At first glance, the Dominican Republic appears to be the perfect tourist destination, and in many ways, it is. There’s a reason why people I’ve talked to return to the DR every year as their premier vacation spot. White sandy beaches and turquoise waters beckon any lover of warm climates. The allure of an inexpensive, all-inclusive vacation also proves incredibly enticing to any budget conscious traveler.
I traveled to my first ever all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic. The property was undeniably gorgeous. The Dominican ground workers took great pride in tending the well-manicured gardens, pools, and beach. The pools were crystal clear and the swim up pool bar invited anyone to take a seat and have a cold Presidente on draft or a frozen pina colada. They’ve sold you the picture of the perfect tropical paradise.
You might be surprised to find, however, that beyond the walls of your all-inclusive destination, you’ll discover what is often referred to as the “real” Dominican Republic.
My trip soon became less a vacation and more a lesson in humility.
Turns out, it wasn’t the soft powdery sand which captured my heart. It was the hundred plus students attending the morning session at the Centro Educativo Shalom School in Hoyo de Friusa, a poor barrio or “neighborhood” located in Bavaro, unaffectionately referred to as “The Hole.”
As our van containing visitors from the United States and Canada on Punta Cana Mike’s tour approached the neighborhood, it became apparent why the barrio is dubbed that. Heaps of plastic bags and water bottles littered the streets in every direction. No foul scent or spoiled food could be found amongst the trash, however, as the wild dogs and vermin remove edible waste for their human residents. And with approximately 35,000 Dominican and Haitian inhabitants residing in an area of four square kilometers, that’s a significant amount of refuse.
Many concrete homes, often unfinished for years or even forever, lined streets void of much vegetation. I felt a deep sadness descend upon me as we pulled up alongside the school.
The structure sits on the side of a dusty, dirty road. It’s currently a one-story building, with rebar protruding from the roof and concrete blocks taking shape as classrooms in preparation for a future expansion for additional grades. Painted a subdued lime green and yellow, it is a stark contrast to the gray concrete which surrounds it.
But amidst the modest surroundings comes what sounds like song to my ears, the jubilant voices and laugher of children. Snack time for some has begun at the beginning of our visit, and they noisily gather their lunch boxes and move to the outdoor chairs and counter to eat.
What strikes me first is, despite the shabbiness of our surroundings, the children are clean and crisp in their blue and white checkered uniforms. The girls have flawlessly braided and pig-tailed hair adorned by brightly colored barrettes and ribbons. The boys have well-clipped hair. I see instantly that they have a great sense of self-respect and are anxious to share their humble surroundings with our small group.
The founder of the school, an incredibly humble, Spanish only speaking woman by the name of Magdelena, saw the need over 7 years ago to provide an educational opportunity to the many underprivileged, uneducated children that surrounded her. Children, who more often than not, have parents with either little to no education themselves.
Tragically, the Dominican Republic has one of the worst education systems in the world. Statistics show that the average Dominican has completed approximately 4.8 years of school in their lifetime. If that figure doesn’t tug at your heartstrings, I don’t know what would.
I met Magdelena on a day where the temperatures soared into the high eighties. She carried a well used washcloth in her hand and often wiped the sweat from her brow. The ceiling fans weren’t working that day, which considering the intermittent power outages in the area or amateur electrical work, was no surprise. Yet she did not stop smiling.
Through translation from our guide Pat, Magdelena thanked us for visiting the school. You could tell that she is a proud woman. Many in our group brought bags of school supplies to donate to the children, notebooks, pencils, and crayons among them. Not a huge contribution, but enough to make a small difference and evoke an infinite amount of gratitude among the teachers and children alike.
The biggest impact the tour had on me was our interaction with the children. As our group stopped in the first classroom, we were welcomed with enthusiastic shouts of “hola”, huge grins and waving hands. As I looked around me, I saw that the class was small and overcrowded. The metal and wooden desks and chairs were mismatched and showed their age and wear. The whitewashed walls displayed minimal decoration, a few cutouts of shapes and words to assist the teacher with her lessons.
But the children acted just like the children from “home”. They love to grab your cellphone and start jubilantly snapping away. They know how to scroll through the pictures and they delight in seeing their own pictures. I’m sure they could have given me a few tips on how to work my iPhone.
My westernized view of the world initially led me to feel a sense of sadness, a sense that these children were somehow deprived.
In a way, that is true. However, more true is the fact that these children have been given an amazing opportunity, one that I as an American have taken for granted. The fact that they are attending school, have teachers who eagerly share their knowledge for very little pay, and that there are many people behind the scenes who work tirelessly to give them opportunity makes the lack of material goods fade away. These children may come from a place of poverty, but they are curious and zealous and in the hands of teachers who really want and hope to make a difference.
These little ones are truly the future of the Dominican Republic.