Dear friends and family,
Part Two: The Return. Guess what? I am back in the Dominican Republic! After four months of Wisconsin winter, I decided to come back to volunteer in the Nutrition Center for a month before I start school in August. Long story short, I have begun another chapter here in La Victoria.
To add to the fun, I wanted to surprise my old housemates, Eliud and Annelie, so I requested that the Schoenstatt Sisters refrain from telling them that I was coming. Instead, they were told that an American girl was going to stay for a month and that her name was Marie.
The flight was fairly uneventful from Chicago to New York, but after arriving in Santo Domingo, I encountered a slight problem. My entry papers were inspected and approved, I bought my visitors´card, and found the baggage claim.
But of course, then I encountered a problem. After watching numerous bags of all descriptions wind around and be picked up by their relieved owners, I was still standing there. My duffle bag came through, which was wonderful because it contained clothes and small things for the children of the Nutrition Center. Lucky for me, I was only missing the suitcase with my clothes and malaria pills. Although I was not the only person waiting an uncommonly long time, as the minutes ticked by and stretched on, I began to wonder what could have happened. Maybe someone grabbed it by mistake, or I missed seeing it, or it was lost. The possibilities seemed endless. I stood there, praying that I would eventually find it and that I would have still someone to pick me up, as I was an hour late due to flight time and the unforeseen baggage problem. And so it was until off in the distance, rudely abandoned on the side of the terminal from San Juan was a black suitcase with a bunch of colorful ribbons. Watching it closely lest it disappear, I limped my way over, backpack and duffle bag in tow. Sure enough, my bag had been taken with the flight that went from Chicago through San Juan to Santo Domingo, instead of passing through NY with me. Gladly, the customs officer just waved me through, and I could begin to look for my friends.
They, of course, did not know who to look for, so I was searching for the Schoenstatt Sister accompanying the girls. In general, a person in a habit or uniform is easy to find, even in a crowd. In fact, I did not find them first; as I meandered down the aisle, I heard an unmistakable exclamation, ¨CLAIRE?!?!?!¨ from Eliud. Of course, there was much more that was said. They couldn´t believe that it was, in fact, me. Eliud poked me in the arm as we drove to La Victoria to ascertain that it was reality. She joked that I might only be a ghost or a dream.
Nor do I blame her, as I can hardly believe it myself. When I came the first time (for those who read this blog, you know a bit of what I mean) my experience was incredible; half of my impressions would take weeks to adequately describe. Now, it seems unbelievable that I could be blessed with another opportunity to work and learn here. As of now, I have plans to teach English, care for children, help with a May celebration, and learn how to prepare Dominican desserts, as well as studying Spanish and working at the Center.
Speaking of the Nutrition Center, no one there knew either that I was coming back. So, the screams started as I walked up to the building and through the gate. ¨CLARA?!?!¨ Yes, sometimes I enjoy surprises, when they aren´t given to me. Because my classroom was the farthest one from the entrance, I came to it last. through the metal slates of the windows, I saw the teachers stand up and peer through, and the children began chanting my name. As I opened the door, the whole class converged on me, still shouting. The teachers had to help me up! They all remembered me! Considering how many volunteers have come in and out of their lives, this really touched me. In the three days of class that we have had since I returned, they have stuck to me, especially the troublesome boys that were my favorites. (I couldn´t help it, they were only naughty because they needed some attention)
There is so much to tell! Since I have the time and Internet at this moment, I would like to describe my experience last Friday at an activity called Via Crucis.
One reason that I wanted to come here now, was that I want to see Holy Week traditions here, especially since I could not stay for Christmas.
Via Crucis are prayed every Friday during the Season of Lent. Basically, it is the Stations of the Cross, where we remember and meditate on the different steps and encounters of the last journey of Christ to the cross. There are fourteen stations, and at each and between each one different prayers and meditations are given for reflection. I have prayed the Stations of the Cross before, but not in this particular way. All the other Fridays this prayer is held in the village of La Victoria, with the stations at different points throughout the town.
I only heard about this Thursday, the day before. We were eating dinner together that night so I asked Eliud to describe Via Crucis to me, and asked if she would go. After the description of how beautiful and special they are, I said that I would like to go. ¨Claire, it´s far. But far.¨ ¨that´s okay; I like to walk,¨I replied. ¨FAR,¨she repeated, at least two more times. Undaunted, the next morning I found out that one of the Sisters was going and would let me come too.
So after working at the Nutritional Center, we set out at 2pm. It was a hot, humid day, akin to August in Wisconsin. I had packed two water bottles, and Sr. Lourdes made sure that I brought an umbrella. We started out in the village, right outside the parish church. After the opening prayer and reflection, the column of people moved forward together; umbrellas open to shield them from the sun.
And so it began. We walked, prayed, and sang together. The distance between each station seemed longer as time went on, but that could have also been the heat. As we progressed, the group became larger and larger. A friend of mine, Yanela, was also walking Via Crucis for the first time, so we shared an umbrella, and endeavored to not lose each other in the crowd.
I don´t remember if I have ever described the country roads here, but I will do so anyway. They are dirt, almost completely clay sprinkled with stones. Clay has a tendency to be difficult when wet, and very painful when it is dry. All of us had white dusty feet in a short amount of time. I can´t imagine what some of the more sacrificial people went through. They had removed their shoes in order to mimic more closely the original Way of the Cross.
The walking itself was at first not difficult. Actually, I distinctly remember wanting to walk faster, but the crowd consisted of people of all ages: elderly, middle aged, pregnant women, and small children. But after a time, the heat made things much more challenging. For me, breathing was more difficult. We were walking with only a small space in front of us, because there were so many people, which made it hard to see to avoid potholes and other hazards, such as neighbors´umbrellas. From where I was I couldn´t tell where the procession began or ended, and as I already mentioned, it was hot and humid.
Normally, if I have participated in outdoor Stations of the Cross, it is in spring. usually, the weather is cold and rainy, or occasionally very nice. Realistically, Jesus did not walk in cool spring weather; I imagine that reality had much more in common with this Way of the Cross, where we were sweating, dirty, panting and exhausted.
Note: I liked it very much; I´m not complaining, only trying to adequately describe this walk
So normally, it is in the town, but because this was the last Friday of Lent, this Via Crucis was scheduled to walk to Mata Ma´mon, a country town. Although I did not realize it at first, but when I had gone with the bus to drop off the children after school one day last December, I went to Mata Ma´mon. The bus drives all the children to the Center who live too far to walk, and this was the last stop.
Towards the end of this walk, I admit that my prayer was not so focused, and I didn´t care if we went more slowly than normal. But the whole experience of so many people offering their afternoon to remember and reflect on the Way of the Cross, and the manner in which they did it made an impression on me. We passed up village after village, always adding to the number of participants. I lost count, but I think we went through four or five small villages, all pieced together in worse condition than La Victoria, finally arriving at our destination after three hours of walking/limping. During this walk, I couldn´t believe that some of those people had chosen to do it. Especially two cases, for one friend of mine, a teacher, is pregnant, and yet she walked with her husband. In the other, a family whose small daughter is in my class decided to walk all together.
At the end of the way, we had a Mass outside, in which most of us had to stand. I was trying to guess how many people were there at the end, but definitely upwards of 600. It was packed. There were buses at the end of the journey to bring back those who lived far away, and so the three hours that we had walked was covered in 20 minutes of driving. I stumbled in my house at 7:10 ready to sleep. I later learned that they had not expected so many people, and some walked the whole way back.
Yesterday, Palm Sunday, had it´s own experiences, but I have exhausted my time, so I will save stories for later. Right now, I am especially looking forward to Easter and this whole weekend.
Thank you for all the prayers and well wishes; you are certainly in my as well. I´m sure that you will hear of many more stories in the weeks, and months, and years to come! Please keep the Schoenstatt Sisters and their work in your prayers!