Decoding the Dominican Republic
The Finger Wag
This is one of the most valuable gestures I learned for dealing with Dominicans. If you are in public and a Dominican tries to shine your shoes or sell you something, just saying “no”, shaking your head, or walking away will not work. They will follow you and continue to try to snag you as a customer or a donor. But if you turn your head away from them and hold up your index finger and wag it back and forth like windshield wipers on window, you will see they will magically leave you alone. This works for taxis that stalk you as you walk along the street, vendors, beggars and the like. You can say “no” at the same time for added emphasis but it is not necessary, just the wag of the finger and a determined expression is all you need.
Learn Your Numbers & Do the Math
Whether traveling to the Dominican Republic for a visit or moving there, the first thing you want to learn in Spanish is your numbers. If it is too hard for you then you need to have a pen and paper and write down the numbers when negotiating. As in many other Third World countries, Dominicans are expert negotiators and if they realize you don’t know your numbers they will try to trick you when bargaining by asking for more instead of less. Also, always total up the cost yourself if you are buying a few things because often the total is wrong whether intentional or not.
If you are visiting for a short time then taxis are probably the way you want to get around. They range in quality of car. Some are in very poor condition. For safety reasons, when calling for a taxi you want to find out the color and remember the name of the taxi company so you are sure you are getting into the right one. You are better off calling for a taxi than getting one off the street both for cost and for safety. If you want air conditioning, you need to specify this when you call. I always ask the cost of the ride before I get in so I don’t get overcharged.
If you feel more adventurous, and have the money, you can rent a car. But be forewarned, driving in the Dominican Republic is challenging. Lanes are not observed. Sometimes if there is a lot of traffic in one direction, and not much in the other, cars will take over one of the opposing lanes. One way lanes are sometimes driven two way. Stop signs are not mandatory, instead the driver will slow down, beep the horn, and keep going. Stop lights are observed a little more but when power goes out they don’t work. Also, sometimes a traffic cop will be redirecting traffic even if the traffic lights are working.
You have other issues to deal with when driving around such as huge holes in the road that can blow a tire, motorcycles that zig zag in and out, drive the opposite way, lack of streetlights and headlights at night and poorly marked streets.
If money is an issue and you are in downtown Santo Domingo, you can try a public car or “publico”. Buses, called “guaguas” (gwag-gwas) are more of a challenge so I would not recommend them. Publicos are crowded, two passengers in front passenger seat, four in the back. Cars are usually of the compact variety. Publicos use hand signals to indicate the route. A finger pointed to the left or right indicates a turn at a major intersection and a hand waving flat up and down or a finger pointed down wagging side to side means the vehicle goes straight. There is no map for public transportation, you just need to ask around. There are no predefined stops so when you want to stop you tell the driver within 10 feet of where you want to go and say “Donde pueda.” and he will pull over. You always exit the car on the right side so everyone next to you gets out and then get back in.
You may be surprised to see how few Dominicans wear shorts or skirts. This is primarily because of how dirty everything is. The preferred dress, if you are traveling around without a car of your own, is long pants. This keeps you cleaner as you climb in and out of dirty public cars or sit on a public bench. The dress from the waist up for women is often quite skimpy with plenty of cleavage. In government buildings, cleavage is fine but bare arms are not — it is required to have your shoulder and upper arm covered.
Refunds and Insurance, Are You Joking?
When buying anything electronic in a store, the store clerk will take it out of the box and test it to see if it works. If they don’t do this you need to ask them to because in this country, refunds are a joke. If you can even return an item, the chances of getting money back are slim and the process to return can take hours. Of course testing in the store does not guarantee that the item will work one week later but that is the best you can do.
Another caveat in traveling around the Dominican Republic by car is that of insurance. Car insurance doesn’t exist here like it does in the U.S. You can’t even get full coverage for a vehicle that is more than 6 years old and for newer cars, the claims process is about as successful as the refund process. Most cars do not have insurance so collecting from them is near impossible.
Protect Your Valuables in Your Home
This was a hard lesson for me that I never quite learned in the 8 years I lived in the Dominican Republic. I am street smart so I know how to protect myself out of the home but in the home my instinct is to relax. I leave valuable such as my purse, passport, camera or cell phone in plain sight and I have paid the price. Unfortunately you can not trust anyone here whether it is the woman cleaning your house or the electric company installer who has official identification. If you let them into your home, and there are small valuables they can pocket, they will do so. They are smart about it too. Often they will distract you with a question and when you look away, they take the item. For someone working in your home, they are even trickier because they don’t want to lose their job. I had one domestic worker who always found where I hid my money even though I kept moving it to a new location. Long story why it wasn’t in the bank but regardless, what she would do is substitute smaller bills for bigger ones. In the Dominican Republic, the 2000 peso bill is a bright blue and the 500 peso bill is a blue green. I often had rolls of 2000 peso bills which I had separated for rent, salary, etc. What she would do is take 2 of the 2000 peso bills, from different stacks, and replace them with the 500 peso bills. I would then think I had messed up. It was only after this happened a few times did I catch on.
In the Dominican Republic there is no such thing as customer service outside the resorts, and one would argue not even there. Unlike in the U.S. and other countries, where companies are motivated by the value of customer service and require their employees to honor this, in the Dominican Republic you will often encounter the opposite, irritation that they have to provide you with service at all. Perhaps they are engaged in a phone call, Facebook chat, conversation with coworkers or friends, generally bored, convinced they are underpaid, or just not motivated no matter what, but Dominicans tend to prefer to ignore you as long as possible before providing service or answering questions. There is no point in getting mad about it either because that also does not motivate them, it just causes you to get ignored even more.
All Talk, No Action
Dominicans are loud and they love to get fired up about what they feel is unjust or unfair in the world. To a foreigner, the intensity with which they may talk about an issue may seem cause for concern that the rant could turn into a riot. Never fear. The Dominican Republic is for the most part a peaceful country. You have to worry about being cheated and conned but not violence for the most part. After ranting for a bit, most Dominicans then shift their mood and laugh it off. Time for a beer.
Domincan Sabor (Flavor)
If you have never been to the Dominican Republic you might mistakenly think that as a Caribbean country, the local cuisine is spicy like it’s Caribbean neighbor, Jamaica. This is not true however. Dominican food is not spicy at all, in fact black pepper doesn’t even appear on dining tables unless you request it. The principal spices in Dominican cooking are salt, oregano and “sopita” which is chicken bouillon cubes laden with sodium and MSG. Spicy food is not only not part of Dominican cuisine, anyone who eats spicy food is viewed with suspicion. As a lover of “salsa picante” or “hot sauce”, I once had a maid quit when she found out I used it every day because she believed that using “picante” causes a woman to be promiscuous.
Watch Out for Tigeres and Sankys
Domincans are expert at conning, so much so that they take pride in it as a feat of superior intelligence. As a foreigner, there are two particular types of con artists to be wary of. A “tiger”, which literally means “tiger” is a person, usually a man, who befriends you solely for purpose of personal gain or “interes” as they say. This person will be overly friendly, without much purpose in life other than to help you out. They will be so willing to help, out of the goodness of their heart they seem to say, that it may take you off guard. Be wary. When I first moved to the Dominican Republic, I fell victim to a “tigere”. He offered to show me around, to help me fix up my apartment, all sort of things. It wasn’t a romantic relationship, he seemed like he just was being helpful, welcoming me to the country. He would warn me to hide my valuables from strangers, all the while he kept track of where they were. Then one day, when my guard was completely down, he took the money I had stashed (at that point I didn’t know enough Spanish to open a bank account and it was cash not travelers checks). I didn’t notice it right away and the next day he came back with an armful of groceries as a gift. I noticed he was wearing shiny new sneakers. Later that day, when he had gone, I discovered the theft. All I had was his cel phone which he never answered and was never seen again.
A “sanky” is a different sort of con artist. Thankfully I did not fall victim to this in the true sense. A
“sanky” is also usually a man, who is very attractive, and preys on older and/or unattractive foreign women. These guys are very very good at what they do. They will make you feel 100% sure that they are in love with you and no one else. In the beginning they will not ask you for money or anything. In fact, they will offer to pay for things and buy you presents. But, once they have you hooked, they will slowly reel you in. There will be some sort of family emergency such as an illness which he will be worried about. He won’t ask for money but you will feel compelled to offer. The con will continue until the gifts and support increase to your limit. “Sankys” target resort areas and other places that tourists frequent.
Even if you don’t meet a full-fledged “sanky”, the Dominican culture is such that it is natural to view foreigners in an opportunistic way, as a means to improve their standard of living, and using romance is totally acceptable. This is what happened to me. I met a Dominican man and we dated for a while. I had been warned about Dominicans and was told to ask to meet his family so he took me to his house. But, little did I know that he was in a relationship already, with 3 children, and the other woman was aware of what he was doing with me. In fact, she was watching me the whole time I visited his “house” which was actually his mother’s house — he lived next door with his common law wife. In retrospect, I feel a fool because this charade lasted for years. I married this man, had two children, and the whole time he had a double life. But the problem is that the entire family and friends were complicit in the lie. When I would call his work, his co-worker would say he was busy and would call back. The reality is that he wasn’t at work, he was at “home” with his other woman. So they would call him and he would call me back as if he was at work. In matters of the heart, be very very careful in the Dominican Republic. I know many wonderful Dominicans so it is possible to find a good one but you need to be suspicious and guarded for a long time because these type of lies are common in all economic statuses and education levels.