Sunday, February 23, 2014

My experience wandering through the Dominican Republic

Parque Colón and the West's first cathedral
I just got back from a wild nine days in the Dominican Republic.  It was my first time going there.  I had time to go on my second international trip in three months because I still hadn’t started working yet.  But this trip was unique, as I'd never set out on a similar venture by myself.  I ended up in Nicaragua by myself after my friend Brit got injured in Costa Rica back in 2012, but I didn’t plan it that way.  And last December I traveled to Guatemala and Nicaragua alone…but then I spent the whole time visiting friends, so that was completely different.  
In planning this trip, I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country that wasn’t too far away (not South America or Spain) and that I hadn’t been to before.  It seemed too soon to go back to Central America, so that left the DR and parts of Mexico.  I started looking at fares, and then it just kind of happened.  My goals for the trip were to get to know the culture a little bit, including the food and language, as well as visit some of the historical sites.  I also wanted to relax and enjoy my last little bit of vacation before starting work. 

I did all of those things, but certainly couldn’t have anticipated all the little twists and turns that happen over a week of wandering alone in a country like that, flying by some combination of the seat of my shorts (it was too hot for pants) and advice from locals (which fluctuates wildly), with the occasional contribution from Google.

Here are several things I learned or experienced, in an order that’s not all that particular:

  • They do speak Spanish down there, but it’s very different from Mexican or Central American Spanish.  Some of the Dominicans speak clearly enough, others speak way too fast and don’t enunciate at all (and I mean AT ALL), and others don’t really even speak Spanish, because they’re from Haiti, or severely lacking in education, or due to another mysterious cause or combination of causes.  And things get particularly unintelligible when they’re arguing around a dominos table in the park!
    the guy in purple was my teammate
  • Speaking of dominos, it’s a national craze!  People will gather daily around official tables in the park, or on a street corner.  They play, they argue, they get very animated, speaking very rapidly using lots of slang.  It’s basically impossible to understand them.  I played a few games with one group in Parque Colón (Columbus Park), and the opposing team became more and more incensed as a rather outspoken character sitting next to me shared his approval or disapproval each time I grabbed a piece to play. They thought he was cheating because he could also see one of their team member’s pieces, and that player started laying his down flat and peering underneath so no one else could see.  My team won three games in a row with some beginner’s luck (and maybe a little cheating) before I gave up my seat.  I saw the same group playing every day in the same place until I left the area, only skipping Sunday.  
  • Locals repeatedly asked me where I was from (a few of them postulated Argentina, Spain, or Germany), and they almost always acted surprised when I said the U.S., subsequently asking how I could speak Spanish so well.  This happened over and over again, several times per day, becoming a running joke (that only I was aware of).  I told a handful of people I was from Argentina or Spain just see if they would believe me, and they generally seemed to, at least at first.  
Faro a Colón
  • I spent the first five days or so in Santo Domingo, the capital, which is on the southern coast.  There is a ton of history there, much more than I realized, dating back to Columbus.  They have the first cathedral, first fortress, and ruins of the first hospital in the Western Hemisphere, all within easy walking distance of my dominos-playing friends.  They also claim to have Columbus’s remains in a big lighthouse (that doesn’t look like a lighthouse).  Spain also claims to have his remains. 
  • Parque Colon is a fun little hot spot, right next to that “first cathedral”, with a big statue of Columbus in the middle.  It also has a ton of birds, which flock to all the people who are paying a tuppence for a bag to feed them.  I walked right through veritable flocks as they barely even got out of the way.  
  • One night in the middle of Parque Colón I borrowed a kid’s guitar, we shared a few songs with each other, and then he wanted to improv a duet, which we did.   
  • The last night in Santo Domingo I stayed in a crappy local hotel, a little out of the touristy area, to save some cash.  It was ridiculous—sink faucet didn’t work, no light bulb in the bathroom, no toilet seat—but still fine, really.  And cheap as all get-out. 
random bball game in Sosua
  • I didn’t see anyone playing Soccer the whole time I was there.  Apparently they’re way more into baseball, which makes sense since a bunch of Major Leaguers have come from there.  They also claim that volleyball (which I saw people playing) and basketball (which I never saw anyone playing) are popular.    
  • I took buses from Santo Domingo up to Puerto Plata, on the northern coast.  Some locals I spoke with at the penultimate bus stop said they’d help me find the easiest way to my destination, Sosua (a nearby beach town) without getting ripped off (lots of locals liked to warn me about foreigners getting overcharged, which I was well aware of by this point).  Once we got to Puerto Plata, they flagged down a motorcycle, whom I thought they were just asking for information.  Then they said he would take me to the car stop (like a bus stop, but with cars), and I was like, “what about this luggage”?  He grabbed my suitcase and laid it in front of him on the motorcycle, after which I hopped up behind him with my backpack and murse.  We proceeded to weave through traffic as I was mildly scared for my life.  At one point my hat flew off and got run over by another motorcycle before I picked it up.  He left me at the car stop, where I got in the back seat of a small car before three more people piled into the same back seat, and we headed off to Sosua.  
Sosua beach
  • Once in Sosua, the moto-taxis were everywhere, in bunches, and I couldn’t walk by without a few propositions.  I utilized them a few more times when I got tired enough of walking, always thinking how dangerous it was (nobody wears helmets) and that I should never do it again.  Until I got tired enough of walking again, that is.    
  • A few people I talked to seemed to end every sentence with “comprende?” or “entiende?”, which got annoying really fast.  I talked to a girl who said it in a drawn out, mostly rhetorical way at the end of every sentence.  Even after I made fun of her repeatedly she still couldn’t stop herself from doing it.     
  • I never saw any normal, everyday, fried plantains.  I only saw the dry, boring kind called “tostones”, and a mashed plantain dish, which I just learned is called “mofongo”.  I tried that once and didn’t like it, but I’ll have to give it another chance since it was at a dinky fast food place.  Overall I would rate the plantain usage in the DR as: disappointing.  
  • My last night in Sosua, the doorknob to my hotel room stopped working.  The desk clerk proceeded to dismantle it and force the door open with a hammer and screwdriver.  I slept that night without a doorknob. 

I could go on, but this is probably excessive already.  I had a lot of fun, learned a lot, and found that going to a country like that without knowing anyone (or staying in all-inclusive resorts as many visitors do) makes for a non-stop adventure.  Every day is full of surprises and memorable anecdotes.  I’d do it again, I just wouldn’t stay in the first hostel where my tablet and cash got stolen (oh did I forget to mention that?  Fun times indeed.).  Though that did lead to a couple of scary-but-fun rides on the back on a police motorcycle...

 More pictures from my trip can be found here and here

1 comment:

  1. I loved reading about all you did in the DR. Some fun tidbits about the country. Dominos, who would have thought? We also had a variety of plantaines in PR, but I think the tostones were a little better because they seasoned them more.