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we grow towards the sun: life lessons learnt abroad

Image: Stephanie Tate

Image: Stephanie Tate

People seek out the warmth of the sun. They bemoan their bad luck when it’s too hot, and hate it when an overcast sky blocks the light it emits. We don’t hide from the sun, but we have a respectful fear of it. The sun’s a lot like life.

When it’s perfect, we revel in it. The second things get rough, we hide from it. The moment we feel that our lives are being overshadowed or ignored, we become spiteful. Setting out to explore life is terrifying, but it’s the most rewarding experience a person can ever have.

Travel was a farfetched dream for me. If I didn’t have the money, then I didn’t have the time. If I didn’t have the time, then I didn’t have the courage. It took me twenty years of self-doubt before I made myself purchase an international plane ticket.

I left the country amidst a broken family, debt, and with only twenty-nine dollars to my name. I’d never travelled outside of the US. It was only my second time travelling alone, and I didn’t have anyone to calm my pre-departure anxiety.

I spent a week living in the heart of Santiago, DR and two weeks living at Villa Pajón, an eco-resort located high in the mountains above Constanza. I was in the middle of nowhere. Without mobile phone service, Wi-Fi, or television, I was left with my own thoughts.

My first four days in Santiago were absolutely miserable. I don’t consider myself to be high maintenance or particularly bratty, but this trip put my selfish habits into jarring perspective. The showers were cold and sometimes, the water just wouldn’t work. There were no rules of the road. Everything was rice, beans, pollo or platanos. Toilet paper didn’t flush. I couldn’t understand the language and I was stared at – everywhere we went.

Republica Dominicana and Haiti remain separated by both borders and stigmas. Haitians are darker in tone and Dominicans are generally lighter-skinned. To be dark pigmented in Santiago isn’t always a good thing. Being a gringo didn’t obscure the fact that I was black from their eyes, and there was often a noticeable difference in how they treated me and how they treated others.

It was an abrupt lesson in self-confidence, because I either let them get to me or I stood tall in the face of it. For two days, I cried myself to sleep and I didn’t talk with anyone. Four days into the trip, I met a Brazilian girl named Rachel. You don’t expect to meet extraordinary people when you travel – but this time, I was blessed.

She plopped down next to me in the hard, yellow chairs of our Spanish classroom and just talked to me. In five minutes, I felt like I’d made a new best friend. I told her about being shy and feeling like an outcast. She said, ‘You’re here. You’re broke like the rest of us. And I promise that you’re not the only one feeling awkward, but it’s your choice whether you enjoy it or not. Travel is about revelling in the uncomfortable.’

In the two and a half weeks that followed, I learnt a lot from her and about her. I won’t get into details about her life, but we had so much in common. The best part is that she forced me out of my comfort zone. I swam under waterfalls, climbed up rock faces, hiked mountains, stayed out under the stars until early morning, watched spectacular sunsets, built a house, taught a class, ran from braying horses and stayed up all night talking with a camp advisor about the supernatural.

Many of these things happened with Rachel by my side. The others, I managed to do alone. I was put so far outside of myself that I didn’t even recognise who I was anymore, and I loved it. I fell in love with the scenery, the people, and the things that I was doing.

I worked in a village called El Castillo that was a 2.5 km hike from our cabins every day. Anywhere from two to five families lived in a one room house. They have school whenever they possibly can, but many times, children have to stay at home to help out with farming or chores. This community had so little, and they were reserved when they met me, but they opened their homes to us anyway. People tried to feed us, give us water to drink even though they had to hike miles to get it. They didn’t have much money, but they had each other.

I played with chickens. I sang songs in Spanish that I still don’t know the meaning of. I was taught how to dance and even though I stood apart from everyone in my group, I was accepted. Sure, I learnt how to build a house, but I also learnt how to play tag and fully participate. I jumped in mud puddles, practically died hiking back from the village along a steep mountainside every day, and I drank every flavour of tea under the sun.

The people in El Castillo taught me how to be content – no matter what I have or don’t have. I got to know my limits and how I can grow beyond them. When I stepped back on US soil, I changed Rachel’s quote to, ‘Life is about revelling in the uncomfortable.’ When you’re away from the blazing sun, life is easy, but more often than not; life will break your heart. You have to find happiness in spite of it.

This trip ignited my desire to see the world; to find out what I’m made of. Before, the thought of leaving made me panic. Now, the idea of staying is what scares me.

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  1. Pingback: Flight attendants, arm your doors. | The Girl Adrift

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