This last weekend I traveled to Libertad, a small community three hours away. I went with my roommate Nico, a Dominican-born kid of 15 years whose parents immigrated here from Haiti, along with countless others, in search of work in the sugar cane fields.
We left Saturday afternoon and arrived as the sun was setting. Stepping off the gua-gua and walking along the single dirt street of the community, Nico and I greeted dozens of his friends and neighbors as we walked to his house. Everyone was so kind, with warm words of how if I ever needed anything, their doors were open. Nico’s mother, step-father, brother and sister live in a newly-constructed house on the main road. It is one of the nicest in the community. An American NGO, Grassroots Soccer, built it along with several others in Libertad. Grassroots Soccer has also built communal latrines and is in the process of building a health clinic. Sixty years ago, as United Fruit Company made its way across the DR, developing bateys to harvest the sugar cane, the only provisions they provided for their workers were concrete apartments, closet-size rooms designed for the workers to only sleep in. No water, no windows, a single light bulb, no stove, no bathroom, no medical assistance, no roads, nothing.
Nico’s father lives in such a room. Nico took me to meet him after dinnre, and we found him sitting in his room alone, an ancient radio blaring pachata muisc, a style of the Dominican campesinos. He has a bed for himself, clothes hanging on nails pounded into the concrete, and a table full of candles, matches, and random nic-nacs. Yucca and onions are piled on the floor next to his single bowl and fork. His bowl is crusted over with mashed beans from lunch. It seems he will not eat dinner. I shake his hand and introduce myself. His hands are sandpaper, tougher even. I have never felt hands like his. He sits tired, words dripping from his mouth, his Spanish thick with a Creole accent. His lips hardly move, and I can hardly hear him above the radio. It does not matter; he does not say much. The three of us sit in silence for quite a while, Nico occassionally inquiring to his father, his father muttering one-word responses. He simply looks ahead at the wall, and the only movement he makes outside of shaking my hand is to bend slowly over to the table for a match to burn a flea on the wall. When it is time, Nico nods at me and says good-bye to his father. We lock the door as we exit, leaving this lonely tired man to his radio and lightbulb.
Nico’s father had no need for words. We saw him various other times–it is a small batey–and I heard him speak no more than answers to questions. Perhaps words mean nothing to him, for he works in the fields all day, and surely there are others who sit and talk idly on their porches all day. Perhaps he knows the danger of words, of the gossip that can destroy a man. Perhaps he wants no part of such dangerous and vain actions. Words, after all, have done nothing for him. Their promises from the mouths of United Fruit Company of $25/day did not come true. Words have not given him food; he has worked in the sun barebaked for twenty years to eat mashed plaintains and rice, to give his son chicken and kidney beans and eggs.
No, words do not matter. Instead, it is his hands, hands that when they rest by his side still grasp a machete. Rough and hard, his hands do not hold another man’s as easily as they do the fruit of the earth, as comfortably as yucca and sugar cane stalks that grow in this fertile valley. Perhaps that is why he lives alone now–he has no need, and cannot remember how, to touch a woman. He has lost this in the sun, in the soil. Yet it could no longer be important to him, for as we leave him sitting in his room with the radio, he does not seem sad or lonely. Only tired, so tired I find it hard to believe he will work tomorrow in the yucca fields, and in September in the rice patties, and then the sugar-cane, and then avocados, and then he begins again. He is hardly a man of men, instead a man of the earth, a dark root walking alone and with shoulders hunched, hands open but not fully, not for men to grasp them.
He waits for something else, then” God” Could God’s soft touch move a man like this” Or is his God different than how I imagine mine” After all, what could a meek God do” Could it break through his calloused hands” Is his God strong, ruthless, powerful” He sat quiet in church on Sunday morning, his eyes closed and rocking slowly to the Creole hymns, his lips fumbling over the words. His palms were turned toward the sky. Yet as I watched him, this God of Nico’s father seemed to promise enough. Something soft, simple, pure. Yes, life is hard, and you will be beaten. He knows that. You will lose much, and people will not bear all your pain. He feels that. Yet when you come to me child, I will grant you comfort, rest, and shelter. You can lay your weary head down, and I will let you sleep. I will let you rest your tired body.
In a little church in a batey in the middle of the Dominican Republic, that promise rang through. Nico’s father kept his eyes closed, waiting.
*** It was a good visit, and Nico’s family were the nicest of the people I have met here in the DR. They were wonderful, laughable, people, sharing their home with me and teaching me much. I have never been in a poorer community, where people so little. Yet their smiles were clean and happy, and they made me feel good.
Yea for you!! You learned some good stuff not only about others but about you. “But the eyes are blind one must look with the heart…” (The Little Prince). AND, YOU DID. XOXO
25 Aug 2007
Your blog elicited many similar memories and thoughts from my own time in Latin America. I really enjoyed reading it…so thanks! I’m looking forward to hearing about what you’ll be up to next. Take care.
24 Aug 2007
Was there any damage in your area from the hurricane in the Caribbean”
19 Aug 2007
I looooooooooove reading your thoughts!! Right now your blog is keep me happy while stuck in an airport, dealing with delays…. Hugs!!!
09 Aug 2007
Thanks so much for your beautiful writing about all your experiences in the DR. Your deep caring for and interest in your students and the culture they live in shows through in all the details you relate. Sometimes the little things can be the most revealing. Your description of the cockfights, by the way, was vivid enough to make me woozy…yikes. Ease up on the blood and guts, OK? Just kidding. Hhow strange that an event so barbaric is where the men have to take care to act respectably! Take care of yourself, and keep learning, searching and observing for all of us back home!
01 Aug 2007
Hey Tim – I appreciate you taking time to share your intimate experiences online! May you truly truly live every moment – and regret none. And good luck with your Peace Corps application – sounds like your hoping for South America then? I agree with Terry – if you’d write a book I’d read it! Take care!
26 Jul 2007
Nathan A. L. Gill
Hi, Tim! Nathan here. Good post, good read. I feel the same way about wanting to work in a place I care about. Oh, we communityphiles… I have one week of work left in NE Kan., then it’s back to school and the four weddings I have in the next 3 weeks. Proly a good thing, I’m beginning to get VERY lazy around the office. It’s a little shameful, really. I need a mind-vacation. I should go find a meth lab somewhere… 🙂
25 Jul 2007
Tim, it’s Erin T. Reading your blog at work 😉 You are doing wonderful things, writing beautiful words. I still owe you a cerveza!
23 Jul 2007
You know me…I always like a good rainstorm. A great teacher. ;)Sounds like such a beautiful adventure. I’m sure it feels good to try to capture, to contain, to make sense of it. Makes me want to paint. Have you read Sound and the Fury yet” I have a copy sitting in my room waiting to be opened.I decided not to take the job in Alaska and instead put my adventurous energy to work here in Minneapolis. A good choice. Thank you for your thoughtful insights.Glad you’re doing well.
18 Jul 2007
Wait! Are you telling me alcohol, beaches, making out with beautiful women, and gossip aren’t all they’re cracked up to be” I was really looking forward to watching Real World: Sydney on Tivo… Thanks a lot, Tim.
17 Jul 2007
Tim–You’ll love CRAY THE BELOVED COUNTRY. I read it last year and then watched the movie (not as good, of course). Good to hear how it is going in DR.
17 Jul 2007
Tim: I’m enjoying reading your blogs. Your effective prose makes me feel present. I recognize some matters from time spent in Brazil.
Keep enjoying yourself and staying in touch.
Caution: don’t overwork your adjectives! Remember the power of nouns and verbs. (Some teachers never give up!)David
17 Jul 2007
Wow. Thank you for sharing! Don’t have words to respond to such descriptions and so many levels of life. Peace to you! Hug.
13 Jul 2007
Hey tim, man the way that you describe where you are makes me want to hop on a plane and spend the rest of my summer where you are. Your life man….what can i say about it. I might have to live mine through you for the time being. luv you dawg.
13 Jul 2007
You need to keep a really detailed journal about your experiences- and then come back and write a book. I’d read it- everything is really interesting so far! Glad you’re enjoying yourself…
10 Jul 2007
Sounds like you’re really making the most of life. You always have. Love you man.
07 Jul 2007
Hello Tim,Did you hear about the floods in Kansas” I hope that your town in the Dominican Republic avoids the deluge that the Sunflower state suffered. I gave Nathan L. the address to your blog. Allegedly, Dave Melgren will be in the Dominican Republic in August, so there may be another Jayhawk on another portion of the island.
06 Jul 2007
Tim: Great to get your report from DR. You write well–no suprise there!–and effectively about the perceived life. I catch the flavor of this place. It’s hard to sort out one’s emotions. Keep us posted.
And take care of yourself.
All the best to you,
01 Jul 2007
Tim-o-teo!!! How exciting…you’re finally off! I can’t wait to hear ALL about your adventures and growth in the DR! I’m sad your storytelling won’t happen in person over a cup of coffee at Milton’s, but I’m still very excited to keep up with your blog! My thoughts and prayers are with you mucho!
29 Jun 2007
So good to hear from you,Tim. This is a great idea. You are in our thoughts. Connor’s soccer kicks are getting better (as are mine!) Looking forward to hearing more. Anna
27 Jun 2007
You actually expect me to read this” Just kidding. It’ll be a great way to hear from you. Then, when you come live in Chicago and work for Casa Central, you can tell me all the stories in person.
27 Jun 2007
Hey Tim, Happy travels! I’ll be jealously thinking of you as you start your journey and holding out hope of our crossing paths in Latin America soon. Ben
27 Jun 2007
This is going to be the coolest blog in the universe. I am very excited. I also commend you for staying sane amongst the pounding carpenters. I almost had a nervous breakdown, and I was only there for two hours of the racket.
26 Jun 2007
26 Jun 2007
Tim, where did you get this travelblog idea” I like it.
26 Jun 2007
18 Oct 2011 – start of travelblog
posted Wednesday August 2007