Monthly Archives: September 2011

Break the Rules (August Newsletter)


Aaron Roth – HOPE International – July 2011


I was sitting in a broken chair, sweating as usual, in the office of a school director, Colasa Baez de Leon, whose school is in our micro-lending program and I asked her about the community where this school resides. I had to travel outside the city of La Romana to a tough neighborhood via motorcycle taxi to get here. She pauses for a moment and begins the story this way, “Sometimes the students come up to me around 4:00pm and say, ‘Director, may I leave school? I haven’t eaten and I need to go home so that my mom can prepare me some food.’” She looks at me with the honesty of a mother caring for her own children and says, “How can you not feed a hungry child?”

August-News-02In another meeting, I commented to Ysabel Garcia Hernandez, the director of a much smaller school, “It seems to me that you really love these students.” She warmly responded, “Oh yes, of course. They are my children. If they weren’t in school, they’d be on the street.” I looked out across the dusty, rocky, unpaved road and I know she’s waiting for me to say something, but all I can do is just smile and nod in affirmation.

The Line that Separates Two Worlds

I have never thought that I would ever see such clear distinctions of the consequences of poverty as I have seen here. I am shocked to think that these are the kind of distinctions that walk the fine line of either having money to buy food or going hungry, of being able to afford school, or spending your childhood on the street. Maybe sometimes in the States we treat our financial options as shades of gray, “If I make the decision of not eating out at a restaurant just once less per week, I can save a greater percentage of money toward my vacation fund.” Or, “If I lived closer to work I wouldn’t have to spend 40 minutes commuting and I’d probably save at least $100 on gas. ” Never do we face questions of black and white such as, “Will I still be able to eat if I buy this?” or “With my monthly expenses, will I be able to send my children to school? ”

August-News-04The kind of distinction I have seen here is the difference between night and day. I have realized that in communities like this, often there is not electricity, so when it’s nighttime it’s actually really dark. (Even though that observation sounds trite, think about what it felt like the last time a storm knocked your power out. It was really, really dark right?) When I had come back from this trip to the schools, I talked to a Dominican colleague in the office and tried to use a translation of the phrase “difference between night and day,” and she explained to me that normally here they’d say “The difference between Heaven and Earth. ” Hmmm, that’s interesting, I said to myself while considering these two statements:

Colasa feeds the children at her school from her own kitchen if they haven’t eaten by 4:00.
Ysabel provides scholarships to 10 students that cannot afford the $7 monthly tuition.

Truly, this is a difference between Heaven and Earth.

To better illuminate this distinction, you need to know that most of the Dominican economy runs on the “informal economy” which best can be described as the “daily hustle.” Daily hustle is the sound of market vendors yelling out daily offers where the loudest vAugust-News-03oice gets the most customers.
It’s also the tangible fear you feel when you step off of a street curb as bus drivers swerve through the lanes to reach a destination before the other buses or public cars because the fastest driver gets the most passengers. It’s the early wake up call when walking salesmen pitch household goods to neighborhood dwellers at 6:30am. True, they’re waking you up early, but at least you were just sleeping, most of them got up more than an hour ago, because the successful ones are the strongest that get up the earlies0,t and can walk through the most neighborhoods.

If you’re not loud, if you’re not fast, if you’re not strong, you get left behind. That’s just how it is. These are the laws of the world, the laws of the hustle. It’s not, “get rich or die trying” it’s “stay alive hustling, or die hustling.” There is no other option for the poor.

Love in the Hustle Economy

So then why in the hustle economy have people like Colasa and Ysabel chosen to serve the most needy, the most weakened and the most vulnerable? As anyone will tell you here, in the hustle economy, anybody who slows you down puts you at risk for your own demise. You’ve got to run with the strong and fast or your own survival is in jeopardy. August-News-05But for these women, they have a rebellious nature. They don’t believe in the hustle economy. These seemingly innocent women are clearly, and unashamedly, rule breakers. So when I asked them why they bend “the rules”, they responded:

“Because Jesus has walked with me my whole life. He is my rock.” – Ysabel
“Jesus came to Earth, to save us, and to serve us. He gives me the strength to serve.” – Colasa

In the harsh rules of the hustle economy these women have recognized that we all lose if we live by the rules of the world. We all die if we leave others behind, but we all win when we love. Love is the trump card that ensures prosperity. In a counterintuitive sense, this new law has proven for them, time and again, that when we break the rules with love, our security is guaranteed. These are women that truly understand this truth:

“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”  – Matthew 6:33

I pray that you and I will seek a kingdom that is greater than the ruling laws of the modern economy or the hustle economy.

Dios les bendiga,
Skype: aprothwm05

Foreshadowing of a Carribean Challenge

In movies or books, foreshadowing is a plot device used to introduce or hint at  something early in the story that will become much more important later on. It hit me recently, this was exactly what happened to me 13 years ago. I was on a Carribean just East of here, but under  much different circumstances.

I had just finished my freshman year of high school and Spanish 101 (for beginners). At that time, I was not really equipped to speak Spanish, nor at the speed of the Puerto Ricans (currently, this is still a pending question). A group of youth from my church, Linville Creek, went to Castaner, Puerto Rico to do a two week workcamp with the local Church of the Brethren congregation. That trip was the longest and I had ever been gone from home, and certainly it was the farthest.

I remember a lot of things from that two week adventure. Puerto Rico was a beautiful island, with lush jungles, windy mountain roads, and breathtaking views. Too much of that viewing got me car-sick on a 5 hour trip to the city of Arecibo. Luckily, we made a stop on the side of the road to purchase fresh mangoes. Someone had just picked them from the tree. Before that, I had never liked the taste of mango, now I’m slightly in love with it. This was much like my experience a few days prior to the mango when a guy showed us how to open a coconut, because before that, I had never liked coconut. Continuing on in the gastrointestinal journey, I ate too many delicious desserts from a local panaderia and got incredibly sick later on that evening. There’s nothing quite like being 15 and feel like you’re knocking on death’s door a few thousand miles from home. Of course, It probably wasn’t grave, and true to common traveler’s wisdom, I didn’t buy anything else from that panaderia.

As a teenager, I remember that every young woman I met was probably the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I was pretty shy though, so I’m pretty sure had I been able to speak Spanish, I wouldn’t have talked too much. However, if you were the girl that wanted to talk to me by translating through your semi-bilingual friend from the Castaner Church Youth Group, buscame en facebook, por favor. Ya, sabemos que ha sido demasiado tiempo sin vernos y me encantaria tomar un cafecito contigo.

Besides the random musings of a teenager on his first trip outside the states, one experience did stand out to me during that time, and I can still remember it vividly. Our last few days in country we spent in and around the capital, San Juan. We spent some time in a Brethren Volunteer Service community located in a rough neighborhood called Caimito. I distinctly remember feeling uneasy walking around the community, where they said unemployment was just above 50%. Yet the 20-somethings had no problem walking around feeling at ease, and clearly had made friends with the locals. These young adults seemed to wield a rugged and versatile maturity in a new culture and weren’t jarred or shocked by the dangerous ghetto that they lived in.

I was desperately home sick and had just taken a nap from a long day. I awoke to the sounds of a nearby corner store playing a song, “She’s All I Ever Had,”  which was popular in the States at the same time. Nostalgia flooded my mind. I just wanted safety, clean water, country roads, and to look out of window that didn’t have iron bars. I remember feeling incredibly alone, and being the farthest from home I’d ever been; the solitude was crushing.

Just then, I heard a knock on the door, one of the 20-somethings invited all the young guys along with them to dinner at a local restaurant. Instantly, the solitude vanished, and I was connected again to people I knew. I felt like I’d been released from that emotional prison. But, the question still remained for me, “How can you live in such a strange, unfamiliar place, where you don’t speak the language, it’s dangerous, and you have constant reminders from home trying to pull you back.”

So I asked one of the older volunteers how they did it, “. . . Believe me man, once you get some time on the ground and know a little more Spanish, you get used to it, and you start to like it. That’s just how it works.”

And here I am, 13 years later, I’ve got some time on the ground, I know a little (a lot) more Spanish, I’ve got friends, I’ve got a community, and I’m used to it. I guess that’s just how it works.

The Reality of Something to Write Home About

It’s late in the afternoon on a hot and humid Saturday, and we are hanging out in the patio on the second floor of a tough neighborhood in East Santo Domingo called Villa Duarte. As always, it’s great to see the family I lived with and to wrestle with my Dominican brothers, Josias now five, and Railyn who just turned eight. I can tell the boys are growing up even in the year that I’ve known them. I tell the boys that we should go up to the roof to enjoy the breeze that is making its way through the barrio and as I lean on the iron fence that surrounds the roof and I see a young woman transporting buckets and large bottles of water up to her third floor home, and I know that this is something to write home about.

I suppose that when you recognize something that doesn’t normally appear in your day to day life, this is a pretty good signal that some people back home would be equally interested in what you’re experiencing. However, something was different this time, being in this neighborhood and seeing people labor to carry water up three flights of stairs wasn’t all that unusual anymore, so why exactly was I compelled to describe a situation that had become commonplace to me?

Since I moved back to the DR in early February, I’ve tried to go see this family every couple of weeks and one thing that always sticks out to me when I go back to visit them is that when I pass through the main street entrance sometimes there are small rivers running through the gutters in the neighborhood. I say sometimes, because it’s not always that there are rivers that run when it’s sunny and hot outside.

River gutters mean that the neighborhood has water again, that the government temporarily fixed the problem of water supply, and that the neighborhood can enjoy running water for a few days, or sometimes, just for a day. People are out in the streets filling up buckets, or operating the water pumps to send water up to the roof where they keep large storage tanks filled with water. You can sense the excitement that the water has returned, and well, you can see it as the kids dance in the water in the street. I’ve written about this a bit in a previous post (The four-year-old Gene Kelly), and water in the barrio has been something wild and strange to me, certainly fitting for a blog post to write home about, but now it wasn’t exactly from the angle of a someone who just got off the plane.

Something has changed, the DR feels like home, and every time I sit down to write I feel like I’m writing about something less unusual to the people back home. My day to day reality has certainly shifted, and many of the strange quirky elements of the foreign culture have become real and normal to me. It’s not unusual to see young woman labor up three flights of stairs, it’s not strange, no, this is the reality of life here.

I’m struck by this point in my realization that my processing of information, of sights and sounds and experiences has changed. It’s not as new, and it’s certainly not as jarring and shaking to the senses as the arrival and accustomization period when you move somewhere new.

So as I’m standing there looking out into the barrio, I’ve realized that the “newness” has faded when I see her struggle to get the last bottle of water up the stairs. I lived in this barrio, I know what it’s like, I’ve been without water for a few days, and I’ve lived like the locals lived. I think I’ve recognized that when I chose to write home about things in the past year and a half, it has been with a sense of a badge of achievement, an accomplishment, a wild and new thing conquered and realized in the pursuit of adventure. But now, the novelty has worn off, and a question lingers, was their compassion in my initial observation? Or just something interesting to write home about?

Now, the reality sinks in. I’m starting to see the reality for what it is. The terrible infrastructure that prevents thousands of families from receiving the most basic necessity on a daily basis is a daily struggle, a daily, exhausting labor, a painful reality for this neighborhood and hundreds of thousands throughout the island. No one here writes home about this with the perspective of a traveler or “seeing how the indigenous people live.” It’s not strange for them, no, it’s just a harsh reality; it’s simply a consistent frustration that only occasionally water runs through the gutters signaling the arrival of the opportunity to bring water home to the family. And when it finally arrives, you have to carry it up three flights of stairs for your family, because that’s just what you have to do. It’s nothing special, it just is.

I started carrying my 5 gallon water bottle up the stairs to my apartment to see what it felt like. Three flights is hard, but certainly not something to write home about.

Happiness is a Lack of Interruptions

I noticed something disturbing going on in my head after my second month of being in Guatemala. It wasn’t the presence of something, but rather the absence of many things. Simply put, I wasn’t so interrupted as I used to be. Instead, I had clarity and continuity in my thoughts. Strange, how clarity can be so alarming, but it certainly was to me then, and after 14 months of being outside a normal American lifestyle, it is still pleasantly unsettling now. Clarity of thought is kind of like its cousin, “peace of mind” but you’ll be able to hold better conversations with clarity of thought at the dinner table.

I think what I discovered was that when I was able to focus on something, I could get a lot more done and certainly, I enjoyed a lot more what I was doing. When there weren’t a few hundred things racing around in my mind constantly interrupting me, I guess I could really pay attention to what was in front of me. I remember back to when I was in the States playing in a soccer league, in the middle of a game, I’d think about what I was going to be doing later that night, or how I still needed to change the oil in my car, or how I needed to send out a few email reminders, or respond to some text messages. You know it’s a terrible way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon with your friends isn’t it? Focused on everything but the game itself.

It’s a simple principle really, but it’s incredibly hard to keep up with. I think one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard in relation to this is:

“Making a ‘to do’ list is good, and probably more important, is making a ‘To Not Do’ list.”

The key ingredient in my new life and in the overall composition of my mind was the deliberate prohibition of interruptions. I’ve heard more and more productivity experts say that multi-tasking is a myth. We can only process things in a serial manner, just one thing at a time. If we limit the interruptions, we can be more effective in our work, and have more fun in our free time. I believe that. I really do now. Most of my experiences traveling and living in another culture have been some of the most inspiring and fulfilling in my life.


It could be that it’s because I get don’t interrupted much now, and I still have a pretty full schedule. I don’t have a smart phone. I don’t check face book regularly. I don’t check twitter regularly. My TV holds a few clothes that I plan to put away, and I’m pretty sure the last time I used the remote, it needed batteries. I purposely go do things for hours and try not to interrupt the time I have with my friends or my roommates. What is most important is the here and the now, the tasks and obligations have their time, but all of that is later, all that is important, is now.

A life without interruptions is a simpler, easier, more fulfilled life.

Now, get back to what you were doing!