Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy -- meditate on these things.
So, as most of you know, in March I went on my first ever short-term mission trip to Hato Mayor in the Dominican Republic with college students from Penn State, University of Pittsburgh and a handful from other places.
It is almost a month later, and I've been meaning to write down things that I saw and experienced while I was there, partially so I don't forget them, but hopefully also to encourage you, the reader. I have quite figured out the best way to write it all down, but I think going day-by-day will be the easiest, as I can categorize things chronologically, and hopefully not forget anything in the process.
However, the first "day" is a little hard to write about, since we left Pittsburgh on Saturday evening, and fell into our beds at 4AM or so on Sunday morning, and so I consider Sunday to be our first "real" day anyway.
The trip down was fairly uneventful, though I did leave my only long-sleeved article of clothing in the Pittsburgh airport, so I wondered if I would be cold there - people said coming home on the trucks at night got kind of breezy. I also wondered if I had brought enough stuff, as I only had one small bag, where lots of other people had way more stuff that I did. It turned out fine on both counts, and the only time I missed my jacket was when I was up early in the morning, and wanted to sit out on the balcony, and it was a bit chilly before the sun came up. And I brought a bit too much clothes, though not too far off, and if we had gone out in the evenings to church more (a "normal" trip goes out to a different church every night) I probably would have used the extra clothes.
We gathered pretty easily in the airport, and though there were groups of people who knew each other, lots of people didn't know each other, even from the same schools - for example, Penn State has a just few students, and something like 39 Christian student groups, so people in one group often wouldn't know a Christian in another group. I met Steve, who attends Providence Church of Pittsburgh, where we used to go, and so we talked a little about that.
As far as the language goes, there was one Spanish major who was basically fluent (though he tried to deny it, which he was correct to point out that he should "let another praise him and not his own mouth"), and then Elizabeth who has been to the Dominican a bunch, and then a handful of students who took Spanish in high school and still remembered it, and then those that took it in high school, but had forgotten almost everything, and then people who didn't know anything. I gather that on a "normal" trip, there are very few that knew any Spanish at all, so we had a lot more Spanish than most groups did. Three weeks prior to the trip, I knew less than 20 words a la Sesame Street, with ten of those words being the numbers one to ten, so basically, I didn't know anything. But, Heather borrowed some audio-book teaching cds from the library, and we listened to those a bunch, and I worked pretty hard at figuring things out and I was greatly helped by taking French in high school, that lots of things were similar, both in terms of the verb conjugation tables that I already had a map in my head to lay out everything, and also lots of words made sense as far as word roots often lined up in either English or French. It was interesting to me to see that some people didn't really care about learning Spanish at all, and others who did want to make an effort in that direction. Though for some reason, I feel differenly about Spanish than German, perhaps because Spanish was so much easier to learn. It also might be that I really can't learn from the immersion-type style teaching - we watched Muzzy a couple times, and we've listened to the HIPPO mp3s in the car occasionally, and I never really figured out what they were saying. It was interesting to learn entirely by ear to start, and when I showed up at our church's Spanish club meeting where they had mostly learned by reading and then speaking, how differently words were spelled, and how some words were actually only one word, or vice versa, etc. I did find it greatly helpful to read the preface to Heather's Spanish-English dictionary, as it went into great detail about pronunciation and the reasons for different things, and that made it much easier for me to figure out, though I was disappointed about the number of "irregular" verbs in Spanish. I'd guess about 70% of the verbs that I know are all considered "irregular", which seems like an awfully high percentage to me.
Once we arrived at the airport and got through customs (and tried to figure out how to fill out all of the paperwork - there was very little guidance on how that all worked, and we didn't know the address where we were going, and some of the fields are not clearly defined, because they use the same form for when you are entering and leaving the country, so what do "origination" and "destination" mean? (and they didn't mean Pittsburgh, where we had come from, they meant the airport we had most recently been at) And there was another field that we didn't know how to fill out for a while either. But, we made it through and found all of our luggage. We hopped on a bus, and I ended up sitting next to Ney and Kim, and while Ney's English is way better than it was when I first met him last fall, Kim mostly spoke in Spanish to him, but they were speaking slowly enough that I was able to follow pretty much the whole conversation, which was really neat, given the amount of time I had studied, and I got kind of excited that maybe my Spanish would be good enough to communicate down there, but alas, not really, though I'll talk more about that later. It was neat to hear most of the students around me chatting away in Spanish - there was a lot of Spanish going on, I think the more fluent Spanish speakers must have sat near each other that first bus ride, because there wasn't that much Spanish the rest of the trip.
It turns out that a couple of the days we were there, it was their coldest days of the year, and so I think we didn't really experience the heat that is typical. I even played basketball for a couple hours one afternoon, and it was only a little bit hot. And, being from NH, I am generally hot all of the time.
I was concerned about how the Wi-Fi inside the compound would do, that since I am self-employed, on the one hand, I get a vacation every day (as one customer of mine said), but I also never get vacations, and so I needed to be on the internet every day, and AT&T wasn't able to tell me prior to going down there whether my internet would work on the phone (it did, at the rate of $20/MB, so I tried not to use it, except when the Wi-Fi had been out for 12 hours or so). I only saw the electricity go out at the compound once, but someone told me that it goes out a couple times a day, but you don't notice, one, because MGM has a generator, and two, we didn't use all that much electricity, so you wouldn't see the lights go off, etc. The Wi-Fi was in and out constantly; pretty much every time I used it, it would go out while I was using it, and then come back on a minute or two later. There is a new broadband provider coming, and the rumor is that the quality is better. We are working on setting up a VOIP phone for them, in order to give them a US phone number, so they can call more cheaply to and from the US, as well as get them a Dominican phone number, as they occasionally have trouble trying to convince Dominican officials that they are a legitimate company, when all they can give them are cell phone numbers. But, we'll need their internet to work well, if we want their phone to be reasonable form of communication - we shall see how that turns out.
So - not doing too well for my day-by-day description...
We got up late on Sunday morning, maybe at 10 or so, and Jim (founder of MGM, I think) had a talk planned for each morning, though since our week was shorter than a "regular" trip by a couple days, he had to squeeze some talks in here and there. I gather the college students are more used to listening to speakers for long periods of time, because Jim remarked a number of times about how they seemed eager to stay and listen, rather than get up for a break, or postpone a talk, etc. I don't really remember the rest of that day, except that we walked to a nearby village named Guayabol (I think that is how it is spelled) and we played with the kids for a while, and Ethan did some soccer tricks (he is a soccer player at Pitt, and is part of the Fellowship of Christian Atheletes there) I forget what he told the kids, but said he had continuously bounced a ball (without letting it touch the ground) for something like five hundred or a thousand times or some crazy number like that. I played a little bit with some kids - the favorite task was to put kids on our shoulders and have them direct us around, and run races while trying to keep them from falling off. Actually, probably the favorite activity was having Stephan (starting center for Penn State) throw the kids up in the air. They wanted all of us to throw them, and I can throw my own kids up high, but the ten year olds were pretty tough, and I am not quite sure how Stephan did it, but I suppose that is why I don't play football and he does...
I wandered over to some older guys and talked to them for a little bit - I mostly talked to Carlos, who it turns out, probably spoke English the best of anyone in the village, and went to college, and worked in the city at an electric company, though I couldn't figure out what kind of work he actually did. We managed to communicate pretty well, throwing in English or Spanish when we couldn't think of the word in the other language. Later, I was standing near him and his friends as they were talking, and I couldn't understand a word of what they were saying. I figured it was just because they were speaking quickly, and one guy had his mouth inside his shirt since it was so cold(!), but later Carlos saw me trying to figure out what was going on, and said that they were speaking Creole. I had heard that Creole was a mix of Spanish and French, but he said that it wasn't and it was a lot closer to French, and after we compared some phrases in French and Creole and heard how similar they were (he didn't know French, so he was surprised to hear me say words and sentences that were so similar to Creole), I decided that Creole is sort of a lazy, or heavily accented French, though I never was able to understand anyone when they spoke Creole, so it is probably more different than that.
I think we went to Ney's church that first night. One thing that is interesting about the churches there is that they all (or at least all the ones I know about) meet every night of the week. And while, only a small portion of the church comes on any given night, it is a neat (and good) thing to know that your church would be meeting, and there would be preaching and worshipping going on, if you felt like gathering with other people. I've wondered what that would look like here - I don't think I'd ever heard of a church community meeting every day (aside from the Catholic daily masses, which are kind of different) most places find it hard to meet more than twice a week. It does show a neat thing about the Dominican culture, that they simply have a lot more time than we do. A couple people asked me about whether I liked it in the Dominican, and were genuinely surprised to hear me say that I did like it. They couldn't figure out why, other than maybe I liked it because it was warmer... But, I talked about the speed of life, and while it is better being outside of Pittsburgh, people still rush around (I left our house around rush hour the other morning, and as I always am when I drive at that hour, I wonder how people do it every day, so much rushing around, mad at each other, impatient as anything to get wherever they are going). At the church meeting, I discovered how little Spanish I could understand. I couldn't understand any of the songs we sang, whether they were at church, or on the trucks as we drove along. I would maybe get a word here or there, but for the most part, didn't have any idea what the words were. Andy, CCO staff from Cornerstone preached that night, and the sermon was translated into Spanish for the folks that normally attended the service. The lady who was leading the service, did an excellent job of reiterating and expanding the points Andy made from Micah 6:8 (do justly, love mercy, walk humbly). There was a lot of energy and excitement during the worship and singing time, but since I couldn't understand the words, had a hard time joining in with them.
As best as I can tell, the women do all of the work for the most part, and the guys generally hang around. I asked one guy (21 years old or so) what he did, and he said he "fixed his motorcycle". One person told me that the guys generally work when they need to, and once they've earned enough money for what they wanted, then they stop working and wait until they have a financial need again. Which, there is certainly something to be said for that, and when I went to part-time status at my last job, I think a number of people realized that they didn't really need to be working 40 hours a week to make enough money, and it caused some of them to think a little about how they were spending their time. But, I think there is probably a good balance between the two extremes that would be the best. The statistic was given that the kids we met probably ate once every other day, and so probably their fathers should be working a little more, but I guess it is what you get used to. Another thing someone told me is that there isn't really anything known as "marriage" in the Dominican, at least outside of the church. So, while a guy generally wouldn't have simultaneous wives, it was quite normal for a guy to have multiple wives over the course of his life. One guy (Señor Tijeras - Mr. Scissors, more to come about him later) we talked to had 64 siblings.
Pretty much everyone I met looked at least 20% younger than I would have guessed. One guy was proud of how young he looked and he asked us to guess. Someone guessed 60, and I figured they were trying to compensate for him looking young, as I would have guessed 50, but it turned out he was 85 or something like that.
I brought a whole bunch of fruit leathers, which are like fruit roll-ups, but without the added sugar, and they also have a harder texture (so aside from the bad marketing, the name fits pretty well). The kids were generally suspicious of them, and sniffed them, but everyone said they really liked them. It is hard giving away food, or really anything, in the villages, that there are so many kids, that you get swarmed, and unfortunately, I didn't realize it until too late, that the kids who were being patient (ha - my fingers started to write paciente, that was a handy word to know) didn't get any food, because the ones who jumped in front of them got it before they could. I was prepared for the kids to be grabbing food, as I had heard stories from people who had come before, but I hadn't thought about the twenty-somethings wanting food as well.
Yay, end of day one, lots more to come!