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

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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.

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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

Time Well Wasted

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

There’s nothing quite like the flustered culmination of another school year to give a student (and probably their parents!) both the thrilling and frightening sensations from the passing of time. All good things must come to an end, but it’s especially tragic when that good thing was service & studying abroad in the Dominican Republic. On the other hand, when I lift my eyes to the future, I feel like my gleeful 10-year-old self trying to sit still and be patient the minutes before a birthday party– a nearly impossible feat when there is such an exceptional summer beckoning on the sunny horizon. How wonderful it is to have so many things to look forward to! Playing with this theme of time, last night I quickly jotted down some good habits of time “well wasted” that I’ve collected over the years and especially this past semester. They’re the sort of things that I usually have to push myself to do but that I have never regretted. At it’s core, growing up is mastering, through trial and error, the art of spending this precious currency, our funny gift called time.

The note-to-self:

  1. Give more hand-made presents: I can trace back my fondness for giving crafty gifts to watching my Grandma Noesen lovingly sew quilts for my newborn cousins as a little girl. Ever since, I have gradually taught myself to sew, crochet, knit, make jewelry, cards, and create various other items that are ideal for gift-giving occasions. Although the pieces usually emerge embarrassingly divergent from the original concept (still waiting for practice to make perfect), hand-made gifts represent beauty, utility, and a prized investment of time. It seems a little childish to spend hours upon hours making something that I could easily purchase, but I’ve decided that it’s a piece of childhood I want to hold onto. Those grandmotherly skills also hold their own across cultures, as my little sister in the campo and I are currently in the midst of weaving friendship bracelets for each other. 🙂
  2. Carve out time to read poetry: I can’t quite put my finger on the time when I first discovered the way in which words can share an experience through poetry, but I have been drawn in by  time and time again ever since. Even when I try to become swept away with the more comfortable tangibles of the world of business, my little poetry books seem to tap at my shoulder until, yet again, I fall in love with a vivacious poem. I have even acquired the pleasing habit of rising early some blessed mornings to read a few poems aside a steamy coffee. If that is something you have never tried, you absolutely must give it a shot tomorrow morning.
  3. Say yes to late nights turning into early mornings: “You can sleep when you’re dead” has become the guiding star to how much time I am willing to invest in my relationships. You never, ever lose when you invest hours in important conversations (or silly adventures), as late nights often lend themselves to, with another human being. As much as I love to read stories, I love being a part of one infinitely better.
  4. Embrace the dirt: Take off your shoes. I recently had a funny dinnertime chat with a friend bemoaning the fact that we can never seem to keep our feet clean in this country– but afterwards I realized that I’m really a fan of this deep down. It means I have been places, done tangible things and they left their little marks on me.  While I don’t mean to encourage actually embracing the dirt, this point simply is a reminder to revert back to that carefree, messy childish mindset that allows us to revel in the little things. So, go on weekly bike rides to get ice cream with the little kiddos in your life. Life is too important not to spend time with your family. Life is way too beautiful not to adventure into nature and breath in the fresh air. And, life is way too short not to buy that dripping ice cream cone and stimulate the local economy through your devoted patronage.
  5. Keep in touch with old friends: Lord knows that we’re all busy and stressed, but I know that I am always filled with gratitude when I receive a surprise “hey just checking in” kinda message. It’s caring enough to actively care for people that sets the great apart from the rest. Plus, it always feels fulfilling to make someone’s day.
  6. Acquire art and spend more afternoons in museums: As I graduated from the various embarrassing fads and fashions of my girlhood (if you want a chuckle: gauchos, aero shirt, and pigtail buns was the uniform) I have thankfully learned to refine and edify my tastes. I recently read a marvelous passage about such from The Economist’s View of the World, “Economists of the past thought it was part of their task to remind their readers that there are high and low pleasures, that many of the high ones require reason and the sometimes-painful acquisition of knowledge, that we aspire to tastes better than our current ones, and that such aspirations are sometimes hindered by profit-seeking businesses that cater to vices and over-emphasize the importance of what money can buy.” In other terms, it is our duty as consumers to signal the market to produce these “elevating” goods. Surrounding yourself with beauty reminds you to make something beautiful of yourself and your life– which is a very, very good thing.
  7. Eat and converse slowly: Here in La República Dominicana, I have really embraced the more relaxed, people-focused culture and my friends and I are fond of taking our sweet time when we go out to eat. This includes pre-cena walks, then drinks, appetizers, the main course, more drinks, and plenty of rich conversation. There’s always something to celebrate with each other– it’s just our job to seek it out 🙂
  8. Start and end each day with a prayer: I’ve been on and off with this one over the years, but I’ve recently resolved to get better. And that resolution began with a little story: One fine evening on a mall bench in Santiago, an old man with a baguette in one hand and bag of groceries in the other eased himself down next to my girlfriends and I.  We instantly struck up a lively conversation with this funny character. Several pleasantries, travel tips, and Shakespearean soliloquies later— he had been a professor for many years— our sentences began to drift upwards towards the divine, perhaps because it was Semana Santa. This old teacher leaned in towards us and confidently spoke of his unending trust in Him. He confided in us that he recited Psalm 23 each morning. Sometimes all we need is a little nudge in the right direction, and I have taken to reciting Salmo 23 each morning, simultaneously thanking the Almighty while practicing my Spanish pronunciation. Strangers have the funniest ways of teaching us what we need to know— which brings me to my next point…
  9. Always talk to strangers: There is not a single habit that has changed my life more– be open, be open, be open. Whether in the check-out line, on a train, or enjoying an neighborhood stroll, I have never been disappointed every time that I’ve surpassed my nervousness (or pure unawareness) in order to open myself up to a new face and conversation. In fact, that is how the majority of my best friends came to be. “How are you today?” and an engaging grin works wonders on us human beings, without exception.

P.S. The cover photo of this post is the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. If the trade-winds ever blow you to Minnesota during the 4 months that it’s not buried in snow, spend a lazy Sunday roaming around their paths. It’s good for the soul. 😉

In Between Guagua Rides

“Aw man, I really wish so-and-so could see me right now.”

Whether out of humor, glee, or smug pride, every fresh traveler knows the above sentiment well. There have been many instances recently during which that the thought has traversed the paths of my mind– the guiding theme has been humor. In fact, I would even venture to say that travel is the art of learning to laugh at yourself. And to laugh incredibly hard. Please see below:

The Guagua

Thirty-four. This week I rode in a twelve passenger van with thirty-four other passengers and it was great. In fact, it was one of those times you rush to dinner, excited to brag about your experience over the beans, rice and salad. For all who need a reality check, or just a little cuddling, please take the preferred Dominican public transportation- the gaugua. The name itself demands the attention it deserves. Additionally, my inner poet requests that I mention the lovely local scenes one can witness through the wide-open windows (ventilation is key), and my inner economist adds that the fee is only 25 pesos (roughly 50 cents.) What a deal!

The Service Hours

Few things are more enlivening than screaming the hokey pokey at the top of your lungs while jumping amidst a gaggle of happy, dancing children. For a moment, the hokey pokey was my favorite song in the entire world. The funny thing is that rewarding experiences like such are the exception, not the norm, during service but you keep coming back because that brief and intense joy so far makes up for the tedious and frustrating times. Two weeks ago, I was awfully reluctant to climb out from my mosquito-net canopy each morning and hop on a guagua to go to my service site.  But part of maturity is gaining the undeniable elegance and grace required when leaning into such discomfort. Part of maturity is understanding that teaching requires entertaining, and entertaining means screaming long-forgotten nursery rhymes at the top of your lungs and sillily dancing, well, like the gringa you are. Having a few more classes at the makeshift Haitian school in Pontezuela under my belt now, I can finally say that I know why I am doing this. Little-by-little, picture-by-picture and song-by-song, I am confident that Sarah and I will be able to do good. And as always, doing good feels good. I could not ask for more.

The Salsa Hours

Two Fridays past, the Comunidad Crew made an appearance at a local bar. We were led there by our maestras y advisoras, Margarita and Kat, who slyly knew what they were doing, since we soon discovered that this was the Friday date night hot spot for all the elderly couples of Santiago– though it was still just as lively and loud as one would the expect the scene of twenty-somethings to be. Looking back, for confidence’s sake, it was probably for the best that we were primarily spectators that night. In fact, we niñas were happily mesmerized by a darling old couple who didn’t even make it to the dance floor; the man intercepted his wife right after dinner and began to twirl her around right next to their table. We all search for what they have.

Then in Santo Domingo last Friday, we were led by the locals to the promised land, and by promised land, I mean the local hot spot for dancing (and with partners more our age-group.) For all who have never tried bachata, merengue, and salsa, they are worthy of addition to the bucket list– in ALL CAPS and permanent marker. There is truly nothing like letting the music move you. Like the bad tourist that I am, I only have two grainy photos to share from that night, a dance and our addition to the signature wall. Thankfully, there are times so gleeful that one forgets to take pictures.

And the next morning… the Comunidad got the grand tour of La Zona Colonial: Catedral de Santa María la Menor, Calle El Conde, Plaza de España, y Museo de las Casas Reales. It was all so beautiful, but still my primary takeaway was the reminder that deep in my heart, I still yearn to be a princess and live in a castle when I grow up. 😉

The Studious Hours

And in addition to the little daily lessons that emerge in the sneakiest places, our actual coursework has also been marvelous. My studies have been a lovely mingling of economics, theology, history, accounting, and literature– infused with zesty Spanish. Not only do we examine the tumultuous DR-Haitian relationship through texts, but we go forth to teach English in both Dominican and Haitian schools. We don’t just learn about free-trade zones; we spend Friday morning touring Alta Gracia (which deserves its own future post, I promise.) Not only can we conjugate comer in the future tense, but we throw around Dominican slang words and hum our new favorite songs: Las Cosas Pequeñas, Todo Cambió, Niña De Mi Corazón y Darte Un Beso (honorable mention, always: Heroe.) Let us now take a moment to appreciate how endearingly over the top these music videos are.

There are also the universal lessons. The clash of cultures and countries is only a supersize version of the clash between individual personalities and minds. At best, it involves the beautiful mutual exchange of knowledge, best practices, and wider-encompassing interpretations of the world in which we live and thrive. Thus it turns out that travel is about the root of laughter: delighting in and learning from one another. Emerson is quoted as saying,

 “In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.”

I cannot think of a better way to describe my days here in La República Dominicana.