Final Thoughts on Island Life

Stepping off the airplane in Santo Domingo, all it took was one breath of thick sea air to confirm that all of my day dreaming and exploratory web searches had not prepared me for the months ahead. My studies and travels in the Dominican Republic started with the culture shock of life revolving 180 degrees away from the familiar. My experience took on the sights, sounds, and colors of a Caribbean island, with me dropped into its mountainous center. The sun was brighter and the landscape greener. Streets, markets, and neighborhoods bustled with people, cars, and motoconchos; bachata and meringue constantly blaring from somewhere. Over the summer, these new parts of life became commonplace and I learned to expect the unexpected.

As someone with a great interest in nutrition and food, I had high hopes for Dominican cuisine. Swirls of fresh fruits and vegetables and fish freshly plucked from the sea dominated my dreams. Unfortunately, all I found was a reality of fried salami and heaps of boiled bananas. In a country surrounded and permeated by so much water, the only fish I was ever served was in the desert- the least appetizing but most memorable meal of the whole summer. After four hours by bus, locally referred to as gua-gua, taxi, and one invigorating motoconcho ride, our western heading landed us my friend Sara and I the rural town of Palo Verde to do research. Surrounded by miles and miles of mosquito infested rice and banana fields, the town- 15 miles as the crow flies east of the Dominican-Haitian border- is carved out of the desert landscape.

The trip to Palo Verde was a last minute decision, well off the beaten path. Sara was studying Haitian access to healthcare and I, inspired by many Dominican meals with my host family, was interested in how the fried, sugar-laden, starchy foods relate to the ever-growing chronic disease epidemic in Latin America. Palo Verde was my control. With little access to motorized transportation or money to buy sugary drinks and processed foods, the people of Palo Verde still walk their dirt roads and eat the plantains and cherries off the trees growing in their back yards. In a country so influenced by the Western world, Palo Verde is Dominican life on a slower pace, set back from the urban pull. Palo Verde is a poor village, and a hot one at that, but the people on this island are adapted to their environment, as a temporary resident I had to adapt as well.

Sitting in the shade out of the afternoon sun beating down on a home in Palo Verde, I watched two Dominican men expertly construct a chicken coup. A gift from the local Peace Corps volunteer I was staying with, I offered my services but quickly realized my help was not needed in the construction. So I sat back taking in the sights and sounds of my impromptu adventure: men returning from the fields, machetes in hand; the Dominican family playing dominos, a pregnant Haitian woman returning to cook dinner with a bucket of water balanced atop her head; and another bathing out a makeshift trough, her belly bulging with the next of her many children.

The sun was setting over the banana fields and the final pieces of zinc roof were nailed onto the chicken coup. Intuiting my hunger, the grandmother of household, who had been entertaining me all afternoon, brought me dinner: a bowl full of starchy white vegetables garnished with some white fish. Discreetly shoving the bland boiled bananas and yucca aside, the savory fish was the only part of the meal I could stomach. ‘From the ocean or river,’ I asked with a contented smile. Finally, I thought, meal after meal of rice and fried chicken and here of all places I’ve found some fish. ‘From a can,’ my satisfied hostess relied. What did I really expect from the desert? Grateful for the hospitality, I ate it anyway.

Palo Verde felt as distant from home as I ever felt during my summer in the DR, an island within an island. For sixty days, I had the opportunity to step outside myself, living, learning, and working in the Dominican Republic. It felt different, tasted different, looked different, and sounded different. I faced culture shock, confusion, discomfort, and the fierce realization that American life is far different than the way billions of people on this planet live. Looking at America from the Dominican point of view clarified its enticing attraction and illuminated its excessive overindulgence.

The stunning contrast between what I took as a natural part of life, an entitlement, and the realities of life in the DR was humbling. I have never been so grateful to have an education and opportunity to pursue a career of my choosing. I have also never been greeted so warmly and with open arms, or sent away with so many tears as I have in the DR. From little island on the edge of the Atlantic, I had the opportunity to take my location at face value: to learn not to judge the verdant landscape littered with trash, the makeshift shacks stagger alongside affluent homes, and the unfamiliar, at times unappetizing, flavors of the Dominican diet. I learned to adapt. Confined to an island, Dominican life caught me in its exuberant, vibrant culture; a blend of people, nature, and culture brimming with life: island life.

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