in that pool with them. I sit on the wall and watch them awhile. They splash me and laugh. Soon their mother calls them in to get dressed so they can go to church.
Church is a big deal in these tiny villages and we Americanos are a novelty. Now, wherever we go, people shout and wave at us. The children hang off the sides of the bus so we can barely get away when we try to leave. We feel totally safe, though the men and boys are always watchful and we girls don't go anywhere alone.
Another church, another village that night. This church is smaller than others we have been to. No musicians except drummers. It didn't seem to matter anyway because singing in key appears to be optional. The most important thing is to be loud.
"BOONA BOO-YAH!" Shouts the leader. And everyone yells back at him. He is saying,"Make a noise." And we do. The best part of this church for me is the team of Dancing Girls. It is comprised of a dozen little girls between the ages of 8 and 12 who are all dressed in white satin, pajama-style pants and pink satin tunics. They have their own row of chairs at the front and dance throughout the service in sychronized movements. I am captivated by their loveliness and the regal was they conduct themselves like little prima donnas. And then the cut loose. Oh, MY. Our church in MN needs a little girl dance team.
After church we get to eat. It is 10PM. We are served, pay attention, lasagna. MADE WITH MASHED PLANTAINS. I am not even kidding. It is pretty good. But when one of our guys discovered an older couple making and selling pizzas on the street,we grab our strange money and eat until we can't move. We sit on the pavement in the rain and eat pizza with corn on top, and it is heavenly.