I got back to Los Angeles on Friday night 23rd close to 11pm. The church people were there first to greet our crew with pretty flowers. My husband came minutes later, also with flowers waiting for me (in the car) :-) I was so happy to be back home. The flight was exhausting because I didn't get to sleep at all nor eat, and my day started early at 4 am Los Angeles time. Needless to say, all I did all weekend long was sleep, rest, eat, and recuperate. Thank god there’s not too much of a time difference b/n DR and CA.
The trip was an experience of a lifetime.
...But before I get into that, allow me to introduce the colorful characters that made this experience possible and unforgettable for me.
Nine of 11 people of the team were the Korean church members, and they were the nicest, sweetest, funniest people on earth. Always saying jokes and laughing, even from early morning. (Oh how I wished I could understand Korean!) And the Korean men were so gentlemen-ly, always helping us ladies getting up and down our little truck, carrying all the heavy luggage and supplies and just looking out for us female crew members. I really enjoyed everyone's company, really a nice bunch of people.
Here is a quick snapshot of the 11 members of the mission.
Dr. Tomoko, the general medicine doctor. (She’s my friend and the one who invited me to join this mission.)
Dr. Karen, the other general medicine doctor.
In addition to the two doctors, we had Okja (“OK” as she was called by non-Koreans), who is a nurse and played the pharmacist during the mission.
Dr. Lee. He was non-stop cleaning teeth and fixing cavities and doing other dental work.
John, the hardworking assistant.
“Traffic Controller” and mother hen:
In non-medicine related activities, we had --
Senghi ("seng-hee") and Sue, cutting boy’s and men’s hair. They were quite in demand.
John. He was busy taking pictures of families and individuals and printing them out to give it back to those photographed. (I found out getting a photograph of yourself or your family is hard to come by in underserved populations in developing nations. We take it for granted here!)
Simon - he helped wherever he was needed.
To put names to faces, here are their photos:
That's Tomoko on the left and myself, both of us exhausted after our last day of medical work
Sue, the camera shy haircutter
Dr. Karen, Senghi and Dr. Lee
The two Johns, the dental assistant and the photographer respectively
Simon and OK
Jae and John
Thank goodness everyone in the team knew what was expected of them and of the mission, so for the most part, things ran smoothly, albeit running behind time most of the time. I guess we were on island time.
Day 1 LAX – MIA – PUERTO PLATA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
It started Thursday 13th at 11pm when we took a red-eye flight to Miami Int’l Airport. By the way, we had 16 extra huge luggage all filled with medical supplies, this in addition to each of our own single carry-on suitcase. Checking in took some time.
We arrived to MIA at dawn on Friday 14th and had almost 7 hours to kill before we boarded our flight to the Dominican Republic in the early afternoon. Some of us tried to sleep on the airport floor (like myself) to make up for lost sleep, but mostly we read, ate, walked around and just killed time until our flight.
We arrived to the coastal northern town of Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic 2 hours after departing MIA. One of the first lessons in mission work and humility happened at the DR customs.
Given that we had such a large amount of luggage in our possession, not surprisingly, the DR customs stopped to check us. I was told by the crew that depending on the country they visit, if they have an active working relationship, their customs usually lets them through without a problem, but given DR was the first time for this group, we were stopped and methodically checked for our contents.
What turned out was that about 1/5 of the medications we had brought with us were expired (but only by a couple months). Now, don’t be shocked by this. Expired medication actually is effective by up to 6 months after the expiration date, and purchasing expired medication is cheaper than non-expired medicine. Given that these medications were going to be dispensed and consumed within a two-week’s time, it was a cost-effective decision to purchase some expired medicine.
Upon seeing this, the DR customs began removing these medications from our possession for disposal. Because we spoke fluent Spanish, my friend Tomoko and I ended up trying to negotiate and explain to customs what we were about and what the medications were for. As they began removing these expired medicines, I pleaded that we get to keep them because we had brought them to help needy Dominicans. Customs was adamant and did not allow us to keep any of the expired medication. I was so disappointed, but the customs official told me he was just following the law.
After we finally finished going through this time-consuming ordeal, I turned around to Jae and lamented the waste. Ever the wise and experienced missionary that she is, Jae simply says to me, “Customs was doing their job, here to protect their people. The Dominican Republic did not ask us to come and provide humanitarian aid.” Wow. Talk about humility! And here I was thinking, “Why aren’t these customs official jumping for joy for what we were trying to do for their country?? We’re here to help their people!” Not! Even though the expired medicine would not have done any harm if ingested, it is the customs duty to indeed protect their people and their environment, and the truth is, we did bring in expired medicine. We can’t just go to foreign countries waving our “we are here to help you” superiority wand and think their customs is going to lay a red carpet for us to walk on. Humility Lesson #1.
The local Korean pastor, Pastor Aaron, and his dedicated Dominican assistant, Omar, greeted us at the airport and took our crew to our hotel.
(That's Omar on the left and Pastor Aaron on the right)
Usually in other missions, this church group stays in some local's house and they cook and clean up after themselves everyday. Not so this time. We stayed in a huge high-end hotel with beach-front property, pools, dance club, internet cafe, restaurant, air-conditioned rooms with bath and shower, and so forth. Because Tomoko and I were joining this mission - basically two non-church-related individuals - the group decided to stay in a hotel to help make our experience less stressful. Talk about being spoiled!
We checked in, unpacked, and by that time, it was time for dinner, so we all had our first – of almost every meal during the trip – at the hotel buffet. We convened for a meeting after dinner to go over our schedule for the next 5 days. Now, here is where it got fun. Pastor Aaron speaks Korean and pretty good Spanish. His assistants speak only either Spanish or Korean and Spanish. Our crew speaks Korean and English, and Tomoko and I speak English and Spanish (and Japanese). What was the common language amongst our entire group? None!! There was this constant translation going from Korean - English - Spanish and between these three languages. I’m surprised we didn’t have chaos ensue during the entire trip! We somehow all managed to understand what was going on – for the most part, although I’m sure quite was lost in translation. It was comical to observe this daily negotiation of languages.
Stay tuned for more...
To read Part Two of this journey, click here