I describe my experience with the Dominican Republic simply to my friends: it’s the antithesis of Japan. Where Japan is clean, orderly, quiet, and reserved, the DR is messy/dirty, chaotic, loud, dangerous, and rather in-your-face. As such, I spent the first half of my time on the island rather shocked. I pulled into myself and away from the noise and pollution, and only after heading up to the touristy areas did I try a different tack.
When I travel, I try to experience the country “as a local” as much as possible. This means avoiding tour groups, walking by myself, talking to locals about innocuous things to start up conversations, hanging out in parks and cafes to people watch, and generally spending less money – not to save the money, but to mimic the lifestyle to an extent. While there are significant charms to this kind of traveling (in Kyrgyzstan, for instance), in some places the opposite style simply works better. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized there’s no shame to being swanky, and for my final few days I countered the island’s culture with just that.
My travel was significantly affected by, well, travel. I missed my Friday flight on account of absurd traffic requiring 3.5 hours to drive to MCO rather than the usual 1.75 hours. This led me to stay an extra 24 hours in Orlando (which was nice, actually). Then, during my time in the DR itself, Visa refused to believe that I was actually there and continually blocked my debit card. I also struggled mightily to buy a ticket to Albania for Christmas break, resulting in Delta holding multiple thousands of dollars hostage from my bank account. These time consuming and unsettling situations cast a definite pall over my time in the DR. I spent eight hours on the phone with banks, airlines, and Travelocity, cutting significantly into my short stay both temporally and emotionally.
I landed in Santo Domingo and chatted amicably with the Uber driver on the way to my host. He warned me of the safety concerns of walking about the town on account of my long hair, which my host and friends laughed at on hearing this. They said my driver clearly was enamored with me, and “confirmed” this when I told them about how he circled around to ensure I wouldn’t have to walk one block, waiting until my host walked out before heading off. I’d like to believe he was just kindly. Arriving near midnight, my host took me to a pharmacy to get some Maalox (go figure, I needed it already), then I waited half-asleep in a hotel lobby while he met a friend – who happily aborted plans to go to karaoke – and we returned to his extraordinarily beautiful flat in the University district of Santo Domingo.
My first full day in the DR encapsulated all the intensity of the country. We woke latish and walked around the corner to get an empanada. I was amazed that crab and conch were cheap options. We then drove nearly across the entire island from South to North into the mountainous regions to a lake created by a dam called Presa de Taveras. The traffic along the way was absolutely insane. Quite possibly the worst I’ve experienced. Adrian lamented it while driving in exactly the same selfish, aggressive style as everyone else. Cars would stop wherever convenient for them on the side of the road with little warning, accelerate suddenly, squeeze into spaces and expect others to make room, and for any conceivable reason (or none at all) beep loudly. Truly horrible. I confirmed a statistic Adrian mentioned in the car later – outside of Africa, the DR has the second highest road fatalities per population. Number one is Thailand.
The reservoir was quiet and pleasant. I didn’t swim or talk too much with his friends, content mostly to draw. No one was surprised I spoke Spanish – his friends consisted of two Dominicans, a French man and a Spanish woman. Having eaten a portion of fatty and filling mangú at the rest stop on the way, as well as a coconut, I didn’t eat anything there. The ride back was even worse, save for the fact that this time Adrian’s dog Molly didn’t vomit in the back seat. We went to a grocery store, as I wanted to cook something for Adrian. We split up and I couldn’t find him afterwards. With some miscommunication (and his particular personality) he left without me. Unknowing, I waited at the door of the supermarket near the shotgun brandishing security guards. While I waited, a particularly frightening scuffle ensued between two teenage boys accused of stealing and one of the security guards. The boys used so much bravado, uncowed even when the shotgun was pointed straight at them. It disturbed me deeply. Guns are everywhere in the DR – at each toll, at the hips of normal citizens, outside every institution… I borrowed the other guard’s phone to call Adrian, and he fetched me with his motorcycle. Shaken, and angry at each other for the misunderstanding that left me stranded, we didn’t chat much and I went back out to get myself a quick dinner. Apparently in the DR, maracuyá is chinola.
I spent only one more day in Santo Domingo, heading to the historic Zona Colonial for some tourism in the heat and noise and abundant car exhaust, eating a touristy meal and drawing the touristy sites. While the significance of the sites interested me – the first church in the Americas, the first European city, the first fort, etc., somehow it didn’t engage me enough. I enjoyed sitting quietly and drawing from the edges more than anything else. On walking briskly back to Adrian’s, I ran into him exactly as he was entering the lift (I took the stairs). With scant time, I wasn’t able to shower before starting to cook ลาบหมูผัดโหระพาเนื้อฟักทองผัดไข่for him and his visiting colleagues, professors from Colombia. Dinner with the older doctors was quite pleasant and full of laughter. I sensed that the older of the two women had lived a very exciting and full life, gallivanting around the world and now living in France, clearly comfortable in English and French in addition to Spanish. I drank half a glass of beer and became quite sleepy before they left and we washed the dishes.
I woke quite late the following day, eating the leftovers for brunch and lazily watching the Starcraft competition occurring in Germany, Home Story Cup XX, while I waited for my clothes to dry. I took an uber to the bus station, confirmed the departure time with the driver, bought a sandwich from an exceedingly kind woman in the adjoining mall, then hopped back on the bus for another long, noisy ride to the peninsula of Samaná. The pollution in Santo Domingo did not agree with me, so Adrian suggested I head to a beach. On a whim I decided to go North rather than South to Barahona. The town of Santa Barbará de Samaná, usually just called Samaná, left an absolutely awful first impression on me. Aggressive motorcycle drivers with no mufflers zooming up and down the the street with clouds of white smoke while people pushed trash from the roofs of buildings into the street. Quite hellish. I walked briskly to the Guagua stop for Las Galeras, deciding in that moment not to stay in Samaná and to repair to a touristy place as quickly as possible. It was then that I shifted my mindset towards the DR. Sometimes it’s wonderful to try to live like the locals. Sometimes it’s wonderful to be swanky.
So I got off my guagua, ignored the aggressive moto-taxis, walked straight to a tiny hotel I’d found on Booking but hadn’t booked, Le BDM (Le Boute du Monde), registered in the only room, dropped off my things, and ordered a lobster. It was delicious. A French patron requested a game of ping-pong with me and I once again reinforced the stereotype by being many levels better than her. Brent and I don’t quite get it. We suck, but how are other people so much worse? We played for over an hour, with a kitten becoming adorably involved for stretches while motorcycles roared loudly back and forth down the tiny street behind us.
I spent a full day at the beach. Not bothered to go to Playa Rincón or Madama or Frontón. I just walked the thirty minutes to La Playita after getting a delicious fresh almond croissant (half the population of the town seems to be expat – French, German, and Italian), and did next to nothing at the beach for hours. Well, as much nothing as I could manage – I swam, I meditated, I drew, I took photographs, I sunned, I took walks, and I watched the people. A large Dominican woman with her young naked son playing fetch with plastic bottles in the water – except that neither of them fetched the bottles. The arrival of a small dinghy with fresh fish greeted by a pair of old Italian men. The German/Dominican couples (everyone quite portly) lounging in the shade, and the fit young American walking down the beach once, taking some photographs, then leaving. An older American couple scrawled Thanksgiving messages (with shapely handwriting) in the sand for photographs, and a Spanish woman hounded her husband for just the right photograph for around thirty minutes – clearly unaware of lighting basics and managing shade and sun quite terribly. I ate at the only restaurant not directly on the beach and was alone for a wonderful meal of octopus and coconut. On a walk northwards, I ran into a group of Dominicans cooking stew on the ground while the men gambled with dominos.
After a bit of a scare in looking for my wallet (I’d left it in a beer bottle crate when playing pingpong), I took a guagua back to Santa Bárbara de Samaná, intending to stay one night to give it another chance. Feeling a little out of sorts, I checked into a very nice hotel and ate a lovely Dominican meal, walked around very briefly to take some photographs with the bright pastel colors of a planned tourist mecca (why don’t they paint things nice colors everywhere?), then hid in my room while the travel nonsense took full force. My Schwab card was blocked. I called to unblock it. I tried to buy a ticket to Albania for Christmas break. Delta reserved the money in my account (meaning I had no access to it) but issued no ticket. They then did this again, twice. Many hours (the eight full hours on the phone with Schwab, Delta, Travelocity, and Alitalia mentioned above) and frustration later, and suddenly a day had passed.
I broke up the stupidity with some visits to the church and the ice cream shop before checking back in to my hotel. After giving up on it all once I at least had access to my debit card for cash withdrawals, I ate again at the cute Italian restaurant, swankily countering the bullshit day with a glass of white wine and risotto/gnocchi on the two days respectively. The upshot of needing to stay in Samaná was that I happened upon the day of the city’s Patron Saint. I enjoyed looking in on the church services and the various kinds of evangelist songs – Samaná’s heritage is a community of former slaves from the United States, and the profusion of Adventist, Pentecostal, and Baptist churches is proof of that. I did not enjoy the main event – an excrutiatingly loud performance of merengue and bachata from the “Dominican Pavarotti”. I stood at the very back of the square with my ears firmly plugged and it was still ear-splitting.
I ate a third time at the local Dominican Restaurant and ordered a surprisingly excellent Coconut Fish. I asked to speak with the chef and watched her prepare it and took notes as she told me the ingredients. It all seemed quite simple, but I failed utterly when trying it back in Gainesville. In return, I wrote out the recipes for a few dishes that she could make with the ingredients readily available in the DR – 三杯小捲，เสือร้องให้, and ต้มยำกุ้ง. It was at this time that I was almost witness to another bout of violence, as an altercation between a moto-taxi driver and the restaurant owner quickly turned physical, each jostling the other, shoving, slapping, even after the owner pulled his gun and pointed it towards the driver. The other patrons – a family – seemed quite unfazed.
I had to unblock my Schwab card again before heading back to Santo Domingo in the afternoon, and thereby missed a bus by two minutes (busses leave amazingly on time in the DR). With forty minutes to kill before departure, I asked a fellow passenger to borrow his guitar. We sang a few songs back and forth before the driver turned on the radio, every passenger turned on their own music on their own phones, and we left, my thoughts of sleep rendered completely moot by the arrhythmic staccato intrusions of the driver’s horn.
Back in Santo Domingo, I braved the dirty, chaotic streets away from the tourist districts, finding no cafes or WiFi and deciding to walk to the Zona Colonial to contact Adrian. I happened to cross through Chinatown, the only Chinatown I’ve ever been to that is cleaner and quieter than its surroundings. Adrian advised me to get a hotel for the night, so I found a hilariously cheap one around the corner, ate a mediocre meal in a trendy converted courtyard, slept, and took an exceedingly friendly uber back to the airport. Unfortunately, the adventure didn’t quite end there, as my RedCoach bus took five hours from MCO to Gainesville on account of accidents and traffic, with some wisecracking entitled asshole passengers stressing everyone out with their regular disrespect of the the driver.