Saturday, March 23, 2013

Dominican Republic or How Not to Arrive in a Foreign Country

Last June I was craving a vacation somewhere hot.  TH wanted to stay in Alaska and fish, and all of my potential travel partners were either too pregnant, too married, too employed, or too broke to accompany me.  I was on my own.  I called Alaska Airlines to see which Spanish-speaking, beachy country I could reach with miles.  It turned out I could fly all the way to the Dominican Republic, first class, on the dates I wanted.  When does that ever happen?  It was meant to be.  

I arrived at the Santo Domingo airport a little fuzzy-headed.  All of that first class champagne turned out to be rather inconvenient when my bag didn't show up and I had to describe my lost roller suitcase ("una maleta verde con ruedas?") to the airline rep. 

 As I left the terminal, unsure of how or when I would ever be reunited with my belongings, I was pleased to see a sign bearing my name.  Things were looking up!  The taxi I had prearranged had actually waited for me. This has only happened once in my lengthy career of pre-booking foreign airport rides.

I asked my driver, Jose, if he would mind waiting a little longer while I accessed the cash machine.  My connecting flights had been late, which had resulted in missing planned opportunities to pull out money before arriving in the DR.  Sticking my card in the machine, I realized it might have been wise for me to look up the exchange rate for Dominican pesos to US dollars prior to my arrival in the country.  When questioned about the value of the dollar Jose just shrugged his shoulders.  I took a stab in the dark and requested 100 pesos.  Once the money came out Jose scratched his head.  No, that would only buy a couple of sodas.  

 "Try 500 pesos", or so I thought he said. Spanish numbers all sound the same to me when they are bigger than one hundred.  It turns out 500 pesos wouldn't even cover half the taxi fare.  I needed money for food and lodging as well. I stuck the card back in the slot.  "Error!", the machine flashed, spitting out my card.  I tried again. "Error!!"  This was not good.  Would Jose even give me a ride, knowing that I didn't have the money to pay? 

I must have looked pretty pathetic, sweating heavily through the clothing I would wear for the next three days, because Jose suggested we drive around Santo Domingo, trying various cash machines.  We became acquainted on our afternoon tour of banks.  A hefty older man with an easy smile, he'd been married four times and fathered seven boys.  I'm not sure why he thought I'd be a good match for one of his three unmarried sons; perhaps an American Visa is more desirable than a wife with her shit together? 

When the ATMs didn't work Jose insisted I talk to the bank tellers.  Didn't he realize that my toddler Spanish might compromise the effectiveness of this mission?  At this point I had surmised that my account had been closed to foreign access due to suspicious activity, but the thought of no funds for a cocktail pushed me onward. 

After waiting in several bank lobby chairs, leafing through mortgage literature, Jose had the bright idea to take me to a mega grocery store, where I could use a credit card to purchase groceries for survival until I figured out my banking situation.  Instead of waiting in the car, Jose pushed the cart around the store, pointing out the bags of frozen papas fritas, chicken thighs and blocks of cheese.  My focus on the fruit, veggie and rum section seemed to boggle his mind.  Maybe I wasn't good wife material after all....

Arriving at my apartment, Jose made several trips up the four flights of narrow stairs with the groceries while I tried to explain to the apartment manager why I didn't have any money.  Instead of giving me the boot, he actually offered to lend me money until I could get in touch with Wells Fargo.  I had been warned about the machismo attitude prevalent in the Dominican, but I was quickly learning how it could work to my advantage.  Both Jose and the manager agreed to check back in two days to collect their payments.  With help from TH back in Alaska I was thankfully able to pay my debts.  No need to marry Jose's fifteen year old son after all. 

Santo Domingo 

What I did: 

  • Strolled the cobblestone streets of the Zona Colonial (the first European city in the Americas), sipping batidos and watching the men gather in the park for dominoes. 
  • Visited the Museo Alcazar de Colon, the former home of Columbus's son, Diego.  Many of the family's belongings still decorate the museum.  
  • Ate fresh seafood at outdoor cafes along the Malecon.
  • Toured the Museo de las Casas Reales which contained many interesting Taino and early Spanish artifacts.
santo domingo

Where I stayed: 
Santo Domingo Apartments (around $50):  the neighborhood was quiet and friendly and the apartment was clean very comfortable. I felt safe walking about by myself. 

Las Terrenas

What I did:
  • Took a 2.5 hour (including stops) bus ride from the station at Calle Barona #129.   The bus travels on the new highway and drops off about a block from the beach in Las Terrenas.  
  • Walked the beach for hours, stopping occasionally for a dip in the tranquil turquoise water.  
  • Took a moto to Playa Coson; enjoyed an empty beach, a fabulous cocktail, and longostinos the size of my fist. 

  • Relaxed outside: yoga, swimming, walking, reading.  The lovely beach lets you do it all. 
las terrenas dominican republic

  •  Deflected the casanovas. On the negative side, traveling alone as a female in the DR seems to imply that you are interested in an escort.  On the positive side, if you ever want to feel good about yourself, travel to the Dominican alone.  
  • Practiced the local dialect.  It was difficult for me to understand the clipped, slang-ish Carib Spanish, but I found the locals to be friendly, patient, and understanding with my language deficiency.  One afternoon I ventured into a beauty shop for a blow-out.  As the finishing touches were applied, a violent rainstorm erupted.  The ladies of the shop refused to let me leave, as my do would instantly be demolished.  Instead, they massaged my hands, cut my cuticles, and painted my nails while chatting away for a good three hours.  When the rain showed no sign of abating one of the girls walked home for an umbrella, while another scientifically wrapped my straightened hair close to my scalp in a hairnet.  I was then escorted all the way home (a twenty minute walk), my hair under the dual protection of the net and the umbrella. I've never worn a skull-net in public before, but having a friendly escort made it more enjoyable than I ever would have expected. 

Where I stayed:  

Sky Terrace

sky terrace las terrenas

I think I paid around $70 a night...?  The apartment was really cute, even though the private pool wasn't done when I was there.  I think it will be truly lovely with the pool option. 

What about you? Have you ever had any rough entries into a foreign country? 

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