Every morning a band of starkly white-skinned girls and women trooped out of a tiny, one-story house in the center of La Victoria, and hiked through the filthy streets toward the campo. We brought sacks of toys, shoes and soap with us, handing them out into the grubby hands of half-naked children who followed us through the streets screaming “Americana! Americana!”. Everywhere we went people wanted to touch our skin, our hair, our clothes and backpacks, their eyes wide with hunger. The campo was comprised of vast, green fields of tall grasses, edged by clusters of make-shift houses with scrap metal roofs that the heat flocked to like birds to bread crumbs. Upon our arrival there, chocolate-skinned women and children came pouring out their doors and down the streets. They surrounded us, all of them shouting things in Spanish, and I backed into my protective group of white people, handing out presents like a good missionary while not speaking a word and engaging in no interaction with a single person.
I’d always wanted to go on a mission trip, ever since I was little and heard the stories that my parents told of their adventures traveling Europe. But now that I was here in the Dominican Republic, in the face of sickly babies, kids scrounging through trash heaps, and a language I was only barely proficient at speaking, I was scared. I was uncomfortable. I found myself longing for the safety and security of my lifestyle in the white American suburbs. How could I ever connect to these people who were so exactly the opposite of everything I was familiar with?
At one point I was sitting alone, pretending to be mute, when a little brown girl sauntered up and sat down next to me. She pointed to the water bottle sitting by my side and asked a question in rapid Spanish. Unsure what she’d said, I just nodded. She reached over and picked up the water bottle, examining it inch by inch, running her hands over the blue plastic as though she’d never seen something like it before. She prodded it, and the little tab on top popped out of place and landed in her palm. Her dark eyes widened, and she immediately handed it back to me, looking like a dog who’d just ruined their owner’s favorite shoes and knew they were in for scolding. I smiled at her reassuringly, then put the tab back on and popped it off again to show her that she hadn’t broken it. I handed it back. She poked the tab until it came off, then stuck it back on, then proceeded to take it off again. She began laughing as though it were the most hilarious thing she’d ever witnessed, and I couldn’t help but start laughing with her.
The next day when we returned, the same little girl who’d been so amused by my water bottle the previous afternoon, ran up and threw her arms around me. She launched into animated speech, and although I couldn’t understand half of what she said, I listened, laughing when she laughed, smiling when she smiled. She followed me around while we completed our activities: leading prayer, setting up crafts, handing out presents. I nodded and gestured my way through the completely one-sided conversation, and it wasn’t until later, when the two of us were spreading a rainbow of washable markers over the surface of the craft table, that I realized I was sort of enjoying myself. Even if I couldn’t contribute much verbally, she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it seemed as though by sharing my water bottle, I’d earned the status of designated sounding board, off of which she simply bounced her own voice without expecting my participation.
But then, out of the ramble of her breakneck Spanish, I picked out a phrase that I knew and recognized.
“Como te llamas?”
She looked at me expectantly, and I sputtered, caught off guard by having to actually answer for once. Assuming I hadn’t understood, she pointed to herself and enunciated clearly and slowly, as though explaining to a toddler, “Me llamo Oralise.”
She took a lime green marker off the table, uncapped it, and scribbled her name on a piece of blank paper. “Or-a-lise” she repeated, tapping the paper with her fingertip.
“Oralise,” I echoed obediently.
“Si!” she exclaimed, then pointed to me in a me-Tarzan-you-Jane kinda way. “Y tu.”
“Um, Eden,” I replied uncertainly.
I took up the green marker, and wrote it down.
“Me llamo Eden.”
“Eee-den,” she tried, giggling at her own awkward pronunciation.
“Si,” I told her. Abruptly, she held up her hand and declared “Espere!” before taking off running. Confused, I watched her disappear down a dirt-lined path between the huts and into a group of dense trees with huge emerald-green leaves. Minutes later she came running out again with something clutched in her palm. Once she reached me she held it out. A hard, oblong object the color of withering grass rested in her palm. I stared at it uncomprehendingly.
“Es fruta,” she told me, pressing her thumbs expertly to either side of the thing. It cracked in half to reveal a gushy red inside full of round seeds, much like a pomegranate. She handed me one half of the crimson seeds, and I took them as though recieving a precious gift. To her they were just pieces of fruit, but in passing from her hand to mine, they were glittering rubies.
The last day of our trip showed up surprisingly quickly, and I could honestly say that I was sorry to go. On our last morning visiting the campo, I couldn’t find my little comrade anywhere. She didn’t show up to say hello to me, or to follow me around during the activities. At one point I spotted Oralise talking to one of the American women, seeming to be asking her questions. I was tempted to go up to her, but my timidity got the best of me and I turned away.
Just before we were about to leave for the last time, Oralise caught up to me and tugged on my arm. Shyly, in unpracticed english she said, “You are my friend forever.”
I didn’t know what to say, and even if I had, chances are I wouldn’t have known how to say it. But it didn’t seem to matter to her, because she gave me a hug, a message for which no words were needed. Then all of a sudden all of the white girls were trooping away once more, watching the silvery roofs of the campo reflect the sunlight in the distance.