It was the first vacation I had ever taken to a foreign destination (foreign meaning, not the U.S. or the
U.K.). It was also the first vacation I had ever taken with a boyfriend, my friends were all jealous because I was only 16, and my parents were letting me go! Even I was surprised. As a mother now, I don’t think I would let either of my daughters go on vacation with their boyfriends (or together for that matter) without parental supervision! But we went. We booked it, all inclusive. Told the travel agent we were 19, so that we weren’t restricted with alcohol and we could drink our teenage faces off. I remember being so excited on the plane ride there. We were feeling very “grown up” and looking forward to spending a week by ourselves in a tropical setting.
When we arrived in the Dominican, I stared down at the runway (that was seemingly in the middle of nowhere) while our plane pulled in. I could see the heat waves moving through the air from inside the plane. It looked like the kind of heat that grabs you by the throat and makes it hurt to breathe. The kind of heat that strips you of all your bodily resources and renders you lethargic and sweaty. I knew it was going to be hot. By the time we got through security and grabbed our bags, it was time to board our bus. From the moment we stepped outside, I was frozen in terror. Dozens of kids, teenagers, and local adults were pulling at our clothes and our bags and holding out their hands for money and yelling in another language (some of them very broken English). They wanted to take our bags to the bus I guess. In my 16 year old state of shock and fear, I clutched my bags tightly and stared at my boyfriend helplessly as he began warding them off saying “no we’re fine thank you” and being more aggressive than I was. I felt horrible for these people. This was a way of life for them! You could see the look of desperation in their eyes. As I boarded the bus I couldn’t help but look back at them and feel less of myself for being in their country on vacation while they struggled to put food on their tables for their families.
I got on the “luxury” bus, which was a bus with a roof and a bathroom (with no air conditioning) and tinted windows. Their idea of a “luxury” bus wasn’t quite the same as ours. There was a warm hearted tour guide who stood at the front of the bus welcoming us all to his country. He had the grandest smile on his face and a personality that just shone. There was also a hostess on the bus handing out drinks to everyone to ensure a “pleasurable” ride to the resort. I sat in my seat staring blankly out the window, while the excitement levels of everyone on our bus grew; people laughed and joked, and beamed with joy. I felt sick, I felt upset, and I felt weird. I stared at the group of locals outside as the bus pulled away. They waved and jumped as we exited the airport. I was very quiet on the ride to the resort. I don’t know if it was the shock of finding out that not everyone lived like I did, or if it was the desperation I saw in the eyes of the group of locals back at the airport. But never before had I realized that life really was different in other parts of the world. Sure, you were told that, and then there was what you learned in Geography class, but to see it first hand as a 16 year old kid was another story.
We drove past shacks, burned down houses, old pick up trucks filled with a dozen locals drinking and throwing bottles out of the back. The roads were winding and narrow, there seemed to be no traffic laws. We slowed down at a bend in the road and I saw a very young girl (12 or 13 at most) standing on the side of the road with Ruby red lips, dark sad eyes, and an outfit that showed off her young (and violated) body. She saw me looking at her through the tinted window and our eyes locked in place for a brief moment. For that moment I felt like I could feel her pain. I felt like I could see into her life. She was probably just trying to help her family out financially, and using the only thing she felt she could… Her beauty, and her innocence. She sacrificed her childhood to help her family put food on the table. Finally we arrived at these enormous Golden Gates; they must have been 20 feet high. The reality kicked in that these gates were not that high because it was pretty, it was because they wanted to keep the locals out. The gates opened slowly as the bus drove through and the landscape changed. There was an armed guard standing beside the gate. No longer was there dying grass, dirt roads, burnt down shacks and 12 year old prostitutes. Now there were beautifully landscaped gardens and trees, the roads were lined with cobblestone, the sun seemed brighter, and the landscape tropical and vibrant. People everywhere smiled and laughed and took pictures. The folks on the bus pointed and smiled and admired the grounds of the resort.
Our bus pulled up in front of the hotel lobby, the tour operator announced “welcome to paradise. Enjoy your stay” as we all exited the bus. For the rest of the day I sat in my room depressed about the poverty, desperation, and prostitution I had just driven through to get to my resort. I was experiencing severe culture shock. I guess I must have been in denial about how other people around the world lived. I assumed that everyone had schools, and roofs, and cars, and jobs, and new clothes, and plenty of food in the cupboards. But visiting a 3rd world country to go on vacation, really put things into perspective for me. I suddenly felt thankful for what I had, and appreciative of my life.
That week, I met some of the most amazing human beings I have ever met in my life. People who had nothing! People who worked so hard just to provide food for their families, people who smiled every day while catering to people like us who could afford the luxury of going to “paradise” while they struggled to make ends meet. It was not quite what I had envisioned at the travel agency when I looked through the brochures. They didn’t show any shacks. They didn’t show underage prostitutes, they didn’t show any poverty at all… And they certainly didn’t prepare me for how I would feel when I arrived.
“Paradise”… was lost on me.