Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Intelligent Compassion

Dominican Republic rainforest view on horseback on my way to El Salto de Limon

Intelligent compassion is a slow learning curve for most people who allow their emotions to captain their helms. My visit to El Salto de Limon in the Dominican Republic was one of my best experiences in life to date. However, reality smacked me in the face after I chose to venture off the beaten path and see a part of the Dominican Republic the vast majority of travelers to that area ever experience.

The views of Cayo Levantado, Punta Cana, along with other resort areas monetarily fueled by big travel chains (cruise lines, resorts, hotels) present to the public eye a very jaded "unreality" of the  Dominican Republic. Keep in mind that Haiti is just on the other side of the island and like Haiti, the Dominican Republic is actually very poor.

I ventured out of the touristy areas at my own risk to go horseback riding at a ranch with the locals and a few from my ship, only three of us had any real horsemanship skills and only five had ever been on a horse before. Let me say this, that as an equestrian, when I arrived at my destination I can tell you I was unnerved and a bit terrified at what I first saw.

Tack duck taped together, made from or reinforced by "found objects"; car seat belts, human leather belts, rope, twine, comforters, bungee cords,  the foam padding you find inside of car interiors -after you rip the fabric/leather off the seats. Handmade bits, pieced together from pieces of other broken  bits and found metals, some looking quite severe with extraordinarily long shanks. Helmets with no chin straps, torn rubber boots, etc.

There was a tragic element of surprising beauty to the assemblage I saw, like walking into an art gallery and finding uniquely functional found object art. I was most intrigued by the amazing saddle decor, a rag blanket created by looping bright fabrics together; fabrics collected from old shirts and other articles of human clothing.  Let me state, I was not required to sign a waiver of any sort...believe me, red flags and warning bells were sounding off in my mind.

I am a believer that first impressions should not be weighed heavily, in fact I don't think you should allow them to guide your judgement of a person, place, or thing at all. Time, understanding, and compassion are all we need to learn of who, what, and why. Besides, you may be meeting someone for the first time who is going through an emotionally difficult time, it is not fair to judge them based on first impressions.

Now, most of you are probably wondering what I meant in my opening sentence in regard to "intelligent compassion", I'm going to get to that now, but please as you read, keep and open mind towards the experience I am about to share. I walked away from my adventure excited and terribly sad- two very strong emotions partnered in a dance I call real life and its truth. It's hard to swallow.

Standing just behind me was an older woman in her white "Pikuer" dressage breeches and a beautiful Ralph Lauren button down silk blouse, and Ray Bans, why on earth would someone choose to show up at a trail excursion in a third world country wearing such an ostentatious outfit is beyond me. Did she think she was going to have a retired dressage master trotting her through the rainforest?

I was grateful that the vast majority of locals were not English speaking and thereby could not hear that nasty things she muttered out loud in regards to them and their horses. But, as a painfully honest person who, in that moment, was operating on fear, will admit that my first impression had me thinking many of the very things she was saying out loud. A few people from my group, opted out of the riding, asking instead if they could walk.

At first sight, I too,  was concerned with the seemingly malnourished horses with boney physiques, top lines extremely under developed, sinewy ewe necks,  one horse was missing an eye, a few had crooked ears (I learned later that those horses were born that way and those scars were not given to them by abusive treatment). In my opinion and based on my standards and understanding of horse care in my country, they looked neglected. My stomach tied itself in knots at the thought of climbing on one. Being 5'3" and the fact most of the horses were no larger that 13 or 14 hands, I felt as though my  small size would crush the very horse I was to ride.

I had to stop myself, I had to re-adjust my thinking and proceed with an open mind and I did just that when I met my little stallion Caramello and his 17 year old guide. My westernized point of view in regards to what is considered  "proper" horse care had to be let go. PETA and animal rights activists would've had a field day tearing these people apart, I am sure of this. But again, they are passing judgment on how a "horse" should be cared for by their societies' philosophies and ideologies.

For the price dressage lady paid for her breeches, these people paid for a plot of a land and some cement to build their single bedroom shanties that housed up to 10 people at a time. There is no glass in their windows, no running water, no drinkable water unless they can afford bottled water, most boil their water. Many had thatched roofs and few houses did not even have roofs. They go weeks without bathing, and years without doctor or dentist checkups. Education is optional. Electricity, those few who have access to public electricity only runs 3-4 hours a day.

I shut my mind down in regards to my "preconceived" notions of how things should be for horses, based on my life style and standards of living and instead, used intelligent compassion, a compassion comprised of logic and reasoning to gain and emotional understanding of the reality these people were living. In doing so, I could see that these horses were cared for, in fact they were very well cared for, and their care was in exact equal proportion to the standard of living their people were in.

Caramello received two baths a day and his 17 year old human boy curried and cared for him with an assortment of handmade brushes. A curry comb made from what looked like a Brillo pad and he used an old toothbrush to clean up Caramello's eyes and muzzle, and made a confession, that he himself has never brushed his own teeth.  Through his broken English and my broken Spanish I learned he took a bath once a week so he could afford to give Caramello a bath twice a day for all the hard work he did.

Caramello was his first horse, he purchased for 8 dollars, and broke him in and trained him all by himself. I learned that horses are not gelded and families bred horses for work and money. With that in mind, I was in awe of the calm gentle nature of theses horses and the fact that stallions were taking people who had never been on horses before on such adventures through the rain forests of the Dominican Republic.

The companies that own the trail riding ranches pay the locals ten dollars a day for the use of their horses and the locals volunteer as guides to be with their horses all day through the excursions and are only working off of tips, sadly many of the tourists don't even realize this and do not even bother tipping their guides, it's a terribly sad circumstance. I think ignorance and language barriers play into this circumstance and I am grateful for the little Spanish I do know, otherwise I would have missed a great learning opportunity.

Its important to understand that for this culture,  horses are not pets, companions, or show animals. They are livestock- working livestock, and source of income for their people. Their culture is deeply routed in agriculture and their lifestyle is reflected in this. The horse is a working animal here. In a country that is poor and gasoline at a premium, even in my "world" there would be many hard pressed to afford the 7-12 dollars a gallon that it costs in the Dominican. These are all things I needed to consider before I judged.

If you are ever able to go, I highly recommend it. It's a vibrant and lively culture and the people, even despite their living conditions are very proud. It is not uncommon for a family to spend up to 15 years building their homes. People here help each other and their is a great sense of community.

The landscape of the Dominican is absolutely stunning! Lush rich green rainforest and mountains with a clear view of the turquoise sea from higher elevations. I would one day like to return here and spend a longer amount of time. I am very grateful for the opportunity my parents gave me to travel here.

My biggest regret; not inquiring where I could purchase a rag cover for my own saddle back home. I will get one, one day!
My Ride to El Salto de Limon