First impressions from Santo Domingo
I’ve settled in to my fiancee’s parents’ apartment here in the Dominican Republic, and so far I feel very far away from home. Which is indeed awesome.
I am disgustingly ill-traveled. The last time I was out of the country was to play a wedding in Turks and Caicos, and I barely went outside the hotel. I haven't taken a vacation for longer than a few days in nearly my entire working life -- and never much further than my hometown in Virginia. And so this ten-day vacation to the Dominican Republic to visit my fiancee's home, friends, and family should be a well overdue shock to this travel-noob's nerves. Here's a few of my first impressions:
The airport thirty miles outside of downtown Santo Domingo is pretty much like every airport I've been to. If I didn't pay attention to the language on the signs (or in some cases even if I did), I could easily mistake it for La Guardia.
The area just outside the airport is starkly different. Driving west down DR-3 (towards downtown), the expressway is lined to the south by the ocean, and to the north by blocks of dessicated structures of cinderblock and wood. Occasional smatterings of scaffolding and construction machinery make it hard to distinguish whether it's new development or decay at times; but large pyramids of trash and debris make me lean towards the latter.
On the six-lane DR-3, vehicles and people alike share the pavement. Cars, vans, and trucks whipped past men and women leaning on the narrow median and sauntering along the lane lines as if they were built into the roads themselves. I consider them crazy not for crossing a trafficked six-lane expressway, but for trusting the drivers on it with their lives.
Traveling from the airport and through downtown Santo Domingo affirmed my general distaste for driving. Some disclosure, I hate getting behind the wheel even in the safest, quietest, and widest roads of well-paved suburbs (and honestly, you should probably question anew your travel options if you find me at the wheel of the car you're in). But Jason Bourne himself would find driving here a trial.
The Dominican traffic I've been exposed to so far is most notably comprised of rusted out Toyota Corollas (the vast majority so far) and other compacts, Japanese SUVs, occasional BMWs, the only Chevy Nova I've ever seen in person, tiny Daihatsu trucks, motorcycles, and small buses called guaguas.
Simply put, Dominican guaguas are buses and vans owned and run by private owners or labor unions in areas lacking sufficient municipal transit. They resemble in concept the dollar vans of Brooklyn -- Ford Econolines and Chevy Astros that honk to make their presence known to potential passengers as they stream up and down Flatbush Avenue. The guaguas here, too, make random pickups and stops, and are, according to Isa, more present than the state-run OMSA buses. However, they look like this:
The off-roader style fenders are quite literally a sort of traffic sweeper. It's a fair expectation for drivers here that they will bump into things -- and, in the case of guaguas, with intent. Dings and scars, and in one case a mattress affixed artfully to the rear of one guagua with packing tape, told a story of jockeying as the driving norm on Santo Domingo streets.
I've noticed that honking one's horn here is more a sort of courtesy than an expression of anger or irritation -- a "hello! I'm here in your blind spot!" kind of greeting. It's a useful hail at times; more than just guaguas are worse for wear here, and in cases where tail lights are busted, a quick wave of a hand out a driver's window is sometimes all that precedes an abrupt merge. My future father-in-law braked, swerved, and gunned around all of this chaos with relative aplomb.
The neighborhood of Isa's childhood and where her parents still reside is called Arroyo Hondo, which means "deep stream." It's a wealthy area set on steep, picturesque hills just outside of Santo Domingo Este. Windy streets are lined with incredibly lush vegetation, and the houses are magnificent and immensely gated.
Isa's parents' apartment is in a community called Isabel Villas, named for the nearby Rio Isabel (Isabel River -- no relation to Isa, though everyone apparently asks). There's a golf course nearby, and a guardhouse sits at its entrance. Across the narrow road in a dusty lot is a band of motoconchos -- taxis comprised of small and ratty motorcycles whose drivers await the servants of the community to finish their days' duties and seek out a ride back down the winding streets into downtown.
One piece of advice from Isa and her fellow medical school graduate DR expats that's resounded since long before we arrived is this: Don't drink the tap water. It's not potable, according to them, and my gastro-intestinal system raised on a sterile Virginian diet is especially too tender for what runs through Dominican plumbing. So I take from standard water-cooler-style jugs of filtered water, poised in a clever metal rack that tilts to angle the spout into the drinking implement of choice.
Another reminder that I'm a long way from New York is right next to the jugs of filtered water. Three rows of car batteries line the walls, and are rigged into an inverter, ready and waiting for inevitable brownouts.
So far, since arriving at the airport until now, nearly two full days into my stay, I've not heard barely more than a whisper of distant merengue or bachata, or much of any music in general. Washington Heights, with its idling SUVs blaring La Mega, this most certainly is not, but Isa assures me that this won't be the case for long. She does, after all, hate the music for a reason. What I have heard plenty of, however, are roosters, somewhere at a nearby neighbor's house. They cock-a-doodle-do reliably in the morning; though, one sings well into the afternoon. Various birds and insects crow and chirp through the day, and I couldn't be happier about it.
The orange soda I've had so far here is Fanta, procured from a nearby Super Mercado Nacional. It's as sweet as snow-cone syrup, and around 600 calories per serving, and takes me about as long to finish a single twenty ounce bottle as it does a dram of neat whiskey. Definitely a sippers' soda, to be taken on the rocks or not to be taken at all.
Overall, it's humid, but breezy, beautiful and relaxing here. The only way I really noticed the humidity, actually, was when I noticed after a day that the corners of my passport were curling up all on their own. Unlike my passport, I find it really comfortable here -- infinitely better than the climate in our Brooklyn apartment. I'm utterly grateful that Isa chose this for our vacation, and that her parents are graciously hosting us, and I'm certain already that it'll be hard to head back at the end of our ten days here.