SPRING BREAK. To a college student, this week is beautiful, rejuvenating, wonderful, and more. There are many things that one can do during spring break, from simply relaxing at home to taking a trip with friends. One student named Charlie Vancampen, took a different route and traveled to a tropical paradise with the help of the Honors College. This is his story:
With the assistance of the Honors College, I attended an alternative spring break trip in the Dominican Republic organized through Longwood University. Don’t let the words ‘spring break’ and ‘paradise’ mislead you, this was not a prototypical spring break trip. While fun, we didn’t spend our time frolicking on the white sandy beach and splashing around in the crystal blue water. Instead we spent our time immersed in a week-long cultural experience. When we first arrived, we met with our trip leader from the New Community Project, who told us about expectations for the trip and some things we would be seeing. However, that could not fully prepare us for the experiences we would have over that week and things we observed. About noon the next day, we board a guagua (public bus) and headed out to a small village called La Guama outside a city called El Cercado.
Once there, we met with our host families and were acquainted with our living situation for the next three days. We were living in a village where electricity was intermittent, only one house had indoor plumbing (which did not work), and virtually no economy. The locals grew plants and raised animals to feed themselves; evident by the zoo that our family kept by their house. Even though that was no hot water, fancy electronics, or any material considers necessary for a high quality of life in American society. However, these were some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. While there, we were wooed with our host mom’s empanadas, played a perilous game of baseball on a road lined with barbed wire, and helped with a sustainable agricultural project behind the mountains. One of the more striking experiences of this portion of this trip was an excursion to the Haitian border and spent some time there to observe differences in the levels of poverty between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The differences in poverty in the 200 yards between Haiti and the DR it is easy to see why Haitians would cross into the DR, allowing themselves to be transported illegally in search of a better life. After three days living among these vibrant people, we had a closing dance where we were forced to marangue with the locals. We boarded another guagua and headed to the bateys in the eastern part of the country.
This part of the trip was the most powerful and moving experience we had. The first day in the bateys we spent travelling to them and then we worked for about a half hour in the sugar fields and toured the bateys. Bateys are a mixture of publicly and privately owned slums operated by sugar companies that produce sugar that is almost solely sold to the United States. In the bateys we learned how the sugar companies mistreat and cheat the workers who are mostly Haitians who are illegally smuggled across the border by the sugar companies and because they have no legal rights are kept in the bateys with no chances of getting out. Some of the bateys literally have no running water and a couple have no latrines. It is not unusual for 8-12 people to live in a single room built for one or two people. The companies have not kept their promises to maintain the barricks or homes on the bateys, which have deteriorated greatly in the past 50 years. We learned that the DR government has also retroactively stripped the citizenship of Haitians who were born in the DR, have never been to Haiti, and don’t speak creole all because their parents were Haitian. The first night we were there we heard a presentation from a lawyer for a newly formed sugar cane workers union, speaking about the grave human injustices and what can only be described as modern day slaves. Even though there are people who are trying to fix the situation and get these Dominicans their citizenship back, they face an uphill battle. The following day, we toured more bateys, in worse conditions than the ones we had seen before. We also encountered sugar cane workers that did not have the machines to do their jobs that the workers from the previous day had. This day we also stopped and went into a local school in one of the bateys and danced and sang for some local school children and briefly spoke with them on our way to our nights stay.
That night we stayed in a batey which was one of the better bateys we saw, however, it was by no means acceptable living conditions. While we slept in a chapel on hard benches or a concrete floor, the locals slept in their homes which if in America would be immediately condemned. While there, we had lunch with them, played baseball, swam in a river, and had campfire where we distributed donated school supplies. The following day we left and saw the dire needs of the people as they mobbed what was left of our donations. I felt kind of guilty because while these people were stuck in this situation, we left for a beach side resort, the DR that most people see. We spent the day unwinding, getting massages on the beach, swimming in the Caribbean Sea, and buying touristy items. While this was nice, I now know that the DR that we think of is not the environment that most people live in.
Don’t get me wrong, the Dominicans are the most welcoming people I have ever met. I have traveled to Ukraine, Spain, and Morocco, which were all said to be the most hospitable country in the world but the DR is the first country I truly felt welcome in. Even though the living conditions are poor for a lot of residents, they show great resilience in the fact that they are happier than we are. It was rare to meet someone complaining about their living conditions and most when describing their situation said that God is great, they were happy that we visited them, and they were grateful for their family. Now that we are back, we are trying to form a movement or organization to help the Haitian sugar cane workers in the DR. Through raising money, we can help these people with their citizenship, fund protests, and do other things that can help make their lives better. Without the help of the Honors College and the scholarship I received, I probably would not have been able to go. This is not the first time that the Honors College has helped me travel, but I am always grateful for the opportunity and the chance to have life altering experiences such as this one.