No Paradise Without Serpents – The Dominican Republic

The first of a three part window on the Caribbean.

By Dennis Tkach. Nestled between Castro’s Cuba and the American protectorate of Puerto Rico you will find the second largest island in the Caribbean. This is Hispaniola, so named by Christopher Columbus on his first visit to the Americas. Hispaniola is a name rarely used today (but which I love because it conjures up romantic images of Captain Jack Sparrow, Long John Silver and a colorful who’s who list of swash buckling pirates plundering booty under the Jolly Roger). The island is divided into two countries. Haiti, one of the world’s poorest nations, occupies one third of the island while The Dominican Republic lays claim to the rest. Haiti’s language is ( Creole patois) French while the Dominican Republic (hence referred to as the D.R.) is Spanish speaking (also a curious patois).

Do not leave home without your copy of “Spanish For Dummies” or some form of electronic translator. You will need it because most Dominicans do not understand a lick of English. Before embarking on any trip to a Spanish speaking country teach yourself ‘Dennis’ 4 Rules Of Communication’.
1: Learn to count
2: Learn to read a menu.
3: Learn to say “Mi hay perdido” (I am lost.)
4: The most important rule of communication? “Donde esta el banyo?”
(Where is the bathroom?)

Some holiday literature will declare that the Dominican Republic is the most popular tourist destination in the Caribbean. They lie. It is not.

Travelogues, for the most part, are created by people in the tourist and travel industry. They are bright, vivid snapshots in pictures and words, extolling the virtues of a particular destination. These standard ‘holiday’ pieces are written with the primary purpose of vying for the coveted tourist dollars of pleasure seekers. Understandable. For this reason one can find little fault in commercial ‘travelogues’.

Tourism is predominantly a European and North American spawned creature with a trillion dollar appetite that is always hungry. I have always believed that travelogues should be balanced with an answer to the question, ‘What are they not telling me?’ Such glossy menus conjure mind drooling mental images but they tend to hide unpleasant and at times alarming realities. The Garden of Eden should remind all that there can be no paradise without serpents.

In January, as my wife and I were preparing to join our oldest son Randy and his family on their month long holiday in the D.R., I intended to write a travelogue on my return. However, based on my experiences I would like to offer something that I believe is much more interesting.

If you want to see, learn and really get a sense of a country, it’s culture and it’s people, you will never do so by staying in guarded resorts where every whim is prepaid and catered to by a pampering program that delivers a safe but sterilized ‘all inclusive’ environment. For hard working stiffs who endure stress at the workplace for most of the year and who want to do nothing but be sun worshipping relaxation junkies for a week or two, resorts definitely deliver. Just not in my life.

Forsaking cloistered resorts and traveling extensively throughout the Dominican Republic I collected a veritable feast of information about this remarkable and amazing third world country. I am sharing images of the real D.R. untouched by a travel peddler’s airbrush. Despite it’s warts and irritations, it is a fascinating island republic well worth getting to know. Dominica is a place for those who love a ‘wild west’ new frontier atmosphere where tourism is in it’s infancy and the natural charms of the land and the people are still largely untouched by the avaricious money mavens of foreign investment.

DR garbageChristopher Columbus first threw down his anchor off the shore near the present day D.R. capital, Santo Domingo. One can still tour his home. Sadly, other than this and some crumbling fortress ruins this city holds little to impress or interest a tourist. There are no nice beaches, the streets are shockingly littered with garbage, the restaurants are so-so and the total populace, including merchants and clerks, as mentioned earlier, understand very little English.

Santo Domingo is a curious dichotomy of civil evolution. It is a city full of bustling commerce but with very little tourist appeal. Signs of investment and development are everywhere but they are like mushrooms on a field of compost. Santo Domingo is a lump of coal awaiting billions of government peso squeeze before it can be transformed into a diamond worthy of joining the world’s great capitals. If you are planning on going to the D.R. do not make this city a destination, at most, it is worth a one-day side trip.

At the time of this writing a Canadian loonie buys 34 pesos, an American dollar, 40 pesos, and for your stay in the D.R. you will need a LOT of pesos! This was the first reality shock I received. There is a required $10.00 ‘entrance’ fee at the airport before you get your ‘tourist card’… nothing more than a little paper receipt you will never need anywhere you go. Driving from the airport we hit toll stop after toll stop on the one highway that must be traveled to reach our destination. Total cost, another $8.00.)

I also was reminded that most goods and canned or pre-prepared foods come from the U.S. or Europe, hence everything except local fruits and vegetables is as expensive or even more so than here at home. Restaurant meals, surprisingly, are comparable to our prices. In a country where the median income of the 10% compromising the middle class is only $5000.00 per annum, I wonder how everyone survives. With respect to the 90% making up the majority of Dominicans who make far less, I learned that these hardy healthy folk exist on simple diets of rice, home raised chickens and piglets, and all edible things that grow.

In the ‘country’ outside the towns, most of the locals live in ramshackle one room huts made of cinder block or corrugated tin. These stark images of third world habitats have no glass on their windows, no indoor plumbing, no electricity and no bathrooms. Outhouses often consist of simple ‘fill-in-when-full’ holes in the ground.

Because of the rich year round availability of (chemical free treated) fruits such as pineapples, mangos, papayas, banana, plaintains, passion fruit, coconuts, guavas, oranges, etc. along with home-grown veggies (also organically grown), the general health of Dominicans is wonderful. Perfect white beaming smiles and beautiful dusky complexions make us pasty sugar and chemical polluted gringos look sickly indeed.

Situated on the north-west coast of the island lay our primary destination, the bustling town (population 40,000) of Las Terrenas. This former sleepy little fishing village lies on the shores of a narrow finger-like jungle peninsula. It beckons like Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan reminding me of one of the author’s famous sayings. “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

dennis beachAt Las Terrenas you will find some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. A bright sun-kissed skirt of sugar fine sand the color of light honey stretches endlessly around the peninsula totally free of pesky foot irritating stones, coral chunks, and smelly seaweed. Beyond, the eye takes in the wonder of crystal clear waters that reflect the whimsical moods of the sky overhead as broad bands of aqua green, turquoise and light blue trade places dancing across the bath warm sea. The beaches are never crowded with lots of personal space and quiet.

Mere meters separate the sea from a thick fringe of shade giving palm trees under which free lawn chairs await gringo butts and little white tables hold liquid refreshments and a rich variety of menu offerings from small grass covered oasis-like huts dotting the beach. All day and into the warm welcome evenings lively salsa and meringue music fills the air, fading away only when the tourists retire to their hotel rooms.

At the beach beer is reasonable, Coca-Cola $1.75 a bottle, a large plate of fresh and delicious French fries is $4.00 and a variety of delicious meal offerings runs in the $10.00 – $15.00 range.

Downside? Mosquitoes. They come out at night, they come out in the morning hours, and they want your blood. Take plenty of repellant with you and you will be fine. In all my time there I had only three bites. For sitting out on a porch or balcony in the evenings I brought a package of trusty du-du coils. They did a great job of keeping ALL flying critters at bay. The Dominican variety of mosquito is tiny by Canadian standards and makes no irritating buzzing sounds around your ears to warn you that you are about to provide brood food for little air-born baby buggers.

If you are intent on using a cell phone to call home whilst on your tropical getaway, squash the urge. It is expensive! My son bought a plan through Telus that alas to his horror he discovered… DID NOT WORK! The local people all have cell phones, but no land lines, television, no radio, no newspapers, no traffic lights, few street lights and no sense of driver rights and courtesies.

The majority of the locals drive motorbikes, scooters or mopeds. Only the tourists and the 10% middle class can afford cars or trucks. Most of the drivers do not have driver’s licenses and understand next to nothing about road rules. Helmets and seatbelts? Forget it. Enforcement by local police? Non existent. Drivers seldom stop at stop signs and if there were any traffic lights in Las Terrenas I am certain that they too would be ignored. Honking horns warn you that you are about to be passed and often rudely cut off. Double lines on hills and sharp turns are ignored, and biker traffic at times seems incredibly stupid and chaotic. Yet in all the time I was there I never saw one accident. Strange can be the ways of man, eh?

Did I mention the speed bumps that scar all the roads and are almost as numerous as the potholes? If there was ever a shooting war these irritating towering beauties could be used as walls to hide behind. Our rental car ‘bottomed out’ no matter how slow we attempted to cross them. My advice? When in the towns and cities of the D.R. take a taxi. They are inexpensive and will save you a great deal of white-knuckle grief.

dennis, ruth and localsThe people. Warm, and friendly, incessantly happy by nature, they bear no visible signs of resentment or envy, seeing us tourists, as members of the rich ‘have’ world. The typical Dominican is provided a government funded education system that ends with grade five. If you are fortunate to belong to the 10% middle class, you can continue your education through high school… but this route to higher education that we take for granted is very expensive. The majority of the Dominican youth, after finishing their rudimentary educations, are turned out on the streets and beaches to make a meager living plying wares to the tourists. Pirate DVDs (in Spanish) music CDs (excellent variety and quality), cheap native craft goods, assembly line paintings, tee-shirts, fresh foods such as coconuts, peanut brittle, coconut bread… the list is endless. The beaches are also not without their beggars. Learn to say no and they will leave you alone. A full day at the beach will expose you to a dozen or more of these free enterprisers, but it is a small price to pay for your time in paradise.

Next issue, in my second essay on my visit to this tropical paradise, I will describe where-to-stay places of awesomeness along with the best routes to take if you decide to acquire a rent, own or build yourself a retirement retreat or holiday getaway. As of the time of this writing, land is surprisingly, at least by west coast standards, very affordable. Mountain top properties with breathtaking views of the Caribbean are numerous and very available. I had the privilege of making friends with some of the most interesting ex-patriots I have ever met. These world travelers came from Europe, Great Britain, Canada and the U.S.A. before staking their claims on what they determined to be their idea of heaven on Earth.

Until then, Via Con Dios!

dennis and palm trees

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