Travel is like love, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end. — Pico Iyer
It has been a full week since I kissed my studying and service semester in La República Dominicana adios, flew smoothly through a 10-hour travel day, and crossed the threshold of my good old Wisconsin home for the first time in five months. I had told myself earlier that I would resist the urge to pen one of those “How Studying Abroad Changed My Life For Ever & Ever” posts, since the Internet (or at least just my Facebook feed) is overly indulged with them; all preaching essentially the same “carpe diem” thing. Yes, you should go study abroad! Your life will never be the same (obviously)!
But these next few paragraphs will be about something quite distinct: how spending five months in a beautiful yet developing country turned out to be just what I needed. Because I didn’t find what I needed there.
The central question that made itself at home in the depths of my mind throughout the entire five months was “why am I here?” And before I am misunderstood, I must emphasize that Encuentro Dominicano was an incredible opportunity that I continue to be 100% indebted to for revealing to me the beauty of service and community. Even more, these past few months could be viewed as a rapid succession of thrilling adventures, in which the Comunidad 19 accomplished feats we had scarcely previously imagined, while doing our part to leave our temporary home better than we found it. I was inexplicably drawn to the service-learning program in La República Dominicana, but it continually bothered me that I could not quite put my finger on why I was there.
Seeking out the answer relentlessly, I stumbled upon the “little” reasons. I was here to learn the patient art of living in community with 15 to-be-friends; I was here to be an older sister to Caoli and Carelin, my siblings in the campo; I was here to belt out “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with the bright smiles of our Haitian school and teach them the English words for their favorite animals while a cuddly 2-year old was cradled at my hip; I was here to revel in the glamour of the open, glittering sea and to fail miserably at salsa dancing.
But by the time I had about three-fourths of the semester under my belt, I found in myself a desire that shocked me beyond belief, truly. Clara Elizabeth Jace just wanted to go home. This was astonishing because up until this summer, when someone would ask me where home is or where I am from, I took pride in explaining that I have moved a lot in my life and don’t really feel right calling just one place home. I was the independent, free-spirited wild child who wanted to discover and possess every aspect of life, intimately. And we all know that those kind of people are bitten by wanderlust and were made to explore the wide world rather than end each God-given day by watching Netflix at home in their suffocatingly comfortable beds. What was wrong with me? I became haunted by this aching desire to return home in order to carry out my unfinished business, business that was nothing more than a resolution to be a better person, both professionally and personally, to those who were ordained to remain in my life for longer than just five months. I especially couldn’t wait to start being a better daughter and older sister after relearning the value of family through the campo immersions. There is no denying the marvelous natural beauty of the Dominican Republic and of Misión ILAC (please believe me that some of my favorite nights were going on jogs around their tropical plant-enveloped trail) and it’s friendly culture. But while I was happy, my restlessness kept my thoughts turned homeward.
Living abroad taught me how to be thankful. I had this intellectual sense of thankfulness before, where I knew instinctively that I needed to practice thankfulness in order to be happy, but it was only habituated for the obvious things– I was thankful when I had a major victory in school, pushed my limits on those evening runs, or enjoyed a fabulous night on the town with friends. When not only those things (which did actually appear in their Dominican form), but the general order and cleanliness I was accustomed to in the United States, every single one of my friends, and most of my material possessions were stripped away for those five months, I had to discover newer, “smaller” things to be thankful for. My list (yep, actually a note on my phone): the lull of the fans, yuca, the rocking chairs, the spiral staircases to reach the rooftop terraces, plantains, la bandera, the characters of the campo, Sunday mass in Spanish, the comunidad and our awesome teachers/friends, familiar books, bachata and merengue dancing, the powerful sun, childhood songs I had nearly forgotten, technology such as Skype and handwritten letters, spontaneous adventures due to the gauguas…the list is extensive while not nearly exhaustive. Currently resting on my peaceful back porch in the States, it may be said that my thankfulness count has increased exponentially. I notice the birds, plants, and whistling wind as if I were encountering them for the first time. We truly aren’t aware of how good we have it here.
Living abroad taught me how to understand beauty. And that is absolutely, inextricably linked to practicing thankfulness. My individual aesthetic ascribes beauty to a certain sophisticated elegance, for example, on the rainy days my heart wanders back towards the seductive wisdom, history and art of the museums in Rome, the lofty cathedrals of sacred Israel, and the rolling French countryside in which I picnicked on white wine and fresh bread last summer, surrounded by my family and friends. Though the Dominican Republic undeniably possesses an intriguing history and abundance of culture, our service-learning program revealed a novel kind of beauty to me. In particular, I was returned back to the basics. Though I was admittedly out of my comfort-zone in the simplicity of the campo, I only had to raise my eyes to admire the sublime mountain range that watches over the houses. Though the road was not paved and we didn’t have running water, I soon began to see the beauty in the careful manner in which my campo mom, Olga, thoroughly cleaned her house every day. Though there were no books to be found, I saw how the kindness and piety that was displayed by countless members of the community is purer than any worldly knowledge. I could continue on with precious pearls of experiences, but let it suffice to say that the gift of simplicity revealed itself to me. All the while, I still did not lose sight of my more learned loves and made it my personal mission to leave Carelin and Caoli with their own petite, classical library.
Living abroad taught me what home is. With my renewed understanding of thankfulness and beauty, I could not wait to rush back and behold the familiar as if it were magical once again, to treat my family and neighborhood like we were a real community. Though far away from our homes proper, our experience had been saturated with experiences of community and family. I have long held that one ought to practice the ability to cultivate a home wherever one is planted, no matter how transiently. I had not legitimately put that belief into practice until taking up residence in the Dominican Republic for those months, and I now realize the poverty of that view. What makes home “home” is that it’s irreplaceable, unable to be replicated. Sure, enough time might suffice to reconcile the disparity between strangeness and familiarity, but the object of the majority of travel is to return home. With new eyes, a rejuvenated perspective, and a new treasure chest of memories and friendships, yes, but nevertheless to return home. I profess that never have I been more enchanted with my home, more thankful for my country, or more in love with my family. I have my thrilling, difficult, interesting, uncomfortable, crazy and refreshing semester abroad to thank for that. Living abroad brought me home.
When we observe how some people know how to manage their experiences—their insignificant, everyday experiences—so that they become an arable soil that bears fruit three times a year, while others—and how many there are!—are driven through surging waves of destiny, the most multifarious currents of the times and the nations, and yet always remain on top, bobbing like a cork, then we are in the end tempted to divide mankind into a minority (a minimality) of those who know how to make much of little, and a majority of those who know how to make little of much. —Nietzsche