Dad told me last night that I must write my next blog cos he can’t wait to read the stories of what has been happening. I told him that I am finding it really hard to know where to start because it feels like my already crazy life has recently exploded into some bizarre MTV series. When he responded it, what he said wasn’t even an exaggeration, yet I knew he was right;
“Perhaps you could start with how you drove across most of the Dominican Republic on a bus with no doors, carrying your new pet chicken that you planned to use in a cock-fight to make you and your two policemen friends rich (despite my protests that chickens also have rights), with a goat strapped under a motorbike to the back of the bus along dusty roads for 5 hours.”
I said “Dad, but the problem is that it doesn’t make a great story. Only because I didn’t take a photo. I already told you when you asked for the photo that I couldn’t take one as I didn’t want to humiliate and disrespect the goat who was already miserable, strapped upside down for the long uncomfortable journey. He said it is ok without a picture and that the story of my time so far here in the Dominican Republic really needs to be written anyway…
I feel as if this is the most barbaric yet beautiful country I have ever been to. From the second I touched down on the tarmac and went through immigration, I have stumbled my way through laughter, shock, tears, and craziness. My first introduction to this bizarre island was the customs lady standing up and screaming around her friends while waving my passport high in the air;
“I win, I win! I got a chick from New Zealand!” Her loud, island accented, voice filled the overcrowded processing room. I asked her what on earth she had won, fearing she was going to strip me of my passport - I mean, the USA already locks me up into armed guarded rooms every time I try to enter their borders; once even with Temuera Morrison and me fearing he was gonna go all Jake-the-Muss on me. He didn’t thank god, and just leaned right over and said,
“They always do this to us Maori’s”
Anyway … She didn't put her photo on my passport and move to New Zealand, instead very enthusiastically thanking me as she now gets free drink at the bar due to, “getting the strangest country of the day through her immigration line.”
I walked away laughing, feeling happy that the bachata was already playing from every duty free shop and over the main customs hall stereo - as I hoped it would. I was instantly pleased I could understand the Spanish of the country – it is always a worry because every country has such a different accent and their own words; much like English and the different colloquialisms and accents between Ireland, USA, and home.
I got in an overpriced taxi ($35 USD!) and was driven 10 km to my hostel. The first thing I noticed was that the drive from Punta Cana was full of bare streets. There were no people whatsoever, and there was nothing on the streets at all. Both sides of the street were covered with walls, at least 4 meters high, that stretched for miles and miles and miles. I had no idea what was going on, why there were so many walls along such beautifully tar sealed roads – the best I have seen since arriving to Latin America all those many months ago. The driver informed me that the walls keep the people out of the resorts – and the people in. I have since found out that the all-inclusive resorts actually tell the people who are staying there that it is too unsafe to leave the resorts and that they should stay within the walls at all times. I guess that’s one way to stop people dancing bachata all night, meeting people, and learning that it is possible to eat the best lobster of your life for $12NZD! Instead, these people are locked away in a rich man’s prison, paying thousands and thousands of dollars to enjoy a beach that is walled off for the people who call this country home. The best stretch of (calm) beaches on the island are walled off from the local people, many with barbed wire, electric fences or broken glass at the top, for as far as you can see. I wanted to throw up.
I arrived at the hostel and immediately made friends, drank far too much rum, and danced bachata until 6am – before I had even seen the island by daylight! I knew that I was going to love this country from that very first night, especially because I was immediately slammed in the face with the realisation that 8/10 men on this island are model material. I have never been surrounded by such good looking men, and so many of them, in all of my life. And they all dance my favourite style of dance/ music. Can you say dream life?
The following day I stumbled my hung over self through streets and walls to find an entrance to the beach – meaning, a restaurant that granted me permission to walk through their property to reach the beach since my skin is white (albeit tanned white). I was instantly disappointed. For as far as you could see in both directions along the perfect white sand beach – tourist traps, overpriced seats to rent outside billion dollar resorts, local people desperately pleading people to have their hair braided or to buy woven bracelets or take oil massages, fat old Russian men with young Dominican girls sitting on their legs laughing at jokes that aren’t even funny.
The water was as blue as the sky and I didn’t even swim, again I wanted to vomit. I spoke to my friend, a well-travelled German guy in his 40’s. He said he walked for 7 hours in one direction just to see when it ended. He ended up taking a moto-concho (motorbike taxi) back to the hostel as it never did. I left the beach, laughing when I saw a bunch of tourists screaming and drinking aboard a pirate ship, thinking I was better off back at the hostel with the other travellers and my Chileno and Dominican friends who also felt the same way as I about the terribly exploited island.
I was supposed to stay 4 or 5 nights – I left after 3, and the only thing that kept me there was dancing bachata until 6am every night. I caught the bus to Santo Domingo without stopping to sight see, then another to the colourful town of Samana.
There a local man spotted me and took me out to lunch on fresh fish, coconut rice, and fried banana. I fought with some old man about the meaning of love, and watched as funeral procession went by. The friends and family walk through the town, singing and chanting as the body is driven through. My friend then helped me to find the guagua (vans that are used as local buses) to get to my next destination: Las Galeras.
As we drove through the wild peninsula, spotted with colourful houses, palm trees, and blue waters peering around every single corner, I began to get really excited – this was what I had come to experience. I finally got to my restaurant where I planned to work for a month, and was not disappointed when the beautiful location was even better than the pictures. The Spanish owners and Dominican workers did not speak a word of English so I tried not to be too down hearted when I was quickly told; No treehouse bedroom like promised, and the 5 hours x 5 days per week was now 8 hours x 6 days per week in exchange for a crappy bedroom covered in dead bugs and with blood on the sheets. At least I was going to improve my Spanish right…hmmm.
And I worked hard for a week, meeting local people after work. One day I even went for a sunset horse ride along the beach with a guy who owned the local ranch.
I felt like I was being accepted into a new community, I began teaching an elderly gentleman English in exchange for bachata classes in his funny little garage shed house. He took me under his wing, even offering me a place in his house to sleep if I wanted it, and taking me for lunch at his favourite local restaurant.
I loved working with the Dominican staff at the restaurant, they filled my day with laughter and sunshine. But I quickly realised the Spanish owners were exploiting everyone – including me. They were paying the staff no more than $10NZD per day for 13 hour shifts. They would take commission from the local guides who took the guests out on tours (it was a hotel and a restaurant where I worked), but would never give commission to the same local guides who brought staff to dine at the highly overpriced restaurant. The owner who did not speak English would fight with me about the language itself, telling me that I was grammatically incorrect - I am a native speaker AND an editor. When I proved him wrong, he then told me that it was just because he enjoyed arguing with people. Then came the nail in the coffin; he began calling a Haitian visitor a drug addict/ alcoholic who was going to rob the restaurant. He told me I needed to learn how it was in this country, that I was new here and would find out the hard way if I wasn’t careful. I asked him how he knew such things, because I genuinely wanted/needed to learn who I could and couldn’t trust for that exact reason. He told me, “Go and ask the bloody Dominicans in the kitchen, they will tell you.”
I then realised that the guy who he wanted to throw off the property was not a known thief/ drug addict, and that he was being racially stereotyped for reasons way out of his control. I ran to my friends in the kitchen with tears pouring down my face at the shock of such blatant racism as I told them exactly what had happened… and that day 3 of us quit. The following day another, and a week later 2 more. They all thanked me for helping them to get the courage to leave, that they were sick of being treated so badly in front of guests. They explained to me how at a recent wedding, the owners had gotten drunk and talked badly about Dominicans right in front of the entire staff working there. It wasn’t long after packing my stuff, getting on the back of a motorbike in the pouring rain, driving through the mud into the main town, that I realised how much the Spanish owners are hated throughout the main town. I do love that I quit in such a dramatic way as I have always wanted to do that. I literally walked out, packed my stuff, and told the fake woman who speaks with the dreaded European Spanish lisp,
“I am not happy here, you treat people badly and I will not work for racists.”
And then took the entire staff with me. Assholes. Viva la revolución
In the midst of the drama, I burnt my leg badly when we hit a rock on the motorbike. A 3rd degree burn that has now taken far too long to heal, but seems to be finally ok. It is actually called the Dominican tattoo, and I have been told by many that I am now an official Latina because of the nasty scar I will have for the rest of life, mid-calf on the right leg.
While working at the restaurant, I met two local police men who quickly became my friends – Mainardi and Jeisson. We danced bachata until daylight, went to the beach, ate beautiful fish at all times of the day.
They boys told me these beaches aren't even pretty ones, that the Dominican Republic has much better beaches in other parts. But I still insisted on going, even though I couldn't go in the sun or the sea due to my leg.
They helped me get cheap accommodation, brought me fresh fruit and water, and sat with me when I felt sad, lost, and alone with a badly burnt leg and receiving psychotic emails, ranging from I need your help to get out of my life and then back again, from someone I once called a very good friend and was now someone who had absolutely no care or consideration for the position I was in – alone in a new country, with an infected leg, and not quite knowing who to trust or where to go for help, and quickly running out of money. The reason I couldn’t trust anyone came down to the fact that the town itself, as beautiful as the area is, was a very strange place. The expats were trying to get me to help them because of my 2 languages, yet were also trying to pay to get their choice of mayor elected, others promised empty offers, and many were simply after money/ and or sex. I guess in a country that has been so hugely exploited, it is impossible for the local people to not want to exploit us travellers in return. It wasn’t a very good time, and I truly began to feel that going home was the best answer. Thank you Erie is all I can say – and that I love you my darling esposa for always answering the tearful phone calls despite the time of the day, for never failing to be an amazing friend, for somehow making me roar with laughter - even when I am so sad I can’t eat/ sleep/ or feel my hands.
I knew I needed to get out of the town, despite the great friends I had found in the ex-workers of the restaurant. So when Mainardi offered me a week with him (he works alternative weeks) in his local town 10 hours bus ride away, I jumped at the change. We woke at 5am to board the bus with our new pet chicken, a prized fighting rooster named Cluck.
Turns out chickens quite like busses. Especially in the morning, they just seem to curl up and go to sleep for a long while. Maybe they are used to it, but either way, our $1500 peso ($30NZD) chicken slept alongside us – until we never saw it again. It was a prize rooster, evident in the number of pecks that covered poor Mainardi’s hands. But because it had a rope around it’s leg, the only answer was that it was stolen while we slept. Or maybe someone else who was concerned about animal rights set it free… I promise it wasn’t me… And I mean that promise too, unlike the time Benji and I set the monkey free in Laos. Because I understood that as despicable chicken fighting is, it is a way of life here that brings community spirit and money to the poorest of families; of course a chickens life or suffering is not worth any more or less than a humans.. but that is a conversation for another day. Money is not easily come by, as I was soon to find out when I arrived in my new town – Cristobal, near to Barahona.
I couldn’t believe people lived like this, and still managed to have such wide smiles on their faces. The water truck pulls into town once a day and everybody sends the kids out with buckets. They get 8 buckets each which are painstakingly brought back to the house and dumped one by one into larger buckets where it is stored and then used to clean, cook, drink, bathe, and flush the toilet. None of the houses had running water, and electricity came in bursts every couple of hours – if at all. It was the kind of place where every single person stared at me, children in the street pointed and called blanca blanca (meaning white girl), and the local kids would come to our house just to sit and stare me with fascination. Imagine their joy when I gave out the lollipops I had bought in Colombia!
I woke up at about 10pm one night to Mainardi’s mother (Juana) and two elderly ladies standing over me as I lay in bed. I stifled a scream and said hola in a very timid voice, only for the eldest lady to stroke my skin and tell me I was beautiful – I had never felt less as I had been bathing with a precious half bucket of water every couple of days, eating nothing but white bread, white rice, and white pasta for 5 days, and was suffering from my now excruciatingly painful infected burn. I truly believe that the town has never had a white girl stay longer than 5 minutes when driving through in an air conditioned bus on the way to the nearby national park. The people couldn’t believe I was there, let alone able to speak Spanish, and I could see that the family were proud to have me as their guest. I did my best to use as little water as possible, to eat as little as I could since on some days the mother would feed up to 15 of the local street kids with a bag of white rice and some beans. The kids who had no house at all didn’t get water delivery, so they bathed with their parents in the ditches on either side of the road – especially the days it rained. I knew I was the local gossip, especially when Mainardi’s ex-girlfriend who lived 3 towns over found out I was in town and came storming into the house in a whirlwind of screamingly fast Spanish, attacking me verbally and physically. Thankfully, everyone in the small community came to my rescue – I mean I was already babysitting their 13 day old babies within hours of my arrival – dragging her off me, throwing her while kicking and screaming out onto the street, and calling her parents to take her away. After locking me up in a dark room (of course) until Mainardi returned from coconut hunting only to tell her if she came back he would use his police power to arrest her. Like I said, life has gone nuts. Mainardi and I went to the beach one day, despite his protests that it was too far away and too expensive a journey. I paid the $15NZD – including transport for us both, lunch, and drinks as we climbed aboard a guagua with no doors, traveling until we saw a spot we wanted to get off. The water was the bluest water I have ever seen, there was not a single person on the beach, and the beautiful fresh water river that ran alongside the white pebbles was cool and sweet, leaving us feeling clean and refreshed after a wonderful day by the sea. He told me it was one of the best days of his life as he had not seen the beach (other than in Las Galeras) since he was a little boy. Imagine living on a very small island in the Caribbean and never being able to go to the beach near to your house? I wanted to cry.
I left the following day, he began to protest his deep love for me, wanted me to have his baby, and become a part of the family. He wanted me to return to Las Galeras and live with him there as he was about to return the next day for another week of work. His mother wanted the same, introducing me as her new daughter in law to everyone we encountered. As much as I will be eternally grateful for his friendship in a time I really needed some comfort, friendship was all it would ever be and I could see that staying would hurt them all far more. Tears, hugs, and promises to all meet again, and then I was gone on the very same chicken bus I had arrived on – but this time alone and with a feeling as empty as the promises I had just made. I boarded the bus with no idea of where I was going to go. I had written to 3 different hostels and a couple of volunteer work positions and decided I would go to whichever responded first. No matter where I went, I at least had to return to Santo Domingo first and then go from there – so each location had 5 hours to be the first to reply. I sat next to a girl with no teeth and watched her eat a thigh/leg piece of chicken. She even ate the bone itself, somehow sucking at the bone and crunching it between her gums. I swear every chicken on that bus screamed in horror with me. Everyone on the bus wanted to talk to me, they already knew who I was, and the offers came in thick and fast to stay with them in their cousins-sisters-best friends- ex-boyfriends-homes with them in Santo Domingo. I was tempted, but at the same time, as a newbie in this land, I still do not have the same sense of comfort and safety that I had in Colombia. I travelled for nearly 10 hours by bus that day, as we inched towards Cabarete I felt minute by minute that I had made the right decision, no matter how hard it was to leave Mainardi and his family in Cristobal. If I was not romantically involved I could not consume their energy, their hearts, their precious water, or the limited space in their house. They had even offered me the master bedroom, the parents planning to sleep on the floor while the children of the street slept 5 in a bed right in the 3 other single beds next to mine (because of course I refused their bed) in the cramped house. Just before it was time to get off the bus in Santo Domingo and I was about to use the old fashioned way of booking a hostel (phone call) to stay a night in the capital itself and give everywhere I wanted a further 24 hours to respond - I got a reply. I was going to Cabarete, a surfing and kite surfing town at the north of the island. So I got off the bus, boarded another after a quick snack, and watched out the windows as we drove through new parts of the island. And as we finally approached the town I began to get excited, the shops were actual shops and the houses began to look like they had running water and 24 hour power.
When I arrived at the hostel, I was immediately offered work by the manager and my now good friend Mati from Argentina. I wearily climbed the stairs and turned on the faucet – and would you believe it, after 4 very long months, I had my very first hot water shower. Despite feeling guilty to the core of my being, knowing I was wasting more water than my family in Cristobal would see in a month, I stayed in that shower for half an hour, I washed my matted and oil incrusted hair multiple times, I shaved my legs, I just stood there and let it pour over my body and wash away the black film from my skin that I had thought once was a tan until I could stand the guilt no longer. It was one of the best and worst feelings of my life, all at once.
Since that day, I have now been in this mad hostel for 2 weeks. The hostel itself looks like a castle, and we call it that too.
I learned how to make Cuban cigars with new friends I met on the main street who own a cigar shop. My cigar ended up looking more like a dying rat than anything else, but of course that was all part of moulding me into my new career!
It is probably the most insane hostel I have ever stayed in – not because it is a party place, because it isn’t really. Although, it isn’t a quiet hostel either. I have given it a little thought, and I think because most of the guests are here long term it has become more like flat-living. Craziness happens every minute, you never know what will happen, and we all gossip about it every day like it’s the daily news report. We have the German girl with what we assume is tourettes, she clucks like a chicken in her sleep, twitches her face into spasms as she speaks, and then screams obscenities in German in a deep manly voice constantly throughout the day and night. But she never screams in public, always removing herself to the bathroom or the kitchen or an empty room. So we just hear these deathly screams coming from wherever she has hidden herself. We have the lovely Dutch guy who got penis fondled on a 3 way motorbike ride (with one half of the wonderful Finnish couple) to the chicken place (restaurant) by a drunk 2 month pregnant 19 year old girl – and then came home to sleep with her because he knew it wasn’t going to be a good story if he didn’t close the deal – but he stopped midway when she told him the condom was burning her and it didn’t matter as she was pregnant anyway – thankfully he realised he was being visa scammed and kicked her out. We have the Polish girls who I love to bits who are now stuck in the Dominican Republic forever as they were robbed of their cash and passports on the beach so now share the bed above mine to keep costs down, we have the drunk kisses, the 36 year old Italian creepy guy who lives down the road but comes over to hit on everyone with a vagina and then claims to be a respectfully nice guy - but is now fearing for his life after I told him if he doesn’t stop hurting people I will remove his balls from his penis and tell every girl who checks into the hostel that he has a terrible std. We have the Spanish guy who took me to learn surfing from him but then abandoned me on the beach for 4 hours. We have the crazy pro-surfer who will never give you a straight answer to any question whatsoever who point blank refuses to disclose his nationality - but is one of the kindest most caring people you will ever meet and who leaves me laughing hysterically after every conversation. We have the lovely Finnish couple who convinced us to go out for sushi cos it was cheap sushi night – but the restaurant completely scammed us and had me spending so much money on food that I still haven’t bought any food from the supermarket since because I am too scared to spend any money. We have the security guard who carried me to bed on the night I learned that Dominican rum is not the same strength as my beloved Colombian rum, lifted me into my then top bunk (I have since upgraded to the bottom bunk – or is that downgraded?) and patted my head until I fell asleep as I mumbled sentences of mixed languages into my pillow. We have the American guy who keeps 45 guns hidden in an underground bunker alongside 3 years’ worth of stored food for the day the European Union comes to the United States and strips every one of their weapons. We have the obnoxious Chinese looking American who asks everyone if they have Facebook in their countries, where our countries actually are “in relation to America in the middle of the map of course”, and talks a thousand miles a minute and switches conversations quicker than anyone can keep up, before explaining that he hasn’t “taken his medicine in a while and sorry he is a bit manic right – have you seen my ex-wife’s photo with the new baby born with – wow the Dominican Republic has changed so much since – I need to go for swim cos today is so – Oh wow I mean I haven’t taken my medicine.” We have the old gringa who offered me work translating for poor/ indigenous communities over a 5 day health centre where she is bringing in USA dentists and Doctors, only to turn around, fall down and literally break her face but then laugh it off hysterically. We have the sweet yet completely naïve Australian girl who has traveled for 8 years but now believes that medical insurance is a complete scam – even after not being able to afford proper medical treatment when seriously sick despite the doctor telling me he thought she was crazy not to have it, combined with her uninsured Spanish teachers brother in law suffering serious head injuries from a motorbike accident that has now bankrupted the family. But she still point blank refuses to get travel insurance and tries to tell everyone who will listen that it’s a scam – yet naturally she hasn’t managed to convince anyone to join her revolution, but hey maybe in time right? All revolutions need a leader! We have the old gringo man who snores like a freight train during the night after attending meetings at the drug and alcohol recovery clinic in the next town every day at 5pm. We have the wonderfully crazy 19 year old Quebec girl who is far too much like me, people actually tell her she will be me at 27 (god help her) and last night after dancing bachata until 3am we climbed into a wooden dinghy on the beach after failing to pull it into the ocean (with the help of the owner of course) in our desire to row our way to Puerto Rico, instead rocking it back and forth on the sand and fighting over who got to be Captain Jack Sparrow. We have all the Dominican friends in the bars who yell bachata and happy hour every time I/we walk past, knowing that they might score a few bucks or at least a few laughs from us. I truly feel like I have walked into one of the maddest places in my life, one of the very few places on earth where everyone around me is just as mad as me – if not madder. And for the first time in quite a while, I really don’t have any intention of leaving anytime soon. But I promise I will try to start taking more pictures, or at least keep writing stories because this part of my life cannot be forgotten.
Every single day I still miss home. I miss my baby Grace more than I ever imagined I would. Especially when she sends me tear stained snap chat pictures and crying videos. I cry too, after every single skype with her, when I see her hair has grown and her mouth is no longer full of gaps, and the teeth that I soothed her for when they grew in the first place all those years ago, are now replaced by pearly whites that make her smile even more beautiful. I miss seeing my parents for dinner or coffee, mum making her candles and soaps like a crazed woman and showing them all to me with pride, I miss laughing with my Dad and cuddling up with him on the couch, I miss belonging to a country and not having misunderstandings; cultural or lingual, I miss my crazy friends who love me unconditionally, and I miss good Asian food – I would literally kill for a plate of dumplings. Sometimes I even google pictures just to stare and drool and pretend I am eating those little doughy balls of deliciousness. But I know that right now, I am exactly where I need to be. Of course I am, I trusted that the first 5 hour bus journey would give the universe time to lead me in the right direction and that is exactly what it did. I know that I am getting closer to achieving my dreams, I am learning once and for all who I am and how to be independent, how to respect and love myself in a way I never have but always so desperately needed to. I am learning to live in the moment, so much that I have no idea which way I am about to go and I am 100% fine with it. And I know that as soon as I do feel that burning desire to move on again, I can and I will. That it doesn’t matter I have no money, because my craziness for the first time in my life is working with me rather than against. Because I know I am not bound to anyone or anything here on my travels, and I won’t be until that person or place is as deserving and as respectful of me as I aim to be of myself. That I won’t settle for the first piece of comfort that comes my way, that to battle through the sheer homesickness, loneliness, and desperation can be so rewarding when I finally find a place where I feel like I belong – even if of course, it is only temporary.