This month marks my nine-month anniversary here in the Dominican Republic. I moved here from New York for a teaching job and it has been an adventure ever since I set foot here. I have had my fair share of mishaps and victories adjusting to Dominican culture. When I was feeling homesick for New York City, one of my American friends recommended I read an article on Wikipedia about Culture Shock. According to the article, I’m comfortably in the adjustment stage, where things make sense and I am starting to understand this culture outside my home country. But there are still plenty of things for me to learn!
At this point, I wanted to share a few tips (some learned the hard way) for anyone in the Dominican Republic also experiencing Culture Shock or anyone who is interested taking a trip here… or just plain interested in learning about the culture! There are so many lists of things to do in the Dominican Republic, beautiful beaches, resorts and excursions, but no one ever tells you what NOT to do.
1. Don’t ignore people
Dominicans are naturally friendly people. I am from New York, and the culture there is to keep to yourself and keep your eyes focused ahead. Here in Santo Domingo, this could be construed rude! My inner New Yorker does not say hi to anyone, so I have learned to be more polite and friendly when out in public. In most places, people will formally greet others. For example, if you get into a public car, greet the other passengers with “saludos” or “buen dia”, or others may consider you to be a rude person. Additionally, if you are in a waiting room or lobby, any newcomer will greet you and you should return the greeting.
As an aside, people here will wish you “Buen Provecho,” before eating a meal, the way Americans say “Bon Apetit.” Do the same for them.
2. Don’t stick to a schedule
Dominicans are very relaxed with time and move at a different pace than in the states. I always expect things to move at a New York Minute and it’s just not possible, nor is it a good idea! I have found that there really is no rush, and it’s ok if you don’t get everything on your to-do list accomplished each day. If you live here or visit for an extended period of time, adopt the same flexible attitude. This means that you can have a general idea of your plans, but don’t count minutes or expect social plans to begin on time (or anywhere even close!). I have been told, jokingly, that “the loneliest Dominican is the one who arrives on time.”
Be open to last-minute plans: you’ll never know when someone will invite you to a concert or on a day trip to the beach. Conversely, don’t be upset when people cancel social plans last minute! Other things may have come up with them and this may work in your favor where you can cancel plans last minute.
I have also found restaurants and banks to move a lot more slowly than the United States. If you go out to eat, don’t expect to catch the next movie screening, so buy your cinema tickets after you finish dinner. If you have many errands to run, block out an hour or two just to take care of business at the bank. Or find a smaller, out-of-the-way branch, and go in the late morning when everyone is at work, if possible. Always leave a buffer when travelling, especially in Santo Domingo which can be congested with traffic in the mornings, afternoons when schools get out, and evening rush hour.
Of course, in a professional setting such as business meetings or interviews, you must be punctual. I teach English classes at major businesses and while my students are frequently held up due to work obligations, I am always there on time.
3. Don’t only go to tourist locations or resorts
There are so many wonderful other places in the Dominican Republic, a majority of them are not on a resort. Santo Domingo boasts a historical Colonial Zone as well as lots of shopping (read my post about what to do in Santo Domingo). Other cities have their own charm and beautiful scenery. Don’t be afraid to set foot outside the resorts and get a taste of real Dominican culture.
4. Don’t disregard your safety
As an American, I stand out in Santo Domingo. I get called Rubia (blondie) on the street due to my brown hair. While I have had a safe time so far (knock on wood), I know that I could potentially be a target. My friends and colleagues have warned me numerous times to be careful and everyone has their own story about being robbed. While I have found this country to be pretty safe, I take many precautiouns. I don’t ever wear flashy jewelry or carry an expensive-looking bag. If I’m in a public car or a public place, I don’t take out my phone, wallet, or anything valuable. I keep small bills in my pockets so that I don’t have to take out my wallet when in public. After dark, I am extremely cautious about taking public transportation, and after 8pm I opt for a taxi. I have also been greeting the security guards on my way to work (see tip #1) – should something happen to me while walking to work, I know I have someone watching my back.
5. Don’t refuse to try new foods
Sweet beans? Milk candy? Sure! Don’t be afraid to try new food! You may find a new favorite. A traditional Easter food here is Habichuelas con Dulce. Beans with sweet? I am used to beans with a savory flavor, so I was hesitant to try this dish. But the Habichuela con Dulce was actually pretty good! It is made with red beans, coconut milk, lots of sugar, and cinnamon, and is eaten as a dessert. Maybe you’ll find your next favorite food, so buen provecho!
Travelers, what would you add to this list?