My brother and I are separated. I turn to look for him while I am pushed from behind to a closed door. John is standing behind a rope with Frederico, the lawyer for the organization where I work.
“Don’t worry,” Frederico yells to me in English. “I will take care of you.”
I don’t know why he is telling me not to worry. Nor do I know enough Spanish to understand what is rapidly said to me. Nor do I understand the building I am in.
The door opens and I am pushed into a room with three walls with the fourth a wall of prison bars. Behind the bars in another room are scores of men yelling, whistling, and gesturing at me, the only woman in the adjacent room. I am dressed in khaki shorts, a faded green knit shirt and worn loafers. I panic as I see all that male attention directed at me and I cover my breasts with my arms. A moment later, I am pushed through another door into the next room.
This room has a dozen women in it. It is all cement except for the small window in the right wall with bars that looks out onto the street. In the upper left corner is a cubicle with two half walls that contains the toilet and a floor drain.
I look around me and think: I am in jail. I. am. in. jail. I am in the city jail in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. This is one of my fears about living in a foreign country—that I will land in jail and never released. My fear spiked after my brother told me about the movie “Midnight Express,” based on a true story of an American held in a Turkish jail for drug smuggling. Although I am not smuggling drugs, the images of life in a foreign jail return to me.
“Oh God, help me,” I pray.
“Oh shit,” I whisper.
Some of the women look me over then turn away. An older woman gestures to me to sit on the floor near her. As I sit she asks, in Spanish, “Why are you here?” I suspect gringas don’t often appear in the city jail.
In my rudimentary Spanish with lots of gesticulating, I explain that while I was driving I hit a motorcycle rider.
“Este muerte?” (Is he dead?) she asks me while the other women lean in to listen.
“No. Uh … hurt,” as I show them my elbow and knee.
They murmur amongst themselves and then turn their attention elsewhere. I settle against the wall and attempt to calm my fear and wait. I have no idea where John or Frederico are nor do I know how to get out of jail in a foreign country where I hardly speak the language. I am trying to not to slip into a panic attack.
I see women talking at the window to persons on the street. The free people hand food and cups to the women through the bars.
A woman at the window turns to me and points across the street. “Es su hermano?”
I go to the window, which is about six inches higher than me, and I pull myself up to the bars to peek. Yep, there’s my brother talking with Frederico and another Dominican man. They are too far away to hear me when I call out but close enough for me to see that they each have a bottle beer on the table in front of them. I hope they are figuring out how to post bail and get me out.
“Si, es mi hermano, ( it’s my brother)” I tell the women as I drop from the window onto the floor.
Various women take turns peeking out the window to look at him as I return to my spot on the cement floor.
One woman, who is one of the friendlier ones, offers me her empty tin cup for a drink. I look quizzically at her as she walks to the bathroom cubicle. She waves for me to follow her then she points at the toilet tank that lacks a lid. She looks kindly at me and urges me to get some water.
I gingerly step into the cubicle, dip the cup into the toilet tank and fill the cup halfway. Her hospitality touches me and I am torn over refusing the water—and her kindness—and my general avoidance of water that is not sterilized.
I take a deep breath, smile at her, and drink the water. At the same time, I am inwardly praying, “Okay God. I’m trying to receive her kindness. Protect me.”
“Gracias por la agua (thank you for the water),” I say after finishing my drink and as I hand her the cup. We smile at one another and I slightly bow toward her. “Gracias.”
I return to my place on the cement floor and return to waiting.
An hour later another woman nearby receives a paper bag filled with food from her daughter. She pulls out her meat sandwich, tears it in half and leans toward me, offering me the half. At that moment I realize that the city jail is not providing us any food and this is probably the only food I will have for who knew how long.
Again, I am deeply moved by the kindness, the hospitality that is offered to me by strangers housed together in jail. I take the sandwich and am grateful.
“Gracias por la comida (thank you for the food),” I say. “Umm…muy bueno (very good).”
She beams at me and we smile at one another. It is a grace-filled moment.
I wait a few more hours until mid-afternoon and a police officer sticks his head in the door and says something to the room. I don’t know what he says but the women turn to me, smile, and gesture for me to leave.
I turn to the women who offered kindness to me and say good-bye.
“Adios!” they say. “Vaya con dios (Go with God).”
I wish I knew Spanish better to tell them how grateful I am for their hospitality which eased my fear, for their generous spirits, and for their kindness that will live in me for decades. And, how they were the answers to my earlier prayers. But all I can say is thank-you.
“Gracias,” as I place my hand over my heart. “Muchas gracias.”
I step through the door, move past the leering men and into the gathering area. I am relieved that my worst fears were not realized. I see John and Frederico and smile, wave at them and walk toward them.