I’m excited to say the first person to have written for my blog is my own mother! I co-wrote this post with her [Lynda], as she has participated in a few trips volunteering abroad. In June 2017, she visited the Dominican Republic, which will be compared to my vacation abroad in Iceland in January 2014. Regardless of the vast cultural differences between these countries, it’s been incredibly interesting to compare our overall trip and level of freedom.
Vacation Abroad in Iceland
Day to Day Activities & Culture
Though we had an itinerary for our week in Iceland, our activities varied day to day. From visiting Gullfoss waterfall and Strokkur geyser, to visiting the Blue Lagoon and seeing the northern lights, we packed quite a bit in our 5 days in Iceland. Our first two days we were free to roam around Reykjavik. It was interesting (and really cool) to see so many people on bikes! Probably one of the top reasons Europe is generally healthier than the United States. We loved going in and out of all the little shops, trying restaurants in town, and even popping into the coffee shops and grocery stores in the city.
With the help of our tour guide, Krisjan, I was able to correctly pronounce (on the first try!) “Eyjafjallajökull.” Eyjafjallajökull is the name of a volcano with a glacier on top. We also visited Skogar Museum. It was a smaller museum; the owner collected everything himself. I’m not a fan of museums typically, but this one was very interesting. It has over 15,000 folk artifacts, and it was really interesting to see how they lived prior to technology.
Since we were on vacation, we were able to experience some more traditional food. Breakfast at the hotel was a typical European breakfast with a Nordic twist and Icelandic additions. They had a variety of food items to create an open sandwich. Since this was my first time abroad at age 19, I’m sure you can imagine the confusion (and curious) look on this American’s face in regards to FISH on a SANDWICH for breakfast. Though I opted out of eating fish at 7 in the morning, it was rather refreshing to have a healthier breakfast. One of the breakfast items they provided was Skyr, which is a dairy product with a thicker yogurt texture. Their 5 flavors were a quick favorite between my aunt and me!
Transportation wasn’t too different; they had smaller cars than what we’re used to seeing in the United States. As mentioned previously, the locals did ride around the city on bikes. Though we traveled in quite a large jeep since we did a bit of off-roading to get to some destinations. One travel regret is not getting a picture of that beefy jeep! (Seriously, though, it was huge.)
Within the week we were in Iceland, we stayed in about 3 different hotels. Nothing close to luxury, but each served breakfast, and either served dinner or had a restaurant attached. I’m never too picky with hotels as long as I’m able to have a good meal in the morning! Most of our trip was spent out and about anyways.
Volunteering Abroad in the Dominican Republic
My husband and I wanted to volunteer abroad. More importantly, we wanted to make an impact for the Lord, together. My husband is a mechanical engineer, whereas I enjoy people and don’t mind hard work. His engineering skills coupled with my “how hard can it be” attitude made a construction mission trip a logical choice.
Friends of our run a non-profit called BRICKS: Building Relationships in Christ’s Kingdom through Service. They have gone on over 35 mission trips building kitchens, mess halls, bunk houses and other structures for Christian camps throughout Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. Joe [founder of BRICKS] and his crew were invited to build a pavilion at a camp in the Dominican Republic, and he asked if we were interested in joining the team. We had our passports ready for an opportunity like this and immediately agreed.
The missionaries working for this Word of Life camp came from several different countries including: Guatemala, Venezuela, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, as well as the United States. Some of the missionaries were single men, but most were married couples with children. Several missionaries could speak English and helped translate, but it also gave some of us an opportunity to practice our limited Spanish.
Electricity was turned off from 6am to about 6pm in many residential and rural areas. Since the camp was in a rural area, we lost power at 6 o’clock each morning. Only necessary items were powered by generator during the day. Kitchen appliances and power tools for the construction project fell into this category. The cabanas, including the air conditioning, were NOT a necessary item. We took special care to have the air conditioning running from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am and then kept all curtains drawn and windows and doors closed as much as possible to contain the cool air.
The regular kitchen staff wasn’t scheduled to arrive at the camp until just before the campers did, in another three weeks. The lady missionaries took over the cooking responsibilities for the entire construction team and missionary families. With generators chugging along in the background, they prepared some wonderful meals for us in the open air kitchen. It was very heart warming to see that they prepared “American” food for us to make us feel welcome, such as pancakes and scrambled eggs for breakfast, tuna salads and ham & cheese sandwiches for lunch, and pizza, spaghetti, and chicken for dinner. Though we didn’t get to try as much authentic food as I would have liked, we did have DR style soft shell tacos and tres leche cake.
The camp director picked our team up at the airport in an SUV, as it would fit the team along with all our luggage and the seven bins of tools we brought for the project. Vehicles and driving are similar to the US; steering wheel on the left, driving on the right side of the road. City drivers in Santo Domingo, seemed to be a little aggressive, but no more so than driving in downtown Chicago.
There were horse drawn carriages, used as taxis, in the historic district.
On our way to camp we did see several young men on roller blades hanging on to a car driving on the highway at about 45 mph. It was terrifying to watch, but the driver and the young men seemed to be enjoying the ride as if they had done this several times before.
Day to Day
We began working at 6:30 am each morning. Since the power was turned off in our area of the country at 6 am, this motivated us to get up a take a shower before 6 am. We worked from 6:30 am until 6:30 pm with breaks for breakfast and lunch; our dinner was scheduled at 7:30 pm.
This left us with one hour of free time after work. We could either shower and relax or swim in the ocean and nearby stream. Some of the team members swam in the ocean, but the surf was a little too rough for me. I chose to swim in the nearby stream once. The water was shallow and refreshing, and it seemed to be a favorite spot for local teens and young adults, as well. On the evening I swam, one of the local children was cleaning fish in the stream, guts and everything. This was the one and only time I swam in the stream.
During lunch breaks, my husband and I liked to walk near the stream. During our first stroll, we heard a large splash. I thought it was a fish, but my husband thought it was something much larger. The next day I walked by myself and saw several large lizards. LARGE LIZARDS. I went to get my husband as I wanted him to see this very strange sight. He came back with his camera and took photos. These creatures look like miniature dinosaurs. The camp director later told us that a camp neighbor feeds them in his back yard, and that is why they are near the camp property. In Wisconsin, we feed the geese; in the DR, they feed the giant lizards!
After taking a much needed shower after our workday, I liked to take another walk on the beach before dinner. Since there were very few people at the camp, I could enjoy the beach and grounds in peace and solitude. The crashing waves, birds soaring and diving, and palm trees swaying in the ocean breeze were incredibly serene, without crowds of tourists everywhere I turned.
We stayed in the cabanas at the camp. They had double beds with sheets and a comforter and air conditioning, when we had electricity. We each got one towel for the week. I was very happy to have the sheets and one towel since most missionaries need to supply their own.
There were none of the typical amenities like microwave, TV with DVD player, docking station, blow dryer, and coffee maker. This didn’t make a difference to us as we were working most of the day, and the rooms didn’t have electricity to power those items anyway.
The rooms were clean. Since we kept our doors and windows closed we didn’t have problems with crabs getting into our room, though we had one small lizard find his way in. With only a little direction from my husband, he quickly scurried out the door.
We were careful to use bottled water when brushing our teeth, to prevent any extreme gastrointestinal reactions. We also made sure not to flush any toilet paper as their systems may not handle the extra use. It sounds kind of strange, however, some of the other members of the work team were unaware, and they had unfortunate flooding!
We did not have hot water for showers, but after a long day of work in the hot, humid weather, the lukewarm water temperature was a welcome relief! Fortunately, my husband and I had cell phone reception anywhere on the property, but several team members had to go out on the beach to get reception.
It was very satisfying to see so much accomplished in just five and a half days. Our main goal was to build the structure, while the local crew came after we left to install the roof. We went from huge piles of steel to a large pavilion, and we had time to build bleachers and install a basketball hoop. This was far more than just a structure. It was a place for hundreds of children to play and learn about the Lord.
Have you ever visited another country to volunteer?