For about a month now I have been living and working in the Dominican Republic. Derrumbadero is a poor, rural village of around 3000 in the mountains in the South-West of the DR only a few short clicks away from the border with Haiti. With no running water and electricity only most days, and seldom on the weekends, it is a community that is poor in material wealth and opportunity, yet it persists.
One of the first things that I said to my new bosses was to authoritatively state that “Poor is poor the world across.” While aphoristic and null in literal content, it contains several veiled beliefs about humans that I have spent a lot of time here trying to unpack.
As an agricultural community where the houses lack any real privacy or ability to be secured, the men mostly spend their days in a series of Sisyphun tasks tending the fields and livestock while the women hover near the cookfire and the constantly stewing rice and beans without ever leaving the house empty lest some of their few existing possessions get up and walk away. The dance between constant friendly socializing and fearful protectionism is reminiscent of a stereotypical high-stakes socialite dinner party.
I meditate daily on the ladder that I have had access to in my life in contrast to the one they have here. For a few days early on in my trip I was torn by a problem I still see as unresolved: If I spend time helping and working here with some of the best and brightest, those who have the most potential and ambition to leave this village and head to Santo Domingo, the capital, in pursuit of work and opportunity and dreams, am I in fact contributing to the drain of resources from a place whose resources are already meager?
This brings me back to a few of the assertions inherent in the statement that “Poor is Poor the world across”. No matter the absolute value, anytime one set of people has less or more than another, it creates a gap which people seek to bridge. I have heard it said here (and is a quote from the amazing graphic novel Persepolis) that people only have so much room for pain before the only response left is to be happy. Here there is much to cause pain and much about which it is reasonable to be upset. The same is true for both poor and rich people all across the world. Part of our human condition is a state of constant comparison, judgement, and ultimately a journey towards self-fulfillment.
My host father here, Gonzalez, is a 65 year old man who takes joy in small jokes, and quietly exudes confidence, authority, and decency. He likely has had many reasons to be unhappy in his life, and certainly from my context has cause to be angry daily about the situation life has given him.
Instead, Gonzalez, along with many of the people here has responded to his life by finding joy. He greets each new day with the cheerfulness of a man who is feeding his chickens mere moments after the sun has risen. He straps on his machete, dons his rubber boots, and begins his daily care in the onion fields with a dulcet whistle. Each day ends with time spent around the warmth of a small urn arguing with friends about the relative merits of chemicals in agriculture, the weather, and of course, how I didn’t eat enough rice and beans at lunch.