I read a post from a FaceBook friend who claimed he’d become intimate with poverty because he ventured off into the woods, slept in a makeshift hut constructed from branches and underbrush and only ate oatmeal for breakfast and he had stew for lunch and dinner.
Three meals a day? Poverty?
From what I’m seeing and learning while I’ve been in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic volunteering with Dove Missions, poverty isn’t about a lack of possessions or only having stew for lunch and dinner.
Poverty is what makes a mother prostitute her daughter out to get money to feed the family.
Poverty is living in the absence of the belief or even the hope that your circumstances will improve. It's a prison of the mind and a daily struggle for survival.
Before I learned about the people living in the barrio’s of Playa Oeste and Nuevo Renecer, I judged them.
Why don’t they at least clean up the trash all over the beach?
Most first world kids know there’s no point in putting away their toys because they’re just going to get the stuff out to play with again. And I admit, it's how I feel about making a bed. It doesn't make sense to me.
It’s the same with the trash on the beach. It will always return no matter how many beach clean ups the residents or volunteers do.
The trash is layered so deep on the beachfront property of these barrios, it’s hard to see the sand. Instead of Caribbean seashells and beach glass there are mounds of plastic bottles, bags filled with garbage, shoes, pieces of Styrofoam and cracked paint buckets.
The wind carries wafts of sewage, not salt water with the hints of Coppertone lotion you’d expect in the Dominican Republic.
Nueva Renecer means new birth. The community was renamed from it's former name, Aguas Negras, meaning, black water, because the families didn’t want to be known anymore as the people who lived in the garbage dump.
For generations, people built shacks along the garbage filled waterfront, a polluted pocket along the Caribbean shore where an industrial port and a power plant bookend the bay churning dirty water. The Rio San Marcos carries sewage and garbage from inland communities up river, which all gush into the bay.
At one point, the government tried to relocate the residents to brand new condominiums in the nearby barrio Haiti. But within a short period of time, the people sold their condos for as little as one hundred dollars and moved back to their original shacks.
When you give a valuable item to someone who can't afford to feed their family, they will sell the object so they can eat.
The people in these barrios live for today just trying to meet their immediate needs. For generations, they haven't seen beyond the present day. Breaking that cycle is a challenge. It's clear to me that it starts with education; exactly what Liz Rooney, who founded Dove Missions, did to help the at-risk youth in the barrios who otherwise would have gotten sucked into the cycle of prostitution, drugs and crime.
There are positive signs of change and improvement in the barrios. The community is finally getting a sewer connection which means the unsanitary conditions should improve once raw sewage isn't running through the streets. But the neighborhood homes will not likely ever have running water. When the city turns on the water once or twice a week, people collect as much as they can to use for bucket bathing, cooking and cleaning.
The wind blowing along the beachfront felt so refreshing after navigating through the small walkways between homes where the air was heavy and ripe. On the way back to the car where we'd have the luxury of air conditioning, I looked out along the trashed beach and saw the most beautiful pieces of driftwood I’ve ever seen. Whole branches, beautifully smoothed by the turbulent bay. I wondered how we could use the driftwood for the rooftop garden project at the boys and girls club. Would they be useful or just decorative?
I questioned whether thinking about décor and aesthetics is a luxury only the privileged are afforded.
I stood for a moment at the barrio boundary by the Rio San Marcos and gazed up at one of the million dollar mansions in the gated community just up the hill. If I could see into the windows of that home, surely they could see the barrio below them.
The contrast was stark and jarring. Do the mansion dwellers have any idea who their neighbors are? Are they doing anything to serve the people in the sewage drenched barrio where families struggle to meet the basic needs for food, clean water, shelter and medicine?
Or do they glance out of their dual paned windows and dismiss the idea of helping their fellow neighbors because it’s just going to be that way day after day.