Saturday, April 30, 2016

Culture shock without leaving the country

For the final night of our vacation, we decided to stay in Punta Cana, the resort town on the eastern edge of the island. This gave me an afternoon and morning of beach time and put us conveniently close to our departure airport.

After Santo Domingo, Punta Cana is weirdly artificial. Santo Domingo was loud, dirty, and full of life. Punta Cana is clean, well-groomed, expensive, and full of overseas tourists. I understand that areas like this can be a financial boon to counties like the DR, and I can understand why tourists would want to have a holiday where every care and rough edge of life is removed. Nonetheless, the inequality between the two areas of the country is overwhelming, and I find the perfection creepy. I don't think I am part of their target market.

We AirBnB'd a room in someone's home, which was a great choice. The hosts both spoke English, so we had interesting conversations about our respective countries, as well as research (the husband does academic business research). My mother got to eat a real Dominican breakfast - it was heavily meat-based, of course, so I had cornflakes. The conversation with locals was something I especially appreciated; I had searched fruitlessly for a cultural exchange or a program where we could share a meal with a local, and both my DR contacts and the Internet had failed me. One particular thing that stuck with me was our host assuring us that the Dominican Republic had many traffic laws, it's just that no one follows them...

I'll end with a picture of the beach, taken during the hour when the forecast called for 99% chance of rain.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Thoughts from the road

My mother and I make good travel companions. We both believe in leisurely breakfasts, drinks with lunch, and lots of museums. I'm happy to stop as she takes yet another photo, and she doesn't take it personally that introverted me needs an hour or two of silent time in my room when we come home every afternoon. I can't spend eight straight hours with another person, even when that person is the woman who gave birth to me.
Things that I heard about the Dominican Republic that are, in fact, true: You can hear music almost all the time. The sidewalks are treacherous; if you don't keep your eyes glued to the ground, you will fall into the deep gutter that separates every sidewalk from the gutter or trip over rubble and bags of trash. People dress conservatively- even when it's 30C and 100% humidity, skirts and shorts are below the knee and shoulders are covered. Unless you're at an all-time inclusive hotel, hot water is not a given. The people are very nice; we had strangers help us across the street when they saw us bewildered at a huge intersection. There are no beaches in Santo Domingo - the picture shows the closest we got to the ocean, which was a boulder-strewn fifteen feet below the ledge my mother is sitting on.
The accuracy of the weather predictions is laughably abysmal. In the evening, the forecast would show that tomorrow we'd have 80% chance of rain every hour. The next morning, the skies would often be clear, and the forecast would change to show rain around noon, which would change to later in the afternoon as the day went on. This happened *every* day. We always had some rain, but it was as if the forecasters used darts on a random list of weather icons. Or, you know, their models aren't very good at modeling a small island in a big ocean.
There is a general election on May 15. Over 4000 offices will be filled, which is a huge number for a country of 10 million. Trucks drive through the streets, blaring campaign messages on loudspeakers and there are signs on every building and telephone pole. I can remain neutral on most of the election - if their ads are to be believed, everyone is for peace, prosperity, and the people. But the incumbent president it is favored to win, and this seems a bit suspect to me, as his party forced through a constitutional amendment ending the restriction that presidents can only serve one term.
I need to learn more Spanish verbs. It's amazing how much one can communicate using nouns and about six verbs, but eventually one looks for some verbal variety.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


The history that permeates Santo Domingo has been just as interesting and omnipresent as I hoped. The Spanish landed here in 1496, and two years later the city was founded by Christopher's younger brother, Bartholomew Columbus. As a result, there are monasteries, forts, and residences from the early 1500's. My mother and I went to Mass in the oldest cathedral in the New World, which was a chance to admire the architecture and learn a bit about the culture. I think of the Western Hemisphere as being "young", so it's neat to discover we have authentic Gothic buildings here.

The history of so complicated that I have trouble putting all the various memorials for independence and generals into context. By my count, the city was ruled by five counties (Spain, France, Haiti, the US, and the Dominican Republic) - six if you count that Sir Francis Drake (technically a pirate but supported by the English crown) captured and held the city for ransom for a while. The have been dozens of military uprising, with power rapidly shifting between factions, and the dictator Trujillo ruled until 1965.

Our apartment is in the Zona Colonial (Colonial City in English), which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and just stuffed full of old buildings. We can sit on our second- story terrace and watch the old men play dominoes or the cats deftly maneuver the rooflines. I'm learning more about regular life this way than if we had stayed at a hotel. Here we have to turn on the hot water heater 10 minutes before we want a shower and here I can watch the man on the three-wheeled tricycle calling for people to bring him their old electronics.

The photo shows the type of house around here, but not our place. Our apartment is not as picturesque; we don't have snazzy blue paint, but we do have a backup generator for when the power goes out every morning, and right now that's better than picturesque.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Comida y agua

As I said on an earlier post, I wouldn't suggest coming to the Dominican Republic just for the food. To be fair, I'm not eating like a local - I'm nervous about eating street food and I'm a vegetarian. From past trips, I've learned that guidebooks can steer me away from mediocre restaurants and towards excellence, but in this case that plan only gets me so far. The guidebook names Santo Domingo the culinary capital of the country, and then most of the recommended restaurants are Italian or Mexican. These meals have been adequate: tasty, but I could have made better at home.

In addition, vegetables are not a prized part of the menu. You usually find a few pieces of tomato or carrot scattered around the plate, and that's about it. I panicked for several minutes in the grocery store because the produce section only had potatoes, onions, and plantains. I had just started to believe that the country survived solely on starch when my mother found a separate room in the grocery store where they apparently segregate the vegetables.

The bright spots of the cuisine have been anything with rum or plantains. Today we had ripe baked plantains with a sweet cream sauce. It was delicious, which was great, because along with white rice and some tomato slices, it was the only part of the meal I could eat.


Until now I've never cooked in a country where I couldn't trust the water. I have increased respect for the cooks doing this all the time. It takes a lot of brain power. Remember to buy and carry home water for the day. Figure out how to safely clean the veggies. (I've been using soap and tap water, followed by a bottled water rinse, but I think I should be using a bleach water soak.) Guess when a plate is clean: after washing in tap water, do I have to let it air dry, or can I wipe it dry? When I grow weary of puzzling over water, I have a solution. I've introduce my mother to mojitos and that takes care of everything...

Sunday, April 24, 2016


After I studied abroad in Germany during high school, I decided that I also needed to learn a language that would be useful in the US. I took three years of Spanish in college, and I was proficient enough to read the newspaper. It was my goal to study abroad in Spain, because I knew that this would cement my language skills. Because I was majoring in German, however, I was strongly encouraged to spend a semester in Germany. I must admit that I regret taking that advice, because my Spanish skills rapidly deteriorated from that point and today I speak pidgin Spanish, in the present tense only. This is in spite of living in Albuquerque, Miami, and Hyattsville. ( My current neighborhood is probably half native Spanish- speakers.)

Nonetheless, on many trips my minimal language skills are still the best in the group. I find myself desperately consulting dictionaries and trying to recall how to conjugate verbs. I prepare carefully to ask a question, which works as long as the answer is something I expect. Heaven help me if someone says something unsolicited. Today I think a man on the street told me I looked like a queen in my hat, but it could also have been a completely different hat related comment. It does make for interesting, if slightly baffling, conversations.

Santo Domingo, part 1

My cousin suggested that everything that has already happened might be sufficient sacrifice for the MUPTG. That may be the case, as our travel here was uneventful. I recommended the Dominican Republic to my mother in part because it is a direct flight from Baltimore, and it's in the same time zone during the summer. As a result, I felt pretty terrific when we arrived. In contrast, I always feel practically hung over from lack of sleep by the time I'm going through passport control on a trip to Europe.

Almost everyone that vacations in the Dominican Republic stays in Punta Cana, which appears to be the all-inclusive capital of the hemisphere. My mother and I aren't the types to sit on a beach and fruity cocktails, so we'll be spending the week in Santo Domingo, which is the oldest continuously habited city in the Western Hemisphere, as long as we're talking cities founded by Westerners. Columbus landed here, and his family rules for a while. Stay tuned for way more history than you ever wanted to know in the coming posts.

The Dominican Republic is the poorest country I've ever been in, and my first on the Caribbean. I'm looking forward to learning about the culture and history, which is the other reason we came here. Luckily we didn't come for the food, because it's been uninspiring so far...

Friday, April 22, 2016

Is that laughter I heard from the heavens?

As I have mentioned before, a certain subset of my extended family believes in appeasing the Magical Unicorn Pony Travel God. I am headed out for a long-planned trip to the Dominican Republic with my mother tomorrow, so the MUPTG has been on my mind. Alas, I think that I have already been deemed unworthy, as our pre-trip has been sullied by a few difficulties:

I had pictured drinking coffee on our apartment balcony and then strolling through sun-baked squares and museums. The most recent weather report shows about a 90% chance of rain every day, so I'm trying to re-imagine drinking coffee snugly inside the kitchen, and then hiking through showers to get to a museum.
More seriously, my mother sustained an injury. We were walking Ada the dog yesterday when a different dog broke through a unsecured gate and attacked. It bit my mother's hand and we spent the evening in urgent care. The good news is that she didn't need stitches and they are not worried about rabies. The bad news is she was a bit shook up, her hand is quite swollen, and she'll be sporting a big bandage in all the vacation photos.
Because of all the injury, neither of us are as on top of things as usual, and we forgot to check in early. Since we are flying Southwest, that means we won't be sitting together. I would normally take this opportunity to complain about Southwest, because unassigned seating drives me crazy. But my mother is treating me to this entire vacation as a birthday gift so I will firmly hold my tongue and enjoy the flight.

Luckily, my mother and I are people who try to see the positive. For example, when I served a rather unappetizing dinner tonight, she pointed out how nice it was to have food that was quickly prepared and filling. So we will make good travel companions for each other, and hopefully MUPTG will realize that we are not so easily defeated and will bestow upon us an eventful journey.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Changing it or living with it

Here's my proposed home renovation plan, even though some seasoned homeowners laughed when I proposed it: in the first year of living here, I want to renovate (pretty much) everything I want to renovate. The corollary, of course, is that if it isn't fixed, I'll live with it.

I've got two motivations here: I don't want to move away in ten years and still hate my bathroom walls. I have a friend who is spending this coming week replacing the linoleum in his kitchen that he has hated for 25 years, so that he can rent out his house. That means he's finally fixing something that he hated, but he won't get to enjoy the results, and he had to put up with ugly linoleum for two and a half decades. Also, I don't want to spend every day of the next decade working on this house. I'm enjoying the painting and I don't mind the electrical repairs, but at some point I'd like to get back to all my other hobbies.

There are a couple of caveats. (1) I expect that repairs and upkeep will keep happening. Houses occasionally need new water heaters and repainted windowsills  and the house doesn't care whether or not I feel like doing that. (2) I don't expect to change how I use the house. Right now, I only plan to live here for about ten years. If you stay anywhere for decades, your life changes and you naturally remodel the playroom into a teenager hangout or put in a wheelchair ramp.

Now that I've made this public, we can all check back in five years. If I'm still replacing walls or laying down new carpet, you have my permission to laugh at my foolishly optimistic plan.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The joys of home ownership

Almost always, when people talk about the joys of home ownership, they say the phrase with cynicism. It is almost always followed by a list of problems with said house. Today I am using that phrase truthfully. I've owned my house for almost six months, and here's what I appreciate about it.

  1. The time I spend doing dishes is almost zero. Every other day, the magical box turns my dirty dishes into clean ones. And I put my dishes in the dishwasher immediately, so the dishwasher serves as a dirty plate storage device, and the whole kitchen always looks tidy.
  2. In the next few years I will have raspberries, figs, and asparagus and I will probably be able to harvest for twenty years. One of the main reasons I bought a house was to have more gardens and to have long-term plantings like fruit trees. A free tip to my friends: starting in 2018, the best time to visit me will be in April and May during Spargelzeit. (The Germans love asparagus so much they have a name for asparagus season.)
  3. I'm saving more money every month. Buying a house is not automatically cheaper than renting. I've been careful to not overspend on furnishings and home repair supplies, and my mortgage plus maintenance costs is roughly equivalent to my previous rent. But owning a house meant that I could get a roommate. I've had my first short-term roommate in the house for two months, and so far I love it. The ability to have a roommate and save on housing costs is the other big reason I wanted a house.
  4. I have a basement workshop. I hadn't planned on this, but having all the tools arranged on shelves, instead of packed in boxes in my bedroom, makes small repair jobs so much easier. I used to schlep a saw, clamps, wood, and extension cord outside every time I needed to cut something. Now I just hop downstairs to the miter saw and in 30 seconds the job is done.
  5. I use the Metro more. Again, proximity to a Metro stop (subway, for those of you not from DC) wasn't a priority for me, since I commute by bike or car. The difference between the 30-minute walk to the stop and my new 10-minute walk means I'm much more willing to take the Metro than a car when going into DC. This is probably a wash financially, but it gives me more flexibility and means that I arrive downtown relaxed from catching up on reading instead of stressed from fighting DC traffic.