If you have never been outside of the country, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Recently, my younger brother and I traveled to the Dominican Republic to volunteer as Spanish/English translators for a group of medical professionals from the U.S. The trip, organized by the nonprofit organization Lift a Life, called for us to spend 10 days in the country. Five of those days were spent working long hours at Lift a Life’s medical clinic in Bayaguana, a rural village located about 90 minutes northeast of Santo Domingo, the nation’s capital.
Bayaguana reminded me a lot of the different places I lived in El Salvador from 2013 to early 2015. I felt at home, once again interacting with people of mostly my same height and speaking a language I have come to love. I appreciated the fresh mangos and lentils, avoided drinking the unclean tap water and did my best to bargain down the prices of the souvenirs I bought.
At the clinic, the dentists I worked with saw an average of 80 people per day. With four dentists working for nine hours virtually nonstop — they usually took about 20 minutes at midday to wolf down a sandwich and chips — that’s about 2.22 people per hour per dentist. They saw everything from mouthfuls of rotten teeth to painfully infected gums to mouths with few remaining teeth.
I learned something new about myself from that experience: watching dentists pull teeth, fill cavities and fix root canals makes me squeamish. I couldn’t even bring myself to paint fluoride on teeth when the dental hygienist offered to show me how.
I also realized the dental care we have in the U.S. is something for which we should be grateful. My personal dentist and hygienist have access to much better equipment working on me than my fellow volunteers had working on the Dominicans. I never knew how much a hygienist depends on electricity, clean water and air pressure to work their teeth-cleaning tools until I watched the hygienist in our group devise creative backup plans she would use if the clinic’s generator died.
In addition to a newfound gratitude for my dentist, the condition of Dominican roads put me in my place.
The pothole-ridden asphalt on the road from Santo Domingo, capped with a tricky crossing over a partially flooded dirt road just before the clinic, put the inconvenience of Tooele Main Street construction to shame. I felt a rush of gratitude for city and state officials in Utah who care enough about their people to fix and improve our roads before they become a big problem.
There were other things in the Dominican Republic that I was grateful to only have to live with for 10 days — like the baseball-sized tropical spiders. However, the Dominican Republic also possesses many attributes I envy.
By our standards, the people don’t have much in way of physical possessions — but they are extremely generous with what little they do have. Their food is fresher — right off the tree or out of the pasture. Their island is a beautiful, lush green. Their weather is gloriously hot. And they are surrounded by the warm, clear, picturesque Caribbean Sea.
I was lucky enough to see a lot of that last one, as our group relaxed at a beach resort during the last few days of the trip. I even found it within myself to go parasailing, though I’m normally terrified of heights. It turned out to be an amazing experience; easily just as eye-opening as the work we did at the clinic.
My parasailing partner, Julie, turned out to be more scared of heights than I am — which, oddly, helped keep me calm, as I felt obligated to respond positively to her terrified comments as the wind filled the sail and carried us into the sky like a giant kite:
“What are we doing? There’s only one little string between us and certain death. Who talked me into this? I just have to keep saying to myself: there are worse things than dying, there are worse things than dying…”
After the shock wore off, Julie and I really enjoyed ourselves. We admired the coral patterns in the ocean below, the bird’s-eye view of our resort, and a tiny sea turtle cruising along. It was an experience completely unlike any I’ve ever had before, and it was one I may never have had if I hadn’t traveled so far outside of my comfort zone.
Moving outside your comfort zone can be hard, but if you ever have an opportunity to see outside the U.S., I would encourage you to jump on it. Whether you go for volunteer work or for pleasure, the experience just might change you forever.