A late afternoon trek the other day took us to the far reaches of town.
Lupo’s camioneta climbed upward, not in any noticeable manner, but it kept laboring up a steady incline, a small hill that crawled slowly away from town, arriba y afuera.
The road soon changed from pavement to piedra, loose stone that was violently chewed up by the low-lying truck, the bed in back full of coworkers heading home. People walked barefoot on the roadside, almost keeping pace with the slow moving vehicle. Soon enough even the stone was gone, and we were navigating the rough, worn tracks of a dirt road, the afternoon sun beginning to set ahead of us.
“Look,” Lupo said in Spanish, pointing to our left. “Over there is a sea of garbage, as far as you can see. And here, the dogs turn to goats.”
Dan and I looked over toward the far side of the street, where a mass of green overgrowth only partly concealed a bed of filth beneath. And up on the side of the road ahead– sure enough– was una cabra, ripping into bags of garbage with its teeth, chewing handfuls of trash as if it were grass.
Bienvenidos al tercer mundo.
Ever since we arrived here in July—even before departing—people have been telling us of the poverty, the filth, the way things are here:
One day, when Felicia and I were having a late afternoon lunch at the club, we met up with a friend and coworker from the Diagnostic Center associated with our school. In the middle of chatting with her, we found ourselves reflecting on the purpose of our experience here—and what motivated us to sign up in the first place.
“Well it’s a great chance for you to be exposed to another language, another culture, and see what it’s like to be in un pais tercermundista— a third world country,” our friend remarked, sharing some statistics about just how many people here live in poverty, how rampant unemployment really is, and how a large amount of income in the country is repatriated from the U.S., wired courtesy of Western Union.
People had told us of the poverty, the filth…the abandoned buildings, the run down neighborhoods…the starving children, the opportunistic thieves…
A young boy at the stadium during the Toros game the other day, maybe 10 years old, followed me around for awhile, working a more subtle and protracted pitch for money. But he was funny enough, and was talking to me for some time, asking me what I thought of the country. I replied that I liked it very much, and he asked me why, with all the trash everywhere, and all the kids like him begging for money.
And on a separate vuelta with Lupo & Co., we had passed through the barrio nicknamed bajo mundo–the underworld–a cluttered and dense neighborhood in the middle of the city, where the buildings were falling over onto each other from their respective sides of the street, encroaching on the small alleys between, shading them from the sunlight by squeezing out the sky above.
“This is where all the drugs are. Everything. Anything you want. The police don’t dare go here. And if you come here at night, the tigres will take you for everything you own. Including your shirt and pants.”
We had our fair share of warnings, of shared insight into some of the more base things this country had to offer. Yet despite everything we had heard, or seen–the orphaned buildings around every corner, the stray, starving dogs roaming the streets, eating garbage and baby diapers on the side of the road, starving children begging for food or money—despite all that, nothing compared to the ride that day.
“Es como un otro mundo,” said Doña Miqueya, sitting in the front seat as we made our way up that hill. “If I didn’t take tours with Lupo, I wouldn’t even know this part of La Romana exists.”
This world does exist. And people we work with live there.
What really struck us that day was not just seeing that this type of poverty first-hand, but seeing people we know and work with living with in the midst of it. Several people hopped from the bed of our truck as we meandered throughout the dirt roads of the neighborhood, making their way home. And soon we came to a stop outside a dilapidated wooden house, the tin roof on top rusted to a dark red hue.
“The houses here are all built on piles of garbage,” Lupe chimed in again. “And you have one family sharing a house with one room.” We looked over at the sad looking skeleton of the house. A lonely toy bulldozer lay sideways in the middle of a muddy excuse for a yard, clothes hanging suspended above it on lines running in every direction, and through the house itself.
Out from the house came one of the teachers from the school.
Seeing her emerge from that house was almost surreal. We had only known her at the Hogar, and this was our first time seeing her afuera de trabajo. We were shocked. But it was real– we soon spotted in the crowd of boys playing stick ball in the street ahead her three sons– Daniel, Eliot, Markos–students at the school where we work, happy-go-lucky kids that are always quick to smile and say hello, and were soon at the window of the truck doing that very same thing.
After a quick conversation regarding whatever was being exchanged– Lupo apparently had some paperwork for her– the truck began its slow descent back down the hill. The sun was barely clinging to life, threatening to dip below the horizon at any moment.
Dan and I were speechless afterwards—Dan was the first to break the observant silence we had found ourselves in for the past hour or so.
“The DR has to be a third world country,” he stated simply.
“Yea, I didn’t think that until now,” I replied, following it up with an inconclusive ‘that was…’ which I’m not sure was ever even vocalized.
It certainly was something.