Yesterday, I returned from a 6-day trip to the Dominican Republic. Dan and I visited his parents at their villa — though, truth be told, “villa” is not the best word for the condominium-style gated community in Punta Cana. We stayed with them to escape the winter drear of Maryland, but also to discover a country we’d never explored before.

When Dan first suggested a vacation to the Dominican Republic, I don’t think I fully understood what that meant. I saw photos of its beaches on Google Images and didn’t comprehend that being there would be physically possible. We booked the tickets anyway. We got on the plane and made our way south where the humid air clung to our clothes and made us sweat, even at 8 at night. I expected the arrival to be a shock, since the beaches of the Dominican Republic are very much like the beaches of my dream vacation: soft, white sand and water in at least six shades of blue; the true shock, however, was in the culture.

I should know this, of course. Having lived in Japan and visited the Netherlands, you’d think culture shock would be familiar — even welcome. I think I fared better than most typical Americans would have, but some things stood out at me regardless, and I’ll try to accurately express them within this post.

ARRIVAL DAY

Dan and I arrived at approximately 8 PM on a Saturday night. We’d both read up on the Dominican Republic prior to the trip, so we were both prepared for the first point of interest: the $10 entrance fee. That’s right; every American (and perhaps the Europeans, too?) is charged $10 to enter the country. From what Dan’s father mentioned later, it cannot be paid in pesos, the local currency. Many of our fellow passengers scrambled for their wallets when they arrived at the first booth, but Dan and I had ours ready. I’d read somewhere that we could try to bluff our way out of paying, but we dared not.

Once we exited the airport, we were greeted by a flood of Dominicans crowded on the sidewalk with signs reading “taxi” in hand. Dan’s parents, however, were waiting for us across the street in their rental car, so we happily passed by the taxi drivers and climbed into their vehicle.

I received my first culture shock as we made our way from the airport to the Punta Cana proper: driving is a mess. The highways are mostly like those in the United States, and everybody drives on the right side of the road, but lanes in the Dominican Republic are simply…suggestions. It is not uncommon for a two-lane road to become three lanes, nor is it uncommon for a vehicle to pass by a slower one in front of it by using the lane designed for oncoming traffic. There are enormous speed bumps everywhere that require you to nearly stop the car in order to drive over them without ruining your bottom, because no one observes the speed limit otherwise. Motorcycles that look like crosses between dirt bikes and scooters are used by locals who cannot afford cars, and the moto-taxi business booms in tourism-heavy Punta Cana. They don’t always turn on their lights, though, so being a pedestrian is extra dangerous.

We dropped off our things at the villa and changed into clothes better suited for the humid weather. Public drinking and open containers of alcohol are legal in the Dominican Republic, so we poured ourselves mixed drinks using the country’s infamous Ron Barceló rum and headed across the street to the most happening place at night: Danny’s Pizzeria and Sports Bar. Dan and I immediately put our high school-level Spanish to use, ordering delicious pizza that focused less on the crust, cheese, and sauce and more on the toppings themselves. The linguaphile in me immediately picked up on small things, such as how the preferred word for mushroom is el champiñon instead of la seta, and how people more often said disculpe (“excuse me”) than perdón (“pardon”).

After dinner, we took a walk to check out the beach at night. The villa is right on the beach, so we didn’t have to go far, and we were able to see the rest of the property on the way. The sand was impeccably soft and clean, unlike the sand of Ocean City that’s near home.

DAY 1: A LOCAL FOOD FIESTA

Dan and I woke up early on Sunday to explore the neighborhood. Next to Danny’s Pizzeria and Sports Bar stood a small French pâtisserie, where we had breakfast. We noticed that some of the shops and restaurants didn’t have names, like this one. The interior and its open patio were crowded, and with only one waitress, it took some time to be served. This is the Dominican Republic, however; we expected the pace to be slow and relaxed.

Of all the food and drink we consumed, the banana juice at this pâtisserie was the best, and over the course of the week, we stopped by regularly to order a glass to go.

After breakfast, Dan and I wandered around the neighborhood to see what we could see. One thing we noticed was the lack of street signs, which led us both to marvel at how anyone knew how to get anywhere. Experience, we supposed. And moto-taxis. Our walk was interrupted around five times by locals trying to sell us their taxi service. At one point, Dan asked a man where we could buy fresh mangoes, and the man kept saying he’d bring us there for 200 pesos. We had to eventually decline his offer and find mangoes on our own. (The joke was on me, though: mangoes aren’t in season in January!)

After exploring the sights within walking distance, we returned to the beach to meet up with Dan’s parents. We spent a couple of hours there reading and sunbathing, only returning to the villa after a sudden rainfall caught us and the other beach-goers by surprise.

For dinner, we made our way with Dan’s parents to a restaurant simply called Gladys. It was down the street and around the corner, and it served up delicious white grouper, chicken, local beans, and rice.

While we ate at Gladys, a young boy came up to us begging for money. Dan’s father waved him away quickly, but the experience stayed with me for a while. Punta Cana is supposedly the safest, richest, and most tourism-heavy of the cities in the Dominican Republic, yet poverty still exists in the form of begging children.

After dinner at Gladys, we drove in the rental car to the nearest grocery store, Super Pola. We bought a small amount of groceries — half a dozen eggs, some native snacks, steaks for tomorrow’s dinner, and soda for our mixed drinks. (We’ve been drinking a lot…) After paying, I received my first bills and coins of Dominican money.

Interestingly, the worth of the peso changed over the course of our trip. It started at a bank rate of ~43 pesos per US dollar, but locals were still going by the old exchange rate of ~41 pesos per dollar. By the end of the trip, however, the bank and most stores both exchanged at the rate of 44.1 pesos per dollar. Therefore, Dan and I were encouraged to pay exclusively with pesos, for we might be charged more if we paid in dollars. But at this point, dollars were all we had; the bank by Super Pola was closed, so we’d have to go the next day.

DAY 2: RUSSIAN AND THE BEACH

The next day, Dan and I had breakfast at Kat’s Corner, which served up delicious quesadillas and breakfast burritos. We tried the juice there, too, but it was nowhere as delicious as the banana juice from the pâtisserie.

Since it was still early in the day, we returned to the villa and read on the balcony for the rest of the morning while Dan’s parents went to the beach ahead of us. By the time we were ready to head back outside, it was lunchtime, so we decided to check out the Russian restaurant behind the pâtisserie. Similarly, it had no official name; it was simply called Russian Lunch and Dinner. The owner and cook was an older Russian lady assisted by a local girl.

Though I’d read about it before the trip, it honestly surprised me how much Russian influence pervaded the Dominican Republic. Billboards advertised completely in Russian, and many of the other residents at the villa were Russian, too. By the Russian restaurant where we ate lunch, there was a Russian real estate agency and a Russian spa. It was more than a little jarring, since I was otherwise surrounded by the Spanish language.

Communicating with the restaurant’s Russian owner was a unique experience that I immediately picked up on, too: Being that we did not understand each other’s native languages, we had to communicate in a common tongue, Spanish. We spoke haltingly together and took a few extra seconds to process each other’s sentences, but Dan and I managed to place our orders without much hassle. And when she brought over our beers, I remembered one of the few words of Russian I know — спасибо, or “thank you” — and her appreciative smile was worth it.

While Dan and I sunbathed after lunch, his parents headed to the bank and exchanged some of our American money for pesos. For dinner, we stayed inside instead, grilling the steaks we’d bought the day before on the neighbor’s balcony. While Dan’s parents watched television afterward, he and I took to our books once more and read in bed, side-by-side, until it was time to sleep.

DAY 3: SHOPPING, MASSAGES, HARD ROCK CASINO & HOTEL

After a hearty breakfast of blueberry “muffins” (cakes, really, since there are no muffin trays in the Dominican Republic) that Dan’s mother made, he and I wandered to the beach again to explore in that direction. As we made our way south, the beach transformed from our pristine, well-tended sand to dirtier, grittier sand and more crowded waterfronts.

As we walked, we were interrupted by several vendors. Some were friendly and let us go after we politely declined his offers (yes, “his,” because they were exclusively male), while others were incredibly aggressive and hounding. At one point, one turned to me after Dan told him “no thanks,” and Dan had to cut him off and pull me out of arm’s length.

After a bit of walking, we finally reached a sign that said SHOPPING CENTER in very large painted letters. We perused the shops, finally stopping at one called Payless that Dan’s father had previously recommended. One of the shopkeepers remembered Dan’s father after we mentioned him, so he let us keep a Cuban cigar to try back at the villa. I also purchased a beautiful (albeit mass-produced) painting to hang in our apartment once we get it later this year.

On the way back, we stopped by the local masseuse, who does hour-long massages for $30. I might be spoiled by the $90 massages here in Maryland, but it wasn’t bad for its price. Unfortunately, Dan had a less enjoyable experience with the owner’s assistant, who stopped three times to chat on her phone.

For dinner, we drove to the Hard Rock Casino & Hotel, the largest and most expensive property on this side of the Dominican Republic. We dressed up for it and could only access the casino portion of the property, which at least had a restaurant. This dinner was our Christmas gift to Dan’s parents and our thank-you for hosting us at their villa during our stay. I ended up having a delicious wok-roasted duck that was cooked to perfection, but the halibut that the other three ordered was less than appealing; to make up for it, the floor manager took two of the three halibut off our bill and also gave us dessert for free. To my great pleasure, I was able to order coffee with lactose-free milk as a palate-cleanser.

After dinner, Dan found a free arcade in the casino area and we played a rousing round of the Alien Exterminator game. Because, you know, I love that franchise! We also saw a living statue, which surprised me because it’s a very European and “big city” sort of entertainment. You’d find them in New York or Las Vegas, probably. But I suppose the Hard Rock Casino & Hotel counts as a “big city” for Dominican Republic tourism.

DAY 4: TOURIST ADVENTURE

The next day was our one tourist adventure called HorsePlay Punta Cana that combined horseback riding and zip lining into one all-day package. We almost didn’t make it; despite booking online for Wednesday, the organizer said that one of her assistants booked us for a different day, so the bus never came to pick us up. We called her using the neighbor’s phone, and she sent us a taxi driver straight away.

The drive took us into the mountains surrounding Miches, approximately 40 minutes away from Punta Cana. We had to pass through a couple of local villages to get to the ranch, which only opened my eyes further to the poverty of the island. They were simply clusters of buildings made of stone, wood, or tin with painted words that indicated what they were. Most were brightly painted, a few had barred windows, and some looked like little more than shacks. There were several banks in each village, often next to each other, and at least one butcher shop with shoulders of beef hanging from hooks in plain sight. Children roamed the streets and skinny dogs followed them. Looking at these villages as we passed, I was given the distinct impression that this must be what villages in the Philippines look like: small, with buildings crowded together, with roofs of tin and scratched wooden doors.

We reached the ranch without fuss and only missed the cigar factory tour, which we were able to do at the end of the day. Our upbeat guides took us on an hour-long trail ride on horseback through the hills of the El Seibo province. We were able to gallop for a portion of it, which scratched the viewfinder of my camera but otherwise left it intact. The organizer, Kathy, took photos during the trip, which she said she’d post on Facebook within the next two weeks.

We arrived at another, smaller “ranch” for lunch. The cooks there served us a bowl of soup made from a vegetable crossed between a pumpkin and a zuccini as our appetizer, then came out with huge bowls of white rice, beans, fried chicken, Dominican-style spaghetti, and coleslaw. We were able to eat to our hearts’ content, but we were given little time to digest before the zip lining began.

I had never zip lined before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Unsurprisingly, my heights phobia began to kick in, and I had to focus on calming myself so I wouldn’t throw up my lunch. Needless to say, I was fine: after Kathy demonstrated how safe we’d be in our harnesses, I felt secure enough to climb the tower and make a couple of round trips across the river. It wasn’t as exhilarating as I expected it to be, however, and was happy to sit beneath the trees afterward.

After we had all finished zip lining, one of our guides showed us the coffee trees from Brazil and Africa that grew in the Dominican Republic. He explained how they grind and roast the coffee beans with an enormous mortar and pestle. Then he broke open a cacao nut to show us the sticky white pods inside, which we sucked like candy. It was very sweet, but he advised us against biting or swallowing them, for the cacao beans in each pod are terribly bitter. Our guide explained that they dry, roast, and grind the cacao beans into a powder, then sweeten it into chocolate with ground cane sugar. Dan bought a bottle of pure cacao powder while I chose a smaller bottle of ground coffee beans.

The day ended with dancing, a drink of the island’s famous Mama Juana (which is basically medicinal tea steeped in alcohol), and — as mentioned — a tour of the cigar factory for Dan and me. We were even given a free cigar, and one of the other tourists recommended the chocolate-flavored one to me, which was a great suggestion. I had never smoked anything before, so it took Dan a good five minutes to explain how to smoke a cigar to me, but I think I have a handle on it now. I didn’t finish it before the wind of our bus ride home blew out the fire, so I put it away when we got back to the villa for later use.

DAY 5: MACAO BEACH, HAGGLING, CIGARS

Our last day in the Dominican Republic was Thursday, and we determined to make the best of it. After a breakfast at the villa, we made our way to Macao Beach with Dan’s parents. Unlike the beach at the villa, Macao Beach is a lot rockier and deadlier, with strong currents that tired out both men while they attempted boogie boarding. I was exhausted from the excursion yesterday, so I slept on the beach a little and drank beer beneath the shade.

Macao Beach itself was populated with huts and shacks that served food. Plenty of animals wandered about, napping beneath the palm trees or looking for scraps of food. I thought very little of it, honestly, until Dan brought up how neglected the dogs and cats appear to be. His comment made me contemplate how alarming it must seem to Americans, who treasure their animals as family members, and how commonplace it seemed to me. Again, I was reminded of the Philippines and of the philosophy my parents taught me when it comes to animals: that they’re just animals.

After relaxing on the beach, we chose one of the food shacks with reasonably-priced fish. They were selling it for $10 per pound, but we haggled it down to $9 per pound and ordered red snapper. It was so delicious that we ate it right down the bone. We also had sides of rice, beans, vegetables, plantain chips, and fried potatoes.

While we waited for our check, a Dominican woman casually walked by, balancing a large plastic tub on her head. Out of curiosity, we asked her what was inside, and were pleased to find that it was homemade peanut brittle! For 20 pesos apiece, no less. I purchased one and fell in love, so when she came back around after a few minutes, Dan bought five more pieces, and his parents bought three.

We returned to the villa after dinner, but despite how tired Dan and I were, we ventured back out into the fading daylight to see if Payless was still open. It was, though the shopkeeper from before was not working. The owner recognized us, though, and we told him that we were looking for cigars to bring home. He originally offered us 10 Cuban cigars for $150, but Dan expertly haggled it down to 10 Cubans (for him) and 10 Dominicans (for me) for $45. We immediately went home afterward and celebrated with the freebie that Dan got during the transaction and the remainder of my chocolate one from the day before.

DAY 6: DEPARTING THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

Dan and I woke before dawn on Friday and finished packing up our things. We grabbed some banana juice from the unnamed French pâtisserie before Dan’s parents drove us to the airport. We arrived 10 minutes after the desk closed, and the attendant gave us plenty of fuss about it. We were basically escorted through the entire process, up to the gate where we were boarded before the rest of our zone. It was an otherwise uneventful flight back. When we got to our layover in Atlanta and went through customs, we were pleased to find that automated immigration stations were set up for US passport holders. Nevertheless, I was “randomly” picked out by the system and received an X on my receipt. Though the attendant said it meant nothing special, I was directed for in-person questioning by a TSA agent. My guess? I’d just arrived from the Dominican Republic with a Spanish name. Profiling at its best, I suppose.

All-in-all, I think that this trip to the Dominican Republic was both a well-deserved vacation and a reminder of many things: my love for traveling, my love of languages, and how necessary traveling is for everybody. Traveling opens up one’s mind, not just to different cultures, but to different mindsets and ways of life. I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t explore more of the Dominican Republic outside of Punta Cana, but I’m grateful for what I was able to learn and understand. Maybe one day I’ll go back, but honestly? This trip has made me yearn to look forward. WOW Air is offering trips to Iceland for as low as $99, and there are also places within America that I’m dying to see. And I still haven’t forgotten the 10-year anniversary trip back to Japan that I’m planning to take. I guess we’ll have to see which way the wind blows!

For more of my photos from my Punta Cana trip, click here to view them on my flickr!

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