Real Life Travel

Challenging Normal

October 12, 2010

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I found an article I wrote in 2006 after a summer humanitarian trip to the Dominican Republic. It changed my life, needless to say, and gave me greater perspective on what others in the world go through. And how thankfulness, and happiness, are not dependant on circumstances or materialism. It really isn’t.

Take the time with me to reflect on all that you are thankful for… and come with me to the Carribean for some reflection…

*** “Challenging Normal”

Summertime in our eight-months-of-winter province is precious to all who work hard, play hard and work harder to pay for the play. Many are driven to achieve success and affirmation whether it is a promotion at work or someone asking for our phone number on a Friday night. The continuum of activities in our western culture seems to me often motivated by a need. Be it an emotional, mental or physical need, we can all admit to having needs. I am learning that need is such a relative term.  I need water. I need food. I need friendship and family touch. These needs are instantly met in our microwave society. Needs that no one should ever be denied.  Needs that we think are normal.

We, however, are not normal. When 2/3 of the rest of the world lives on two dollars a day, our oil-digging-entrepreneurial-loving Alberta is not normal. When 25% of children in various African countries will die before the age of five simply because they have no food, our open-late-Wendy’s is not normal.

Boasting the cigar capital of the world, a popular tourist location and white sandy beaches, one would think that the Dominican Republic would be a dream place to live and needs would be met. But the country is at war with poverty, and poverty is winning.

I have recently returned from seven days of working with an organization based out of Hamilton, Ontario called Hero Holiday. Now in its’ second year, Hero Holiday took approximately 300 youth this July from all across Canada on a humanitarian relief project to impact the Caribbean island.

Challenged to become a hero in the life of a complete stranger, I saw the youth of our nation take on a challenge of labour and love like I’ve never witnessed before.  I’ve never been more proud to be a Canadian. Bono once said “the world needs more of Canada”. I saw pieces begin to come together of all our country could do in this world.

Rotating twelve teams of ten people each through approximately six projects for a week is a daunting administrative task. If that sentence needs to be read over to calculate those numbers, you can read it again – I’ll wait.

Okay. The focus of Hero Holiday is to become the hands and feet of justice and mercy.

To bring dignity and love to a people labeled as “the untouchables” by the city-dwellers was one of our first tasks at the Puerto Plata dump on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic.

Haitian families will walk for three days with their families, leaving their home country, to live and work in this dump. Yes, dumpster-diving is their living. Scrounging for anything that could sell or make a profit from, the parents hold their heads high and keep a smile on their face for their children’s sake. Or maybe it was for our sake. Somehow, for some reason, a dump is safer than their own country. Not normal is it?

A moment of pride in our Canadian youth came when I looked over and saw three fifteen-year-old girls teaching a fellow peer, from the dump, the Macarena. Shakin’ it in a garbage dump was beyond what I ever though I would witness. Yet sometimes, the most surprising and unexpected events can hold the greatest memories. Before I knew it – this dancing group had drawn the attention of nearly fifty residents. Where do you go after the Macarena but the limbo? Even the “hefay”, the dump manager, was singing and joining in on the fun. Now that’s leadership.

Language and age barriers or personal hygiene somehow lost its significance as we laughed, clapped and shared two hours of our lives with these people. Before we left, we gave each person a meal of chicken and rice – a meal that would take them three weeks’ wages to pay for. Normally.

We had two house projects and a community centre that were built over the two weeks of Hero Holiday in the Dominican. Mixing cement, digging trenches, passing bricks and fixing rebar may seem like physical extremities for some. However, everyone challenged themselves and met the task with smiling faces knowing that someone would have a roof over the head because of their sweat.

Through roaming medical clinics people were also able to get medicine to help meet their physical needs. The most popular was, of course, pain medication.

In one Haitian village, we began the digging stages of a trench for water pipe to be laid. Adjacent to a sugar-cane field, the children of the village were running up and down the ditch either peeking out from behind the leaves or running into our arms, hoping to try on our sunglasses.

“Without you, my village would have died,” said one boy to a team member. A need – normal. Not met – not normal. Family is all they have. Relationships are everything to them. It’s evident in the way they ride five on a motor concho or the way they prop another child on their hip to reach for the clothing being handed out from “the gringos”.  Such amazing people – such deep needs.

As part of the project rotation, every team made the two hour drive up the mountain to Santiago – a much more “civilized” city.  Yet it took a nauseous trip up a winding hill to get there. We found that the dogs, a mixed breed of a mixed breed creating its own ugly breed, seemed to want to be taken out. Laying on the bumpy road, their beady eyes would stare up at you filled with hope that this was the motor vehicle to take them out of their misery of heat and starvation.

Anyway, off the dog-trail and back to Santiago.

Our visit to a special needs orphanage proved to be a very moving and traumatic experience for all. Mostly kids ranging from ages two to thirteen, they have been left by parents who either couldn’t pay for their needs or didn’t want the responsibility. The Cerebral Palsy disability had by no means stolen their hearts as it was obvious to me that there was still deep emotion beyond the twisted limbs of their tiny bodies lying in the cribs. The nurses and workers there told one team member that those children had never experienced so much joy as during those two weeks when Hero Holiday was visiting the orphanage. Yes, those were Canadian teens. I was so proud once again.

Neighbour to the second poorest country in the world, Haiti, I learned that the Dominican Republic’s largest export is baseball players. At the village where a community centre was being built, the children would play with a stick, one glove and one bat, provided by Hero Holiday, and would run the bases barefoot and catch the ball bare-handed. They obviously had been practicing!

Another past time of the children was to take a piece of bark from a palm tree and slide down the grassy slope. Rumbles of tour coaches could be heard far off and the children would dart to the road at once yelling “gringo gringo”, which means “white man”, as they came to know these coaches as the ones that would throw out candy or pens as they drove by. To hear this may sound like these visitors were humanitarian in doing so, but to watch it was disgusting. Who are we to think we’re doing our part by throwing a sucker out as we drive by on our tour bus? Is that affecting culture?

If anything I learned that relationships are what people hunger for. Some of these kids were the happiest children you’d ever be pleased to meet on a playground – full of “vim and vinegar” as my grandma might say. And others would cling to you as if you were their only hope for survival.

It was not all work for these 300 hundred youth who dedicated a week or two of their summer to affecting another culture. Hero Holiday made time for activities at night at the resort and left some time for shopping, an Amazing Race, dances, snorkeling or going on a cascading or horseback riding tour. The emotions of the whole experience somehow found balance at night with friendship and activities as the youth took in the whole life-changing experience.

Returning back to normalcy is a guaranteed challenge for all who’ve ever been to a third-world country. I was impressed when on the last night during a two-hour debriefing, locals from the projects came to say thank you for all the work that had been done. One little boy sang a song with his family and said, “I have nothing to give you, so I give you a song.” The vision and the experience left a mark on 300 youth of our nation. Many of them were already making plans to return in 2007 and to invite all their friends.

As I have returned back to Canada, it’s been hard to relate my experiences in the Dominican, as what I saw is not in any way normal.

To quote Anderson Cooper from his book Dispatches from the Edge would accurately interpret my emotions of that week: “I wished I knew how to explain it to them. It’s as if a window opens, and you realize the world has been re-formed. I wanted to see the starvation. I needed to remind myself of its reality. I worry that if I get to comfortable, too complacent, I’ll lose all feeling, all sensation.”

Though those images of children’s wrinkled feet and huts made of tin still haunt me, neither do I want to erase those pictures in my mind’s eye. All I can think of is how much resource we have in Alberta and Canada and that it is our responsibility to not only help the nations, but train the nations to help themselves.  Challenge normal and discover that we have been given so much.

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