I've got so many pictures from this day to share with you. I've tried my best to put it into words (which is so hard) so I hope my pictures will fill in the blanks.
Today was a long day! We were up around 7, and served a breakfast of ham & cheese sandwiches (with ketchup), and fruit. We boarded the bus and headed into the capital city of Santo Domingo.
Crossing the bridge into the Barrio Simon Bollivar
Its hard to really put this all into words at this point...
Fenced in school yard at La Salle
We started out with a visit to one of the schools in an area called Simon Bollivar, the school is called La Salle a square building that has a courtyard in the center. The entrance to the courtyard had steel bars, again not something we see in North America, and there was a person sitting there monitoring the comings and goings. At the school we were taken to the computer lab where we met several Dominicans who were able to overcome their poor upbringing and are now university students on their way to becoming Doctors, Tourism directors (Tourism is a University program in the D.R, one of their major industries). Also one of the teachers at the La Salle school and he talked to us about the school.
Teacher from La Salle
Students at La Salle
At this point we were given very strict instructions for the next part of our day, which was going down into the Slum of Simon Bollivar. This is a 2Km square area with 70,00 people living there! We were instructed to leave our bags behind and told to take off any jewellery we were wearing, only two people were allowed to bring cameras down into the slum (myself and our male chaperon). We were to move quickly , two by tow, photographers at the back. As we moved there would be our Dominican guides in front, behind, and in between (there was at least 5 this day). It became very obvious, that in the Dominican people with money or better means live on top of the hill, the people who don't, because shit truly goes downhill as we literally went down into the Slum towards the river.
Our first stop along our trek was at a tiny one room school called San Pedro which was built and supported by one of the other schools in the board I work for. We had the pleasure of delivering a special suitcase from their sponsor school (they had been there a few weeks before us). Inside the suitcase was a big envelope for each of the young children at the school. Each envelope contained a portrait of the child (that had been taken during the last school's visit), a letter and a treat. It was wonderful to see their excitement and joy at receiving framed photos of themselves. We didn't stay too long as they wanted to get us through the slum in the morning.
Robert unpacking the kid's packages
The next stop in Simon Bollivar was a basic clinic for the residents. Here they could get basic first aid (stitches), vaccinations, basic dental work. It was a small building with a main room, small dispensary, dentist room, exam room, and tiny lab.
Its hard to really put this all into words at this point...
Houses made from scrap
At this point we truly entered the slum! Slowly we went lower and lower, down the steep valley and towards the river. I just couldn't believe that 70,000 people live here stacked one on top of the other. As we travelled lower you could see homes were not as well built, that people were poorer, the houses were nothing but shacks, made of scraps of wood and corrugated tin. Some of the children had clothes and shoes, some wore barely anything! Some of the faces were just bleak and sad. The contrast was the children running around with smiles and energy (despite being hungry!) shouting "Americanos! Americanos! Me Photo! Me Photo!" Of course I obligingly took their picture, I hope it was a bright point in their day. When I was taking pictures of the children, many of the boys were throwing up gang signs and the middle finger (I refused to take their picture when they were giving the bird), I think that this just shows how prevalent American media and imagery is. Even somewhere that is so poor, there's no television, or computers in the home.
Garbage littered shores
When we got down to the river, the sewage, waste and garbage was going right into the water. When we were going down the stairs, there was "water" running down the steps in places... I'm sure that wasn't water but waste.
Clean Spring Water
After walking along the filthy river we were brought to the most amazing place amongst all this disparity. Right by the river there was a natural spring the water is clean enough to drink! This spring and the river sits side by side, and somehow the river's water has never contaminated this spring. They say that a miracle happened here, that an image of The Virgin Mary appeared in the springs cave. Not only was this a source of safe drinking water, it is always a place for the kids to play. It doesn't matter where you live or what your circumstances are, kids will be kids... who doesn't know a kid who likes to play in the water? It was just so heartening to watch.
At this point it was time to head up, up, up, back out of the slum. What a climb that was, the stairs were so steep! I thought I was in shape, I was so wrong! I met a few interesting people on the way back up. First by the river, there was a man in a boat, piled high with garbage that he had been collecting from the river. I presume that he was going to sell it, to feed his family. Its things like this that show what a lack of education does, I don't think he really had a clue at how dangerous what he was doing is. How many diseases and illnesses he could catch from that water, and that garbage! Next was a woman who was so proud to show me what she had in her bucket, shrimp from the river.
Not only was there sights down there, but smells too. This was the first time since arriving in the DR that I actually smelt human waste. At times, the smell was almost intolerable! To contrast this I could smell the most delicious food cooking! It made my stomach growl, and also made me realize I was nowhere near as hungry as the people we were seeing were. I'm sure some of them barely ate once a day.
Once we were back at La Salle we were asked to share our one mental photo from our walk through the slum. It was interesting to hear about what stood out to each of us. Yes, conditions are very bleak, but we were there treated to the stories of several of the young Dominicans who were with us that day. One of the two girls, grew up in the slum we had just visited, she had managed to get educated beyond elementary school and through high school. Here grades were so good, that she was recommended to Experiantia Dominicana to get financial aid to continue her education. Today, she's a doctor and getting ready to head into her internship. She plans to go back to Simon Bollivar and be a doctor to those who need it. Her story showed us that yes, there is hope!
After our reflection we had lunch in the school yard. It was the same fare as we had during our Batay day... LOL and what we had for breakfast that day ham & cheese sandwiches (have I mentioned we've eaten a lot of Ham & Cheese?)!
One of the oldest cathedrals in the Western world
Inside the Cathedral
The rest of our day was the complete opposite from the morning (and I think it needed to be). We went to see the first Cathedral in the "western world". This end of the world is where Christopher Columbus first landed, they spent quite a bit of time in the D.R. to repair their ships so there are a lot of the Western firsts in the Dominican. It was a gorgeous church! From here we walked around the Colonial area, very old and touristy. We saw the home of the son of Christopher Columbus.
Home of Christopher Columbus's son
Next we went to a market where we learnt to barter the price. This was our chance to buy gifts for our families back home. That was a whirlwind shopping trip, trying to find the right gift for everyone in an hour!
Finally, it was time for dinner! We went to a high end resturant right on the ocean. This was not where the tourists went for dinner, but the well to do Dominicans. Prices ranged from 200-700 Pesos for a main course (a far cry from what we had to feed a family of 6 just the other day). I had the Tropical Chicken with rice and beans, with the most delicous juice called Tropical Combination.
After dinner, we loaded in the bus for the long drive back to San Pedro de Macoris.
I'm not sure if I got the whole point of the morning, visiting the slums as I felt I was seeing it through the eye of a photographer, not the human eye.