Do bananas make you smile?

During my last week of classes in Santo Domingo, I met the founder of a project called Dominino. Dominino is a school in one of the poorest areas of the city, an area called San Luis. I had the opportunity to visit the school with the founder, and have much to write about. First, I would like to share a story from the trip to get to San Luis.

The five of us walked from our school, Casa Goethe, to the super market to get food to take to the children at the school for their afternoon meal. Tabea bought cereal, yogurt and bananas for the 20 small children. We then took a guagua (local bus) to the outskirts of town. The bus ride was incredibly hot, the bus was full with constantly changing people and you had to take special care to make sure all of your valuables were safe at all times, from other passengers on the bus, vendors who came on the bus to sell things and from vendors reaching in through the open windows of the bus to sell things.

We drove through areas of the city that I had not yet seen and you could see the difference in the people, the buildings and the vendors on the streets. The streets were packed with people, many children, many of them alone. There were vendors lining the streets selling fresh fruit, candy, clothing, meat and there were piles of garbage everywhere. It just simply had a dangerous vibe and was not an area I would want to be walking in. As dangerous as the buses are, I was glad to be sitting on one, rather than roaming the surrounding streets.

About 35-45 minutes in to the bus ride, a young boy selling candy got on the bus. He put a candy in each of our laps and expected us to pay. He looked sad, hot and tired, but was doing his best to sell these small candies. When each of us said ‘no gracias’ and returned the candies to him, you could tell he was one again disappointed that he had not sold anything.

As the young boy, about 10 years old, turned around to leave the bus, Tabea asked one of the other girls to take one of the bananas we had bought and give it to the boy. When Christine handed the boy the banana, his eyes lit up immediately and a huge, beautiful child-like smile stretched across his face. He was surprised, and for a moment could do nothing other than smile. He politely murmured ‘gracias’ as he started to open the fresh peel to eagerly reach the fruit inside.

The boy left the bus to return to the streets to blend in to the mass of people and vendors. A moment later, I heard a child’s voice saying ‘Gracias! Gracias rubia!’ I looked out the window behind me and there he was with a beaming smile and a half eaten banana. No words could describe how I felt at that moment knowing that my new friend had just made such an impact on this child.

Tabea went on to explain that she doesn’t like to give the children money because often they are obligated to give the money for their day’s work to their fathers, or uncles. However, if you are able to give a child food, they can eat it and it is something that is only for them. They do not have to give this to their family or their boss. It also may be the only food, or the only nutritious food that they eat that day.

I learned later that many of these street vendors are illegal immigrants from Haiti. They do not have their birth certificates or other documentation that would allow them to work legally in the Dominican Republic, so often the children are sent to work as vendors on the streets. Sometimes the parents also work, or sometimes they ‘run’ the business and wait for the children to bring home the money.

I can’t explain any better than to say that my heart swelled. These are the experiences, the opportunities and the feelings that you never get to have when you travel to a resort for vacation. You never get to see what real local life is like.

For me, this experience was a life lesson. Although I knew that giving money to the children of the streets was not a good idea and would perpetuate the idea that tourists are all rich, I never understood the deeper reason. Now I understand more of the way of life, and having experienced the glowing smile and appreciation of this young boy, it is a lesson I will never forget.

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