Vignette 2: Reaching Upward

Already our trip to the D.R. seems like years ago. The tulips and blooming cherry blossoms on campus bear little resemblance to the palm trees and coconuts of the far away island nation. Classes are winding down and each of us has settled back into the routine of an American college student: study, eat, exercise, drink, plan for the future.  Our weekly B.A.C.E.S (changed from A.C.E.S.) meetings on Thursday at 5pm is the only time our group is back together, planning and reminiscing about the trip that changed our status from strangers to close friends.

Vignette 2: Reaching Upward

The Cabon school took 15 months of planning, funding, and hard work before its completion in July 2009. The school, located in the community of Cabon, can now hold 100 students in addition to a computer lab, multiple classrooms, two finished floors and bathrooms. The light blue building stands as a beacon of hope for the children who are fortunate enough to enter inside.

Behind the school is a large open field of green grass surrounded on two sides by concrete walls. These walls depict the heartbeat of the community: large murals of old men, children, and rolling hills illuminated by a setting sun. Proferio, the leader of ACES-DR, tells us this area used to be a toxic abandoned site that was recently cleaned up for the school children to play. There are no shortage of traps for children in the DR, physical and otherwise.

Today, the field is covered with boys and young men flying kites high above the green carpet beneath their feet. The kites are ingeniously engineered–supple wooden beams in the shape of a cross, held together by a garbage bag tarp pulled across the frame. The long white tails made of twine or plastic whip and flutter in the breeze. It is the perfect day for flying kites and they skitter above our head, swimming in the cloud-smeared sky. 

One of the kites gets caught in a tree on the opposite side of the road. The boys yank and jerk the string but cannot free it from the gnarled branches. The kite appears to be lost forever, visible yet out of reach. I’m reminded the Cabon school behind me, the only link between a life grounded in poverty and one of endless opportunity. The sky is the limit.

There is commotion as one boy wearing jeans and flip-flops begins to shimmy up the tree. From the ground, we watch in awe as he finds delicate foot holds in the smooth trunk. He climbs effortlessly despite the breeze and thinning branches. I shade my eyes as he continues upward, 40 feet about the ground.

Poised in the crook of the tree, the young man begins to shake the branches on either side of his body. I am certain he will fall but cannot tear my eyes from the limber form silhouetted by the sky. The men on the ground take turns yanking on the thin white line until finally, the kite escapes the tree’s clutches and dances into the open air. I can feel those around me breath a collective sigh of relief.

I believe each of us is born holding a kite, opportunity stretched between thin beams of courage and strength. For some of us, our kites leap instantly into the air and are carried upward toward the sky and the stars, dancing in the warm breeze. For others, the string is twisted, the structure bent and the kite flails before collapsing in a heap of broken dreams and damaged pride. There are trees with sharp branches and sudden squalls that threaten to break the delicate string tied between small fingers.

Don’t give up, little kite. Someday you, too, will soar.

ACES: Spring Break 2012

Two weeks ago, I traveled with a group of 16 Bucknell students and faculty to the Dominican Republic with a student-led group called ACES for a service-learning trip. I had heard only positive things about alternative spring break trips- these trips change your life- and as a graduating senior, I felt it was my last opportunity to apply for the chance to make a difference and find a new appreciation for everything I take for granted. Extremely unsure of what to expect, I packed up my carry-on and prepared for an adventure.

The Dominican Republic is a small island with rolling hills, tall palm trees and tropical flowers in pinks and reds. The sun seems to shine everyday and the water is the brightest, most vibrant wash of turquoise blues. Goats are tied together in small herds along the streets, nuzzling at the neighboring fruit stands full of bananas and mangos for sale. The radio plays Spanish music that reflects the language and the culture-fast, passionate and full of life. Children play in large groups from even larger families and every household is familiar with a plate of beans and rice. I felt the sincerity and compassion of the people like the sun overhead, a soft warmth that spread across my skin and into my heart. The people I met, the smiles I remember, and the stories I heard were full of suffering, compassion and unbridled hope.

I will break up my experience into a series of small vignettes, mental pictures that lay partially developed in the dark room of my mind. I hope to share them so the pictures, in all their beauty, will materialize for you as they did for me.

Vignette 1: Food Drive

We are standing in a single file line, leading from the back of the house up to the high metal gate. The straps of the bag-heavy with beans, rice, pasta, and cooking oil-dig into the skin on my hands. I can feel my palms tense and beads of sweat begin to form under the shadow of my sunglasses. The sun beats down on the faces of the women, children, and young men who wait on the opposite side of the fence. They stare at us with large brown eyes and I look down at my feet, wondering why I am here and they are there. 

Last night, the ACES group had made almost 200 food packages with measured Ziplock bags of rice and sugar, giggling and jamming to music into the night. The seriousness of our mission was realized as we counted bags and prepared for the morning activities. Some families will not get a bag, one of the group leaders tell us. We don’t have enough to go around. 

The food drive coordinator calls out names to come and receive their bag. One by one, the empty hands and hungry mouths appear before me. These are the neediest people in the community. Everyone will not get a bag. I feel ashamed. 

Children are everywhere. They play and joke but it is mid-morning, the time most children should be in school. Here in the Dominican Republic, school is not an entitled right but a treasured privilege. I am reminded of my own academic trajectory, the assumption that I would always go to a premiere American university. The distance between my dusty flip-flops and the small pink sandals of the girl standing behind the fence seem miles apart. She reaches her fingers through the holes in the fence and scuffs her feet. We are worlds away and close enough to touch.

After the drive, we take some time to walk through the community. The stream bed next to the houses is dry and caked in discarded food wrappers and plastic bottles. People are friendly and I speak to some children using my limited Spanish phrases. The girls give shy smiles and tell me their names. Before we get back on the bus, a couple of girls sneak up next to me and request a photo. I ask Phil to take some pictures of us and he obliges. They giggle and laugh at one another. I feel both warmed by their joy and angry at my helplessness.

As the bus rumbles away, I want to yell, “Stop, we have more to do! We have more people to help!” But I sit in silence as the houses disappear beyond my sight. I am reminded that there are always people who need our help, who deserve to know they are worthy and deserving of a life free from suffering. It is our job to never give up the belief that our small acts of kindness make a difference. Like water droplets, our seemingly invisible actions, when combined, make up an ocean of possibility.

Photos by Phil Kim ’12.

Traveling Vegetarian

Happy Spring Break…and Spring rolls.

I wanted to leave you with a blog post my friend Justin e-mailed me a couple days ago about Vietnam, a traveling vegetarian’s heaven. My requirements to finish my senior year (and senior thesis) was the only thing preventing me from buying a plane ticket on the spot. This short post reminded me of a couple students I had met at the Student Environmental Conference, vegetarians who chose to eat meat while on the dusty road, aka traveling carnivores. In foreign cities and unknown destinations, maintaining a healthy meat-free diet can be quite difficult not to mention the strange looks one might receive for refusing pork chops and BBQ beef. I need to tell them I found the perfect country cuisine.

For my Spring Break, I will be traveling with about 15 other students and faculty south to the Dominican Republic for an alternative spring break service trip called A.C.E.S (Advancing Communities: Educating and Service). We will be staying a week to provide medical care, construction help and educational services. In my effort to continue my vegetarian experience, I was relieved to find that there would be a beans and rice option as well as salad at every dinner meal. There was some question regarding the possible use of chicken stock in the dish but I will just have to wait and see. I may have to sacrifice some chickens next week and if so, Dear Chicken God- I am truly sorry. 

So with another international adventure ahead, I promise witty commentary and vivid pictures upon my return to the US. In the meantime, read about Vietnam and enjoy the spring weather.