Marching on

“To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.” –  Cornel West

I came across this quote a while ago. Maybe it’s the stoic in me, but I thought it offered an interesting perspective and I couldn’t help but feel like it was speaking to my own experience— an all too familiar feeling.

Still, isn’t it nice when life leads you to the words you can’t seem to conjure up on your own?

As someone who finds themselves constantly frustrated by the things happening all around, it’s very difficult not to give into the seeming hopelessness of the circumstances, and when you live in a developing country, you don’t have to look too far to come face to face with the plight of its people.

When I think of all the challenges we face, it’s difficult not to feel like we’re just too far gone, or that it’s just ‘too little, too late’ at this point. I have felt helpless many times over in the course of my life, which is particularly difficult to come to terms with given that this is home. It is the country of my parents and their parents, and my own too. It has seen me grow, leave and then return.

I don’t cling to any brand of nationalism, but I also see the good in it. I see the beauty of its landscapes, the warmth and kindness of its people, the resilience we’ve all become very well acquainted with after being dealt so many blows. “This is worth protecting”— I tell myself, and I ache a little all over again just thinking about it.

I think that’s what Cornel West was referring to. At least that’s how I feel most of the time, anyways: swinging like a pendulum between “There’s nothing I can do” and “I have to do something.” I’m also sorry to say that this ambivalence often finds me contemplating a possible course of action instead of actually doing something.

That all changed a few weeks ago, though. I finally took a chance to get out of my own head and use my feet instead.

I woke up exhausted and unwilling on a Sunday morning in late March, with no one to accompany me. I didn’t know exactly where I was going either — my spatial intelligence is admittedly lacking— but I got out of the bed and found my way.

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A snapshot of protesters on their way to the Monumento

It was nice to see that so many other people had chosen to march as well, that they had decided against despair. I hope that at the end of the day, no matter how steep the climb seems, I always go back to that same place.

To read more about my experience at the Marcha Verde and my life as a young adult in the Dominican Republic, feel free to read the article I wrote for hola, rita.

 

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On the benefits of being stubborn and living in Wonderland

“But…” – I interjected.

A familiar tingling began to invade my nostrils: a troubling warning that tears would soon follow. As I fought with myself to keep them at bay, I tried to make sense of what the woman at the other end of the line was telling me.

“Well, you can take the picture with a wig or without one. You’re beautiful as you are and God loves you either way.” – she added.

Unsolicited platitudes from a stranger. Great. And here I was, thinking things couldn’t possibly get worse.

I stumbled through a ‘Thank you’ before hanging up the phone, but I didn’t mean it. It still amazes me that even in the face of such situations, I can’t help but being polite.

You’d think getting a new ID would be a relatively uneventful occurrence. One of those things you complain about and put off for months, yet eventually get around to. But I guess you have to account for some variation when you’re a woman in a third world country who just so happens to be bald.

Thanks to a governmental decision to redesign them, everyone else was getting theirs re-issued as well. I even had the opportunity to avoid the throngs of people and go with the rest of my coworkers, but I missed the chance. As much as I didn’t know how I would manage the impending nature of this situation, I knew my wig-wearing days were over and there was no going back to that. I refused to do so, even for something as harmless as an ID picture.

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Since I needed answers, I took the initiative to call the nearest center to ask about their policy on head coverings. After all, I reasoned, I wear headscarves every day and the purpose of an ID is to be able to readily identify its bearer, right? Besides, many other countries have policies that allow for certain accommodations given religious or medical reasons, and I have a legitimate medical condition.

These were the thoughts I looked back on as I stood in the patio right outside the office, phone still in hand. My expectations had been shattered in a matter of minutes and a palpable frustration had been left in their stead. I tried to regain my composure, but I was angry.

“Don’t I matter?”

“What about my rights?”

“What about other people like me?”

“Am I supposed to just tolerate this blatant violation of my rights and my privacy?”

To add insult to injury, I was also reeling from the exchange with this mystery lady, who despite what I assume were good intentions, had managed to be completely dismissive of my very real concerns and gone on to lecture me about my life: a life she knew absolutely nothing about.

As a general rule, if you don’t know someone very well, please refrain from spouting generic advice that will most likely not be very useful to them. This should be a given if you’re interacting in these contexts. In this case it’s not just annoying, but unprofessional.

Anyway, I digress.

When I went home that day, I shared the ordeal with my mom. I explained my frustrations and found catharsis in doing so, but we both knew I was powerless to change anything at that point.

With a look of worry drawn on her face, one I’ve come to know so well throughout the years, she asked me: “What are you going to do, then?”

The answer, though not easy to come by, had finally become clear. I knew exactly what I was going to do.

“I’m taking it bald.”

It was then that I realized this was no longer about a piece of plastic or a photo, but about my identity and being able to present myself as I wished. I needed to be true to myself, and since I had to go on ahead and get that new ID anyway, I was going to do it on my own terms.

Given that the deadline was soon approaching, my sister and I went to do that not too long after the aforementioned incident. As it turns out, a lot of other people had the same idea that day, and we spent the whole morning switching from one seemingly endless line to the next.

“This is what you get for putting it off until the last minute” –  I told myself. I’d like to think the ridiculous wait time served as enough atonement to last a lifetime.

After more hours than I remember, it was time to finally take the picture. Surprisingly, by the time I stood in front of the camera and took off my headscarf, all I could really feel was a sense of peace.

No hesitation.

No backpedaling.

No regret.

The certainty behind my decision carried me throughout the day. The moment of truth had come and gone without fanfare, but I had done the right thing for me and that was honestly the most important part of it all.

Now, whenever I flash my ID, people see the picture of a bald lady staring back at them. It has gotten significantly less awkward to do so with time, and I guess it also helps me to continue normalizing my baldness and accepting myself. Pretty nifty, huh?

Now, do I still object to these restrictive policies that don’t account for specific segments of the population? Hell yes. Do I think people like me, who wear head coverings for legitimate reasons, should be subjected to this of type of treatment? Most definitely not. I may have been comfortable exposing my bald head in front of strangers, but other people aren’t, and shouldn’t be forced to do so. They have a right to choose how to present themselves just like I did (within certain guidelines, of course), and they shouldn’t be denied that right. I guess the people in charge don’t realize that things like that could open you up to undesired public scrutiny and yes, even discrimination.

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Source: memecrunch.com

But hey, I guess this was a more pleasant experience than the last time, when they printed that I had alopecia and I wore a wig on my old ID (against my own will, obviously) under a section titled ‘Distinctive Features.’ You know, just so that in the unlikely event that I later became a wanted fugitive, they’d be able to recognize me under my disguise and track me down thanks to that singular piece of information.

It’s so absurd it almost doesn’t seem real, but I know it was, because it happened to me. But there’s a reason they call this country the Wonderland, you know?

Everything is backwards.

Check yourself before you wreck yourself

“Yeah, you know, and since we’re leaving on Fri—”

“Wait, what? What do you mean? Where are you going?”— I interjected. I could feel the bewilderment settling in and radiating outward, like a movie projected onto a screen for all to see.

Oh, the woes of being transparent!

“Río San Juan. We’re gonna be there until Monday”— he stated matter-of-factly.

By the time the last words left his mouth, I had already fallen into a tizzy. This new information had flooded my brain violently and at that point, I was just trying to process and make sense of it.

“You’re leaving tomorrow?”— I asked.

“Yeah. In the morning. Wanna come with?”

And that, my friends, is how I found out how I’d be ushering in the New Year. Not without first expressing my objection to this half-baked plan, mind you, but eventually relenting nonetheless— on the condition that I’d return early on Sunday to spend my Dad’s birthday with him.

We were off to the small town on the first day of 2016, in the early hours of the afternoon. As we were leaving the city, the change in scenery was apparent: tall, industrial buildings and busy streets gave way to green pastures and grazing animals. The road became more narrow and irregular and soon enough we were weaving in and out of curves, riding up and down hills. Surprisingly, I was able to overcome the queasiness without serious incident and except for plugged ears, I survived the drive relatively unscathed by the elements.

By the time we arrived the sun was almost setting and it was beginning to get dark. I recall seeing a lot of people hanging out in the streets and in the proximity of what appeared to be the local park. There was music blaring loudly and multiple speakers scattered around the area.

This was my first time visiting and part of me felt out of place because of it, but it didn’t feel entirely unfamiliar either. I guess growing up in Sosúa —another small town by the coast— somehow made me privy to certain things. However, in the spirit of being honest I will go on the record to say that there were both great moments and unfortunate ones.

But I learned from it, I promise. There really is a point to all of this.

Now, where was I?

Right. We had just arrived, and some people felt like taking a dip in the beach. I didn’t think much of it and tagged along. The view was beautiful and I took some pictures that I really liked. There was barely anyone there and the quiet stillness was a nice change of pace from the hubbub that had welcomed us as we drove in.

But there were also mosquitoes, and I was (quite unfortunately) wearing shorts, completely unaware that I had essentially given them permission to feast on my blood.

It wasn’t long before I started to feel the bites. The more I scratched, the more desperate I became and shortly thereafter I decided that I’d had enough. You could say I was…itching to get home.

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YEEAAAAH! (Source: them0vieblog.com)

That incident seemed to set the tone for the rest of the night, and I felt uncomfortable for the remainder. Everything I saw or experienced after that was scrutinized and interpreted negatively.

I could only focus on the fact that the music was way too loud and not to my liking, that wading through the sea of people hanging out in the streets proved to be really tiresome, that the cigarette smoke was seriously intrusive and annoying, that I was bored and sleepy, or simply put, I wasn’t even enjoying myself. Not only that, but it was evident to everyone around me as well. I went to bed that night wondering why I had even agreed to go in the first place, and I fell asleep covered from head to toe despite the obvious lack of ventilation in the room.

You have to give it to the mosquitoes. They really had it in for me and were tenacious in their efforts. They also weren’t gonna take no for an answer: something I learned the following morning when I took a look at myself in the mirror.

“You look like Kylie Jenner”—he said before letting out a chuckle.

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See also: Kris Jenner in that one episode of ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians’ (Source: dailymail.co.uk)

To be fair, after getting over the initial shock of seeing my inflated upper lip, I laughed too. Taking the previous day into account, I also hoped this wasn’t an omen of worse things to come.

To my surprise, I managed to put my embarrassment aside, make it out of the room, take a shower and head out for breakfast. Four of us walked around in search of a place to do just that and quickly found a restaurant.

After learning they were out of their famous croissants, we settled for omelettes and sandwiches, as well as coffee. Both the food and the service left something to be desired, but the conversation among us more than made up for it.

The rest of the party was still fast asleep by the time we had polished off the last of our food, so we decided to go to the beach again. I enjoyed being able to walk around the town, following someone else as we maneuvered in and out of streets and took shortcuts, watching people go about their daily lives. There were also murals adorning the town everywhere you looked, which I hadn’t really been able to appreciate until then. It was an exciting Easter egg hunt of sorts, and I had fun trying to spot as many as I could.

Once we arrived at our destination, we sat under one of the trees and continued our conversation. We drank coconut water and ate its pulp, did some more people watching and eventually, some of us decided to go in the water. The sun had been kind of a no-show up until that point and it was understandably cold to the touch, so we weren’t in there for too long. After laying out for a bit, we got a call from the rest of the crew to tell us they were finally awake, so we headed back to the meeting point to decide what we would do next.

After lunch we headed to Playa Caletón, but upon arriving people complained that it was too crowded, so a change of plans was afoot. It was also then that we realized that the refreshments had never made it into the SUV and they were probably still sitting in the market where we had purchased them only moments before. Some of us had to go back for them while the other group went on ahead to Playa Grande, where we agreed to reunite.

The water was a beautiful, crystalline blue and the sun was still out, but not intense enough to pose a sunburn risk. Palm trees swayed in the wind, and you could hear the waves crashing on the shore, striking and seemingly eager to assert their dominance.

I certainly couldn’t resist its charm, so I jumped in. Sure, at one point I freaked out and could have sworn I was going to drown (I may have overreacted a bit), but other than that, it was a wonderful experience and an even more incredible sight. Time passed quickly, and we headed back to Río San Juan just as it was getting dark out.

Word of a party in Las Terrenas got out and everyone in the crew seemed to have their sights set on that, but we didn’t get ready in time for that one so we opted for Cabarete instead. We walked along the beach trying to find a specific bar and given that it was a holiday weekend there were people everywhere. Some lounged on furniture, others drank at the bars, and there were those that just like us, were looking to listen to cool music and dance.

We finally found the place we were looking for and it was filled to the brim. We had to make our way through the throngs of people and surprisingly, were still somehow able to find a spot where we could all hang out. The music wasn’t the best, but I still managed to get into the groove of things and actually began to enjoy myself. I have no clue how long we were there, but I noticed people started leaving the venue. I guess the rest of the crew had also had enough of it, so we walked to the opposite end of the beach where another party was taking place.

Now, I have to clarify that after my experience with the mosquitoes on our first day at Río San Juan, I opted for long jeans and sandals this time around. Definitely not the most popular of choices given the circumstances, but I didn’t want to give them an open playing field or suffer through more bites.

You’d think that would have made a difference, but even I was caught by surprise when I felt the itching on my feet. I initially waved it off thinking it would go away, but in all honesty the sensation seemed to intensify with every minute that passed. It got to a point where I couldn’t really focus on anything else and was just furiously scratching my feet to no avail.

The frustration mounted and I could feel a sort of panic creeping in. My boyfriend noticed and tried to reassure me that it was okay and that some mosquitoes had probably just found their way to my feet, but there seemed to be no relief in sight and he eventually took me back to the SUV so I could rub some lotion on them. Unbeknownst to us at the time, that’s where we would spend the rest of the night.

The truth of the matter is that we were both pretty tired at that point, and what was supposed to be an innocent 20-minute power nap turned into a couple of hours of good, old-fashioned sleep. We were startled awake by a knocking at the door hours later— the crew was ready to head back to Río San Juan.

As soon as I heard that, it was as if I were reliving the first night of the trip all over again. After realizing we wouldn’t be able to find lodging in town (all the places were already booked), the plan had changed yet again. However, I had somehow convinced myself that I wouldn’t have to make the trek all the way from Río San Juan back to Santiago, given that the distance from Cabarete was much shorter, and we would be there until the early morning hours of Sunday anyway.

“That makes no sense, though! I’m going back there for nothing!”— I complained.

“Maybe, but we’re not just going to leave you here. We can’t. It’s way too early.”

Once again, I could feel myself seeping in all of this negativity and all I could focus on as we headed back were my own feelings of anger and frustration. I was livid.

I begrudgingly unloaded my stuff from the SUV and trudged back to the same room where my upper lip had fallen victim to a vicious mosquito attack and covered myself from head to toe once again, careful not to forget about my mouth this time around.

I don’t think I had even slept for two hours before my alarm went off. It was 7:00 AM and I was hellbent on getting back home as early as possible. After figuring out the route we had to take, I took my things and left the house, walking alongside my boyfriend to the stop where I’d hitch a ride to Sosúa.

The cool morning air seemed to have a calming effect. We walked by the same restaurant where we’d had breakfast the day before and stopped to get some croissants, just as they were coming out of the oven. I recall a warmth enveloping me as I held mine and took bite after bite, eager to reach the gooey chocolate center.

As we drew closer to our destination, I realized that I was no longer upset. In all actuality, I was beginning to feel very differently about everything. Unfortunately, I was also struck with the realization that I couldn’t just go back in time and stop myself from doing the things I now seemed to be regretting. Before I knew it, we were saying our goodbyes and I was boarding the car in a stupor, feeling both tired and thoughtful.

I spent the whole ride looking out into the distance and dwelling on these thoughts, and that’s when it hit me: it wasn’t so much what I had (or hadn’t done) that mattered most, but the people I had shared those experiences with.

I was so caught up in my own feelings that I was blinded by them. I stubbornly chose to focus on the negatives, when I could have just as easily laughed things off and gone with the flow. I mean, hell, even just trying to be a little more pleasant would have probably helped a bit.

And it’s relatively easy to look back now and say, ‘Hmm…I guess I could have done better,’ but the real challenge lies in being able to tune into your feelings in the heat of moment, and check yourself before you do something or act in a way you’ll later wish you hadn’t.

Easier said than done, right?  But we live and we learn, and I think it’s safe to say that Río San Juan taught me a little bit about both.

The places I’ve been and the road ahead

Once again, the words fail me. I’ve experienced a lot of things this year, but the task of translating  my feelings about those experiences into cohesive thoughts is decidedly more difficult than I would have hoped for.

I know it’d be easier to just keep them to myself, but I’d much rather give it a shot and press on. I mean, that’s essentially what I’ve been trying to do all this time, right? So that I will.

I’ve visited places I otherwise wouldn’t have, hung out and danced a lot more, taken less pictures, met new people, found love, and challenged myself to push past my own discomfort to have a good time, all without compromising who I am and what I stand I for.

I fondly remember the trip to my hometown for a three-day weekend of fun in the sun. In a moment of complete carelessness I took my scarf off to take a dip in the pool and enjoyed submerging myself in the water for the first time in so many years. I was caught off-guard as I came back up for air because my ears had become plugged— a sensation so unfamiliar to me that I might as well have been experiencing it for the first time. It may sound silly, but it was so thrilling. Sometimes, the little things can make us feel the most alive.

There’s also the weekend trip to Santo Domingo, where I hopped from venue to venue with my boyfriend and his friends in search of the best party. We swayed from side to side while listening to Whitest Taino Alive at Camden Parlour, then headed over to the Zona Colonial to indulge in some electronic fare. There was little planning beforehand, and we just went from bar to bar with the music as our guide.

The city was absolutely beautiful at night and there was this almost surreal quality to it. I remember thinking that in the midst of a remodeling process, Calle Isabel La Católica almost took on the air of a movie set. It was also fascinating seeing the old and new collide in such a way, and it made me feel hopeful about this little island of mine. Like there’s still a lot about it that’s worth salvaging, preserving and protecting. That all is not bad, or much less, lost.

And the truth is that those two trips, although memorable, aren’t even the half of it. There are many other moments interspersed throughout that I treasure just as much. From outings with friends and new acquaintances to my nephew’s first birthday, as well as lazy days spent at home rediscovering my love for hobbies I had pushed aside long ago— I’m grateful for all of it.

2015 has been this incredible whirlwind and I’d be lying if I said I’m not trying to find my footing. I move on with a newfound clarity about certain things, while still in a state of confusion about many others. In that regard, it has also served as a humbling reminder that the road to self-discovery is a long one, and I still have a ways to go.