The plane lands at an airport in Punta Cana early in the morning. The Dominican heat smacks us in the face as we descend from the airplane and walk across the tarmac. The airport, much to our dismay, is an open-air building with a roof made of palm fronds that does nothing to relieve us from the heat. After spending far too long waiting in a customs line, we exit the airport and search the parking lot for our guide.
There are four of us, Harvey, Kate, Sarah, and myself. Each of us is an eighteen-year-old from the same tiny town in the midwest. We have been sent on behalf of our church to spend a week performing mission work in a country 2000 miles from home, a country we know next to nothing about.
Of the four of us, Kate is the only one who has ever left the country before. Sarah, who has never flown before, sat next to me on the plane. Her skin was green for the entirety of the six-hour flight.
We find our guide, a twenty-something Dominican man named Jean. leaning against an old van in the middle of the parking lot. A man with sunglasses and a goatee sits in the driver’s seat of the van, humming along with the radio. A third and final man stands next to Jean, his arms crossed behind his back.
“Are you the Americans?” Jean says in a thick accent.
We nod and he smiles. “Welcome to Punta Cana,” he says. “I am Jean, as you probably guessed. The man with the sunglasses is named Samuel, but he prefers to be called Homeboy.”
“Homeboy?” Harvey says.
“Yes, Homeboy. And this one,” Jean says as he places his hand on the third man’s shoulder, “Is Louis.”
Louis grabs our bags and stuffs them into the back of the van. We cram into the cramped van and Homeboy drives us through the streets of Punta Cana. Kate pulls out her phone and Harvey scowls at her. “Chill,” she says. “I’m just trying to call my parents and tell them that our flight landed.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Harvey says. “The bill for international calls will probably be ridiculous.”
“You guys are here until Monday, right?” Jean says.
Sarah nods. “Good, you’ll be able to go to church with us before you leave,” Jean says. “Not the church we’re working on, of course, but one that is already completed.”
“I actually have some questions about that,” Harvey says. “Our pastor wasn’t very clear on what we were going to do here.”
“You will be building a church. Or, rather, the foundations of one,” Jean says. “Basically, you’ll be pouring concrete and tying rebar.”
The van goes over a bump. “What was that?” Sarah asks.
Jean repeats the question to Homeboy, who responds with Spanish words we don’t understand. “We hit a dog,” Jean translates.
“Is it okay?” Kate whimpers.
“Probably not,” Jean says. “Don’t worry, it’s just a dog.”
None of us know how to respond to that.
Homeboy drives us to a small school in the slums of Punta Cana. Jean explains that we’ll be staying there for the remainder of our trip. Harvey and I take our bags into one of the classrooms, where a pair of beds covered in nets have been set up. “What’s with the nets?” Harvey asks.
“Mosquito protection,” Jean says. “Don’t want you guys getting sick.”
“Don’t worry, we got all of our shots before coming,” Harvey says.
“Better safe than sorry,” Jean says. “While you’re at it, don’t drink anything you get from the tap.”
Jean leads all of us into the courtyard in front of the school. “The three of us are going to head to the construction site,” he says. “You kids can rest up here for a while.”
“Actually, I was hoping we could get started today,” Harvey says.
“You sure? You must be tired, after such a long flight,” Jean says.
“We’re sure,” Harvey says.
Homeboy drives us to the construction site. It’s an abandoned lot located between two buildings, filled with garbage. A handful of workers, all volunteers, are spread around the lot. We spend a few hours cleaning up the trash, putting it into the back of an old pickup truck. As we work, we notice an old man with a pickaxe digging out a pit on the side of the lot. He’s shirtless, allowing us to see the thin dark skin that hangs around his ribs. Sarah nicknames him Dig-Dug. By the time we clear out the garbage, Dig-Dug has already single-handedly dug out a decent sized pit.
Jean explains to us that the plan is to dig out a trench beneath where the walls of the church will go and fill it with rebar and concrete. We bend pieces of rebar into solid poles that are placed in the pits while the workers mix together a batch of concrete.
As they wheel the old concrete mixer towards the pit, it slips over a rock and crashes to the ground. The toppled concrete mixer lies in the center of the construction site. The drying concrete sits in a thick pool, the severed wheel of the mixer floating in the pool like a dead fly in a bowl of soup. The workers huddle around the pool and discuss what to do.
“We should try a bucket line,” Harvey says, to no response.
He repeats himself, louder this time. None of the workers speak English so they ignore him. One of the older workers shouts something in Spanish and the rest of them follow his command. “He says we should form a bucket line,” Jean translates.
We set up a bucket line stretching from the pool of concrete to Dig-Dug’s pit. At one point, I see Louis carrying two buckets at a time, pretending that he isn’t exhausted. The buckets full of concrete dig into my fingers as I pass them down. After an hour of work, the concrete is gone and my arms feel like spaghetti.
I rest in the shade of a neighboring building alongside Kate and Sarah. We take sips of water from a cooler Jean brought and catch our breaths. “We did some good work,” Kate says.
“I guess,” Sarah replies.
“No, seriously. We’re making great progress. It feels good to give something back to these people,” Kate says.
“What do you mean, these people?”
“You know, starving poor people living in a shithole country. There wouldn’t be this church if it wasn’t for our charity.”
“The Dominicans have done most of the work, you know. Didn’t you see that guy with a pickaxe?”
“Yeah, but they wouldn’t choose to build a church if it wasn’t for us. It goes back to that slave mentality.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“You know, the slave mentality. These people were slaves for centuries, and even though they’re free now, they still have that idea that someone else is going to provide for them and they can just relax. It’s why the people here drive so crazy and don’t go to work until noon.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
Jean leads the four of us to the van and tells us to get in. “Where are we going?” Harvey asks as Homeboy starts the car.
“You’ve all put in some good work today, so I’ve decided to give you guys a little treat,” Jean says. “Who’s up for a trip to the beach?”
Kate cheers and Harvey frowns. “There’s still a lot of work to do,” he says.
“Don’t worry,” Jean says. “We’ll be back tomorrow.”
Kate mouths slave mentality and Sarah slugs her in the shoulder. Homeboy drives us to a beautiful beach with white sand and turquoise waves. We change into swimsuits and run into the beautiful blue water. Harvey stands at the shore for a few moments, unwilling to walk in, so Sarah and I grab his feet and drag him into the ocean.
Homeboy finds a spot with an umbrella and relaxes beneath it. Louis watches us from the shore. Sarah and I race back and forth along the shore while Jean and Kate splash one another. “It must be nice, living so close to the beach,” Kate says. “I bet you guys go all the time.”
“Not really,” Jean replies. “We really only come here when we bring missionaries.”
When he says that I look across the beach and realize that all of the beachgoers are white. I stare at the opulent hotels spread around the shore, completely antithetical to the slums where we were working, and feel like an asshole for coming to the beach.
That evening, we have dinner in the yard of an old woman who goes to Jean’s church. We dine on a feast of chicken, rice, and a delicious dish called queso frito. As we stuff our gullets, I notice that Louis is sitting alone. “What’s his deal?” I ask Jean.
He sighs. “Louis is Haitian,” he says.
I nod my head, pretending that I’d noticed that. “He came over when he was a teenager, right after the earthquake,” Jean says. “He’s a hard worker, but a lot of Dominicans don’t like Haitians on principle. He’s learned to keep his distance.”
I don’t know how to respond to that.
After dinner, the girls and I lay down in the grass of the old woman’s yard. Suddenly, Kate utters a cheerful shriek. “Oh my god, guys, look” she shouts.
We turn and see a trio of puppies, no more than a few weeks old. We each pick up one of the puppies and start petting them. “They’re adorable,” Sarah says.
“Do you think their mother is okay?” Kate asks.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, they’re all alone. What if their mother died, or abandoned them?”
“I’m sure she’s just out hunting.”
“What if she got hit by a car?”
I think back to the dog that Homeboy ran over and shutter. “I’m sure their mother is fine,” I say.
“Let’s wait here for a while, see if their mother comes back,” Kate says.
After fifteen minutes of waiting, Harvey notices us and walks over. “What are you doing?” he asks.
“We found these adorable puppies and are waiting for their mother to come back,” Kate says.
“Put those things down, they’re probably filled with diseases,” Harvey says.
Instead, Kate hugs hers even tighter. “I think we should take them with us,” she says.
“Back to the schoolhouse?” Sarah asks.
“No, back to the US,” Kate says.
Harvey groans. “Kate, we can’t just take wild animals with us,” he says.
“For a lot of reasons! I can’t even begin to imagine the process of getting them through customs. Besides, they’re just dogs. There are thousands of abandoned dogs in this country.”
“You’re an asshole, Harvey.”
Jean walks over. “What’re you guys up to?” he asks.
“We found some puppies,” I say.
Jean licks his lips. “You know, we eat dogs in the Dominican,” he says with a laugh.
Kate yelps. “He’s kidding, probably,” Harvey says.
That night, Harvey and Sarah find an old volleyball sitting in the schoolhouse and challenge Jean to a game. Jean ends up inviting over a friend of his to be his partner. I spend the evening reading in the schoolhouse, so I never see this friend. When I ask Sarah about Jean’s partner the following morning, she says that he was a seven-foot tall muscle bound beefcake. When I ask Jean, he claims that his partner was fourteen year old who had never played volleyball before. I don’t know which of them to believe.
After the game, Harvey stumbles into our room and sits down on our bed. “Can I ask you a question?” Harvey asks.
I nod. “What the fuck are we even doing here?” he asks.
“What do you mean?”
“We spent months fundraising so that we could come here and work. Today we spent two hours at the construction site before running off to the beach. This trip is starting to feel less like work and more like a vacation.”
“We did work, though. Maybe you can convince Jean to let us stay longer tomorrow.”
“Sure, I could do that. But even then, we’re only laying down the foundation. By the time we leave the church will still be months away from being built. And even if we do finish, it’s not like it’s going to matter. It’s a single building in a country of ten million people.”
“What’s your point, Harvey?”
Harvey sighs. “Why are we here?” he asks.
“To help these people,” I reply.
“Are we really? Are we here to help them, or are we here so we can go home and feel good about ourselves for pretending to care about the less fortunate? Or so we can tell people about this when we go to college and get praised for being so charitable?”
“Harvey, I know you came here because you wanted to work. And even if you had ulterior motives, would it matter? We’re still doing good.”
“It isn’t enough, though.”
I sit there for a moment and think. “I saw some starfish while we were at the beach,” I say.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“They reminded me of this story I heard once. There’s this girl, and she sees a bunch of starfish on a beach and starts throwing them back into the ocean. This guy comes up to her and tells her that what she’s doing doesn’t matter, that there are too many starfish for her to possibly help each one.”
“How does that story end?”
“The girl throws a starfish into the ocean and says it mattered for that one.”
Harvey is silent for a moment. “That isn’t enough, though,” he says. And I don’t have a response for that.