The night after Glencora left for her job up in Cabarete, I had spent many hours editing, researching job options, plane tickets, and skyping friends and family. I was feeling really unsure of what I was about to do with the following two months before I was to meet Erie in Guatemala on June 1st. I was missing the comfort of the castle, my amazing life full of fun times and good friends in Cabarete, and I just wasn’t sure which way to go. It’s funny though, because I was not worried. Many times throughout the past year of this adventure I have felt lost, scared, alone, worried, and apprehensive. However, this time was different as I knew that something would present itself. I had learned to go with the flow, to trust that the universe would provide me with the right path, and that everything would be ok… And thankfully, as usual, it did.
I took a break in my editing to go for dinner with a lovely group of Catholic missionaries I had met through the hostel. They were visiting the Dominican Republic to renew their Haitian visas. They convinced me I needed a break from work as I had been heads down into my computer since they left me earlier that morning to go sightseeing. As I closed the front door to the hostel behind me to join my friends outside where they were waiting, I noticed they were talking to a group of people who had been standing outside. I had to laugh, because of the very very very few people I knew in Santo Domingo – I knew 3 of the group of 4 - they were three members of the family I had gone to stay at the chicken farm with! The fourth person in the group was a guy called Billy and I can’t explain it, all I know is that the second I met him I knew I needed to keep talking to him. They had all come over to the hostel where I was staying so that Billy could talk to the owners in regards to him using their hostel as a place to host people who work with him when they come to the Dominican Republic. He runs a tour company that helps Dominican and Haitian people to see the beauty of the country, interpreting services as he speaks 5 languages and understands 7, a transportation service, and brings missionaries from overseas to provide a range of services in church operated schools for very poor children around the city, mostly Haitian kids without legal papers or parents.
So anyway, as one of the missionaries was half Mexican/ half North American, him and I had been discussing Mexican food at every opportunity we had. We asked if the others knew where a Mexican restaurant was that sold tacos, and Billy led us all over town to find the cheapest yet best place he knew – and it was delicious! After the meal, I realised in my rush to leave the hostel and join the others I had not checked to see if I had enough money in my wallet for dinner – and I didn’t! I realised I was about $1.50 short (probably half of the full price), and I cheekily asked Billy who I was sitting with if he minded me borrowing the money from what he had put down as a tip. He lent me the money, and then had to give more to the waitress as that was the smallest bill he had – something he still teases me about. We left the restaurant with the others and walked to a nearby bar to dance bachata.
Billy and I had running races all over the old city; the colonial zone. When he first introduced himself as Billy, I had joked and called him Billy Elliot. He said he couldn’t possibly be as he didn’t know how to dance. I promised I would teach him bachata. Well, turns out… when he took my hand and pulled me to dance at the bar, this boy could dance! He just smiled at me and said; of course I can dance Katy, I am Dominican! We danced bachata together until the bar closed, and he walked me back to my hostel. He asked if he could take me to the beach the following day and I agreed, but wouldn’t let him kiss me goodnight.
The next day, he asked me if I was up for a real adventure or was I a chicken. I told him of course, adventure is who I am. So he said that I could take my things to his house and not have to pay at the hostel anymore, and that he would take me out of the city to the south of Barahona where he is originally from because that is where the better beaches are. I considered it, thinking I didn’t particularly know this guy – however, I could sense immediately he was a good guy, AND he was a very good friend of the people I had just spent Easter with. So I said yes to the adventure, and off we went to Batey number 8 by bus.
Every single time I go to a small local village, I think that I can’t possibly see anything poorer. However, I think that the Bateys are really the most astonishingly poor places I have ever been – yet somehow the people are still smiling and happy, proud to show me through their homes and feed me their food, and eager to sit and talk about the world with me.
The Bateys of Barahona are places that I had no idea even existed. The reason they do exist is due to the height of the sugar trade in the 1970’s. The Dominican government brought Haitian’s from across the border to work as slave in the sugar cane fields. There are Bateys 1 – 9, each about 1km apart. They are where the sugar cane train stops to pick up the sugar cane every few hours, at all times of the day and night. They are still working and functioning today, it doesn’t seem as if the conditions have gotten much better either. But back then, the Haitian’s were given extremely basic accommodation, much of which is still used as homes for families today. When the ‘contracts’ were up for the Haitian’s (due to visa requirements), instead of taking them back to Haiti, they were left to fend for themselves and build new homes from mud, corrugated iron cut offs, plastic, and whatever other pieces of material can be found.
Then, new Haitian workers were brought in, and now each of the Bateys (1 through 9) are like their own mini communities where generations of families live.
The saddest thing of all for me is to see how each community doesn’t even have its own name, so when someone asks you where you are from; you are from a number.
The area was dry and dusty, there was very little electricity, and none of the houses had floors. It was just compacted mud and dirt. The power was government controlled and would turn on sporadically for an hour or so. Most of the time at about 3am when it is of absolutely no use to anyone.
Yet the people; Billy’s family, wow! They opened their doors, their homes, and their hearts to me. One of the days Billy took me around the entire Batey to introduce me to people so that I could meet them and also so I could see the way they lived.
Every single house offered us food and something to drink, and it was one of those moments where it was rude to even think about saying no. There were family members bagging baking soda to sell individually as a way to make cash, there were people cooking over outdoor fires to make bread to sell, and we bought and ate the most amazing peanut butter I will ever eat in my life.
Dishes were done outside in buckets of dirty brown water and clothes were washed in the very same way.
There were people sitting around everywhere, laughing and chatting in a mixture of creole and Spanish. I was most certainly the only white girl had been around for a very long time and I was very grateful my Spanish earned me a little respect. Some of the ladies were doing hair braids so of course I walked away with a few – talk about PAIN!
We headed off to the beach and the river with some of Billy’s cousins one day and ate fresh fish on the beach. It was amazing to watch his cousins running around and enjoying the sea, sadly something they don’t get to do very often despite living on an island.
One of the nights we were there, there was some very serious sounding drumming and chanting going on. I asked Billy what it was and he informed me that it was a voodoo ceremony. Of course this peaked my interest, and despite Billy being a Christian, he took me over to have a look. He got a couple of his biggest uncles to come with us as added security, and he wouldn’t let me leave his side. I didn’t take any pictures because it would have been highly inappropriate; plus they wouldn’t have come out anyway as it was very dark. The darkness added to the eerie feeling that lurked in the air as we made our way closer. The chanting and the drumming was coming from people seated around a fire where there was also a clearing for the dancers. The clearing made a 10 metre pathway through people down towards a fire pit of coals. Throughout this cleared area the dancers ran up and forth, sometimes scaring and pushing away the gathered watchers in fear. The dancers were not dancing like people, they were dancing as if they were possessed; they would dance so close to the fire it seemed as if they were inside it. At one point a man ran down the little path way to the coals, walked over them as if they were nothing, bent down and picked up a bright red coal and placed it into his mouth before continuing to dance. Everyone was screaming, shouting, chanting, dancing, and watching on. I tried to see as best and there was a little clearing I could have gone through alone but I was terrified I would get separated from Billy; in a sea of black faces in the middle of the night, he would have had to be the one to find me. Suddenly everyone lunged back and people started screaming in a different way; the crowd was screaming in fear. The drums never ceased and nor did the dancers/ possessed, but the watchers were on the move and I felt Billy pick me up and carry me away very very quickly, pressing me between himself and his Uncle until we were safe. Usually in a moment like that, I would have a desire to see what was happening. But I was happy to be carried away like a little child. I will never forget the way the air felt that night, the way the smoke curled thickly towards the sky, and the thick smell of African/ Haitian incense filled my nostrils. What I believe spiritually is ever changing, but one thing is for sure; I can really see that invoking negative energies into our souls and beings is not something I wish to have any more to do with.
The following day, Billy took me out to see the farmhouse where his family worked and his Grandfather used to live. It shows my complete and utter ignorance that I had figured we were heading to some kind of massive plantation style farmhouse. But no, we headed down a beautiful mountain lined road surrounded by sugar cane until we got to a tiny shack in the middle of nowhere.
We walked through the bushes and rows of trees and I got to see banana and plantain growing from all different stages.
I got to taste delicious mango straight from the tree.
It was amazing to see that the prosperity of this farm was what had given, and continues to give, Billy’s family enough money for them to get out of Batey no#8 and into the capital city of Santo Domingo where Billy and his siblings have been able to get an amazing education. Where he has been able to study medicine, business, languages, tourism, and now have his own company where he can give back to the people of his country.
After doing the rounds to say goodbye to everyone that had been so kind to me during my time at the Batey, we piled into the back of a pickup truck with about 15 other family members who were hitching a ride to the closest bus stop. There was no way anyone could sit down, we all had to stand up and lean against each other. I stood at the front, just behind the cab of the ute, facing towards the road ahead. It was an amazing drive filled with laughter as we flew over potholes and around corners, with every other car load staring at us to understand why there was a white girl hustled in the back amongst the locals.
I feel so very lucky to have had such an amazing experience and to see yet another way that people live in order to survive in this world. I also feel very lucky to have met Billy; the kindest most caring and motivated person I have ever met.