Hint: This is where I get lost…
First and foremost, before I dive into the tantalizing stories teased above—mad props to my parents. They were so glad when I finally chose to visit a country without a raging drug war, widely publicized tourist kidnappings or frequent terrorist activities; I can still hear my mom’s sigh of relief. That being said, I must admit to finding a little guilty humor in the fact that halfway through my first week here a hurricane was predicted to hit the island (sorry, guys!). Fortunately, the only effect we saw of the storm in the northern part of the country was a temporary influx of violent rain. Also, I apologize in advance for this post. I tried my hardest to be safe, I honestly did.
But I digress, for there are adventures to be told! In order to best understand the following stories, I feel the need to preface this next part of my story with some background information:
- Yes, I am terrible with directions. I once crossed through five cities trying to navigate a 10 minute journey from downtown Denver to… Well, somewhere else in downtown Denver. And don’t even get me *started* on the peril of asking students to drive to their own SATs. I can either try and remember the formula for derivates or I can drive safely. You pick.
- I teach in a lovely school in Cienfuegos called La Escuela de Nuestra Senora de la Luz. My lovely school is located in not the lovliest of neighborhoods. Cienfuegos is a barrio originally founded in 1975 when a nearby town burned to the ground and the refugees were resettled in a makeshift area on the edge of Santiago’s landfill. Cienfuegos literally translates to “100 fires,” making the first settlers “refugees of 100 fires.”
- Cienfuegos is now the largest barrio in Santiago, with 80,000 residents. Although the school I work at is a better part of the barrio, I have been absolutely verboten from wearing any jewelry or bringing large amounts of materials for class. Originally there was some concern about bringing my small purse with me, but that has abated somewhat now that people have established a connection between the Americana and the escuela.
- In the Dominican, we use conchos as our major form of transportation. Conchos are essentially (usually) trained drivers who ferry people across the city on established routes. They may or may not have a license and they may or may not be operating a completely functioning vehicle. But in the end, they’re a very patient group of individuals who do their best to ignore all traffic signs and deliver you safely and securely to your destination (though one does usually feel they’ve left a roller coaster upon disembarkment). But they’re super easy for the directionally challenged to use as long as you know the letter of the route you need. Theoretically.
Unless, you have to take the F. The F goes two directions- por dentro y al centro (which they swap back and forth depending on which they think will get them the most passengers). Let’s say you are trying to get yourself to your second day of school and you confirm three times the route you need with the driver. You’re still a little shaky about living in Santiago and all the cultural shocks therein, but you feel confident about the day ahead of you. Today is the day… That the driver never passes any of the landmarks you so carefully memorized to make your way to school. Ack! Panic begins to seep in. Surely you remember… Something? No, not a thing. And now the driver is frustrated with you because you don’t know where to turn (you later found out he skipped your route entirely). The environment around you starts to deteriorate and you have left the paved road. There are no more apartments and an increasing amount of crowded lean-tos appear, so close they seem to be elbowing each other for access to the road.
Your driver pulls over to pick up a new passenger. At first the ride is quiet as you panic silently in the front seat; your first class begins in 10 minutes. The back passenger reaches forward and… pats your shoulder gently. “¿Cómo estás, mija?” “How are you, daughter?” A kind and maternal woman asks, genuine concern in her eyes. She barks at the driver, “Where is she going? Why is she scared?” He responds briskly that you’re looking from some sort of school he’s never heard of and she begins to list all the schools she knows nearby. Another passenger enters the car and into the conversation as well—“¿Ella es maestra? Hay una escuela…” “She’s a teacher? There’s a school…” The driver softens and between the three of them, they come up with a school that matches your description. But the driver passed it some time ago and does not want to go back. Handing you back your money, he pulls over and hails another F concho heading in the opposite direction. He yells the agreed upon school to your new driver as you switch vehicles and off you go. Passengers come and go, each trying their best to help. You are brought to four different schools, none of which you belong to. You are now 10 minutes late to class.
Eventually another passenger cheerfully lends you his cell phone to call your director, insisting that the driver use it to coordinate directions with her that will return you to someplace familiar. As they talk, you see the basurera de Santiago pass outside your window—the Santiago landfill. You have driven all the way through Cienfuegos to the heart of poverty. You see smoke climbing out of the landfill from fires no one can put out and trash rolls into the distance—crests and troughs, like huge waves on a turbulent sea. You catch a glimpse of people sifting through those peaks as the concho takes a slow corner on the narrow dirt road. Though the landfill is no longer in view, you can see its influence on the people and houses here. Women sweep dirt floors with salvaged, make-shift brooms, houses are retrofitted with the latest dive’s find. You have read about this area, where the houses push up against the landfill’s fence. Residents here have more health problems than you can count and rely on the dump for food, fuel and shelter. Respiratory illnesses are common due to the smoke from unquenchable fires and children often scrounge barefooted through the waste. You marvel that such kindness for a wayward school teacher can so easily become the primary concern of new passengers from this area—that they would postpone their trips, appointments, jobs to make sure one lost person gets safely delivered to a school. That your measly moment of terror could become a priority in a world like this.
A plan is made! You are returned to an area you recognize and your companions smile when you gasp that you know where you are. You are brought to the foot of your school, where your driver helps you out and gives you a big hug. Your first real hug since you have arrived. He waves goodbye as you climb up the stairs, “¡Cuidate, niña, cuidate mucho!” “Take care of yourself, child, take very good care of yourself!”
And that was my Thursday morning! Haha! What a morning! I was almost an hour late to school and what is normal a 40 minute concho ride was very nearly two hours! The kids had been hanging around the school building, waiting for me and we all went in together. It was a very wonderful thing to be hugged by so many small and loving arms when you have just had a very large scare. My morning class was wonderful as usual and I felt I more or less drifted through the first half of the day, still flabbergasted at the kindness of others, shocked by what I had seen, and blown away by newly emerging perspectives on respect, poverty, and thankfulness amongst other topics.
After my rather adventuresome morning, I had no fear of navigating my afternoon class. I had a plan. And if I could survive my morning without falling apart, by gum, those kids were going to learn how to conjugate “I have” and “You have” in a sentence. And they did! It will take some reinforcement, but we had a very successful day and I felt very much in control of the class. We’ll see what next week brings, but I was very impressed by today’s progress (academically and behaviorally).
They always say traveling changes your perspectives, but they never say exactly how—I think it’s because the things that challenge us the most are the things we never expected to face. But for now, my friends, I’m tired of writing and if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably pretty tired of reading (haha). Nevertheless, thank you for sticking with me; I’m always glad to have someone to share this adventure with.
Image from:http://www.programasantalucia.org/ayuntamiento/ (All of the burning part is the landfill)
Top photo from: http://semdom.50megs.com/cienfuegos.htm