Monday, June 16, 2008

My Weekend with the Catholic Youth Group: A True Life Adventure Story

So, on Thursday afternoon my nun asks me if I want to go to a camp this weekend with the church youth group. I say yes, because, hey, I like camping and I like hanging out with youths and most of all I like weekends where I´m not hanging around my town bored to tears. She directs me to talk to one of the girls in the group for details. The girl is not very forthcoming, but I am able to extract a few things—meeting at 2:30 on Friday, should bring a swimsuit and walking shoes… I can do these things, no problem.

So at 2:20 I show up at the designated spot with my carefully stuffed backpack and my full Nalgene for the ride. I´m the only one there, but I remember—I´m in the DR, no one is ever early for things! I wait until about 3 and then I start to get a little panicky. Where is everyone? Did I misunderstand where we were supposed to meet? Did they already leave without me? (Looking back, I see now how quaintly American such fears are, but at the time it was a concern.) I walk down the block to the school and drop in the nun´s office to ask her if she knows where the group is meeting. She reconfirms the place where I had been, but tells me to check the church too if no one is there. So I head over to the church, and no one is there. By the time I get back over to the other church building, around 3:15 or so, a few kids with duffel bags are there. I was in the right place all along, just foolishly early according to the Dominican operating procedure.

Eventually, everyone shows up and we pile ourselves and our belongings into the back of a big truck. (I´m not exactly sure what kind of truck this was… bigger than a pickup truck, smaller than a semi, but with a big open bed in the back, where we all were). It´s a pleasant hour-long ride to the campsite, which turns out to be part of a monastery in the mountains. The main monastery building was beautiful; ours was decrepit and musty. But hey, it was only a weekend. The rest of the day passed pretty uneventfully. We unpacked, ate dinner (where I blew most of the kids´ minds by politely declining fried salami), and had a little prayer meeting.

The next day, things got interesting. We got up and had hot chocolate and dinner rolls for breakfast. Then the kids asked if I wanted to go on the hike with them. I said sure, thinking, “Hey, I like hiking, and this is only scheduled to be from 8:30 to noon, how bad can it be?” They all seemed pleasantly surprised that I wanted to go and all asked if I was SURE. I again said yes, figuring myself to be in at least as good of shape as some of these kids and knowing I´d survived some tough hikes before. Plus, all the kids were only bringing one small container of water and one packet of Saltine crackers. Also, they kept referring to the hike as a loma, “hill.” Again: how bad could it be?

The answer, it turns out, is pretty bad. Although it had been cool when we left, it soon heated up. We definitely did not have enough water, and I had brought an extra bottle compared to what the kids had. The hill was very steep, at least a 45 degree angle incline almost the whole way up. I personally would not have called it a “loma,” more like a “MONTAÑA ENORME.” Most of the young muchachos bounded up the hill with confidence, but I ended up with the slow group, gradually trudging our way up the hill. After about 2 and a half hours of hard uphill climbing, we got to the top of the hill. I was thirsty, exhausted, and drenched in sweat. We stopped to admire the view and I congratulated myself on making it to the top. Then, one of the kids said, “Well, let´s get going to the top of the second hill.” Excuse me? SECOND hill?

But, not wanting the kids to think I was a big American cupcake, I kept plodding my way up the second hill. It was even harder going—steeper and rougher than the first. In several places we had to climb up on all fours. Two hours later we made it to the top, passing on our way several members of the fast group who were already on their way back town.

At the top of the second hill, it turns out, there lived a man in a little cabin with some sort of radio tower. I was unable to fully understand what he does there. He gave us all water from his well, and I mentally debated drinking it, remembering all the horror stories about Dominican water the Peace Corps medical officer had told us—if I drank it, I would probably get amoebas or parasites from the unclean water, and if I didn´t, I would probably pass out from dehydration on the way back down. I quickly gave into my thirst and drank about a gallon of Dominican well water. (Thus far, no ill effects! Either I dodged the bullet or some parasites are just biding their time somewhere in my system... vamos a ver.)

We spent some time at the top just resting and admiring the view, which was admittedly even prettier than the view from the top of the first hill. We were also waiting for one of the girls in our group to feel better; she had fainted near the top and been carried the rest of the way up. (Not too surprising, considering the lack of food and water involved with this strenuous hike.) After an hour she was still more or less unconscious and one of the guys in the group used the mountain man´s radio tower to call the Cruz Roja (Red Cross). We were assured that the Cruz Roja would arrive to help us very quickly. I was dubious; nothing ever happens quickly in this country, and besides, they still had 2 gigantic hills to climb.

Eventually, the mountain man advised us to build a stretcher and start carrying the girl back down towards the Cruz Roja people. The boys in the group got to work finding appropriate pieces of wood and then lashed a cut-up rice sack to them. It looked very dubious to me and I didn´t see how on earth anyone was going to be able to make it down that narrow, steep, uneven path carrying a stretcher. I kept my doubts to myself, however.

The six of us started down the path: one unconscious, four carrying the stretcher, and me carrying the unwieldy and useless first aid kit. (Seriously, it was really heavy and it didn´t even have any Band-Aids or antibiotic cream. Instead it had a huge box of tongue depressors, a bottle of cough syrup, a bunch of rubber gloves, some cough drops, and some Pepto-Bismol.) I lucked out with the first aid kid assignment, but it was still tricky working my way down the slope with one hand free. At first I didn´t have any free hands because I was also carrying the fainted girl´s plastic water bottle. I was extremely reluctant to litter, although it was clear that many, many people before me had had no such reluctance. However, it didn´t take me too long to decide to further desecrate the mountain trail rather than continue hiking down with both hands full.

We didn´t get too far before the carriers decided the stretcher was too unwieldy. They abandoned it and continued trying to carry the girl down in a variety of positions. Not too much further on, it started to rain, and the group decided to stop and wait for help. They sent one of the guys down the mountain to tell the others about what had happened and to see if the Cruz Roja was on its way. Some more time passed and the group decided to send me down too, reasoning that the group at the bottom still didn´t know what had happened. This made no sense to me, since no matter what that first guy would still make it there before I did, but I was anxious to get down off the mountain myself, so I went.

The rain had picked up, and what was already a steep, difficult path quickly became a treacherous mudslide of doom. I could only take about three steps without falling on my butt. I tried going down backwards on all fours and just ended up awkwardly sliding down on my knees. I gave into the path of least resistance and ended up sliding down most of the second hill on my butt, bruising myself and cutting up my hands in the process. During one of my attempts to travel upright, I fell and twisted my ankle. Nothing too severe, but painful. Around that point I gave into my urge to sob hysterically and continued sliding down a mountain on my butt, in the rain, weeping. Pretty much the most pathetic thing ever.

I eventually did make it down, and I had passed a couple Cruz Roja guys on my way down. I still wasn´t really sure how they were going to get the fainted girl back down—the path was only going to get worse as the rain continued. However, at that point my more pressing problem was “What am I going to do with these clothes?!” I was so incredibly filthy, just utterly caked in mud. I ended up leaving my pants and shoes outside on the porch and taking a painful, yet satisfying shower. The next day I went down to try to clean my clothing in the river. I got the worst of the mud out and was content, setting my clothes out to dry on a rock. However, the group´s resident Dona, one of the kid´s mom, noticed my clothing and was dissatisfied. She took my clothing and began pummeling it against a big rock. I could not believe how clean she got everything! Plus, now my jeans have that trendy “distressed” look that you usually have to pay extra for.

Anyway, they did eventually get the girl down and took her to the hospital. She was fine and they took her back to the campsite the same night, gracias a Dios.

The rest of the trip passed relatively uneventfully, although my incredibly sore muscles and hands made (and continue to make) such activities as walking, sitting, and holding things unpleasant tasks. All in all, though, I survived my weekend and I´m glad I went. However, the next time a bunch of Dominican kids try to get me to go on a hike, I´m definitely going to insist on a few more details.


Priscilla said...

Wow. This hike kicks the ass of the hike to Havasupai. I'm glad you survived it!

Sandy said...

I would have cried at the top of the first hill!