Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Dominican Sweet 16

16 year old me in the Dominican Republic in 1996 with neighbor kids

The best summer of my youth was in 1996. At 16 I had it all; a car, a cute boyfriend, a varsity softball letterman jacket, long, wavy hair with blond highlights. The picture of the American Teenager. And then I was canon-fired across the country to a remote village in the Dominican Republic for 6 weeks.

Although I'd been planning the trip for nearly a year, nothing could have prepared me for adapting to a new culture, speaking a different language, being away from home for the first time and the drastic changes in myself that were to come of it.

Without much thought the previous year, I signed up for a program called Amigos de las Americas, an organization that sends youth into Latin American countries to complete community service projects during the summer months. All I really thought about at that point was that it would be rad to travel to another country and that it would look great on my college applications.

Ranch de la Guardia, Dominican Republic. My summer home in '96.

I was placed with two other girls my age in a town called Rancho de la Guardia, inland from the coast, about 4 miles from the Haitian border. We lived in a little shack next to our host family and quite happily settled in washing our clothes in a bucket, bathing in a waterfall, making midnight trips together to the latrine. Our host mother fed us bread and hot chocolate for dinner almost every night. We thought this was a pretty sweet deal, planting trees and speaking Spanish, no big deal.

But like all things, it got real. Here are a few excerpts from my journal:
"I'm not sure that I'm all for organizations like Amigos. Do these people really need our help? What are we doing here?"
"I'm totally going through culture shock...Sometimes it gets so frustrating to be around a lot of noise that you can't understand."
"We all cried a lot today and pretty much isolated ourselves in our room."
"I can't believe we have two days left. It's totally crazy. I think I might just die, or it will seem like all these people have. I can't bear the thought of leaving, but I can't bear the thought of staying either."

The house we stayed in that summer.

It got real not because we had no running water or TV, but because for the first time in my life, I realized there was more. That there was more than having great hair and perfect shoes, there was a whole world of people out there that had absolutely nothing to do with me. I came out of my teenaged shell and got a glimpse of the bigger picture. After coming home I threw out all my make-up, kept my hair short, and basically hated on all things "material." It took me a long time to reconcile what I'd experienced that summer with my life back home in Oregon. It took me an even longer while to figure out that it was me who'd benefitted from the experience, not necessarily the people I'd gone to "help."

Me (in gray) with my partners Amanda and Nicole and a friend

Nostalgia for this particular summer crept over me recently. I felt the best way to commemorate these feelings was to slow-cook a pot of beans and curl up on the couch with my journal and photo album. I laughed and laughed, flipping through the pages, remembering our neighbor boys whispering "I love you," and "do you like to kiss?" through slats in our door as we fell asleep on our mosquito net covered cots. Our favorite meal was "arroz con habichuelas" or rice and beans. I hope I'm doing the recipe, and this story, justice.

Dominican Rice and Beans
Also featured on Foodie Friends Friday
serves at least 8

1 pound kidney or red beans
1 quart chicken or vegetable stock
1 yellow onion
4 cloves garlic
1 jalapeno
1 TBL cumin
1 tsp chili powder (whatever you like)
salt & pepper
water, as needed
white rice

*I remember this dish being "soupy," as the beans were served separate from the rice. There was a lot of extra liquid in the bean pot, so that's the way I wrote this recipe, just FYI.

In your slow cooker, cover your pound of beans with water and soak over night. Drain and rinse, take the time to sort through them a bit, it's likely you'll find some dirt or rocks.

Add the drained beans back to the slow cooker along with the stock. If the stock doesn't cover the beans, add more water. Remember, we are going for soupy.

Chop your onion, garlic, and jalapeno and add to the pot. Toss in the spices and give it a stir. Watch the salt though as some stocks are saltier than others. It will be pretty spicy, so omit spicy ingredients if necessary. Turn it to low and let it cook overnight, or 8-10 hours.

To serve, spoon beans over hot cooked rice. Enjoy!


  1. Great story! When you look back now, do you feel like you were useful?

    1. Yes, definitely. But not in the ways I'd expected. I think the biggest impact we made was cultural understanding. Americans are people, too!

  2. What a great post, and you justified my taste buds with the beans and rice recipe....I love beans and rice! I will be making this soon. This is a perfect share for Foodie Friends Friday. Thank you!

  3. Great story!! I love rice and beans they ate my comfort food :)

  4. Wow, Gwen. This story reminds me a similar experience I had, two actually. First, I went to volunteer in Atlanta during spring break in college. It amazed me that in the US, there was so much poverty. I thought everyone lived like me. The second is when I volunteered for Hurricane Katrina. They had one gas station left. There were two restaurants. Everything else was gone. I saw boats lodged in houses. I saw trees glittered with debris. I saw a car upside down on top of a tree. It was truly humbling. I slept on a cot in a shed with 3 other girls. I was fed half a sandwich for each meal. We worked from sun up to sun down. These people literally had nothing and it made me appreciate and almost feel guilty for what I had.

    Sorry I turned this comment into a novel, but you really touched me with this post and made me nostalgic for my own volunteer missions.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I'd love to hear more about it sometime. Upcoming blog post?

  5. Love your story and also how you benefited from the experience. I think it is important for everyone to go to a third world country and be immersed in the culture. The experience that one gains is tremendous. Although I was 40 when I first went to Togo, Africa.. and I was only there for a few weeks at a time, I gained alot from the people around me. I was fortunate enough to find my husband there and now part of our life is back in Togo. We make a rice and bean ~ although the spice is within the sauce that we put in it not in the beans. Thanks for sharing on Foodie Friends fRiday and I hope you share more recipes this week.


Aloha Saturdays with Maggy reader! Thank you for your comments, I love hearing your thoughts and feedback.


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