I was nervous about going to the Dominican Republic. I went to see my darling granddaughter Katy who has been living there for the past year and a half as a Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in a small village, on the edge of a small city about 2 hours inland from the capitol. I was nervous because I don’t speak a word of Spanish and although I love to travel, in my old age I am apprehensive about going to foreign countries alone. I worry about getting to airports on time, about losing my passport, about getting through customs. Silly stuff to worry about.
I arrived in the middle of the day. My connection was in Miami and on the plane I filled out forms for customs. I expected (hoped) that signs in customs would be in English as well as Spanish, and they were, but I couldn’t figure out what they meant anyway. My passport (which I had not lost) was stamped without comment and I was waved onward. I still held the papers I had filled out though something was checked on one of them by the passport inspector. There were 2 lines forming. In one line people seemed to be paying money. I surmised that was the line for me. When I got to the official of that line she looked at my papers and said, “Ten dollars.” After I paid she gave me some more papers. I said, waving all the papers I was holding, “What shall I do with these?” She pointed at another official. He took some of the papers, and I asked what to do with the rest. He pointed at another uniformed person standing not far off. That one took the rest of the papers.
Around the corner was the salida and as I walked along the exit path lined with people looking for those they were meeting a pleasant looking young man called, “Anne?” I said I was Anne. He said, “Kate is here. She had to pee, but she’ll be right back.” The next minute she was hugging me. I was out of danger.
Katy and her friend, whose name was Jerson, took me out to a good lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Then Jerson drove us through the streets of Santo Domingo to the bus which was to take us to Katy’s city. The buildings in the city had a Spanish look and many of them seemed to be either in a state of disintegration or reconstruction. There was a lot of traffic.
We had a 2 hour wait at the crowded bus station. I looked at the people around me. Most were young or middle aged. There were many children. Everyone had a cell phone, and most, especially women, were carefully dressed. They tended to wear tight clothes, colorful high heeled shoes and a lot of jewelry. The universal hair style was long straight hair. There was a constant high level of noise, music and chatter. Although the outside temperature was in the high 70′s, the bus was cold. Katy said it would get colder, so I got out my winter coat and I was glad of it. The air conditioning was at refrigeration level.
By the time we were out of the city it was dark, and I wasn’t able to see what the country side looked like. When we arrived there were no taxis available. The only option was to walk several miles with luggage or ride on the back of a hired motor bike. It was with extreme trepidation that I climbed on the back seat portion of the motor bike, my backpack on my back. Katy put the small additional suitcase I brought on the handlebars of her driver’s motor bike. We then started on a truly scary ride through the dark unevenly paved streets of the city, and then the muddy, rutted, unpaved streets of her village. As we rode my driver kept shouting something in Spanish at me, even though Katy had told him I didn’t speak the language. Finally he grabbed my hands and pulled them tighter around his rotund middle. I was sooo glad to get off that bike at Katy’s house.
The degree of comfort of the house was astonishing . It was under renovation for a person who lives in the States but who plans to retire in a few years in the Dominican Republic and live on Social Security. The renovation is almost complete and will be finished in a few weeks. It only lacks kitchen cabinets and a closet. The house is freshly painted inside and out.
It has white tiled floors and white walls, so even at night has a light, airy look. For supper we had crackers and cheese and a bottle of wine and I slept well on Katy’s comfortable bed. She slept in another bedroom on an inflatable bed.
There was loud music playing next door (about 5 feet away) until about 11 p m. I was so tired it didn’t bother me and I drifted in and out of sleep, but noticed that about the time the music stopped roosters far and near began to crow. They were still at it when I awoke next morning just as it was getting light. Soon the music began again. There was incessant noise the whole time I was in the DR, but it was cheerful noise and I didn’t mind.
This was a full day, and my first chance to see what the country looked like. First we went to the city. Katy had errands to do: things to buy for the talent show her children’s group was putting on that evening. Again the choice was walk several miles or motorbike.
I found the motorbike a lot less terrifying in the sunlight without a backpack. After a while I saw that many people rode without holding on to the driver, so I copied this and rode with my hands on my knees. I balanced better that way and it was fun.
The buildings in the city were all painted with colorful murals.
Katy said that is unique to this city. It was warm and bright. The shops were full of cheap stuff from China.
We bought decorations for the community center where the talent show was to take place and Katy had some graduation certificates printed for her girl’s group.
Then we motorbiked back to her house and she gave me a walking tour of the village. We stopped at a tiny shop where she put minutes on her phone and another tiny shop where she bought some bread. We climbed some steep stairs to the roof of a building that had apartments in it and looked over the village. There were hills beyond with tall Poinciana trees covered with orange flowers.
Banana and plantain trees grew all around, in the village and on the hills.
Chickens, cats and dogs wandered the streets and groups of children congregated on bikes.
It was the first day in a long time without rain and the sun was out so there was laundry drying on all the fences and lines.
We were invited to lunch at the house of the head of the neighborhood association who, Katy promised, was a really good cook. We had a stew of beans and pumpkin on rice and another stew of pork. Sweet fried plantains were a side dish. It was delicious.
Then we went to the hairdressers!
I had said that I wanted to wash my hair. Katy didn’t have hot water so she said we should go to the hairdresser which would be “a totally Dominican experience” for me. We had to wait quite a while at the hairdressers, located in a single car garage, because the electricity was suddenly on (unusual in the daytime there) and the hairdresser becomes cheaper, and thus crowded, if the electricity is on since they don’t have to use a generator to run the hair dryers.
The entire objective at the hairdresser in the Dominican Republic is to make sure there is no wave or curl in the hair. It is washed, rolled up in huge rollers and then dried, then dried again with a dryer as it is pulled out full length, then dried a third time.
Since my hair is short I didn’t need the rollers to straighten it. When my turn came I was somewhat surprised that my hair was washed in cold water. It ended up completely straight. It was, as promised, a Dominican experience.
We were supposed to be at the community center, which was around the corner from the hairdressers, at 4:30 to supervise decorations, but we were still at the hairdressers until around 5:30. Children came in from time to time to consult with Katy as her hair was being done, and once or twice she went around with rollers or clips in her hair to mediate disputes. We finally finished with hair and got to the site of the festivities at around 6:30 when the show was to begin. Nothing was ready and only a few kids were there. Katy assured me that this was completely normal, that nothing ever began on time in the DR and nobody expected it to.
The show actually started at about 8pm. The event was MCed by Katy and a local youth, Jason, an 18 year old who works with the Peace Corps.
Katy is so fluent in Spanish that sometimes people can’t tell she’s American. The two MC’s engaged in a lot of chatter which of course I didn’t understand. There was awarding of graduation certificates,
and then talent. The talent was mostly dancing, and was mostly done by the boys. The dancing was remarkable. I couldn’t believe what those kids could do with their bodies. They leaped and jiggled and danced their hearts out,
and finally some of the girls did some fantastic belly dancing — shoulders completely stationary and middles and legs moving like snakes.
Then it got wilder. They were all dancing, the big kids, the little ones, the master of ceremonies. The boys had taped cardboard over the iron grate work so people couldn’t see in without paying, but a few climbed up and peeked in anyway.
Some mothers were there, looking on with amusement. At about 9:30 there was a little slice of cake and some warm soda pop for each participant.
Katy and I went back to her house where a friend brought some street food (I can’t remember the name of it. It is a little like the Canadian Poutine. The Dominican version is French fries on the bottom, then ground meat — chicken or beef, then ketchup then mayonnaise. It was good. Again, I slept to the music of the roosters.
It was a happy village. The people seemed well nourished and the houses I was inside of were simple but comfortable. Katy said she only took me to the nice houses. There is poverty. There were many small businesses in Katy’s neighborhood: little shops, the woodworking shop that is making Katy’s kitchen cabinets and closet, the hair dresser, a seamstress who made curtains for Katy’s windows — and others. It is certainly third world — electricity only part of the time, no hot water, much of the cooking out of doors. Katy teaches an AIDS awareness class to teenagers, but in general the kids looked healthy. There is one rich, palatial house in the village, owned by a man whose wife works in the States and sends home money.
He is a major landlord in the area.
I asked Katy about the politics of the country, but she works so much at the local level that she did not have a lot to say about it. A little research on line indicates that it is a democracy much troubled by corruption. Clearly a lot could be done to modernize, sanitize, and generally improve the DR; nevertheless, it is a lovely place to visit. There’s a lot of beauty and many friendly, happy people.
The next day I resumed my tourist status and we took the bus back to the Capitol. We got a taxi to the old colonial part of the city where the oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere stands. Jerson met us later and took us on a short sight seeing expedition to a museum devoted to Columbus and his time. I’ll blog more about that anon.