My First Christmas Abroad – Part 3

After reading Part 1 & 2 about my beliefs on Christmas and how Dominican’s celebrate differently than North American’s, I hope you’ll appreciate how absolutely at peace I was with my decision to be abroad for Christmas in 2014. Of course I missed my family and friends. More than anything though, all I could wish for was that every single one of them was enjoying Christmas in whatever capacity brings them happiness and no stress. Christmas morning I slept in until about 9am. When I woke up, I immediately called my family to say Merry Christmas and chat for a bit. My apartment was ‘decorated’ with clothing hanging to dry on a drying rack after being at the beach the day before. My mind was rested from a good night’s sleep and the sun was shining (when I finally opened the curtains!). Amazingly it was just like any other day except fewer people in the community were working and stores were closed. And I felt … Happy. Later that day, with a handful of other students and friends from IIC Casa Goethe (my Spanish school), we hopped in a carro publico and made our way about 30 minutes outside of Sosua along the coast to a small community called Saboneta. On the outskirts of town we were met by our guide and her jeep, waiting to take us to her farm where we would meet the horses and begin our day. We all got saddled up and acquainted with our horses and then slowly set off through the streets of the little town toward the mountains. Locals were sitting on their porches chatting away as normal. Kids were playing in the streets. Bachata and Merengue music could be heard around every corner. And we clip clopped through waving and saying ‘Feliz Navidad’ to the locals.

Horseback Riding on Christmas
Horseback Riding on Christmas

Once we set off up the first hill, our guides checked in to make sure we were all doing ok in the saddles and then shortly after that we had our first opportunity to go fast, straight up a large hill. I’ve been horseback riding only about 10 times in my life and I’ve never gone any faster than a saunter, so this was particularly exciting for me. And off we went straight up the hill. How exhilarating! The strength, speed and agility of the horse, balanced with the concentration it took from me to stay on her … amazing! Do it again! Do it again! (it wasn’t time yet though) We climbed a fairly well-groomed dirt road for a good half hour and then headed down into the valley where we got the first glimpse of the river that we would be crossing with our horses. This was also the rest stop for the horses and a relaxing snack and dance break for us.

The beautiful river
The beautiful river.
Break time for the horses.
Break time for the horses.
Horseback Riding on Christmas
Dance break for the humans.

After a leisurely break, we mounted the horses and started our true adventure through the river and jungle of the Dominican’s beautiful mountains. The horses navigated their way down a short, slippery and rocky slope to the river and then in we went! No time to reconsider, the horses were following the leader and he was already on the other river bank! Each of the horses daintily waded into the water stumbling on rocks and regaining balance almost with every step, but never losing a passenger! The water was up to the horses’ tummies which meant our feet were fully submersed in the river and occasionally up to our knees. Don’t be fooled though, the rest of our bodies didn’t stay dry with the splashing from our own horse as well as whoever happened to be in front. As dainty as they may be when they are trying to choose the path of least resistance, they sure can make a splash as they clomp into a river. We quietly followed the leader along the sandy banks of the river for awhile and then criss-crossed back and forth down the river to follow the best pathways along the beaches, rocky banks and through the jungle. More than once I found myself drifting off into a relaxed day dream as I bumped methodically along the pathway surrounded by large leafy trees, the bubbling sound of the river passing by and birds singing in the distance. My mind completely relaxed and I was able to just enjoy the freshness and revitalizing spirit of nature. I’m not sure if others in my group felt the same or not, but they were equally quiet and there were times when no one in the group spoke for five or more minutes as we trotted along the trails. It was complete human silence, only broken by the sounds of nature. After traversing the river and riding through various different types of foliage, we reached an open field where we were allowed to run with our horses to the other side where we would meet our final path back to the main road. A couple of the others were seasoned riders and took off at the speed of light. Me and my horsey, Puerto Plata, started with a trot and then next thing I knew she was going full speed ahead. I was a little torn between fear of losing my balance and the exhilaration of going so fast. In the end, exhilaration won as I’ve decided that I love horseback riding and need to find more opportunities to improve my skills so that the fear of falling off doesn’t inhibit me from going as fast as the horse can take me. We all met up at the last trail and clip clopped our way slowly back through the little village to the farm. I can’t really put in to words how much I enjoyed the three hours we spent amidst nature with the horses, but I know that for Christmas 2014, I found my holiday happiness, my tranquility and my sanity on a horseback trip through the mountains and rivers near Saboneta, Dominican Republic.

My First Christmas Abroad – Part 2

Check out Part 1 for the background on my Christmas beliefs before delving into the following post.

*Beware, some sarcasm may ensue half way through this post. You have been forewarned.

Pretty much from the minute that I started making travel plans in the summer of 2014, I knew that I would be away over the holidays that year. My friend had asked me to photograph her wedding in the Dominican Republic on December 28, 2014 and by the end of summer I had confirmed that I would be there. I decided to fly into Dominican Republic on December 11th (before the Christmas rush and high prices) and leave at the beginning of February (after the Christmas rush). That gave me about seven and a half weeks to enjoy Dominican life. Keep in mind that I’m not on vacation while I’m traveling, I’m working as a travel agent, so I spend a good chunk of each day working, just like you. The big difference is that before work (or after), I can walk to the beach.

I was so busy traveling throughout the autumn of 2014, I didn’t really have time to think about what it would feel like to be abroad for Christmas. The thought crossed my mind occasionally and I wondered if I would be homesick. Would I miss my family? Would I miss the tree and the presents? Would I feel lonely on Christmas day? Would I be able to find turkey dinner? But, I was too busy living every single moment to think that far into the future.

Once I got to the Dominican Republic I settled in quickly, made new friends and reconnected with old ones. I immediately felt at home. I arrived on December 11th and went out dancing my first night. You could tell it was Christmas because there were a few decorations at restaurants and shops, but they weren’t very prominent. There was a small Christmas tree in the lobby of where I was renting and the bar that I went dancing at had a wrought iron tree / candle stand, but overall, just like Dominican in general, it was ‘tranquio’ (which translates to quiet).

A couple of days before Christmas one of the motoconcho drivers that I had met invited me to come spend Christmas with his family. I wanted to go sooooo badly, but I knew that it was a ploy to show me off as the ‘white girl trophy’. I contemplated going for the experience, but I didn’t know him very well and in the end I decided that as much as I wanted to see a real Dominican Christmas, I knew that I would just be annoyed if he acted like my boyfriend the entire day. So, in the end I said no.

Dominican Republic is a very poor country. They do not celebrate Christmas the American way and I’ve got to be honest, I think America could learn from them on this one. Generally speaking, Christmas Eve is spent attending church and then gathering with family and friends for lots of food (often pot-luck kind of style) and drinks. Everyone stays up late and it is all about spending time together with loved ones. Christmas day is spent being ‘tranquilo’ with friends and family. On Christmas night everyone goes out to dance and celebrate.

Most locals don’t have a Christmas tree, although you are likely to see some form of nativity scene as most families practice their faith. There will be random Christmas trinkets and old-style decorations hung throughout their tiny, basic homes from the oddest of places. Decorations are eclectic, they don’t match and you know what? None of that matters here.

Huh! Imagine that.

Shhhhh …. Don’t tell anyone ….

It actually does not matter if your tree lights are hung perfectly.
(Unless you are diagnosed with OCD and then I’ll agree that it could matter in that case)

In Dominican Republic, you will not be judged for your Christmas decorations or lack thereof.
You also have no need to put pressure on yourself because someone might be judging you. They just aren’t.
Woah! What a concept.

Sorry about my sarcasm, but one of my biggest problems with North American Christmas is the expectations that people put on themselves to impress their family and friends when really, none of that matters. It is all superficial.

Side Note – Thanks mum and papa for not ever judging me for how untidy my house was. I know I used to get in trouble for my messy bedroom as a teen, but I’m not THAT bad anymore.

Did you notice in my description of Christmas in Dominican Republic what was missing?

Dominican’s in general don’t celebrate Christmas with gift-giving.

WOAH! What is this concept? Is Christmas even Christmas without giving gifts?

Well folks … believe it or not, even though Jesus was welcomed into the world with gifts, in my humble opinion, God is not judging anyone based on what size Tonka truck they give their son or if their daughter would rather a tool set than a barbie.

Anyone care to argue that point? My comments section is open … open for nice, intelligent conversation, no bullying folks!

In Dominican (and lots of other countries) families don’t have the money to buy gifts to celebrate Christmas. Some families do, of course, but the majority do not. There are no long lineups. No one is stressed about having enough money to buy the best new shoes or most popular new toy for their kids because they are more stressed about putting food on the table (a problem for separate discussion). You don’t have to keep up with the Jones’ because the Jones’ are just normal people, struggling to get by. So, instead of giving gifts, they spend time with their friends and family.

WOAH! What if we all did that?

Nearly every day the week before Christmas I arranged my work day so that I could go to the beach for a few hours. Immediately I hear most of you thinking to yourself ‘Lucky girl. That must be nice.’ Followed by tinges of jealousy.

You know what? It was beautiful. It was relaxing, sunny, warm and not even remotely Christmas-like in Sosua on the beach. I did not hear Christmas music. I saw very few Christmas decorations. There were no extra long line ups, no stressed people, no complaints about not having money to buy gifts …. Hmmmmm … quite the concept! I bet most of you reading this would love to have a relaxing Christmas.

So, I ask you … What’s stopping you from having a relaxing, enjoyable Christmas (whatever that means to you)? Why are you letting family, friends and advertising dictate how you spend your time, money and sanity?

I understand that I’m not going to change the entire North American way of thinking about Christmas (after all, I’m not an advertising company). I know that I can’t single-handedly stop the huge influx of ridiculous advertising around the holidays, but what I can (and did) do is remove myself from the stress that burdens so many people around the holidays.

You can let yourself get caught up in the mob, or you can step aside and let it tumble on past you.

For my first ever Christmas abroad, I chose to do something on Christmas Day that would bring me joy. Something that would make me feel good and that would not cause me any stress. It was completely relaxing, enjoyable, peaceful and beautiful …

Check out Part 3 for how I spent my first Christmas abroad.

Cheat the Yankee

I truly love the differences that come with all of the cultures of our beautiful amazing world. I love that people everywhere are the same, but yet somehow totally different.

I’ve been to Dominican Republic twice before, including a seven week stay in 2012. I’m here again now for approximately eight weeks and I’m enjoying *almost* every second. I’ve been sick with a couple of different issues which was not so enjoyable and I’ve had a couple of frustrating situations. However, overall, the people, the beach, the sun, the food, the new friends from here and afar, the little town of Sosua has not disappointed me.

Anytime you travel you have to be particularly careful of tourist scams. In my opinion, high priced excursions that you book in advance of travel or on the resorts are not scams. If you agree to the price in advance, if it seems reasonable to you in whatever culture you are used to and you are happy with the quality of service you receive when you take the excursion, then it’s not a scam. However, if you arrive, take the excursion and then there are additional ‘required’ costs at the end that you weren’t advised of, that is a different story.

Also don’t forget that the extras are offered at additional cost because people DO buy them at that price. If they weren’t getting any sales from it, they wouldn’t be in operation, or at least not offering that particular product. Business is the same everywhere in that they are all looking to make money. They will not do something at a loss. However, in some places you have to be more careful of the business ‘ethics’ and ‘scams’ than in others.

Many people book excursions in advance for the ease of it as well as the security of working with a reputable company. For those two things, you are paying a higher price than you would locally. However, if you try to book the same tour locally you have to consider that you have to barter the price on your own, spend your time researching the options and you aren’t sure on the security and standards of the local company. You are also on your own if something goes wrong rather than having the backing of a larger, reputable company. Prices can go either way locally for the exact same product. It can be the same as what you were offered by your travel agent or tour operator, or it could be lower or higher. It all depends on the agreements in place between the international and local suppliers. Some times they’ve negotiated special rates because they bring in bulk clients, which also means that the local companies are very careful to please and meet the standards of the international companies. Or, sometimes you can find a local supplier and pay less. Just keep in mind that you take your chances when you do that.

However, there are lots of real ‘scams’ out there. In fact, many people joke (but they are really serious) that the national past-time of Dominican Republic is actually ‘Cheat the Yankee’, not baseball as they would have you believe. Now, not all Dominican’s do this. There are certainly fair and honest people here. But, there are also many crimes of opportunity and tourist scams that you should be aware of

Take for example this one which is quite common in Dominican Republic. Here’s a little story so you can relate …

My friend and I left from Sosua to go to Puerto Plata to enjoy the summit to Pico Isabel de Torres on the only Cable car in the Caribbean. We hopped into a carro publico (public taxi), paid our 50 pesos each for the upcoming 45 minute drive squished in the back seat of a car similar to a Honda Civic with a total of six passengers. The driver, plus two passengers in the front and then four passengers in the back seat. This is the main source of transportation here so it’s nothing new to us and for one dollar, it’s really a pretty good deal.

Keep in mind, the public transit drivers don’t speak English, the remainder of this story takes place with me speaking Spanish.

As we got close to Puerto Plate the driver inquired where we needed to get off. I told him the centre of Puerto Plata would be fine as we were heading to the Teleferico. He asked a couple more questions, but I couldn’t understand him. My Spanish is much better when I can see someone speaking and hear them. In this case because he was in the front, driving, and I was in the back with the music blaring, I just couldn’t hear well enough to understand.

When we stopped at the central station in Puerto Plata everyone piled out, including me. Before my friend was able to wiggle her way out of the car, the driver told us to stay in the car to go to the Teleferico. I explained no problem, that we would find our own way there, but he insisted (nicely) that he would take us there and I got back in the car. Let’s just say I should have known better but for whatever reason at that moment, I thought he was genuine. And, I was able to hear and see him when we had the conversation, so I understood him well.

It was about a five minute car ride to the middle of the mountain where you buy your tickets for the cable car. He dropped us off and as I started to get out of the car he turned around and told me it would be an additional 100 Pesos. The conversation went a little something like this (in Spanish):

Driver: That’s 100 pesos
Me: No. Why?
Driver: Because I brought you all the way to the Cable Car.
Me: But you didn’t tell us there was an extra charge for that. We would have taken other transportation from the centre.
Driver: But I brought you, so you owe 100 pesos more.
Me: (getting agitated) No. I’m sorry but I’m not paying you. I tried to get out of the car and you told me to stay. You did not tell me there was an extra fee. (My friend and I exited the car)

We walked about 50 meters to the front entrance of the Cable Car pavilion when the driver and one of the Cable car employees approached us. I’m not sure which one spoke to me first, but at this point I was really annoyed with the driver.

Driver: You owe me 100 pesos.
Me: You should have told us that before you brought us here. We wanted to get off in the centre, but you didn’t let us. You told us to stay in the car.
Driver: But I brought you here, there is a charge for that.
Me: Not my problem. We were going to take other transportation but you wouldn’t let us. You didn’t tell me there was a fee. I’m not paying you.
Driver: Fine, I’ll get the police then.
Me: As you wish.

He beckoned the ‘police’ nearby which was actually only a security guard, not officially police. I’m sure he thought that the idea of the police was enough to scare me, but I didn’t back down.

The security guard sauntered over from the other side of the parking lot. When he was close the Driver immediately began to explain his side of the story. His side, of course, was simply that he drove us here and then we refused to pay. When he was finished, I immediately asked if the security guard spoke English. Of course he responded no! And I’m pretty sure I snarkily said ‘Of course not!’ Not for a second did I actually believe this as he was security at a huge tourist attraction, but whatever, I couldn’t be bothered to argue over that too. So, I yammered on in Spanish explaining how we had tried to get out of the public car but he told us to stay and that he didn’t tell us there was an extra fee for this.

By this time, there was a group of about five to seven of us. Myself and my friend, the driver, the security guard and several staff from the cable car who wait outside to greet people.

The security guard just stood there listening. I quite honestly don’t know if he even said a word other than ‘No’ that he didn’t speak English. And even then he might have just shook his head. HA HA

At some point one of the staff asked how much we had paid and I explained that we paid 50 pesos each when we got in the car in Sosua until Puerto Plata. 50 pesos each was already slightly high as I believe it is only 45 pesos, but I hadn’t asked for change, so I wasn’t going to argue over it.

It was then they asked why I didn’t want to pay the extra 100 pesos.

Although my friend tells me I wasn’t loud, I was certainly angry at this point. I was arguing over 100 pesos (approximately $2.50 CAD). Doesn’t that seem ridiculous? In the back of my mind it seemed ridiculous to me too, but I knew this was a regular occurrence and felt like I needed to take a stand so that they would know it wasn’t right to take advantage of tourists.

I also know that this has happened to other tourists and generally they just pay the money and back off as they don’t know what to do, what’s going to happen or even if they are right or wrong. For that reason, it is intimidating and the locals who are looking for opportunities can take advantage. I wasn’t going to let that happen to me … at least not this time.

Driver: It is only 100 pesos. That is not expensive.

And then I kind of lost it.

Me: Just because it is only 100 pesos doesn’t mean it isn’t expensive. Just because I’m white doesn’t mean that 100 pesos is nothing. I’m not new here. You should have let us out of your car or told us the price in advance and then we wouldn’t have this problem. We could have easily taken a moto concho or walked. We tried to get out of the car but you told us to stay. You are not honest. You didn’t tell us there was a fee. I’m not paying.

What I really wanted to do was take out 100 pesos and tear it up in front of them to prove that it wasn’t about the money. I’m glad I didn’t though. It would have been a waste!

I turned to the security guard ….

Me: Ok. Now what? I’m not paying. What happens now?

There was some mumbling and grumbling between the driver and the cable car staff and a short conversation between them that I didn’t understand.

Then one of the staff said ‘Ok. Ok. Go ahead’. I looked at each of the staff and the security guard and sincerely said ‘Thank you.’

My blood was boiling. For one, I don’t like confrontation. Secondly, confrontation in a foreign language? Yikes!

Go figure, once we finally got inside it started to rain and the teleferico stopped! Thankfully only for a short period of time, so we were able to get on about 30 – 45 minutes later.

It took awhile before my blood pressure returned to a regular level.

Funny enough, one of the staff who had been involved in the argument approached me while we were waiting to buy tickets and told me how good my Spanish was. Hmmm … maybe if you want to sound good in Spanish you just have to get angry so that you talk faster and they won’t hear your mistakes!

One of my friends in Canada said to me today “Don’t forget, you aren’t in Canada anymore.”

My response? “What are you talking about????? I would NEVER EVER EVER have argued like this if I was in Canada! I would have been arrested! LOL I only did it because I was in Dominican!”

By the way, for those of you who might be concerned (i.e. Mum & Papa) … I don’t do this on a regular basis. In fact, this was the first time. And, if there had been any real chance that I was going to be arrested I would have paid the $2.50 to stay safe.

Casa Goethe – Sosua – in Photos

I attended Spanish school at Casa Goethe in Sosua for three weeks in 2012. It sure was beautiful! Here’s just a few shots of IIC Casa Goethe, the students and surroundings.

My favourite Sosua Restaurant

PJ’s was one of my regularly frequented restaurants in my three-week stay in Sosua during August 2012. Located on the main strip of Pedro Clisante it was easy to find and hard to avoid as it was close to the main beach, close to the main road from Puerto Plata to Cabarete and amongst a variety of touristy restaurants on the main street of the town.

About a week after my return to Canada (Sept 2012), I’ve learned that PJ’s is now under the name of Sinatra’s, but boasts the same great service and food!

Initially I went with a group of students from my Spanish school. Although the restaurant was busy, our group of seven or eight was quickly accommodated. Staff moved tables together and made us feel welcome. The atmosphere, the food and the service were all very good by my Canadian standards, which really made them exceptional for Dominican standards. Often, Dominican restaurants are not known for their good service, but this spot proves differently.

On a second visit, I ate alone on a less busy night at the restaurant and was joined by Steve, the owner to talk about all things Dominican and the economy in the area. He was very friendly and I stayed late just enjoying the variety of topics that we conversed about. Many nights I saw him talking with new customers or re-welcoming the regulars. Always with a friendly smile on his face and always making time to converse.

Let’s talk about the food here! It truly is delicious and the price can’t be beat. I am sure that I ate at this restaurant at least 10 times and was only once slightly disappointed (I wasn’t a fan of the meat nachos here).

The English style fish & chips were my favorite. A large portion of fish, perfectly battered and served with a tangy tartar sauce. On top of it being delicious, it was on the PJ’s specials for just $250 RD. A bargain at that price!

My second favorite was the Chicken Parmasean. A large portion of lightly battered chicken covered in tasty tomato sauce. Served with fries or mashed potatoes.

Thirdly, if you are particularly hungry, go for the ½ chicken. It was huge, served hot, with a small salad and fries. The barbeque sauce was tangy and mouth watering too. I could only eat about half of my meal and felt bad that I wasn’t able to finish.

The staff here are friendly, fun and if you frequent the restaurant, you’ll start to know them by name, as friends, and they’ll be happy to welcome you back. I had great conversations with many of them and they even put up with me while I practiced my new-found Spanish skills.

When the restaurant is busy you’ll see the staff moving quickly about to take care of all of the customers as quickly and efficiently as possible. When the restaurant is slow, you can find staff waiting near the front entrance ready to welcome you and make you feel at home. Many of the restaurants have staff at the front begging and bribing you to sit down for a meal. At PJ’s, they were simply there as friendly faces, ready to answer your questions and help you, but not in a pushy or annoying way.

Wednesday and Friday nights were 2-for-1 meal nights (with some exceptions) until 8pm and then karaoke from 8pm – 12am (ish). On top of the already outstanding prices, a 2-for-1 deal was a steal and made for a great cheap night out even once you paid regular prices for your drinks.

The karaoke equipment is excellent and provides for great entertainment without the shotty crackly speakers of many of the other local establishments. There are regulars who try their talents at karaoke every week who are pretty good. There are always a few who do it just for fun and have no talent and then every once in awhile there’s a real star among the singers who will just blow you away! They have a huge variety of karaoke songs, so if you like to sing, I am positive you can find something just right for you.

If you are a fan of Pina Colada’s give one a try here. Well blended, cold and an excellent mixture of rum, pineapple juice and coconut flavors. It didn’t disappoint.

Get off my Energy Bus!

Sometimes in life you meet people who you instantly connect with, whether it be for friendship or love. You’ve never met before but you feel comfortable together, you have all kinds of things to talk about and you almost instantly respect each other’s opinions. I met a couple of these people while I was traveling in the Dominican Republic and I’m excited to keep in touch with them on a hopefully regular basis (especially Lee, Ana and Tina).

Other times, you meet people who from the first moment, rub you the wrong way. There’s no right or wrong to these situations, sometimes you just don’t see eye to eye. That doesn’t make them a bad person, nor does it make you a bad person … it just means that you are not meant to be friends. And let’s face it folks, you don’t have to be friends with everyone you meet.

*Disclaimer – These are real, true examples of experiences and feelings that I had while I was in the Dominican Republic. They involve instances where people made me feel uncomfortable and drained. If you do not like what I have to say below that’s ok, that’s your opinion and you are entitled to feel as you wish, just as I am expressing how I felt. I specifically did not name anyone as I don’t wish to start a war. I feel these experiences are worth sharing as they led to very powerful lessons learned for me while I was traveling. If you choose to read with an open mind, you may also discover something about yourself and how you treat people.

I don’t know about you, but I only have a limited number of seats on my Energy Bus and I would rather fill them with people who fill me up, rather than drain me. If you haven’t read the book The Energy Bus by Jon Gordon, I suggest you pick it up. It is a very interesting and quick read … even for someone like me who really doesn’t like to read! Ok ok … I stretch the truth just a little … I haven’t quite finished the book yet, but somehow I already feel like it has made a deep, lasting and life changing impact on me. Let me explain why …

After spending three weeks in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and hating the city, I made the decision to continue my Spanish lessons on the north coast, in a smaller, more tourist-based town called Sosua. I knew nothing about Sosua, other than that the school was close to the beach. I really didn’t have much to lose. I knew that I loved learning Spanish, I was not homesick or in any way ready to return home, but I was completely uninspired by the city of Santo Domingo.

At this point, my bus was running on empty. The intense summer heat in the city was immobilizing. I hadn’t slept comfortably for three weeks. I had been sick with traveler’s diarrhea and then a nasty cold both of which had drained my energy. I had finally come to realize that the busyness of three million people in one dirty, hot city was just not for me. It was time to take my bus on the road, push the empty tank to the limits and see if I could find gas on the north coast that would stop my bus from sputtering.

In the afternoon of Sunday, August 5th, 2012, I headed off to the Caribe Tours bus station with another girl from my school and we struggled our way through buying bus tickets to Sosua and then figuring out which of the five or six buses was the correct one for us to take. It didn’t help that I was loaded down with a way-too-heavy full-size suitcase, packed full, plus all of my professional photography gear.

We spent four, relatively uneventful hours on the bus, dozing off, chit chatting and having an interesting conversation with a local girl who wanted to ask us (Canadian and Polish) about the customs of dating in the United States. Do you see the irony in this? I guess she just assumed that all white people have the same dating customs.

We arrived at our destination in Sosua sometime around 7:30pm that night, took a taxi to the school where we would be staying and dropped off our luggage. We met our school coordinator who gave us a warm welcome and then we met up with some of the other students to head out to supper.

As we sat outside at a little Italian restaurant, we all chatted a little about where we were from, how long we were traveling for and some of our likes / dislikes. Having a multi-cultural group, covering Canada, Poland, Germany and Switzerland, the easiest common language to speak was English. Although we were all there to learn Spanish, our speaking levels varied greatly, so it didn’t make for good conversation. Luckily, everyone’s English was very good.

Quickly we all got a feel for everyone’s personalities and with first meetings in any situation I am sure each of us came to our own first impressions by the end of our supper.

I try really hard not to judge people and am always respectful of other’s opinions even if I do not share them. One thing I find particularly difficult though is when someone has strong opinions that they feel are right and they try to force them on you … sometimes without even really realizing they are doing it.

I remember this first night talking about Sosua in general. Each of the four guys who had been there for various amounts of time had very strong opinions on which beach was the best, which restaurants to go to and all of them loved their alcohol. Not in an ‘alcoholic’ kind of way. Just simply in a 25 – 29 year-old guy-on-vacation kind of way.

Pretty much immediately, even though everyone was very nice, I knew that I wasn’t going to ‘fit’ this mould. I was the oldest of the group, female and drinking alcohol is very low on my things to do to have fun list. Besides, I already felt like they were jading my view of Sosua before I had even seen it in the day light!

The bantering started that night, before any of us even knew each other. Because I chose not to have a drink on my first night in Sosua, I was deemed to be ‘boring and no fun’. These comments, I’m sure were made light heartedly and meant no harm, but as I continued to be told that I was ‘lame’ because everyone else was drinking and I was not, my bus started sputtering again. And it was continuous. I felt like I was being bullied. Like somehow magically they thought that if they called me ‘lame’ enough times that I would have a drink. And, even if I did, how did that really make a difference to them?

Maybe I’m the only one in the world like this, but even more so than not loving alcohol, I really don’t love alcohol when I am with people who I am not comfortable with. I guess if I am going to get loaded drunk, I’d rather it be with my closest friends rather than complete strangers. I realize for most people, this may be the opposite, but this is just me. I can’t seem to force myself to drink alcohol just to ‘relax’ and get along better with people who I don’t connect with. I can’t force myself to drink something I don’t like and waste my money on it, just to ‘fit in’. I’m 33 years old, I thought peer pressure was successfully behind me.

Over the next two or three days, I continued to feel out of place. I was constantly reiterating that this trip wasn’t all vacation for me, that I was serious about school, that I had to do some work and that I just don’t like to drink that much. All of which were met with ‘lame, lame, boring, no fun and lame’. “Come on, why don’t you have a drink with us? Don’t be so lame!”

One day a couple of us went to the beach … the ‘best’ beach, so I was told. It was the smaller beach that the boys had come to love during their stay in Sosua and they were anxious to show it to us. The day was cloudy with a little bit of sun. It was hot, but bearable, unlike Santo Domingo. We hung out on the beach, went for a swim and then returned to dry off and relax.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find it relaxing at all. The others seemed to get along quite well, but somehow I just didn’t fit in. I put my towel down and sat on it, about a foot and a half from the others. I clearly remember my friend joking and saying ‘Why are you so far away? Are you anti-social?’. I responded by saying that I just thought I wouldn’t sit on top of her and give a little bit of space. I don’t know, maybe we are different in Canada, but when I sit on a beach, I don’t feel the need for my towel to be touching the one beside me. And, I didn’t really feel like I was that far away. I could still hear and participate in the conversation no problem. Hmmmm … or maybe that was the problem.

The conversation turned quickly to a serious one about life, thoughts on life, thoughts on traveling and the bigger picture of life. I don’t remember all of the details, but it was a conversation that I really just couldn’t make myself open up and get in to fully with people who I had met only a day or two before. I’ll admit that I remember the conversation being interesting, but I also remember the other two playfully arguing back and forth in disagreement of how if someone was doing something ‘so called wrong’ in their life, that you should tell them how to fix it. That it is your duty to give your opinion. After politely disagreeing with this and explaining that it is that person’s life and you can’t change it for them … you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink … I was hit over and over with ‘how can you say that? you are so wrong? I can’t believe you are so close minded.’

Oh my gosh, I think my bus just broke … hmmm … I wonder if I can even get it moving again.

I was drained. I had nothing left in me. I didn’t feel like talking. I certainly didn’t feel like arguing and I couldn’t even be bothered to listen. I just wanted to start my bus and roll on outta there!

When I started to pack up my towel and get dressed the conversation went a little something like this:

Others: Where are you going?
Me: I’m going to head back to my room now.
Others: Why?
Me: hmmmm. I think I’m done with the beach for today.
Others: Why?
Me: I went swimming and saw the beach, that’s all I needed.
Others: Oh, we aren’t good enough for you?
Me: Ah, no I didn’t say that, I just don’t feel like staying around for longer.
Others: Do you have something better to do?
Me: Well, maybe. I might do a little work, I’m not sure.
Others: Boring! You should stay. You don’t need to work. Come on, really, you have something better to do than hang out with us on the beach? Work is boring.’
Me (this is where I totally lost it and in a calm, but firm and annoyed voice explained): Actually, with all due respect, it is none of your business what I am going to do right now. I don’t feel like staying at the beach any longer, so I’m leaving. I’m not asking you to come with me, to walk me back or to change your plans. I am just going about my day, by myself. Maybe I want some time alone, maybe I’m not feeling well, maybe I want to do some work. Sorry, but I’ve had enough of the beach for today, so I’m taking off and I don’t really feel I need to explain any further.

And with that, my stuff was packed, so I said ‘See you later tonight’ and walked away.

And then, I felt bad. Yup, the little voice inside my head wouldn’t let me leave it alone. I kept asking myself ‘Why were you like that? What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just get along? Why can’t you just ignore the comments you don’t like?’

That little rant was so completely out of character for me. I’m much more likely to cry about something rather than spout off about it. I’m very good at hiding my opinions and my feelings about people and biting my tongue. I am usually pretty good at ‘If you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all.’ But somehow, being pestered about why I was leaving lit a fire at the end of my rope and set me off.

I walked back, the long way, took a shower and then a nap. Maybe I just needed a little down time. Day two in Sosua wasn’t shaping up to be my best day!

It was day three when I really started to listen to myself and get off the negative self talk hamster wheel. I avoided a couple of group activities and took time for myself. Finally, all of the other passengers on my bus had gotten off at their stops, the constant drone of voices all around me had stopped and I could hear myself think.

Do you want to know what I said to myself?

I said ‘I have someone I need to kick off my energy bus!’ And, when I realized it, I immediately posted it on Facebook to declare it to the world. It was such a grand realization and change in my thought process that I wanted to share it with my friends.

And that, was that. At that moment, I let myself off the hook. Oh what a relief. I realized in that moment that I was on vacation / work / studying Spanish and that I wanted to enjoy my trip. There was no way that I should be letting someone else make me feel bad and since I couldn’t change them, I would have to change me!

As quick as you can turn the windshield wipers on to wipe the rain away, I stopped feeling bad that I didn’t want to be friends with everyone that I had met. I stopped wondering what I was doing wrong. I stopped caring if they thought I was lame. I stopped being bothered by the fact that I didn’t want to drink alcohol every night. I stopped beating myself up for being myself and I realized that I’m perfectly fine the way I am … I just needed to lighten the load on my energy bus so that I could perk back up and be me!

Over the next few days I purposely avoided hanging out with people who I felt were draining me and looking for people who I had more in common with. I skipped out on beach time and lunches with fellow students and I went exploring on my own, had a couple of siestas in the afternoon, made friends with a couple of locals and then joined back up with the group for special excursions or suppers.

By the end of my first week, I was glad to be heading to Tubagua Plantation Eco Lodge for a weekend away. I wasn’t really sure if I liked Sosua yet or not because I was still getting settled, but I did love my teacher and learning Spanish. So, I had signed up for an extra week of classes.

Amazingly, when I returned from my weekend in Tubagua, the entire group dynamic had changed. Some students had left, new students had arrived and I was relaxed, rejuvenated and even a little inspired!

Heading in to week two in Sosua, I already felt like I had new adventures in my near future and was looking forward to my renewed energy. Not surprisingly, being more comfortable with the people around me, I had more energy, even felt like having a couple of drinks here and there and couldn’t wait to go dancing in Cabarete on Thursday for Latin night.

Four important things led to my revitalization and to the thorough enjoyment of the remainder of my trip:

1. I took a break. I let my bus cool off and rest.
Literally – I went to a cooler location (Santo Domingo to Sosua). I also made the choice not to fill every single day with activities. Sometimes we can try to pack so much in to our vacation (our day or our life) that we don’t have time to breathe.

2. Everyone got off my bus and I took time to enjoy the peace and quiet.
I took time to myself on the beach and in my room to just let my brain have a break. I consciously chose not to attend all of the school activities and excursions. When I felt sick, I cancelled plans rather than forcing my way through something that I wouldn’t be happy doing. Internet wasn’t working very well and my travel pack had run out on my Canadian cell phone, so I even lost touch with the internet world and my friends for these couple of weeks.

3. I stopped beating myself up with my own thoughts.
When I finally realized what I was saying to myself, I made a conscious effort to stop being negative in my own head which led to a positive outcome!

4. I started letting people back on my bus, but I was careful of how long they could stay if they weren’t a positive influence.
Over the next couple of weeks, students, teachers and locals came and went from my life. Having had all of these realizations in my first week, I was very aware of who I connected with and who I did not. If I felt comfortable with someone, I tried to spend more time with them. If I was uncomfortable, I got out of the situation. Really, I’m half way across the world, trying to enjoy my vacation, why should I stay in any situation that I am uncomfortable with. In fact, that goes for life in general. If something makes you uncomfortable, fix it, or move on! If this meant leaving the group after supper and not going to a bar to drink, I was ok with that. If it meant not going out to supper with the group because we were an hour late leaving and I was starving … I knew that I would be happier for making my own decision rather than just trying to be part of the group.

What I think of myself is much more important that what others think of me. Maybe this will be my new mantra.

Looking back at my seven weeks in the Dominican this summer, all of the biggest lessons I learned stemmed from these situations. So, thank you to all of my new friends who encouraged me and thank you to those who annoyed me and picked on me, because now I know that I am strong enough to move forward. I learned how to refuel my bus and the importance of kicking people off my bus.

Back in Canada now, I think on a regular basis of who I want to have on my Energy Bus and who I do not. It has led me to make some changes in my life and make an effort to stay connected with those who are most important to me, while letting those who are not important in my life drift away. This means calling my friends more often rather than just texting. It means cleaning out my Facebook friends so I’m not bogged down with all of the news from everyone and I can concentrate on the news of those who are important to me. It means planning my days and weekends a little differently so that I can find time to rejuvenate myself and spend time with people whose energy invigorates me. Here’s looking forward to a more balanced and fulfilled life moving forward!

A big thanks to:
Author Jon Gordon for his book The Energy Bus
My sister, Anita Hovey of Twirp Communications for letting me borrow the book for so long
Annette Murphy of Keller Williams who gave the book away (to my sister) as a prize at a talk at platform space this Spring. Thank you all for passing along positive energy. I hope it comes full circle for each and every one of you!

Jolly Roger Bar

Jolly Roger in Sosua is a great casual place to hang out with friends and meet come from away-ers. Owned and operated by a Canadian, living in the area, it is a local get together spot for many Canadian’s and German’s, but everyone is made to feel welcome!

Situated amongst various bars and restaurants on the main street, but yet far enough away from the party bars to not be overwhelmed by the music or the string of moto conchos that can be an annoyance.

The pirate themed bar has a unique décor, is large enough to comfortably hold several small groups of people and hosts a variety of games nights such as fuzball and dart tournaments. Bingo nights are also popular, with a portion of the winnings being donated to a local children’s charity. Great to see an effort being made to give back!

They play a wide variety of mainly English music from the 80’s and 90’s, mixed in with some newer hits. I found myself singing along to almost every song and remembering moments in my past when the music was top of the charts. It is a nice change for those of you who may not be in to dance music or the local bachata and merengue scene.

The owner is always around and happy to have a friendly conversation. The local waitresses are fun, tentative and offer good service.

Don’t forget to check out the interesting drink menu, including the Blue Mother Fucker. I personally wasn’t a fan because I am a whimpy drinker, but several of my friends loved them! I stuck to the Pina Colada’s. Not the best in town, but sufficient. And, there’s always cold Presidente beer!

Chi Chi’s Burrito Hut Restaurant

If you are traveling in the Dominican for a long period of time and find yourself eating out a lot, you might need a break from Dominican traditional food. For me, I was craving something familiar and flavorful. I spent three weeks in Sosua, eating out every single day. I was a little tired of pizza, salad, beans and rice and fried fish.

Chi chi’s Burrito Hut is a tiny little hole in the wall place in the tourist district of Sosua. It seats a total of about 15 people if you try really hard. Five people can fit inside on bar stools at a counter, and about 10 can be seated outside on the sidewalk under big umbrellas. The relatively new owner of this little spot is Canadian, friendly and serves up a great chicken enchilada!

I ate at Chichi’s four days in a row for lunch in August 2012. I went the first day with one friend and then we were so happy with our meals that other friends wanted to go the next three days.

They have a great menu full of Mexican delights. Enchiladas, burritos, tacos and much more. Although the chicken enchiladas reined as my favorite, I have nothing but good things to say about all of the dishes that I tried, including burritos, quesadillas and tacos.

The Enchiladas were served hot on a skillet, smothered in delicious melted cheese and were surprisingly filling. Salsa, sour cream and guacamole on the side, paired with a coke, my meal came to about $350 RD. The burritos and tacos were slightly cheaper, but for the love of cheese, the extra $100 RD was worth it to have the enchiladas!

Service was pleasant and appropriately paced for the Dominican. Don’t stop in expecting ‘fast food’, this is a small restaurant in the Dominican, but none-the-less, we were always able to arrive, eat and pay within about 45 minutes. Remember, good things take time in the Dominican! Take your time and stop to check out this delightful little spot for some tasty Mexican food.

Costs from my Dominican Trip

I’m writing this post to help me plan for my next trip or living experience abroad. Also great information for anyone else planning the same and who needs a little guidance!

Flights: $1620
United Airlines – San Juan, Puerto Rico to Halifax – $313.90 (I didn’t use this flight because I changed my dates. Lost my money on it.)
American Airlines – Halifax to Santo Domingo – $572.91
American Airlines – Santo Domingo to Halifax – $733.73

Airport Transportation: $188
Taxi Halifax Airport – $55 CAN
Taxi home from Halifax Airport – $50 CAN
Taxi from Santo Domingo airport to home stay – $45 US (paid for with my school fees, therefore much more expensive than doing it on my own)
Taxi from Hotel in Santo Domingo to airport – $38 (booked through the hotel – 3am, more expensive than day time)

Local Transportation: $260
3 weeks of buses, public cars and taxis in Santo Domingo – $135 US

4 weeks of buses, public cars, taxis, scooter rental and moto conchos in and around Sosua / Cabarete / Puerto Plata – $125

School and Accommodations for six weeks: $2598
Spanish Lessons – $200 / week
Accommodations – $230 / week – first three weeks included breakfast and supper at a home stay, last three weeks only included breakfast at a school apartment.

Hotel Accommodations for 13 nights: $473

Travel Insurance: $67
Tourist Card: $10
Extended Stay fee (up to 90 days): $21

Food / drinks: $780
49 days Total and very little was spent on alcohol (maybe $25 total for 4 or 5 Pina Colada’s and a couple of Santa Libres)
1 meal per day for 21 days – breakfast and supper were included in my school home stay package
2 meals per day for 15 days – weekdays while I was studying in Sosua
3 meals per day for 13 days – weekends when I traveled and extra days while not in school
On average lunches in Sosua cost $250 – $360 RD / $6.50 – $9 US
On average suppers in Sosua cost $400 – $500 RD / $10 – $12 US
As a tourist, I think I could easily get by with $20 US per day for three meals. If I had eaten at more local places and less touristy places, I could have probably survived on $10-$15 US per day for three meals. If I were to buy groceries and cook myself, I’m guessing $6-8 per day.

Cell Phone: $80
This was for purchasing a local cell phone and using it A LOT to keep in touch with friends locally, make plans, calls to hotels, excursions and taxis.

Toiletries: $53
Shampoo, conditioner, razors, face wipes, bug repellant

Pharmacy: $27
bug repellant, cold & flu pills, anti itch cream for bug bites

Tips (on excursions / extra special staff): $20
Nena at Sosua school for room cleaning
Julio at Caves in Cabarete
Two girls at Tubagua who took me for a long walk and visited their families

Excursions: $218
Caves in Cabarete – $15
Puerto Plata (1400 original, I cxld – 1/2 back) – $18
Cooking with Nena – $13
Rafting – $90 (worth every penny!)
Photo CD – Rafting – $18 (not worth every penny. Only about 10 photos)
Kayaking – $64

Laundry: $30
$20 US for two weeks worth of clothes at a laundromat – WAY too expensive!
$10 US for one to two weeks of clothes, twice at the school

Spending money: $33
Movies – $8
Earrings – $10
Gifts for nieces – $15

Bank fees: $30
$5 each withdrawal x 6 times

Grand Total for a seven week trip, including six weeks of Spanish classes, accommodations, food and spending: $6315

Look for an upcoming post on how I plan to do it MUCH cheaper next time!

Latin Dance Night in Cabarete – The Wife – Part 2

Although part 2 of this story didn’t actually take place in Cabarete, it is the continuation of a plot that started at Latin Dance Night in Cabarete. If you haven’t already, you can read part 1 here and get all of the details before you venture into the remainder of this scandal!

I made it home safely from Cabarete, crawled into my bed, ALONE and sent a quick text message to Francis simply saying thank you and that I had made it home safely. Simple and innocent enough.

A couple of days later, I received two or three text messages from him asking when I would be in Cabarete again, to which I avoided answering because I had no intentions of purposely seeing him again. If I ran into him my next time out dancing, fine, but I certainly wasn’t going looking for him. Only a couple of messages were exchanged, completely friendly and normal … no harm, right?

ha HA! That’s where I was wrong …

Monday morning at 5am, my cell phone rang. I looked and it was Francis calling. I ignored it. I didn’t feel like talking at 5am and was pissed for being woken up. Moments later it rang again. I answered and groggily said ‘hola’. I was greeted with silence and then the whimper of a baby in the background. I said ‘hola’ again, but nothing. I hung up. Did a child accidentally call my number? My niece has called me in the middle of the night without mommy and daddy knowing, why couldn’t it happen in another country!

Moments later, the phone rang again. I answered with ‘Hola’ again, and again no communication except for a baby crying. I asked ‘Can I help you?’ in Spanish, and nothing … At this point I knew something weird was going on, but what could I do? It was just a phone call. I hung up.

Moments later, the phone rang again … I ignored it, silenced my phone and went back to sleep.

I awoke at 8:15am to 12 missed calls and a text message. I checked to see who the message was from and sure enough, it was from Francis’ number. I thought to myself, this should be good … and I wasn’t disappointed!

The message (loosely translated from Spanish) said
“My star. I want to make love with my wife and I have a baby.
You are stupid.”

After two or three nice messages the day before, getting a nasty message was particularly odd. Stupid in Spanish is one of the most offensive insults that you use. I knew immediately that this message was not from Francis, but from his wife (or girlfriend).

Even funnier is that she was calling me in the middle of the night and then calling me stupid. I had zero interest in her man. I danced with him for awhile, had a nice little conversation and he was sweet enough to get me home safely. I’ve got to say, I don’t feel particularly stupid about any of that. Unfortunately I feel sorry for her though as I’m positive he had further intentions with me, should I have given the ok … and unfortunately that makes her the one with the problem not me.

I wrote back short and sweet with:
ha ha ha Good Luck.

I haven’t heard from either of them again … nor will I provoke it.

It makes me sad that this is so common here. Men in the Dominican have a really bad reputation for being aggressive and for being unfaithful. Many of them are skillful con artists, masterful liars and incredibly talented at wooing their way into the hearts of young single women from all around the world. Women are warned about it constantly before traveling to the Dominican. They are told by their friends, their family and the locals wherever they stay that men are like this, but time after time, thousands of women each year fall in love with Dominican men who are cheating on their wives, looking for their green card in another country or who need a rich sugar momma.

Although I truly don’t believe that all Dominican men are bad, it is a country where it is particularly difficult to sift through all of the bad ones to find a good one. That is, if you are looking for love. There’s no way to ever really know because the men are so good at making you feel special.

I’ve met a couple of the con artists and luckily haven’t been caught off guard yet. I’ve also met a couple of true gentleman, so I know they are out there! Girls, if you are looking for your Dominican love of a lifetime, search long and hard, don’t fall to fast or you’ll fall flat on your face!