Whenever I travel away from the Dominican Republic and then return, I always experience it like it is my first time all over again. Things that were once commonplace are suddenly brought into glaring focus. Among the most notable include:
The first thing I feel when I step off the plane is the intense heat. It is so enveloping and relentless that one has no choice but to wilt. Unless you are headed for a resort, air-conditioning is a luxury you shouldn’t hold your breath for. Even those who can afford it usually just have it in the bedroom, and there are only a few stores and taxis on island that provide it. Mostly, your only option is to acclimate and deal with it. Living in the DR, I’ve never had air conditioning. With the exception of a few particularly dreadful days of the year, I got used to it and the ceiling fans were fine enough for me. Yet every time I return, it always takes a few days to settle back into it.
THE ABUNDANCE OF BEER
Feeling physically heavy from the overwhelming weight of the heat, I’m immediately reminded why beer is such a popular beverage here: beer is the only beverage you can get ICE cold. Sure, you can get water, soda, juice, or milk cold, but nothing is quite like the beer from the local colmado (convenience store), which is always served nearly frozen. They’ll even deliver it to you at almost any time of the day for no extra charge. In fact, a beer is usually referred to simply as una fria (a cold one).
THE DELIGHTS OF LOCAL AVOCADOS
My island home has a window that overlooks a huge avocado tree. When they are in season, it is covered in ripe avocados hanging off its branches, almost within an arm’s reach. This is definitely one of the best things about living in the Dominican Republic.
Avocados are such a source of pride here. It is one of the few vegetables that grow locally that people eat plain. You can buy avocados on the street, in a local market (colmado), or just pick them off a tree. To assure the quality of a given avocado, Dominicans are even willing cut the fruit open right in front of you, just to demonstrate how good it really is.
One thing you need to get used to if you’re going to survive in Santo Domingo is the level of unrelenting noise that surrounds you. It is never quiet here – there are just different degrees of loudness. The base sounds are barking dogs, distant traffic, and construction. In Santo Domingo there is always construction happening; they seem to be constantly building new apartments, advertising special move-in rates, though they mostly remain vacant. All of the building is performed by Haitians who live on-site in little shacks. Most, if not all, are here illegally.
Above the base sounds, you’ll hear music (especially at night), people talking loudly (Dominicans have no sense of how loud they are or just do not care), and the street vendors harping their wares: fruit, scrap metal, knife sharpening, and more.
THE ADVENTURES OF PUBLIC TRANSPORT
If you plan on traveling around by public transportation, be prepared for an adventure. I mostly get around the city via local buses and public cars, saving the taxis for special occasions in an effort to keep costs down. The buses are noisy and dirty. There is no emission control and plumes of black smoke emit out of surrounding vehicles, enveloping the bus whenever it’s waiting at stops. The buses stop anywhere and everywhere, rather than making formal stops, so travel is very inefficient. Plus, the drivers are daredevils who put stunt drivers to shame, as they speed along the road, coming within inches (literally) of other vehicles.
The public cars are not much better, cramming two people (no matter the size) into the front passenger seat and four in the back. One learns to let go of any previously held standards of personal space pretty quickly.
Another thing I’ve learned when travelling around the DR is that it is essential to always bring some tissue and disinfectant wipes with you, as almost all bathrooms are without paper and often without an actual seat. You’re left to crouch over in an awkward hovering position and simply hope for the best. Usually the sink – if there even is one – isn’t much better, hence the need for the wipes.
THE SKEWED SENSE OF TIME
Time in the Dominican Republic is best described as “Tropical Time”, since it doesn’t exist here in the Western sense of the word. For business meetings, I will arrive at the scheduled time and invariably find that the client is not even in the office. After waiting for half an hour, I will ask the receptionist, who may, if I request, call the client, to which I am informed, “he/she is leaving now”. Another half an hour or more goes by, I inquire again, and another call is made. Now the client “is arriving”, yet it still takes at least 15 minutes or more before they actually get there. In an effort to outwit this island frustration, I’ve tried to come late to my appointments, but it seems the client is always just as late, no matter when I arrive.
In fact, when talking about time in the Dominican Republic, I have learned to decode the language. So here is a key for you, as I have learned it:
- vengo pronto (coming soon) or vengo ahorita (coming in a little bit) = a long time from now
- vengo ahora (coming now) = usually within a few hours
- vengo ahora mismo (coming right now) = within the hour (one hopes)
- estoy saliendo (I am leaving) = about 15-20 minutes before they really leave
- estoy en camino (on my way) = they are going to walk to their car
- estoy llegando (I am arriving) = they are on the road
- ya llego (I have arrived) = they are 15-20 minutes away
Basically, the person has to be in eyesight for you to know they have arrived. My experience with my husband, who is from India, is that Indians also suffer from Tropical Time syndrome in much the same way as Dominicans. My husband would always say “only 10 minutes” when it could be more than an hour. With him, I multiply by 5 or 6 and then the time is usually pretty close.
If there was one food that defined Dominicans above all, it would be the plantain, shown in the photo below on the bottom shelf. Known as platano, it is basically a large banana with a meatier texture. Dominicans eat them fried as tostones, mashed as mangu, and boiled as sancochado. In fact, if a foreigner has lived in the Dominican Republic long enough, they say that she is aplatanada, which means that she has eaten enough plantains to officially be considered a Dominican.
I can definitely call myself an aplantanada (estoy aplatanada). When I do say it aloud, Dominicans always do a double take with a surprised expression that says, “How do you know that expression??!!” and I simply respond with a wink, “Ya tu sabes…” (meaning, you know).