I’m writing this from the Dominican Republic…the country that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
I was invited to come volunteer at a non-profit that sends medical teams into villages (in Spanish, they’re called barrios) to provide free medical care to people who lack the financial means to pay for it.
I flew into the DR two days before the rest of the team arrived, planning to spend some time exploring Santo Domingo before meeting up with the team and making the trip three hours north to a smaller town called San Juan.
When I landed, I took a cab from the airport to a small hotel in the historic district of Santo Domingo. My hotel had a small restaurant downstairs, where I ordered grilled chicken and boiled potatoes and bottled water.
I’ve traveled in the developing world several times now, so I’m used to following the same rules to avoid getting food-borne illnesses: don’t drink tap water (don’t even brush your teeth with it!), only eat food that’s fully-cooked, and only eat fruits and vegetables you can peel.
So I followed these rules when I ordered dinner. However, the following morning, just before dawn, I woke up with a fever, a splitting headache….and then I started throwing up. (The only thing I can think of is that there was salsa on the chicken — and the tomatoes, onions, etc. may have been rinsed in tap water).
I did a mental scan of my body, taking note of all the symptoms I did (or didn’t) have. It was too early to have been exposed to the malaria parasite. I didn’t have any abdominal pain or rash or sore throat or cough….before I finished taking note of my symptoms, I threw up again.
I contracted malaria in Togo last year, and malaria and typhoid in Kenya this spring. After those experiences, I’ve learned to travel with a small pharmacy.
So when I knew that my headache and vomiting were not transient — but relentless — symptoms, I dug into my suitcase and pulled out my Ziploc-encased trove of medications.
I took some Ibuprofen for the headache, an anti-emetic for the vomiting and an antibiotic to kill off any bacteria I may have contracted. Then I wrung out a towel in cold water, wrapped it around my head, crawled back into bed, and closed my eyes, praying for the mercy of sleep.
As I was waiting for sleep to come, and my headache and nausea to subside, I started devising a plan for what I’d do if my symptoms persisted — or if they got worse.
1) I would take another dose of medicine.
2) I would ask the front desk staff where the closest clinic was.
3) If I was in worse shape, I’d ask the staff to call a taxi to drive me to the hospital.
4) If I was on death’s door, I’d dial 9-1-1. (Is that even the right number to call for emergencies in the DR? I wondered as I drifted off to sleep.)
I’m not afraid to travel internationally by myself — even to countries in the developing world — but it does come with a unique set of complications and even risks.
For starters, there’s no one to care for you when you’re sick, no one to go to the market around the corner and buy you ginger ale and crackers, no one to hold back your hair when you’re throwing up, no one to tuck you into bed and whisper, “Shhh….don’t worry….everything’s going to be okay.”
I drifted off to sleep and woke up a few hours later, feeling no better than I had before.
So I followed my plan, and took a second dose of medicine, and fell back asleep.
When I woke up again, my symptoms were a thousand times better. I was able to drink some tea and eat some toast.
The following morning, I was well enough to leave the hotel and wander around Santo Domingo. I even made it to the beach and took a walk in the sand, with the Caribbean Sea splashing across my toes.
I knew the following day I’d be meeting my teammates and heading to a remote part of the island.
I knew there was the possibility of getting sick again from countless pathogens — malaria, Zika, Yellow Fever, typhoid, Dengue Fever….
But I also knew that in spite of all the risks I was taking, in spite of the (thankfully brief) illness I had already endured, that I was supposed to be here, in the DR, to offer healing and hope.
I knew that God so loves me, and God so loves the world…and I knew that I was called to use my medical skills as a tangible expression to share that love.
I knew that I was here to not only meet, but learn from and commune with, my Dominican brothers and sisters….fellow pilgrims on the journey of life, unique expressions of the Divine here on earth.
And I knew that no matter what I had gone through to be here, and no matter what the future might hold, I am called to go forward with confidence — because there is no fear in Love.
Whenever we are leaving comfort to pursue a divine calling,
sacrificing safe environs for sacred encounters,
giving generously instead of grabbing greedily,
seeing our fellow brothers and sisters across the globe as “we”,
instead of “us and them”,
crossing borders instead of creating them,
and seeing Jesus in the eyes of everyone we meet….
… we can boldly follow in the steps of Jesus, undaunted and unafraid,
because we follow in the steps of Love,
in which there is no fear.