Settling into the RD
RD = Dominican Republic (initials in Spanish ordering of course)
After almost two weeks here I am starting to settle in. Unfortunately, I started my visit to RD with five days in the capitol, Santo Domingo. Not being a novice to Latin American cities I should have known better. Actually I had some stuff to get done (a courier package to receive and another to send once I got the first) so I had an excuse for staying but nevertheless after 5 days my nerves were frazzled. I’m not quite sure how the residents of Santo Domingo retain their sanity in the assault of so much noise, pollution, constant haranguing, etc. In the smaller towns, these assaults happen too but then you are not constantly bombarded and so it is no big deal. In Santo Domingo, there is a lot to see and do and it is interesting and lively but I certainly was frazzled by the time I left.
Some of the things the Dominicans have to deal with (and you as a tourist unless you are one of the many package tourists who stay only at their all-inclusive resorts and who journey out only on their all-inclusive tour buses) follow from my journal.
There is garbage everywhere on the streets;piled up and also strewn around. I originally thought it was just piled there because it was abandoned. But then I realized that is it so visible since there are no alleys and no dumpsters so it is just piled on the curb. Given the quantity of garbage, I was surprised to realize that the garbage does, in fact, get collected every day. This I found out because the garbage truck would stop outside my window in Santo Domingo each night (usually about 2:45am) for as much as five minutes to noisily pick up trash and to vent their exhaust seemingly directly into my bedroom. I still haven’t figured out where all this garbage comes from. There is a huge amount of commercial activity going onÃ³food and other sales happening on every sidewalk so I guess that is the answer. Of course, then it just begs the question of where does all this commercial activity come from? Who supports it? It doesn’t seem proportionate to the size of the population.
A little alcohol is a dangerous thing. The local beer, Presidente, is of course a ‘light’ beer in the tradition of tropical climesÃ³similar to Corona minus the lime. But it is a rather deceptive thing. First, because despite its light color and taste it is 6% alcoholÃ³double an American light beer. Second, because one usually orders the economical ‘grande’ size which is a Î© liter. It only takes one of these for me to get a nice buzz going. Of course, to a Dominican that is nothing. At a bar or restaurant, they usually order a ‘servicio de ron’ which for as little as $2 is a small bottle (1/3 liter I think) of rum and a soft drink.
Dominicans may not always have the latest technology but they make the most of what they’ve got. For example, who could have known what a versatile and useful thing a horn could be. We Norteamericanos are just wasting it by limiting it’s use to emergencies or the occasional rude driver in front of us. Here they really should install a foot petal for the hornÃ³perhaps supplanting the break pedal since it is used more frequently. One of it’s primary uses is the divining of right of way. Rather than use such inflexible systems as stop signs, traffic lights, traffic cops or right-of-way rules, the horn supplants them all. Honk your horn as you approach an intersection to let the drivers the other way know that you’re barreling throughÃ³even if there is a red light or a stop sign or a policeman motioning you to stop. Being a pedestrian here also elicits much honking. Each driver makes the cautious assumption that all pedestrians are blind and so honks at any who are anywhere in the roadway even if they will clearly be out of the way by the time they get there. Since there are many pedestrians you can imagine how much honking this creates. Another use is the “for hire” honk. This is practiced by taxis, motoconchos (motorcycle taxis), publicos (shared vans) and buses to attract the attention of anyone who may possibly want any of their services. Since these vehicles invariably make up at least half of the traffic on the road it also makes for frequent honking opportunities. And of course when any of these vehicles do stop to pickup or disgorge someone everyone behind them will immediately begin to honk to let the driver know that, yes, there are cars behind waiting to continue. After a while the sound starts to become pleasantÃ³sort of like chirping crickets or singing birds (yeah, right).
Actually, public transportation does not exist. But here private enterprise proves its mettle in providing an alternative. The alternatives range from motorcycles all the way up to large buses. The constant is proving the manufactures wrong when they rated the capacity of the vehicles. One person on a small motorcycle? Why not four! (bet you didn’t know a small Japanese motorbike could be a family car). Four persons in a small car? Why that’s a terrible waste when 8 is so much cosier. Six in a station wagon? Twelve is so much more economical. The back of a small pickup truck is amazingly versatileÃ³14 of us hanging on. Eight people in a minivan? Hell we managed 24 this afternoon and we all got to know each other so well. Twenty people on a minbus? I lost count on how many people got into that bus. Some of these vehicles are apparently held together only by the paint. They have been banged up and pasted back together from various parts so many times they are no longer recognizable as a particular brand of vehicle. Ah, but I got where I was going for an economical price.
To most Dominicans, good entertainment is loud entertainment. If a stereo isn’t distorting then it obviously is not loud enough. They love their meringue music which, I must admit, I don’t really have much fondness for, finding it rather repetitive. But, it is everywhere so I’d better learn to love it. When the hour gets late the Dominicans move from listening to music on the streets to in flashy modern discosÃ³of which every town has at least one or two. In sharp contrast to this, I went to a classical concert by some imported musicians which clearly attracted the creme de la creme of Dominican society. This group was so separate that I really had not known of it’s existence. In a country which I had thought of the people as predominantly black with some Hispanic features, suddenly there were no black people except the ushers. I know it sounds surprising but before this I had thought of RD as a somewhat integrated placeÃ³what I found out was that the upper class was small enough that it was easy to miss. With tickets priced from about $11-$45US, quite a sum to most Dominicans, there was no question of the two societies mixing. I wasn’t quite sure whether the concert was part of their culture for their country within a country or was just a social event whose Europeaness made attending a requirementÃ³I expect the 2000 people there represented a substantial percentage of the ruling class. Meanwhile, back in the rest of the country they’d be watching on cable TV the worst sort of ultra-violent American movie. It seemed that the cable operators programmed only the trashiest and ugliest of American flicksÃ³perhaps in a conspiracy to keep more people from wanting to emigrate. But then again, I read a newspaper article that a primary goal of the new Dominican ambassador to the US was to increase RD exportsÃ³of people! Turns out that the 1 million Dominicans in the US are the largest source of foreign currency to the RD.
Cheap labor really changes the dynamics of commerce. To run a restaurant with 3 or so people working there and to serve a half dozen people all day is not particularly considered a failure. There are so many restaurants that anything otherwise would be impossible. Nowhere did I see a single eatery that was so successful that is was even half full. The same dynamic applies in all other areas. In Santo Domingo I would avoid wearing leather shoes because to do so would invite at least 100 shoe shine boys to offer their services over the course of a day. The already narrow sidewalks were crowded by vendors of fruit, nuts, car parts, shoes, sunglasses, art, souvenirs, etc. Everyone wanted you to go somewhere on their bus, taxi, motorcycle. These jobs seemed strictly sex segregated. Women had far fewer opportunities to start their own whatever stand as they seemed to be restricted to selling fruit, vegetables, hair braiding and their bodies (although even the selling of the latter was often done by the men acting as pimps). The only positive note to this fact I can add is that while it seemed that as an 8 year old boy you were more likely to be wandering the streets with your shoe shine kit than going to school at least the little girls were not so commonly used in vendoring so maybe they got a little bit of education.
I can’t resist telling about my trip to the post office. From my guidebook, I got an address of the nearest post office to the old town. As I got close, I was thinking the book was wrongÃ³after all this was a small street and there was no large office about to show upÃ³after all it must be the closest office for at least several hundred thousand people (and there are no mailboxes or places to buy stamps outside the post office). But, wait a minute, there it is and I walk into a tiny cubbyhole of an office with one clerk who is in the room behind watching TV and not a sign of a customer for days. I laid my correspondence down on the counter with some trepidationÃ³after all if the postal service is this infrequently used by Dominicans is there any point? The clerk seemed excited to get a customer; especially one with such exotic addresses. The guidebook has also said that postage to U.S./Canada was 0.50 pesos per 10 grams. As it turned out, prices had been hiked 10-fold in the intervening 12 months (the new priceÃ³5 pesosÃ³is about 35 cents US). What had not been adjusted were the stock of stamps. And so for each postcard, the clerk pulled out one 3-peso stamps and two 1-peso stampsÃ³each of which was gigantic, obviously designed for large packages. For each envelope, six stamps needed to be applied (he couldn’t quite see another way to do 10 pesos in 1 & 3 peso stamps except by doubling the previous formula). And so he happily pasted stamps everywhichway and on every part of the available surfaceÃ³folded over the sides, on all corners, etc. I left thinking “oh wellÃ³there was nothing that would be a big deal if it didn’t get there”. Surprises of surprises though, I received a phone call thanking me for my postcardÃ³from New YorkÃ³in only 1 week after I sent it. The phone system was a different manner. The phone company is named Codetel and I thought the logo looked familiarÃ³turns out it is a subsidiary of the American giant GTE. This didn’t help any with the payphonesÃ³apparently the best one can hope for with a payphone is that the coin slot will be jammed since otherwise it will just take your money and not work. I never found a working payphone. To make local calls one must find a hotel or restaurant willing to let you make a call. International calls though are pretty easy and at about $US0.70 a minute are pricey but not ridiculous (like MexicoÃ³try $24 for 3 minutes). They are made from lovely, air-conditioned phone offices (Codetel or the competition) with rows of nice booths with cushy seats. Some even had Internet terminals. In Santo Domingo, I sometimes felt the need to make a phone call just to get away from the heat and noise and bustleÃ³the sanctuary they offered was exceedingly rare in that city. One bizarre wrinkle is that although they did have a system for reaching US/Canadian toll-free 800 and 888 numbers (like my voicemail) it usually didn’t work and, ironically, the charge was double to these numbers than to a regular number. Oh well, Mexico (and not too many years ago, Canada) offered no way at all to dial US 800 numbers even if one was willing to pay for the privilege.
Well now that I’ve sounded what is admittedly a pretty pessimistic note with the 7 paragraphs above, I will say that all of that is reduced to manageable levels if you escape to the right places. It does make the RD a more challenging vacation perhaps than other Caribbean spots. That, and the rarity of English speakers, seems to be the reason why there are very few Americans in the RD–it is a little too challenging for the typical American tourist. There are ample Europeans and Canadians in evidence though. A quick tour of places visited follows.
It is a hectic place as you can no doubt tell. It has the oldest ____ in the western hemisphere. Insert your choice in the blank–church, fort, street, etc. Columbus and the conquistadors are still heroes here apparently where in many other places in Latin American they have taken a second look at the legacy of the Spanish. If you want to see a old Spanish colonial town–I recommend instead the one that has the second oldest _____’s in the western hemisphere. San Juan, Puerto Rico is far better preserved. On the other hand, Santo Domingo is far cheaper and you’ll get much better practice at your Spanish.
The principal town on the Atlantic coast (Santo Domingo is on the Caribbean coast) I found to be a nice mix. Locals substantially outnumber tourists everywhere except in the all-inclusive resorts which lie just outside town which are easy to avoid. Puerto Plata is where I met some locals and mixed a little. The noise and activity subsided to a manageable level.
An hour down the coast from Puerto Plata is a different world. A world run by Germans. This town has a very pretty bay with a lovely beach and a nice swimming/snorkeling reef. There is a mostly Dominican town on one side of the beach and a tourist town on the other. Behind the beach are over 200 (numbered) souvenir stands, bars, snack places–endless rows of the same stuff. Of course you can get anything you like from your rented beach chair so you needn’t even leave as a stream of vendors is on the beach. The town’s European influence started in 1941 with the arrival of German Jewish refugees. Today, the Germans have pushed out all the locals from this part of town. There appeared to be only 1 Dominican run restaurant and hotel out of perhaps a hundred–the others were German or Quebecois or other European. One Austrian fellow explained how the Germans owned the town. When the police started to try and close down the discos in town because they were little more than fronts for sex tourists on the prowl for prostitutes they only succeeded in closing the locally owned places. The 2 large German-owned discoes who could afford to pay the appropriate bribes were rewarded with a monopoly. The owner of one celebrated by opening a hotel next door to his disco doing a booming and lucrative business in rooms by the hour. Sosua also had the distinction of being the most expensive place I have been in the RD.
Rio San Juan
A large lagoon was offered as the reason to visit this place. Apparently this worked only so well as the lagoon would attract a multitude of tour buses who would exit at the lagoon, take a 20 minute boat ride to view the local sights and then return to their buses and leave. I was the exception–a tourist who actually stayed a whole 24 hours. In that time I found out that the lagoon was pretty much the low point of the place. There was a delightful reef once you got away from the murkying effect of the lagoon. The biggest waves I’ve seen in the RD (10-15 feet swells) although I think they were rare. And a lovely beach a half mile out of town which was frequented almost exclusively locals which I was taken to by accident (I was trying to get elsewhere but my inadequate Spanish got me someplace better). I would have stayed longer but the threat of Easter and the concomitant difficulty in finding accomodation and transportation was threatening.
Las Terrenas has become the place in the Dominican Republic that I would probably come back to. While it is mostly a tourist destination, it does not seem dominated by the tourists in the same way that Sosua felt almost oppressively German. Perhaps it is the different blend of tourists here including many Dominicans (although that may be a function of it being holy weekÃ³perhaps these observations would be quite different at another time of the year). Probably the most common tongue I hear is FrenchÃ³there seems to be quite a large community here of both Quebecois and French. The Germans also play their part but don’t seem to aspire to run the place as they did in Sosua. Today at lunch, I was offered a menu in German, French or SpanishÃ³where else would you get a trilingual menu where none of the choices were English? The dinner menu was French and Spanish. English still does play a partÃ³although often the part is that of a common second tongue. Las Terrenas most prominent difference to Sosua is the very long stretch of perfectly lovely, palm fringed beach along which are spread out the hotels, restaurants, etc. In Sosua it was very concentratedÃ³the hawkers souvenir stands bars restaurants hotels all in a small place and so you were constantly barraged. Las Terrenas, on the other hand, doesn’t really have a center. Even this weekend, the busiest of the year, it is not so hard to find a quieter section of the beach. There are the occasional vendor about but I found myself more wishing for one to come along and bring me another coconut than wishing they’d stop bugging me.