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Field Notes: Adventures in the Dominican Republic (Part 1)

By Erik Hogan

There is a church located in Lawrenceville, Ga, about a 45 minute drive from my town.  Its members have organized many mission trips to the Dominican Republic in years past. My wife and son went on one of these in 2019. It consisted of strenuous manual labor assisting in construction projects in a very harsh climate, but they found it to be an enlightening and life-enriching experience.

After not being able to go in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my wife planned another trip with this organization in July of 2021. As I am not afraid of manual labor, I saw this as an excellent opportunity for adventure and to hopefully take photographs abroad. My addition to the team was approved. However, in the spring as the departure drew closer a conflict arose that resulted in my wife having to withdraw from the trip.  My son was still determined to go, and that meant that I would still go, despite me not having any direct connection to the organization, the people, or the underlying purpose of the trip.

In the end, this was an outstanding adventure! It was the first time I traveled internationally with a camera and I learned volumes. Here, I am re-writing this experience as a limited series, which I intend on publishing intermittently. I will include the photos I made then and I will possibly look at the original photo files and re-process some of them with my current vision and experience. That’s enough of a preamble.

Lets Go!

Sunday July 18, 2021

At 5 am we head out.  It takes the entire 45 minute drive in darkness and silence to fully wake up.  The world still sleeps, but as our headlights illuminate the parking lot of the church in Lawrenceville, Ga there are cars and people and activity.  I only know the group leader, Sandi, who introduced herself to me a few days prior.  I am briefly acquainted with the group, which consists of 2 adults, Ed and Wendy, and 8 teenagers.  We arrange luggage and people across several vehicles for the drive to the Atlanta airport.  Quickly and without a flourish, the trip has begun.

I purchased a camera backpack, an F-Stop Gear Tilopa, specifically for this trip. As my camera gear consists only of my camera body with 1 lens and filters. I am able to fit all of this in a small camera case that integrates with the pack. The listed dimensions for this bag indicate that it may be marginally too large for a carry-on. I decide to risk it. All of my clothing and accessories for the week-long trip fit in this bag. Emptied and tightened down, it would be easy to carry wherever we went daily.

I opt not to bring my regular tripod. While the airline would allow it, considering it ‘essential photography equipment’, I think it would be too cumbersome to tote along to all of the activities and work sites we have planned, not even knowing if or how my photographing opportunities will fit in during the coming days. Instead, I bring a Joby Gorillapod that is strong enough to support my DSLR camera and small enough to fit in the side pocket of my pack.

We navigate the chaos of airport check-in and ultimately getting on the flight is uneventful. I do not have to remove any camera gear to get through security and have no problems bringing my pack as a carry-on. The flight to Santo Domingo is smooth and short.

Upon arrival I am greeted by a lady customs agent who speaks no English. She asks me questions in Spanish and then seems to check if I understand.  I stare at her blankly and say “no.” She smiles and waves me through. Easy enough.

Outside of the airport we meet Kelvin, our guide. Kelvin has accompanied these mission trips before and is a friend of Sandi’s. He currently works as a chef in New York, but has agreed to return to assist with this mission trip at Sandi’s request. He provides an odd little bus for our group. Smaller than a school bus, it snugly contains us with all of our bags. The bus’s name is ‘Expresso’, proudly displayed across the inside front of the windshield. Our driver is Hochi, a small man of quiet confidence and considerable driving skill. As he steers us into the streets of Santo Domingo I see that these types of buses are common. 

As a country, The Dominican Republic occupies half of the Caribbean island situated in between Cuba and Puerto Rico.  Santo Domingo, the capital, is located on the south side of the island. I watch, fascinated, as the unfamiliar countryside slips by on a 5 hour drive to the north coast.  Outside of the towns, the countryside is rural farmland with shacks tucked amid lush and verdant hills. We pass through the city of Santiago De Los Caballeros along the way, a seemingly haphazard display of urban development. There is an underlying rustic charm to the country, but draped with a cloak of weather worn poverty and trash.

Traffic is friendly chaos.  Scooters and wrong way drivers are commonplace, causing me to clench my abs even though the bus is not in my control.  Lanes here are merely suggestions. Honking is frequently used as a mechanical language of announcing one’s presence and intentions. But, as wild as it seems, road rage is absent and it all appears as natural as walking down a crowded sidewalk.

Expresso arrives on the narrow roads of our destination, Puerto Plata, late in the day.  The host church here is named Iglesia Evangelica Dominicana. A small gathering welcomes us there with singing, and they provide us with a delicious Dominican dinner afterwards.

View from the top of Hotel Kevin, taken the next morning

In the evening we walk several blocks and are introduced to our lodgings for the week at Hotel Kevin. It is a small hotel, renovated in pink and red, and nicer than I expected after hearing accounts of previous mission trips. A picture of Che Guevara decorates a wall in the lobby.

My son opts to share a room with some of the other kids, so I end up with a room to myself with a single bed and an air conditioner that works very well. It has been a long day of many miles and I am eager for rest. All good.

To be continued…

Erik Hogan is a photographer who primarily shoots landscape, wilderness, and nature scenes in the Athens area.

Follow on Instagram @erikhoganphotography Erik's sketchbook includes a look behind the scenes, with an option to purchase a limited number of prints through the link in his bio. htttps://erikhoganphotography.com.

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