It’s been a week (as of writing this) since I got back from Santo Domingo, after an amazing two and a half weeks in what can only be thought of as chaos in paradise. I’m sitting at a local coffee shop in Los Angeles, reflecting on the trip, on what I saw, what I experienced, and what I felt. It’s hard to distill into words not only my own personal views from my time there, but also the essence of a place for those of you who may not have been there yet.
One experience comes to mind more than any other. In the northeast of the bustling Dominican capital, connected to one of the city’s two underground metro lines, sits the Teleferico, an aerial tram that functions as mass transit for some of those who live a bit further out of the city center. (Apparently this will become the model for other such aerial lines in future years.) After boarding, I have the chance to look down on parts of the city I’d never visit as a tourist, both for practical (lack of tourist sights) and safety reasons. It is astounding.
Just a half hour earlier, I was in my rented apartment on Santo Domingo’s oceanfront. That area is full of new luxury high rises, some of which house locals with means and others temporary visitors like me. Now, just a few miles away, the Teleferico crosses over a different Santo Domingo, one of shanty shacks along the Ozama River, of unpaved roads and lack of basic infrastructure.
My first instinct is one of sadness and of empathy. But then I stop looking and start listening. I hear the clucking of chickens, an ever-present sound in this part of the world. I hear the beat of Latin music, played by a woman hanging laundry on a roof. I hear the laughing of schoolchildren playing baseball in an empty field and the splashing of a group swimming in the river. And my mindset changes.
Yes, it is still sad that much of Santo Domingo (and probably the country as a whole, though I can’t say for sure without being there) lives in ways I cannot comprehend through the glasses of my American privilege. But life goes on. Happiness is still achieved. And my pity does nothing but demean both myself and the wonderful people of this country.
Travel should be a transformative experience, a chance to view life from the shoes of another. It is the opportunity to learn that what I consider a life worth living isn’t a universal standard. It means looking around, listening, smelling, tasting things that are not my own, and finding value in them not for what they would be back home, but for what they are here in this world and in this life.
The Dominican people are awesome. They don’t need me to look down in pity. They don’t need my recitation of the poverty rate (by the way, based on cost of living, not much different than here at home) or the fact that the average resident of Santo Domingo lives on $450 per month. Yes, I can afford to tip more, and a few dollars for my Uber driver goes further here and is appreciated. But what the Dominican Republic needs from me is love, is spreading the word about the cool place this is, is acknowledgment of their place as people and not as charity projects.
This is a country that makes things, that exports things. The country has Olympians, inventors, Nobel laureates. I may have been born into more monetary wealth on paper, but there is as much pride here as anywhere, and with good reason.
So here I sit, reflecting. I think about the amazing people I met, the incredible food I ate, the wonderful music I heard. And I think about those who – simply by virtue of living their lives – have contributed to building this country, a building made only more difficult by the acts of my own nation. I hope that my visiting is seen as a positive, and that pleasant interactions with me provide similar transformative experiences for locals who may not know many Americans or Jews.
I know it can be said in reverse.
With each trip I take, I emerge a different Jonathan, and hopefully a better one. I feel that change in this moment. The Dominican Republic, and specifically Santo Domingo, has taught me lessons about what is truly important in life, about human dignity, and my own rush to – though maybe with noble purpose and the best of intentions – dehumanize people into charity cases.
While I hope life in the Dominican continues to improve, and I resolve to help in whatever ways I can, I view the people of this beautiful country as my brothers and sisters, as my equals, and as conduits for my own positive evolution. That is my biggest lesson.
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