“Are you sure you want to wear flip-flops?” my best friend Bernice asked me as we prepared for our hiking adventure in La Loma. “We’ll be fine,” I confidently replied, “It’s not really hiking.”

On our way to meet up with some of my co-workers who were joining us for the trip, we ran into my neighbor Angelíc. After learning where we were headed, she gave us a puzzled look. “Are you sure you want to wear those shoes?” Angelíc asked Bernice, “I have hiking boots if you want. What size are you?” Already running late, I told Bernice that we would probably be fine, so we decided to stick with what we had and esperar lo mejor (hope for the best). If nothing else, this would be another “Bernice and Shawon adventure” – this time in the Dominican Republic.

I arrived to the DR in June 2015 to start my Princeton in Latin America fellowship with a youth and education non-profit. Though the beaches and warm weather are much appreciated, there are hidden treasures in the DR that really make the country beautiful, one of which is La Loma. It’s just a ten-minute walk from my home, but it feels like a completely different world.

La Loma directly translates to “the hill” in English. Where I live, though, La Loma refers to a small humble community immersed in a forest – a place where people and nature co-exist. There, human activity seems to come to an end just as the sun sets each night. Walking through La Loma, you see family members sitting on plastic chairs outside their homes, kids riding small donkeys, and dogs barking at unknown visitors, many of whom are foreigners curious to explore one of the many hidden caves in La Loma.

I went to one of those caves during my first month in the DR. Carefully walking through the cave’s small entrance, I was shocked by how large it was on the inside, at least 30 feet deep and 20 feet wide. The water was pure and clear – a nice contrast to the salty beach water – and the bats only bothered us when our flashlights bothered them. It was a magical experience. Four months later, I expected to have another peaceful moment in La Loma with Bernice. Yet the deeper we walked through the forest with our group, the more apparent it became that this was, in fact, a hiking trip, not a short walk to the caves and back.

Ivan, a native of La Loma who served as our unofficial tour guide, seamlessly navigated the darkness with a small flashlight. Naively wearing my flip-flops, I kept my eyes glued to the ground to make sure I didn’t step on a sharp rock. Most of the ground was covered in amber clay-like soil, and there were plants and large trees on both sides of me. Barbed-wired fences separated the pathways from open grass fields, preserving nature and giving the chickens, donkeys, and cows room to roam freely. One of the trees we saw had a wooden ladder tilted against it, which Ivan told us was to help the chickens climb the tree so they could sleep at night. This was one of the kindest gestures I’ve seen toward animals in a long time.

About an hour later, we arrived at Ivan’s grandparents’ house, where a gentle elderly couple greeted us and asked us to sit down on their wooden benches outside. Ivan’s grandmother asked us if we wanted tea, but we all already replied with a short, “No, gracias.” Sitting quietly, I watched a group of small ducks waddle around us, and I listened to Ivan’s grandmother describe a pain she had in her left shoulder. In a soft voice, she explained that “it’s hard to sleep,” but her smile made it clear that she was making the best of her situation. It was pitch black at this point, and only occasionally would we see a motorcycle speed by on the dirt road. In that moment, I began to realize how difficult it must be to travel from a home within La Loma to the medical facilities outside of it. I could only hope that the kind woman’s pain would go away soon.

On our way home, I began to wonder what my life would be like if I grew up in La Loma – how my values, priorities, and skills would be different than they are today. Perhaps I would care more about the environment, appreciate time with my family more, or better understand the value of sitting outside and “doing nothing.”

Though within walking distance of my home, La Loma and my street are worlds apart, making it impossible to provide a single narrative about this country. There is something unique about each community, each home, and each person here. As I continue exploring the DR, I look forward to discovering other hidden treasurers – places and people that further complicate my understanding of life on the island. But to be sure, I’ll be much more careful about my attire if my next adventure involves hiking again, or anything remotely close to it.

~Shawon Jackson '15