A July 2003 trip
to Dominican Republic by Jose Kevo
Quote: From IGO's self-appointed Dominican ambassador, a continutation of my DR SURVIVOR journal with practical insider tips and information you won't find in most travel guidebooks that can benefit both independent and resort travelers in the country's southeastern region.
Summer Travelers need remember that July/August are the beginning of hurricane season. Within four days of departing, a tropical depression settled in, soaking the southeastern region for two days/nights. Is this worth the gamble? Things certainly heated up with my luck and the weather.
Full Capacity was what independent travelers found in villages with resorts also running full tilt. Interacting with Europeans enhanced the cultural experiences, and while their pesos somewhat boost the local economy, their Outside Influences are also making a rather debatable contribution.
Faces & Places: While the DR has some of the most varied natural beauties in all of the Caribbean, it''s the warmth and hospitality of The People that you must find a way to discover. I guarantee it will keep you coming back for more.
My Photos may not specifically tie to general information, but enjoy them as a precursor of new journals to come. Also find what to expect in need of Safeguarding Film.
Looking for Latin Lovers? BEWARE! Sex for Sale is readily available.
Travel Planning Resources I recommend include:
CONATRA is a new transportation line serving the southeastern region with new models of gua-guas/buses and publicos/vans including air-conditioning, and more frequent, consistent service meeting demands of locals and the many travelers now obviously using them.
Metro & Caribe Bus Lines, upscale charter services which hub from Santo Domingo, have finally expanded with eastbound routes serving the south coast, and as far east as Punta Cana/Bavaro. Call the Metro number at 809/566-7126, and Caribe at 809/221-4422 for schedules. Caribe lines have more routes and run more frequently. Expect to pay more than public transportation costs.
Motoconchos are something most travelers avoid, but they''re part of the DR experience - convenient for getting around in cities, or making short rural connections. Consider looking for an older driver...unless you plan on doing Fast and the Furious!
Driving is something I still highly discourage based on safety factors, costly rental/insurance rates, and local police who tend to single out tourists for violation taxation stops. Also, regular unleaded gasoline was averaging RD65 - about .00 a gallon.
With pending threat and then actual war with Iraq, the tourist season for 2003 had been virtually wiped out. No tourists meant no means of employment/income for an economy depending more and more on the travel industry. But locals' panic and misfortunes had turned into a wealth of opportunities for current travelers that were back out in full force. Why? Because actual costs/prices had not risen for anything. And when factoring in that the peso rate was 16.8 on the dollar during my last visit, this trip was literally like getting everything for half price!
Those who know I consider the DR my second home might be quick to think this inexpensive holiday was possible because of inside connections. While there were certainly advantages, opportunities for you to come indulge just as inexpensively hinge solely on the value of the peso and your willingness to stay beyond the resort walls - though all-inclusive package prices had also bottomed out.
In my upcoming journals, I'll detail specific places and information where independent travelers can expect to find the budget bargains, regardless of the peso's value. Also consider these tips for maximizing the value of your money.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on September 10, 2003
Summer travelers can be thankful for those legendary Caribbean trade winds which make the tropical humidity tolerable and rarely allow temperatures to exceed 90 degrees (32 degrees Celsius), making for much cooler conditions than in the U.S. or even Europe. What I wasn''t expecting was the immense intensity of the summer sun.
My first clue should have been arriving to find friends charred well beyond their mulatto caramel/copper skin tones; some beyond the point of immediate recognition. Thankfully, I''ve a darker complexion which easily tans, and I knew a good base-tan was necessary for survival. At no point did I use sunscreens or burn to the point of peeling, but there was one exposed area I wasn''t expecting to suffer with. My lips blistered early on, basically remaining that way. Lip balm without heavy sunscreen doesn''t work!
It didn''t take much for my long-anticipated "fun in the sun" to wear off; especially considering that within a couple of hours of getting up, everyone was left feeling lethargic no matter how well they''d slept. The amount of sun intake simply going from one place to another is incalculable. Take cues from the locals and find shade when and wherever possible. Unless on an all-day excursion, rarely did I ever go to the local beach before 3pm, and temperatures were always greater when venturing into the cities.
If you''re coming for sun in the southeastern region during July/August, that''s exactly what I got! During my entire stay, at no point did it rain in the daytime--until the day I left, ironically, which I likened to the tears of Mother Nature to accompany all the others. Only one day was overcast, though I continued to speak with travelers who came to Bayahibe escaping daily clouds/rain in Samana and Boca Chica.
Nights quickly cooled off to the lower 70s/20s, surprising travelers with how comfortable sleeping was with only a fan, and actually needing the sheet by early mornings. Intense evening showers quickly passed on only four occasions, though while watching the 2003 Pan American games two hours away in Santo Domingo, events were carried out amid ongoing downpours.
When planning your DR trip, remember: rainy season for the north tends to be in summer while the south gets hit in winter/spring...like in Bayahibe, where it rained every day/night this past April.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 10, 2003
I crave the home-cooked comida creolle and again had no hesitations eating whatever was placed before me, whether in a local eatery or home. Yes, meats, fruits, and vegetables...all those supposedly forbidden things that are often unrefrigerated or prepared using unacceptable health standards. The results? Maybe a few extra pounds, with the biggest catastrophe getting a fish bone stuck in my throat.
My confidence was confirmed when I realized I hadn''t even bothered to pack the Pepto or other preventive medicines. And I accept full responsibility for the few times I did have minor stomach rumblings. Why? Because they were the days I drank too much rum and the local Mama Juana, which also serves as a system cleanser. Wary travelers have got to keep this in mind and not panic in situations where they see tourists getting sick in places like Saona Island. It wasn''t the food buffet which poisoned people, but the unlimited rum and sun on the way down!
Fortunately, El Presidente beers consumed in mass quantities had a very favorable, thirst-quenching effect, but regardless of what you eat/drink, water has to be the primary focus of your consumption. We were going through a minimum of two 5-gallon jugs of bottled water a day at the house.
Don''t drink the water? I came home to find half a pitcher of water on the table, which I quickly slammed. Mami immediately started in with why I''d drank water which came from the tap? Thankfully, her concern was needing to drink colder, bottled water from the refrigerator, NOT getting sick. The government now supplies purified tap water to homes, establishments...and yes, area resorts. It didn''t make me sick! To be safe, I''d still recommend drinking bottled water and using it for brushing teeth. But I think this is an indication tourists can stop clinching their lips in the shower to prevent bacteria entry.
My Preventive Ritual Before every extended stay, I take a full 10-day dosage of basic antibiotics and load up on yogurts. People, I Don''t Get Sick! However, I wasn''t expecting or prepared for returning home and within 24 hours of American food/water, having stomach rumblings worse than any travel experience.
A washcloth, bandana or some type of rag is essential to keep stuck in your back pocket for frequently wiping your brow; especially when crammed in a 15-passenger, un-air-conditioned publico with 19 other people!
Especially if venturing into one of the larger cities, consider wearing a comfortable pair of beach flops or sandals rather than regular shoes, which will help ward off the hordes of little shoeshine boys who are not only persistent, but often pitiful enough to prompt emptying your pockets 5 pesos at a time.
Resort tourists tired of going on vacation and having to deal with dress codes should highly consider staying in a coastal village like Bayahibe where proximity to the sea excuses any comfortable and casual mode of dress you choose to wear...also erasing the need for packing extra clothing.
In general, Dominicans have became more relaxed in expectations for dress. When entering local churches/cathedrals, "dress as you may" has replaced the reverent, restrictive codes which kept most tourists out. However, there's obviously some expectations one's just not aware of - of course, until it's too late...like when you come off the beach and prepare to go into town with your Mami...and she sends you back to the house to change the beach flops for shoes...just because it's Sunday.
Summer travelers will get an added bonus for arriving while mosquito populations are at their lowest. Yes, even on notoriously infested places like Catalina and Saona Islands. Sandflies were also all but absent, but there's plenty of other insects at their peak in places to more than make up for them.
Very aggressive wasps/avispas were everywhere on the prowl. If you get stung, apply cooking oil and sugar, or if you can reach the bite, squeeze a lime and then dab some Mama Juana on it and suck the poison out. If you can't reach the sting, ask a friend or significant other to do it for you.
Also while you're out and about, think twice before you sit down on anything that's not furniture, or casually lean up against a wall. It will be too late when you discover you've got ants in your pants! I'm also willing to bet it won't happen more than twice.
Thankfully, all that sweating, regardless of how much liquid you're drinking, will keep the need for finding a bathroom to a minimum. It's just as well, since public restrooms are often very hard to come by even when entering places of business. Don't expect to automatically find toilet paper, and ladies - finding a toilet with an actual seat is even more rare.
RECEPTIONS vs. PERCEPTIONS
I admit to being very spoiled by the warmth and hospitality of my village and too often use this as a measuring stick for anywhere else I go, whether in company of family/friends or alone.
La Romana was full of obvious travelers, and locals appeared more than eager to interact and be helpful. At one point, after paying a driver, a RD50 bill fell out of my pocket and a young man quickly rushed to pick it up and hand it back - something my friend assured me would never happen in Santo Domingo. In Higuey, I never saw tourists except in/around the Basilica, but reception of locals everywhere was still warm and somewhat curious.
Don't expect to find this in the tourist meccas of Bavaro or Boca Chica, where regardless of my local knowledge or ability to speak the language, I was perceived as just another stupid tourist with pockets full of money that somehow needed to be emptied! There was blatantly obvious price-gouging, which upcoming journals will detail so you'll know what to be aware of or avoid altogether.
Pay very close attention to prices I've listed regarding all forms of transportation, and use these as a guide, since this was one of the easiest sources of getting overcharged. Confidently hand the driver the exact change when ever possible. There was never a problem with publicos or gua-guas, but private taxis (where you should always predetermine the rate) and motoconchos were something else.
We'd hailed a couple of motoconchos in La Romana, where a ride in town should never be anything more than RD10. When we'd arrived at our destination side by side, my boy handed his driver 10 pesos, but mine looked at me and demanded 15. Before he could even intercede, I exclaimed, "Te doy diez y nada mas, coño!"/I'll give you 10 and nothing more, [common local expletive]. The driver obviously wasn't expecting that and snatched the money...Junior just shaking his head, laughing that I could fend for myself.
For the first time ever when returning from a trip, I was highly disappointed to get pictures back and find three rolls of film blank, another blank after the third frame, and others had hit-or-miss spots appearing to be from exposure. I tried reasoning different possibilities: too much heat/sun, a bad batch of film; but at this point, I'm more inclined to believe it was from airport screenings/X-rays.
Obviously, with heightened security, travelers should expect more checkpoints. Notices warn never to leave film/camera in checked baggage with new high-tech X-ray machines...not that any of us ever did or would before these advancements, or you could even lock your luggage. My film was in the black canisters, double-wrapped in paper/plastic bags, and in my carry-on backpack. Trouble was, all those new heightened security checkpoints!
I have to figure: in addition to expected routine and random screenings, I had the extra check-in after a 5-day layover in Puerto Rico. There's now U.S. Agriculture X-ray screening at Santo Domingo's airport. And after enduring rigorous screenings/X-rays for clearing immigration/customs at Miami International, you're immediately processed through again to reenter for your connecting flight...of which we got the double screw of having our gate changed to another terminal and having to complete the entire search process all over. Altogether, my film was X-rayed nine times!
These are the days when it's definitely time to invest in special film-carrying cases which block X-rays - especially if you expect so many checkpoints. I've quit trying to determine which captured experiences have been lost forever. Thankfully, I've still hundreds more to keep and share.
Sanky is the name given to Dominican males who regularly seek out tourists for sex and ongoing long-distance relationships based on future gains. Female Sankies, socially viewed differently from prostitutes, are also on the prowl. I've long been troubled by these "survival games," which go far beyond Dominicans' overactive passion for living. Trouble is, they've gotten a global reputation that might put pesos in their pockets, but is also taking a very destructive, corrupted toll on the population in general.
Looking for that Latin Lover
When traveling through Europe and mentioning the Dominican Republic, it wasn't inexpensive holidays or beautiful beaches people spoke of; it was always the sex! The DR has joined Bangkok and San Jose, Costa Rica as a favored global sex destination, which sets a double standard for the apparent minority of travelers who don't come looking for it. That said, I'm also leery of tainting your potential interactions with the sincerely hospitable and friendly locals who aren't after one thing only. But how are travelers to know the difference?
Within my village comfort zone, I'm never even asked for 5 pesos from shoeshine boys. But when venturing beyond, especially without the accompaniment of locals, I'm a tourist, which makes me eligible for solicitation regarding anything sex-/non-sex-related. Engaging interaction is one thing, but you should quickly be able to sense if there's something more through hints of a flirtatious, secretive, or point-blank approach. Thankfully, Dominicans are not pushy and persistent; indicating you're not interested will send them on their way - unlike Jamaica, where people tend to harass/intimidate.
Don't think that staying locked away in your resort excludes you from exposure. These are the hotbeds of activities, thanks to local staffs who are often encouraged to mingle with guests. Other resorts have a "zero-tolerance" policy, but it's hard to eradicate what the people want.
A former Sanky relocated to NYC once detailed methods for skirting policies at a popular resort complex. At night, tourists walk down the beach just beyond the resort boundary, where locals were waiting. After hooking up, they would then have to pay/bribe the security guard to enter the property, the desk clerk to enter the facility, and anyone else who crossed their path and could potentially benefit from taxation.
During this last visit, there were a pair of middle-aged Italian women in the village who always had a bevy of males following them everywhere due to the fistfuls of pesos they were obviously handing out. Their cabaña was across the way, within full view of my porch, and I was disgusted with their ongoing parade of evening visitors...even troubled by some I knew. To think these young men could make more in one night than for a week's worth of hard work at their day jobs sounded all too familiar.
"This Is How We Do It"
Currently, the southeast region is experiencing an evangelistic crusade boom; "the church" recognizes this ongoing problem and is choosing not to look the other way or honor the expected code of silence which has long shielded promiscuous behaviors. A local youth pastor wanted to have an in-depth discussion with me on means of intervention based on my years of working with street kids in NYC's Spanish Harlem.
Obviously, the local commodity in question wasn't drugs...though I was shocked to find for the first time cocaine, ecstasy, and other party drugs readily available from/for tourists and newly addicted locals alike. Experience has taught me that solutions lie in the "why's" and not the "how's" of such behaviors.
In the Western world's second most impoverished country, where education, skills, and jobs are not only limited, but average $5.75 for a day's worth of work, people have to do what they do to survive. Throw in the reputable overactive Dominican libido, further stoked on liquor and Mama Juana, which serves as an aphrodisiac, and coupled with the insatiable desires of many tourists - the outcome seems inevitable.
There have been nights sitting around over beers and conversations when topics diverted to sex and the exploits of tourists. I'd silently listen...trying to understand when somebody always notices my cocked eyebrow or baffled, unamused expressions. The quick reassurance always follows that "I'm different; I'm one of them...they would never...," and before the night is over, usually various apologies masquerading as pleas for acceptance and forgiveness for their behaviors.
I remain consistent in my position: while I don't condone, I certainly don't condemn. But for whatever that's worth, reasoning is hard to compete with the designer clothes, gold chains, and cash that frequently find their way back to the village, sent from Europe. A young man I've watched grow up over the years and consider a good friend sat with me one evening and I point-blank asked about the how's/why's.
The conversation quickly switched to English to insure I'd fully understand everything...though he could have as easily spoken in Italian, German, or the basic French he's in the process of learning. Language fluency is essential for telling foreign patrons exactly what they want to hear in the heat of passion, along with the Sanky being able to communicate exactly what they want/expect later and for the future.
I asked how he could do this night after night, and with some obviously undesirable and twisted people; what kind of toll was gnawing away at his inner being....not to mention the potentially fatal health risks from STDs. His only defense? "I just think about the money." Money. Clothes. Marriage proposals with visa papers to leave the country. And just so you know, cars are also at the top of those lists.
Safeguarding the Unsuspecting Traveler
Over the years, I've helped many travelers plan their time in DR. Usually one of the primary concerns is safety. I relay that safety shouldn't be a problem, but always caution about the very subject addressed here. Whether from the taboo nature of the topic, or self-guilt of exposure, it's usually been enough to cease correspondence right there!
In another case, I ended up serving as translator for e-mails sent from DR that had Sanky written all over them! The woman was making a return visit within months of meeting this individual I didn't know. Again, while assuring that they were both consenting adults, I briefly detailed what she was likely getting into. She haughtily replied that she would never pay for sex. No, but she was obviously footing the entire bill for them to be together during her return, had already wired money, and who knows what costs lay in the future?
Another, when returning from their trip, heatedly wrote, "Why didn't you tell me?" Well...I did, and I'm telling everyone again here and now. People can only be taken advantage of if they allow themselves to be! To say there's one born every minute, vulnerable ones at that, is exactly what they're counting on beyond the one-night stand. Stella may have got her groove back in the Caribbean, but don't count on getting yours!
Sexually Transmitted Diseases, including HIV/AIDS, are prevalent in the DR, further spread by widely practiced bisexuality. During my stay, there was a young man who died in the village from it. Again, you've been forewarned!
Personal Experiences involving tourists and Sankies are regularly sagafied in a specific message board category found at DR1. Not to pass judgement, but...
Did You Really Expect me to post mugshots of the guilty? OK, past/future journals will likely be littered with evidence, but don't automatically label all you see!
Let's face it: progress anywhere in the world is inevitable, but at the rate things are happening in the Dominican Republic, I repeatedly found myself wondering and calculating how long until things would change beyond the point of recognition, and the once-simple appeals of daily life would be lost forever.
I remember in 1997 when my small village, with population less than 1000, went into culture shock when electricity was finally provided, utility service for telephones became available, and civil engineering tore up streets installing a water system. The trade-off now, in 2003? Television antennas clutter the sky, and there's no less than a dozen places where you can access the Internet, but the government never returned to repave the streets - hence, the backwoods dirt-road effect everywhere within the village.
With presidential elections slated for 2004, Dominicans are putting great hope in a leader who will continue to lead the country forward, and further away from the current situation, with democratic freedoms still bogged down by a dictatorship mentality that has subdued the people for decades. Keeping the general population cut off from the rest of the world is no longer possible, but changes have came about in a reverse manner that has challenged the government and continues reshaping the DR on a monumental daily basis.
Europeans have flooded the country - first as travelers, and then as residents, taking full advantage of investment opportunities allowing them to further cater to their overseas comrades. Especially in heavily populated tourist areas, you'll find resorts, hotels, restaurants, and small businesses owned by these "expats" who have arrived within the last 10 years. With them has come an expected standard of living that has denounced the government's ability to control the population, but certainly not without a costly price tag.
With the Dominican government, Money Talks! Perceived as wealthy outsiders, the new entrepreneurs have repeatedly paid the price to remain and operate a business. Locals have also dearly paid with the emergence of this new, prospering class which often hires them for substandard wages. But the greatest sacrifices are from ongoing outside influences which are redefining and reshaping Dominican culture - both from their new European neighbors and the mass number of tourists they attract.
Heading into La Romana on a typically overcrowded publico, I hadn't noticed until it was time to begin making stops and the questions started coming: the van was half-full of Dominicans, the other half tourists. In trying to help provide necessary information, I was quite impressed as my friends began answering in Italian, German, debating which of them spoke the better French. And when all else failed, telling me in Spanish so I could further translate in English...the universal language locals actually speak the least of, since Americans, Canadians, and Brits make up such a small percentage of visitors.
During this stay, I had opportunities to meet more travelers than from likely all my previous stays combined. Our family now owns the only laundry service in town, and the ratio of foreigners stopping by on a daily basis was equal to local patronage. Again, when all other communications failed, it was English which prevailed and opened the door for interactions beyond the cost of having a shirt washed and pressed.
Sometimes talk never went beyond my recommendations of what to see and do in the area. But when opportunities presented themselves, my inquisitiveness went into full swing to further discuss topics that definitely give a hinting glimpse into what lies ahead for the Dominican country and people - especially crucial since most expats I've encountered have assumed an ownership steeped in a superior mentality geared towards what's best for them and their business, regardless of locals and what they might want or think.
Most travelers were on their first trip to the DR based on recommendations from friends. They were also quick to distinguish that they would never stay in resorts and preferred the daily, everyday life found in the village. Yet there were some inquiries which hinted about the basic crudeness and possibilities for future arrival of amenities - all things they'd sacrificed by not staying in a resort.
Other than New York Dominicans returned home, two pairs of American college professors, and students who were studying in the country, everyone else I met was from Western European nations. It's no surprise that Italians, Germans, and Swiss comprised the largest percentage of travelers in equal proportion to the number of Bayahibe area, European-immigrant-owned businesses. Also worth noting are the growing number of French travelers, and ones who are beginning to permanently return.
Of all the Caribbean countries, the DR has the widest range of climates, topography, and varied activities and attractions - more than a traveler could ever begin to discover in an extended holiday. Most I spoke with indicated they would consider returning to continue exploring other parts of the country. A smaller percentage indicated they'd had/seen enough, while even fewer shared my dream of someday being able to return and permanently stay.
As for why's of wanting to return? Wanting a more laid-back, peaceful way of life. Potential investment opportunities. Stress-free living...though I'm quick to caution that even with adequate financial resources, this was next to impossible since I've repeatedly learned that life in the DR may be alluring, but certainly not without its share of hardships and struggles. And don't think because I've been quick to point out corruptive changes from foreign influences that I haven't been quick to survey my own ignorances of Americanisms that also affect my family/village, potentially contributing to changes I'm so against.
There's something special about the Dominican people, and just being around them undoubtedly makes me a better person. Unfortunately, I think this is the biggest hidden factor that travelers, or foreigners moving in, might be overlooking and missing out on...regardless of where they're coming from. To even suggest such a concept was all but disregarded when speaking with travelers except for one.
It was around 3:30pm when one of the local shoeshine boys had a new arrival in town looking for a place to stay. Our cabañas were full, as I knew most were in town, but I felt sorry for this sweat-soaked stranger with oversized backpacks strapped to his front and back while carrying tents, camping gear, and other items in hand. Eventually getting him settled, I invited him to meet us later in the village center for the nightly colmado ritual. It turned out to be one of those things you can't explain why or how it happened, but you're sure glad it did!
Ala was a 31-year old Parisian whose family roots came from Tunisia. He too shared the unexplainable passion for discovering the world through travel, but the difference was - he left home in 1998 and has yet to return! There was a mutual admiration which compelled us into lengthy conversations - my wanting to know about his global experiences; his willingness to learn and share in the daily lives of the family and village through an inside connection.
And perhaps for those few days, Ala found a temporary place to call home since he altered his plans to stay and not leave until the day I did. He added me to his list of family he regularly checks in with from around the world by e-mail. I asked if he'd seen or found enough to consider staying in the DR. Cuba and Mexico were next on his list of "must-sees." But provided I get to make that permanent move home once and for all, he'd definitely consider making a return visit.
Regardless of where he'd been or planned on going, Ala obviously had learned to recognize what most global travelers are likely missing out on which imparts an unconsciousness for visitors in the sense of tourists and expats: to see and accept things for how they are - not how they think they should be.