During our travels we plan to travel slowly, staying weeks, and in many cases months at a time in an area. Our thoughts behind this:
- Get to know the area from a more intimate perspective than an in-and-out tourist
- Interact more with local people in their day to day life rather than just those in the hospitality industry at the hotel or tourist sites
- Less expensive lodging – you can negotiate better rates with hotels on a longer term basis. Airbnb, Homeaway or other web-based home sharing platforms are typically far less expensive than hotels
- Lower food costs – especially if you are in an apartment or house with a kitchen. You can cook you own food, keep snacks in the cupboard and refrigerator, overall just spend less on food.
Santo Domingo is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas. Christopher Columbus visited Hispaniola (the island that now consists of the country of Haiti on the west and the Dominican Republic on the east) on his first trip in 1492 and his younger brother, Bartholomew, founded Santo Domingo in about 1496. I’ll give more details about the city and the sights in a future post.
Santo Domingo is the largest city in the Caribbean with a population of around 4 million people in the metropolitan area. There are some areas of the city that are indistinguishable from a large American or Canadian city with upscale malls, vast parks, luxury high rise apartments, etc. Yet just a few blocks away it becomes very clear that you are in a different country with a lower standard of living than the average American or Canadian city.
One of our goals during retirement is to walk more and get healthier. We purposely chose a place where we could walk to most of what we wanted or needed to do, major sights, restaurants, groceries, etc. Being one block from the sea is nice too. They call this area the Malecon. I looked up malecon in the Spanish dictionary and it literally means, “breakwater.” The sea side here is solid rock, no sandy beaches in Santo Domingo itself. There is a wide sidewalk along the sea with a number of benches, piers, vantage points, etc. that make for a nice walk. Of course, being able to walk to things also decreases our The main four lane road along the sea is George Washington Boulevard (I kid you not, not Jorge Washington, but George Washington Blvd.) We are on the next street running parallel to the sea, Avenida Independencia. It is a busy one way, two lane street.
There is a mix of buildings and different types of businesses in the area. On one side of us we have an 11 story apartment building, on the other, a car wash. Across the street are a couple of stores I have heard referred to as colmados, bodegas or tiendas. They carry small quantities of a lot of your basic stuff: water, rice, beans, some canned goods, maybe a bit of fruit or vegetables, soft drinks, candy bars, and also beer and liquor. I think the “bodega” part refers to the alcohol sales part of the business. They are kind of like an extremely basic 7-11 – like really basic, no slushees or air conditioning. About a half a block to the west is a little shopping area that has a few restaurants and a couple of other miscellaneous stores.
Most of these restaurants serve Dominican food although there is a Sushi place as well. The great thing about these restaurants here and many throughout the city is that they are very reasonably priced. For example, most places will have a Plato del Dia – Plate of the Day. The prices range from about 120 pesos to 190 pesos per meal for the Plato del Dia. This will typically include rice and beans (a meal is not a meal in the DR unless you have rice and beans – otherwise it is just a snack) and a main entre. Today I had ground beef patties in a mushroom and bacon sauce. The meal usually comes with a small salad – today it was a shredded carrot and cabbage salad with raisins and a great dressing. My meal was 120 pesos and a bottle of water cost 20 pesos, so all told, 140 pesos – about $3.05USD at today’s exchange rate.
We are a few blocks south of the Universidad Autonoma Santo Domingo. This university is part of the public university system in the Dominican Republic. The Santo Domingo campus is the flagship campus of the university system. We have been told that this campus has about 60,000 students. As you get closer to the university there is an increase in the number of low cost restaurants where you can grab a plato del dia or even just a couple of empanadas or few croquetas. There are also many roadside carts and stands selling food. Photo copying places and paper and book supply stores abound, letting you know you are in the university area. There are a fair number of doctor and dentist offices as well.
The street in front of the university is also one way with at least three lanes. I say, “at least” because traffic rules seem to be more of suggestions around here. If there are lines on the road indicating three lanes but there is enough room for four lanes of traffic, there will be four lanes of traffic. That doesn’t include the motorcycles that dart in and out of and between lanes. There are lots of motorcycles here. They are pretty small, most of them are 150 ccs or less. They are not big Harley’s or Goldwings or the like.
Another interesting thing is that there are cross walks painted on the road all over the place. However, I have yet to determine what these painted lines mean or what they are supposed to signify because they certainly don’t change the behavior of any of the drivers. I am used to a crosswalk being a place where pedestrians can safely cross the road and vehicles give right of way to pedestrians in the cross walk. Not here. I have a theory. Perhaps the cross walk lines mean, “Pedestrians, please cross here. It makes it easier for the ambulance or the coroner’s office to find your body when you have been hit by a car.”
We enjoy our apartment and the location. We try to walk around every day to explore the neighborhood and to get a flavor of day to day life here. We really like being close to the sea.
One of the things that appeals to us as we travel is finding things that are different or done differently than the USA and Canada where we have lived. Yes, there are a lot of things that are the same – they have McDonalds, Wendy’s, KFC, Chili’s, TGI Fridays, etc. We have been to a couple of upscale malls that would compete with most malls in the USA or Canada as far as store types, quality, etc. However, here are many things that are different that we have picked up on.
Bancas – these are places where you can buy lottery tickets. They are all over! You see them every few blocks in our neighborhood. Some of them also take sports bets. A lot of the times there are armed guards with pistol grip shotguns. You will see armed guards at a lot of places, bancas, banks, jewelry stores, they even had a guy at night at a McDonalds. The pistol grip shotgun seems to be the weapon of choice.
Fresh fruit and vegetables – there is typically someone only steps away selling bananas, plantains, oranges, yuca, pineapple and other items. They will even come to you! Every once in a while you will see a small pickup driving down the street with loudspeakers blaring telling you what they have on the truck, just flag them down and they will sell you what you want. In traffic at a stoplight, people walk in between the cars selling huge avocados.
Dominos is the game of choice – it is not uncommon to see a bunch of guys sitting around a wooden table in the shade playing dominos. A lot of the times I think they are taxi drivers that are taking a break during mid-day when they are not busy. It has to be a wooden table with wooden rails around the top and when you play, you have to slap your domino down on the table so it makes a loud, “smack!”
The weather is always great! – Temperatures range from the mid 70’s to the mid 80’s year round (25-28 deg C). February is the “cold” month averaging 76 degrees and July is the hottest, averaging 82 degrees. So it is hot, but not too hot. The temperatures sure beat what we have been observing on the news on the February snow, record cold, etc. in the Northeast USA. The smaller bodegas, tiendas, comidas (small stores and restaurants) rarely have air conditioning and are either open air with a roof only or have the windows and doors wide open. Inside our apartment we have an air conditioner in the bedroom only. There is also a ceiling fan in the bedroom and a ceiling fan in the living/dining room.
Electicity is expensive – OK. This where I get to go all nerdy on you since I spent 35 years in the electrical industry. The Dominican Republic has the second most expensive electricity in the world at 22 cents per kilowatt hour. In contrast, the average electricity cost in the USA is 7 cents per kilowatt hour. When you figure that the average wage for a working class Dominican is $150-300 a month, the cost of electricity is huge! Even in our apartment that we are renting for a month, the owner has asked us to minimize our electricity usage. We typically only run the AC at night and even then, we set it to 78 degrees (it is really quite comfortable. I am not sure if we are getting used to the heat or what, but 78 degrees now feels just fine.) The hot water heater in the bathroom is controlled by a light switch – there is a switch outside the bathroom that you switch on before you want to take a shower. There is a light below the switch that turns red to let you know the hot water heater is on. We only switch it on for 20 minutes or so in the morning when we take our showers.
Electricity is not that reliable – Every moderate to large home and virtually all businesses have back-up generators or inverters (UPS – uninteruptible power systems) due to frequent outages. I know that our building has a generator and this morning as we were waiting for a taxi I could tell it was running. I took a walk around Ferreteria Americana today, kind of like a Home Depot, and deep cycle batteries, inverters and generators were prominently displayed.
Trash – there can be quite a bit of trash along the streets and public areas. This is an issue in most of the developing world. The bulk of the trash we see are water bottles and Styrofoam food containers, like the kind you would get your leftovers to take home in after eating at a restaurant. Most of the cafeterias sell a lot of their food to-go. There is usually a to-go price and an eat in price for food. The to-go price is cheaper.
The trash isn’t everywhere. I have seen public employees cleaning up trash on some of the major streets and you certainly don’t see trash in the upscale malls and shopping areas. The tourist area of the Colonial Zone is also kept up pretty well. But on the side streets, especially in front of vacant lots, and in the park area beside the Malecon (sea walk) you see quite a bit of trash.
I know it freaks a lot of people from the USA and Canada out when they see all the trash, “Don’t these people have pride in their country?” I wish the trash wasn’t there either. However, it was not too many years ago that littering and roadside trash was a big problem in the USA and Canada. In the 1970s I remember seeing the “Crying Indian” commercial all the time. https://youtu.be/8Suu84khNGY Woodsy the Owl was telling us to, “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!” https://youtu.be/gZB7gSQRIuM The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, OH caught on fire in 1969 due to all the pollution. I am not sure what the answer is. Did we clean up our act in the USA due to the EPA and tougher laws like fines of up to $1000 for littering? Did the crying Indian and Woodsy the Owl finally get to us? Was it an increase in the standard of living and overall wealth of the nation that allowed us to solve our trash problem for the most part? I don’t know.
Overall, we are having a great time here! Every day we are finding new things to do and new places to see. Both Susan and I spend an hour or two a day studying Spanish, but we are still novices. The language barrier makes it more difficult to talk to a lot of the locals and learn their stories and how they live their day to day life, but we have had some great conversations with taxi and Uber drivers. Some of them are learning English in hopes of landing a better job, some have spent some time in the USA and have either moved to or moved back to the DR. Even when we have a driver that doesn’t speak any English I try and have some sort of conversation using my limited Spanish. I hope to be able to get to know more of the people and their daily life while we are here.