I was about 17 years old. I was slightly awkward, quite chubby and, of course, still trying to find my feet in a wide environment of social complexities. My understanding of life, not to mention the world, was very limited, and I was due to board a plane to the Dominican Republic.
But allow me to start at the beginning. I have two sisters. One was born to my mother and the other was informally adopted at the age of seven when my mother, working at a hospital in Boston at the time, invited a lonely, curly-haired brown-girl from the Dominican Republic to join her for Christmas that year.
Eliana has been in our family ever since.
The interesting thing about this “adoption” is that Eliana maintained contact with some of her family, who still lived in the capital city of Santo Domingo.
This year, she was going to meet them. And I was going to be there. I was a suburban, teenage white-boy on my way to a brown country.
Despite being so long ago, and being nothing but of a blur of strangeness and an entire world of “different,” my memories of the Dominican Republic are vivid. It was a culturally eye-opening experience which aided me in grasping a greater understanding of the world and my place in it. It wasn’t a vacation and I didn't stay in a resort like many tourists on holiday in the Dominican Republic. I lived with a Dominican family. My Dominican family.
They fed me, we drank together, shared stories and laughed together.
Six people lived inside one small house, seven including me. I shared a room with Titi and Albertico, my two Dominican brothers. The rest of the family lived in a two-room shanty made of concrete. Electricity was never guaranteed and the internet was sometimes accessible through an old computer with dial-up and a funny keyboard. Showers were cold and came from a bucket and the regular lack of electricity meant fans weren’t always an option, which felt like perdition in the sweltering Dominican heat.
My Dominican mother cooked for me. I never went without my daily helping of rice and beans with fried plantains on the side. She cooked stews made from an assortment of local vegetables and fatty meats that were still on the bone. This disgusted me to no end, the sheltered 15 year-old white boy who knew nothing except cleanly sliced cuts of chicken breast and beef.
My Dominican father worked as a manager at the local Goya bean factory. He took me there one day, in the front seat of his faded white pick-up truck. I had never seen a factory before, never mind a factory in the third world. Huge vats and barrels were filled with beans and tens of thousands of cans of beans lined the warehouse. Hundreds of workers were crammed into one space, inspecting, labeling, working away.
I thought everybody worked in an office or something.
I met a girl named Minerva who couldn’t stop staring at my eyes. In retrospect it was a little creepy, but I reveled in it. I developed a crush on Eliana’s cousin, instead. She was stunning, with smooth, dark skin and soft brown hairs on her cheek and upper lip. But I was 17 and awkward. She was 18 and, somehow, a grown woman. She dressed beautifully, drank beer like a goddess and had a suave Dominican boyfriend.
I saw her regularly, as family gatherings were common occurrences, and important occurrences, at that. Family is what keeps the Dominican people alive. It’s what’s keeps them happy. It’s what makes them such a beautifully truehearted, genuine and honorable people. We drank local beer in the evenings and toasted to each other’s presence. I couldn’t always understand what they said, but I could always understand their smiles and the glimmer in their eyes. We hugged, kissed each other's cheeks, and danced in the backyard under the stars.
Sometimes we even went to a bar or a nightclub. Titi would let me borrow a Polo shirt and black shoes that were too big. I had never been to a nightclub before and hadn’t packed for the occasion. I learned how to dance salsa, albeit poorly, and I stuttered when Dominican girls asked me to dance with them. They had so much vigor and enthusiasm for life! But I was too shy.
And it’s disorienting, being in a country with such great difference to your own. How does a fish out of water dance salsa with beautiful Dominican girls!?
I still remember Titi’s car. It was a silver Renault with a custom body kit that scraped the ground when we drove over speed bumps. His speaker system was loud and we always listened to dance music and reggaeton. One day, with Titi in the driver’s seat and myself in the passenger’s, we came to a red light (a rare occurrence, considering traffic lights are more of a suggestion). A local bus had pulled up beside us and, when I looked over, I discovered that every single person on board had crowded onto one side so they could stare out the window and point at the gringo who, for some reason, was hanging out with the locals.
In fact, that’s what everybody called me: el gringo. The white boy.
We went to some caves one day. There was one entrance fee for my brothers and sister (very cheap, the local price) and then there was a price for me, the foreigner. After some confusing discussion in Spanish, Eliana began shouting at the woman. It was stubborn and fierce. “El es mi hermano!” she yelled. He is my brother! With great hesitation, the lady behind the counter let me enter at the local’s rate. I couldn't understand why I was being singled out, but my street-smart sister handled the situation and we left it at that.
The Dominican Republic is the place where I discovered another world; where I discovered the world. I learned of difference and indifference. I redefined the word “family” and I learned that money isn’t a requirement for happiness. The locals had very little, but they were the wealthiest people I’ve ever met. Outside of broken English and Spanish, we spoke mostly in crooked grins and hearty laughs.
There was so much more to see, I realized, and so much more of the world to experience. I had so much growing up to do, and I developed a hunger for otherworldly experiences that would change me and allow me to expand as a person. Experiencing a new culture made me want to grow, live, love, dance, eat and laugh. But not by myself and, frankly, not with my friends back home. I wanted to meet strange people from strange places the world over.
Things changed after that fateful trip to the DR. I was a new person. I had seen the sun set on the other side of the world, and I would never be the same again.