Waking up at ILAC each morning always starts similarly: First, there are the roosters. Before the sun rises, the cocks begin their cacophony of calls well up until the time that our cascade of different alarms begin chiming. From 5:15 a.m. for our early morning runners until close to 8:00 a.m. for our sleepyheads of the group, the chirps and buzzes of our watches and battery-operated devices ring like a smooth, symphonic waterfall flowing from one room to another over our open ceilings (and sometimes back again for the snooze button can be quite popular after a night of listening to dogs fighting in the allies or loud motorcycles racing by). Soon afterward, life on the streets begins: a loud bachata playing in the cars that speed by, the Spanish chatter of neighbors catching up, a child crying out in the cinder-block shack next to us, and then, our beloved breakfast bell.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, after a meal of bread, cheese, and Dominican coffee, we're off to our service sites. Let me update you a bit on some of my experiences and observations this past week:
Catching our first guagua of the day all by ourselves, Cody, Kellie, and I squish between the Licey locals for the 20 peso ride into the city. As the guagua races past the motorcycles and taxis of the road, the wind from the open van door hits me with a tinge of excitement. This is our first time venturing into Santiago by ourselves and I am looking forward to the possibility of playing with the boy in the green shirt again.
As we communicate with the cobrador as to where we'll be getting off, I watch the movement of the merchants that crowd the Santiago streets. Here, the Dominicans have the spirit of a true hustler. From bottled water, to pirated movies, to phone chargers, to stolen goods, to the popular apple popsicles from the men in neon green, the street vendors come right up to the guagua windows at the stoplights attempting to find their next sale. Darting through traffic, pushing their carted goods along the street sides, or calling from the sidewalks to gain the attention of onlookers, it is clear there is a component of desperation mixed with the hardworking attitude I've observed in the Dominican people. Some I will see working shifts from dawn until dusk. Some will claim a corner for sales; others will move throughout the day attempting to follow the crowds. Some will take "No gracias" for an answer; others will continue trying to earn your second glance at their product until you are out of sight. Yet all share a common goal: to make enough money to keep living in the urban poverty that plagues this city.
Passing through the landscapes of both Licey and Santiago, I am reminded here of something well noted by many of our Encuentro group in regards to urban poverty. Neighborhood separation does not exist here. One moment, we may pass a beautifully built colonial style home with gates and a night guard, and their neighbor will have a home made of cinder-blocks, trash, and barbed wire. The disparity between the wealthy and those in poverty is thus visually overt.
How does the wealthy man with his trendy watch and BMW feel looking down into a shanty from his second story window? How does the pregnant woman scrubbing her concrete walls feel looking up to see a home six times the size of her own only a few feet from her front door? I may never know for sure, but the blatant honesty of the rich and poor in their choice for home construction is something that sparks my curiosity. Partly, I believe this is because in the country I come from, such impoverished individuals are banned to the ghettos, the projects, and the barrios, out of sight of those who wish to have no association with their poverty.
As we approach the bridge where we exit the guagua and walk a few blocks to Hogar Luby, I am reminded again from the stares I receive that I am an outsider here. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the Dominican people find me so visually different as I become caught up in cultural comparisons to the life I knew in the States. Still, no matter where we travel, there are whistles, hisses, and shouts of "Gringo!" and "Americano!" It sometimes feels daunting to be recognized so verbally in a place that is already unfamiliar to me in its mere existence alone. As one woman in our group, Christine, described it, "Sometimes I just want a mask." Hearing her comment, there are times I wish we could blend in and avoid the extra attention. Simultaneously, I am thankful to be learning what it feels like to be the minority and I can't help wondering: If everyone knew this feeling, would they hold prejudices against groups outside of their own?
Jumping up the steps into Hogar Luby for the morning, I am greeted by several of the children. Some howl and grunt, others poke at me excitedly, a few readily jump into my arms and wish to be held. Walking upstairs (which is where the youngest children are kept) I am met by a girl who loves to lead people around. Each of the children have activities specific to them that they enjoy: some want to play peek-a-boo over and over again, some wish for a piggy-back ride every time I walk into a room and communicate this by trying to climb me, and others simply want to sit on my lap and watch Spanish Barney wiggle around on the television in the corner. However, this particular girl loves to hold my hand and walk around the entire building each time I visit Hogar Luby- no final destination in mind, just an attempt to have me to herself for a little while.
As she leads me around, we walk into one of the rooms where the children sleep. Each room is similar- there are large, white, metal cribs or beds with high rails. Each is set against the wall. Some of them contain children (sometimes for a day's entirety) and others are empty as the munchkins who occupy them are presently running around. Pulling me around the corner, she stops and drops my hand to run away. Confused for a moment as to why she chose to run off, I look down and see my little friend in green from last week, a boy I later learn is named Luis. Smiling up at me, Luis tugs at my jeans and attempts to stand up with his rickety knees. Grasping at me to lift him, I can't resist, and he is soon situated on my hip as we walk towards the room with the television. As I hold up his twisted neck to watch the show, he grabs at a cottonseed that has blown in through the window. Tossing it up and watching it fall a few times, I find myself fascinated by his attention to the wispy seed. Pushing it back and forth at each other, I find us both giggling. Still, this quiet moment of entertainment is one of few in a place where the ratio of workers to children is low. Soon, several others are in the room vying for my attention and I wander around to be with each individually, leaving Luis to play with his new toy for a bit.
As I give airplane and pony rides, I quickly become aware of a disturbing feature of Hogar Luby: While each child has different verbal and mobility issues, most express communication to each other solely through violence. This week, there was one child who literally just walked around biting everyone in sight- it was like Twilight on steroids status. It was my conclusion that he was trying to seek recognition from someone, just like the children who hit, kick, and strike each other with toys and chairs. Yet, the fact that some of these children are defenseless to such actions (and that the workers do not discipline except by yelling or hitting the children) made it difficult to get this particular boy to stop.
Later, a smaller boy attempts to throw a chair at me and I catch it. As I go to gently set it down next to him, he flinches as if he believes I planned to strike him with the chair. I cringe at his response. Did the other children, the workers, or both bring about his immediate reaction of defense and fear? Regardless, to see how quickly he responded in this manner breaks my heart. It is difficult to watch these children abuse each other with physical and emotional scars. Furthermore, it is challenging to know that such abuse is forming who they become, whether they remain at Hogar Luby forever or are adopted.
Another fascinating factor of the social interactive abilities of the children at Hogar Luby rests in the defense they attempt to provide me from their peers. For example, at one point, I was holding Luis and carrying him to the window to look outside. It was not long before another child was crawling up my back and trying to look out too. When he realized I couldn't help him climb up me, he began hitting me. Before I even had the chance to respond, Luis had already turned around and was kicking the other child away from me. While this was not a reaction I promoted, it was interesting to see that Luis felt responsible for protecting me while I held him. I also wondered if he could have had a more selfish motive, as if he wanted to ensure he was the only child I was paying attention to. While I'll never know Luis' true motive behind his reaction, his response was remarkable to witness.
Leaving Hogar Luby drenched in sweat, my t-shirt stretched out and twisted as a testament to my playing with the children, and my back sore from providing pony rides, I found myself left with a single feeling of peace. In any other situation, I might have been miserable with my eyeliner running down my face, my shirt soaked in drool, and a bite mark on my left arm (from one of my new little vampire friends). But there is something different about being here, and to me, nothing seemed to matter but the smiles I saw all morning and the air that hit my face as I sat again near the open door of the guagua, our driver honking and laughing with el cobrador all the way back to ILAC.