Most people when they think of the Dominican Republic think of this:
With the help of an internet search and maybe a raving friend, this is the Dominican Republic many people get to see, a DR of cheap all-inclusive resorts and incredible service. After almost 10 weeks in the Dominican Republic I was incredibly fortunate to see so many other sides of this diverse island.
My journey began as a class: two weeks with six other students and two professors studying public health and learning about research practice. We had the sweetest Dominican driver, Henry, a van that accommodated all nine of us, and the luxury of an organized trip with a steady stream of direction and food.
I was blown away by our “classroom” experience on this trip because of how much I learned. While I normally don’t like to go into any situation with expectations and I definitely am not a cynical person by nature, I had heard that many programs were much more casual work and vacation than a rigorous learning experience. I cannot attest enough to the professors’ balancing act in this regard, it was truly incredible. We had classroom sessions with active discussions, tours all over the island, intimate conversations with medical students, locals, and professionals… and yet we were learning while on island time!
“That your dreams are much bigger than your fears.” A mural from a neighborhood that we explored while conducting interviews for our classroom research. I thought it was particularly inspiring and colorful!
While I could talk about these two weeks for forever, the real journey began the day everyone left Jack and I on the side of the road in front of our new apartment. Two months… eight weeks… Jack and me and a research study that was up in the air. (You truly learn patience and understanding when you are in a different country or even a different culture than you are used to). And just like that we were off…
Since our initial two weeks of class were jam packed with adventures and learning, we didn’t have much time to explore the touristy parts of the city. I find that often times when I travel I cannot get deep into the culture of the place; it is hard to meet local people sometimes and have in depth conversations, it can be hard to work or be fully integrated. We began with the opposite problem. My partner, Jack, and I were incredibly fortunate to have established connections with a local diabetes clinic and a local university both of which had gracious people willing to assist our research whenever we needed the help. But we hadn’t been tourists yet. We went straight for the deep connections and missed some of the quintessential Dominican experiences.
We spent our first weekend alone catching up. I did an aggressive amount of research on the island and its most renowned gems and we did some exploration of our most immediate areas. I decided I wasn’t leaving before getting to know this country from all angles.
Jack and I exploring the oldest hospital in the New World. Being in this space is crazy because as you can see in the image it is totally overgrown and juxtaposed to the newer Zona Colonial that is present today.
Jack and my 8 weeks on our own passed by like a blur. I felt like each week I learned something new about the Dominican Republic, the work we were doing on pediatric diabetes, and myself. The DR is culturally and historically rich as the first place that Columbus landed in the New World. The entire Zona Colonial (tourist-centered colonial zone) is being redone to accommodate the country’s main source of income: tourism.
While Jack and I both were proficient in Spanish going into our trip, it took us few days to realize that locals of the DR speak their own version of Spanish, they joke that it is “Dominican” not “Spanish.” Dominican Spanish spells phonetically, leaves certain syllables off of words.
After the first month, I took the leap to travel by myself and boy was I glad. Santo Domingo, the country’s capital is diverse in its own way, however the rest of the island has so much to offer as far as people, lifestyles, scenery, and atmosphere. One weekend I made it up to Las Terrenas in Samaná. Online it is portrayed as a more serene beach town, however, as with the rest of the DR the place had so much more to tell. There were incredible waterfalls, chickens in trees, and a large expat population among many other things!
This cow and the palm tree were spotted on my way to another beautiful waterfall. The island is rich in environmental gems and diverse landscapes.
Las Terrenas was vastly different from Santo Domingo because of its smaller-town, laid-back nature and the beautiful environment all around. The people I stayed with knew everyone around their community, they all bought and sold products from each other as a means of building bonds. Many expats in this particular area also built businesses around healthy lifestyle coaching, providing guidance for Dominicans suffering from Type 2 diabetes to turn around their diagnosis through lifestyle habits. (This was especially cool because it was directly related to our study!)
My next trip was to Jarabacoa, a mountain town in the middle of the Cordillera (mountain range). My favorite take away from this particular trip was about the community in the DR. While the sentiment is definitely less present in the city where Jack and I spent most of our time, people live for each other on this island. Community and family is very important. Santo Domingo itself accounts for almost a third of the Dominican population so it makes sense that the community-centered atmosphere is not as intimate, however, one local in Jarabacoa explained how safe I was to travel even as a single female, “This town is just full of good people,” he told me in slow Spanish so that I could understand 🙂
Three medical students from the local university took pity on us and showed us their typical Saturday – a trip to the beach and then their favorite ice cream joint, Sweet Frog! 😛 After the trip, the generosity and graciousness of everyone makes so much sense as a huge part of their ingrained culture.
Upon coming home, everyone asked me “How was your summer in the DR?” I truly did not know how to respond. It was nothing like I expected, but I could not recall what my expectations were before going. After copious amounts of online searching, the depths of the internet do not do this island justice, and Jack and I were lucky enough to get to know the DR on a whole new level.
Diabetes is a growing problem globally and especially in the DR, for individuals and health systems. By studying diabetes in the DR this summer Jack and I were really able to get to know the country on a deeper level. We conducted focus groups, did chart reviews in a local clinic, and had many informal chats with people around in the area. One of my favorite conversations was with a librarian I met in Santo Domingo, “People practically have a prescription for rice and beans around here,” she mentioned. Everyone had their own ideas about the country and the causes of burdens like diabetes on the population.
Our access and the graciousness of everyone we encountered allowed us access to a fuller image of the DR that we wouldn’t have been exposed to on any other trip. When people inquire about my summer I am still unsure what to say, it is hard to put such a large, inexpressible summer into a couple of words. If I had to summarize it I would say this: an experience like I had this summer cannot be explained succinctly, not for a lack of substance or emotion, but because it has to be lived in order to be fully understood. I learned so much from so many people because of the intimate connections I was fortunate to make and the constant self-reflection within a culture so different and yet with many similarities to my own. Having the experience to travel as a CGH scholar really gave Jack and I a deeper capacity to study and learn from everyone we encountered and I would not have learned so much or had such an incredible experience without all the guidance and generosity of everyone involved!