There are a lot of different modes of transportation here in the Dominican Republic. I am going to talk about our observations of how people get around and then give you some of our own experiences.
Hop in and hang on – First of all, let me start with some of the ways that we have observed that I don’t think we will be using. Many Dominicans are very resourceful in how they find and use transportation. For example, in the USA and Canada it is illegal to ride in the back of a pick-up truck, however, every once in a while you see someone ride in the back of a pick-up, but it is pretty rare. Here, they take it to a different level. It is not uncommon at all to see people riding in the back of pickup trucks. Many times they appear to be holding down stuff to keep it from blowing away. I have also seen people riding on the backs of flatbeds, concrete pumpers and other vehicles. I think that a lot of the time the people are workers for the company and just catching a ride to the job site on the work vehicles.
The one incident that was hard to believe though, was a couple of guys we saw on our way back from Santo Domingo to Punta Cana around 10PM one evening. We were on Highway 3, a toll highway linking Santo Domingo and Punta Cana where the speed limit is around 100km/h (about 60 mph). We came up behind a fully loaded flatbed truck with two people hanging onto the back. It was a lumber truck. The passengers somehow had a toe hold on the bed of the trailer and were hanging on to the straps holding down the lumber. All this doing 100km/h. See the picture, sorry for it being so blurry, but we were doing 100km/h on a highway at 10PM!
Motorcycles – Another common mode of transportation is by motorcycle. In some of the smaller cities and towns, motorcycle traffic might outnumber cars and trucks ten to one. I have heard that there are motorcycle taxis that are very inexpensive, just hop on the back and they will take you where you want to go. I don’t know how to distinguish a motorcycle taxi from someone just giving their friend or family member a ride, though.
The motorcycles I have seen here are definitely built for transportation and economy. I have a number of friends and relatives in the USA and Canada that have motorcycles, but everyone that I know uses them primarily for enjoyment, road trips, or to occasionally ride to work – if the weather is nice. Here motorcycles are definitely for transportation and work. I would estimate that the largest motorcycle I have seen here is 150cc. To give you an idea, I believe the smallest motorcycle made by Harley Davidson is 500cc.
Here in Santo Domingo, pizza deliveries are made by motorcycle, many of the small tiendas (stores) will deliver groceries or water by motorcycle. Also, the passenger limit on a motorcycle is “however many will fit.” I don’t have any pictures, but in the smaller towns I have seen up to four people on a motorcycle – the smallest child right behind the handle bars in front of Dad, another child behind Dad and Mom sitting on the back.
There aren’t as many motorcycles in Santo Domingo as in some of the other places I have seen, but there are still quite a few.
Taxis and buses – the taxi and bus system here is very interesting to me and I have been trying to figure it out. There appear to be many different levels of taxis and busses. We live on a fairly busy street. The following descriptions are the best I can figure out how things work based on my observations and talking to a few people.
One type of taxi is a car that drives specifically up and down a particular route. These taxis typically have a banner on the upper part of the windshield describing the route. For example: F204 – Corredor Independencia. My understanding is that these taxis can only pick up passengers along this route. They let people on and off continuously, so I guess if the taxi is going your direction and there is room (i.e. fewer than 4 people in the back seat) you can hop in and tell the driver when you want to get off.
I think there are requirements for these taxis: color must consist of at least 20% bondo or primer gray, no two hubcaps can be alike, at least one light – preferably more – must be smashed or inoperable.
The driver typically has all the windows rolled down and whistles or gestures at people walking down the sidewalk, asking them if they need a ride I presume.
The next step up is a van or mini-van that appears to follow the same formula as the taxi with the route number on the windshield. These vans will have a route number in their front window also. The van is typically modified in the following ways: the sliding door has been removed or is held open by a rope or something, extra seats or benches have been added to accommodate more passengers. The other difference is that this bus will have a driver and a “barker” for lack of a better word. The barker stands in the open door hanging on as the van drives down the road. He shouts out to people on the sidewalk the destination of the bus, “Duarte, Duarte, Durate!!” This means the bus goes down Avenida Independencia as far as Duarte Street.
When the bus stops for any reason, at a light, due to heavy traffic, to pick up a passenger, the barker jumps off and walks around the bus calling and gesturing at people to try to get them to get on his bus. Personally, I am a little puzzled at the aggressiveness of the barkers. Are they really going to convince someone to get on their bus versus another? Do they think they can talk someone into going somewhere they weren’t planning to go?
Next are what appear to be express buses. I call them express buses because my eagle eyes and acute powers of deduction inferred this from the word, “Express” written on the front window. These are much nicer, air conditioned, usually have curtains on the windows. I have been told these make very limited stops, sometimes just one pick-up and one drop off.
Finally, there are buses that look very much like an average transit bus in the USA or Canada. I have seen a few green ones and a few yellow ones. Large, clean, they stop and pick up passengers at actual bus stops. They are very rare though. I think I have only seen about three of them in the three weeks that we have been here.
There are also taxis that belong to a taxi company that you can call on the phone and have them come pick you up and take your wherever you want to go. These don’t follow the same aesthetic rules as the other taxis, paint is usually all the same color, hubcaps match, etc. Things I had read, and the advice of some people we know who live here, are to only use these types of taxis. You call the taxi company, tell them where to pick you up and they will tell you the color of the car and the number of the car that is coming. This is said to be the safest way of getting around.
Before I describe my taxi adventures, let me tell you that I am a big Uber fan. For those of you who don’t know about Uber, it is a smartphone based way of getting a ride. You download an app to your smart phone, when you want a ride, you enter in where you want to be picked up and where you want to go and a driver, who has the Uber driver app on their phone, gets assigned to you and drives you where you want to go. The drivers are all driving their personal vehicles. Some do it part time, others full time. I like it because it is quick, inexpensive, and you can meet some really interesting people.
When we arrived in Punta Cana a few months ago, one of the first things I did was check my Uber app to see if they were in Punta Cana – no, not available. I searched the web to see if they were anywhere in the Dominican Republic. From my search on the web it appeared they weren’t in the DR at all. Rats! Oh well, I can call the taxi company to get around.
I was fairly confident that I would be able to call a taxi on the phone and have them pick me up and take me where I wanted to go. I am learning Spanish, and although I am by no means fluent, I thought it would be relatively easy to do this. Besides I had a script, this is how it was supposed to go:
Me: (ring, ring) Hola. Necesito un taxi. (I need a taxi)
Taxi company: Si. Donde esta? (Yes, where are you?)
Me: Estoy a 1103 Avenida Independencia. (I am at 1103 Independence Avenue)
Taxi company: A donde vas? (Where are you going?)
Me: Van a Calle Teodoro Chasseriau numero 41 (I am going to 41 Teodoro Chasseriau Street)
Taxi company: Un taxi llegara en 5 minutos. Verde. Numero 497. (A taxi will arrive in 5 minutes. It is a green car, number 497)
Taxi company: Señor, detectar un ligero acento americano y quieren felicitarle por su dominio de la lengua española . Es un placer hablar con usted. Usted fue muy fácil de entender. (Sir, I detect a very slight American accent and want to compliment you on your mastery of the Spanish language. It is a pleasure speaking with you. You were very easy to understand.
Easy peasy! No problem right? I had been practicing my Spanish for a while with some of the Spanish speakers at work. I was studying online at Duolingo. I’ve got this!
Here is how it actually went.
Me: (ring, ring)
Taxi company: Allo. Blah blah blah. Apollo Taxi.
(OK, they are going off script already. No problem. I’ll stick to my script.)
Me: Ahhhh, necesito un taxi.
Taxi company: Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah (really fast).
Me: (OK, they must be asking me where I am) Ahhhh, Estoy a 1103 Avenida Independencia.
Taxi company: Blah, blah, residencia o negocio, blah, blah?
Me: (I think they are asking me if it is a residence or a business) Ahh, es un apartemento. Lo siento, solo hablo un poco espanol. (It is an apartment. Sorry, I only speak a little Spanish.)
Taxi company: Blah, blah, 8 minutos, azul, 254.
Me: (Alright, the taxi will be here in 8 minutes and it is a blue car.) Que es el numero del taxi? (What is the number of the taxi?)
Taxi company: (Emphatically) 254!! (I just told you that you idiot!!)
Me: (Oh yeah, he already told me that) Gracias.
Believe it or not, this actually worked 4 or 5 times going to different places. Sometimes they switched me to another person on the phone, maybe someone with more patience, but it finally worked. The taxi showed up and we got where we needed to go.
Then one day it didn’t seem to be working. I called the taxi company, went through my usual spiel. They said a bunch of stuff very fast that I couldn’t understand. Eventually they hung up. I called another company and the same thing happened, lots of fast talking that I couldn’t understand and then they hung up. Frustrated, I went downstairs to the front desk in the apartment. There is a full time attendant there. He doesn’t speak any English, but we exchange pleasantries every day and I asked him if he could call me a cab. He did so and we were able to get to our destination.
The next day, Susan and I were picked up in a van to travel to La Romana to do some volunteer work, painting and stuff, on a Bible School. One of the other occupants spoke English and I was telling him about my frustration in not being able to get a taxi on my own the night before. “Have you ever heard of Uber?” Steve asked. “They just came to Santo Domingo. Rigoberto tried them the other day and he said it worked great.”
What? Uber is in Santo Domingo? Scarcely able to believe it, I pulled out my phone and opened my Uber app. Sure enough, there was the familiar screen showing a few cars and telling me that it would take 3 minutes to reach my location.
The sky had been cloudy that day, but suddenly the clouds parted. A shaft of sunlight shot from the sky to my cell phone. I don’t know if anyone else heard it, but I am certain I heard a heavenly choir begin to sing. A tear of joy streamed down my cheek. Uber was here in Santo Domingo! My taxi challenges were over!