We were leaving La Romana's newest electronics store after buying a replacement part for the VCR when I was obviously paying too much attention to the cellphone I'd just been handed. Stepping out into the street, thankfully I was immediately pulled back as the large truck went whizzing by. I looked up in time to see FedEx International emblazoned all across the back!
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.