Saturday, April 23, 2011

Fixing things - the Dominican way

Dominicans do not tend to have tool boxes. If they have tools they lend them to people and never get them back, or people just 'borrow' them. Those that managed to keep hold of their tools look after them carefully, those that don't, well they improvise, and no one can improvise like a Dominican.

Instead of a hammer you use a rock. Several times when the car would not start you firstly have to squeeze a lime over the battery contacts and then you hit the battery with a rock. It works every time. Instead of screwdrivers you use a knife. Any knife including the most expensive. I have got through 5 complete knife sets since I have been here.

The door fell off our fridge (no not this one). I would have bought a new special piece to fix it. No. Make holes in the fridge door with a knife, hitting it with a rock, and put a normal door hinge on the fridge. It works.

Plastic containers are used for everything as well as their original purpose. As well as being used as a down pipe, if you go to the orthapaedic ward in the local hospital you will see several bleach containers filled with sand hanging off the edge of the beds with a piece of rope. These are used instead of weights and pulleys for traction for broken legs.

The same with plastic bags. Once brought home they are not only used to put rubbish in, especially toilet paper as you can't put it in the toilet here, but every time it rains you will see all the ladies running around with plastic bags on their heads. The same when they go into the sea or the river, have to have the plastic bag on the head.

We bought a new television a few years ago. I would have measured to make sure it fitted in the place especially made in the unit. It wasn't measured and it didn't fit. Do you; 1) take it back, 2) put it somewhere else or 3) hack a piece out of the cabinet with a machete so that the television fits and the door no longer closes on the cabinet. Yes, you have guessed it. Option 3.

Friends come to stay for the night. A Dominican general and his girlfriend. They stay in the spare bedroom in a lovely mahogany bed. The headboard starts banging against the wall.
Do they; 1) move the bed away from the wall, 2) put a towel or a t-shirt between the head board and the wall, or 3) find the toolbox which was kept in the spare bedroom for safekeeping and nail the headboard to the wall with 3 inch nails.

The headboard split in two a few weeks later.

I love it though as if anything breaks you do not have to wait for a professional to come and fix it. There is always someone on hand to botch for you, as long as you have knives, string, a rock and a machete then everything can be fixed.

The burners in my gas stove have rusted away. The solution is to take out the burners and just have the gas pipe coming straight into the oven. It is unfortunately not temperature controlled - it is blast furnace or blast furnace - but it works!

Everything always works - for a time anyway!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Dominican transportation

The main means of transportation in the Dominican Republic is the motorbike. Naturally there are cars and trucks and bicycles but most families, especially the poorer ones, will have a motorbike.

As well as people using them for their own personal transportation they are also used as taxis, known as motoconchos. This is usually a full time job for the rider, and someone who is doing this is said to be a 'motoconchista' who is 'conchando'. None of these words are in the dictionary.

Whan I first arrived here there was no way I was going to use this form of transport. I would never dream of going on a motorbike in the UK, and there was no way I would start now. It took me 24 hours to change my mind. Walking in the hot sun was not very pleasant, and a trip of a mile or so was only around 30 pence. So I started using motoconchos.

The first thing you have to learn is now to get on and off. You should always do this from the left, the side away from the exhaust pipe, otherwise you will often end up with nasty burns on your legs.

I began by holding on tightly to the driver, slowly learning to hold on a little less tightly, then putting my hands behind me to hold on to the bar behind the passenger seat, and eventually not holding on at all.

There appears to be no limit as to the number of people who can be carried on one small bike, and the driver will always help you by carrying your shopping for you.

And motoconchos are not only used for carrying people. Whatever you need, whatever you want you can always call a motoconcho to bring it to you.

In the streets they ride up and down selling things, such as eggs, bread, ice cream, brushes and pork scratchings.

If you need to do some washing, and you have no washing machine, you can call the washing machine man and he will come on his motorbike with the washing machine on the back, rent it to you for
around 80 pence an hour, then he will come and pick it up and go on to his next customer

If you need your fridge repaired, just call the motoconcho and he will hoist your fridge onto the back of his bike and take it off for you.

The bike are almost always bought on credit, with interest rates at over 100% a year. If the payments are missed at all then the interest becomes even more. Given that the bikes are so necessary for the motoconcho to earn a living, they are always desperate to keep them, and if they don't keep up the payments then the bikes will be repossessed and they will lose all of the money they have paid so far. In order to keep up the payments they will often pawn pieces of the bike such as the instrument panel, the indicators and the lights. Hence it is wise if you take a motoconcho at night to check it has lights. If not, the driver will usually take his mobile phone and hold it in front with one hand so that other drivers on the road will hopefully see a mobile phone twinkling in the distance, and be a tad less likely to hit you.

The bikes are not only used for carrying people and household items. They are even more widely used in the rural areas where people are too poor to have a car, and often the roads are not wide enough or suitable for a car either.

Obviously it is a little more difficult to carry live animals than a dead fridge, but Dominicans always manage to find a way around the problem.

It cannot be denied that it is a very dangerous mode of transportation, and hundreds of motorbike riders and their passengers are killed every year.

Very few wear helmets and even fewer wear protective clothing. Occasionally the police will try to clamp down on them and arrest them if they are not wearing helmets - once they start doing that those that do not have helmets, which is the majority, will put anything protective on their heads, including saucepans.

Motoconchos are a Dominican institution, and you will always see something which will make you smile and wonder at the ingenuity of the local people here.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Getting up in the morning

When I used to get up in the mornings in the UK, I would be woken up by the alarm clock, walk to the bathroom on plush carpet, hot shower, switch on coffee machine, pick up newspaper and mail from the doormat, and bring in the bottle of milk which was sitting outside the front door. It's not quite the same where I am now.

I am woken up at any time from 6am to 7am. Sometimes by the dogs barking, sometimes cocks crowing, sometimes by the geese which wander up and down the street attacking anyone who passes, and sometimes by the neighbours putting the stereo on so loudly our bed jumps up and down. If people have a stereo here they put it on as loudly so that they can show the neighbours that they can afford a good system.

The sun is almost always shining in through the windows. We have no glass, but metal slats which you can close if it rains. I walk to the bathroom, avoiding any dead animals which the cats have brought in overnight, usually lizards or spiders but the occasional baby rat or bird. I go to clean my teeth and have a wash, hoping that there is water. The water comes in by pipe but is turned off for 2 or 3 days at a time every week or so. When this happens I have to go into the garden and open the tap for the tinaco which is a big black plastic tank on the roof. Then we have water from the tinaco until it runs out, hopefully not before the mains water is on again when it refills the tinaco.

Then into the kitchen to make the coffee. No electric coffee machine but a greca, which is a metal old fashioned type of coffee percolator which you fill with water underneath and coffee on top and put on the cooker to boil. Coffee is grown locally, and when made in the greca it really is fabulous and worth getting out of bed for.

Unfortunately you need gas for the cooker to work and there is no piped gas in the country. Everyone has a little gas tank which you fill up at a gas station. The trouble is there is no way you can tell when it is going to run out so sometimes you are desperate for your coffee and there is no gas. If that happens you have to call a motorbike taxi, (motoconcho) or go yourself and take the tank to be filled.

Then it is hopefully time for a shower. I say hopefully as the hot watercomes from the shower head itself which has a little heater in it. When you turn the water on it is heated up as it comes through the shower head. But for it to work we have to have mains electricity. The electricity comes on twice a day for 3 to 4 hours a time. When there is no electricity we use an inverter which is attached to a bank of car batteries.

It works well, but so as not to drain the batteries the shower is not attached to the inverter, nor is the fridge. We also cannot iron nor use the microwave when the inverter is on. Apart from that it works well and it feels like we have constant electricity which is nice.

So, after hopefully having coffee and a hot shower, it is time for breakfast.

This is why I love this place. I just walk out of the back door into beautiful sunshine. Two yards away is the grapefruit tree. Once you have eaten a grapefruit straight from the tree you will be totally addicted to it. It is a completely different flavour. Unfortunately I have to wait until November for them to be ready. At the moment there are lemons on the lemon tree, and the mangos will be ready next week. We also have guava which are all year round, and passion fruit too. Plus at the moment there are guanabana which are large, green and prickly but inside they are delicious, with a soft white fruit which tastes a little like a sweet pear.

No post on the mat, as no postal service here, no newspaper and no pints of milk on the doorstep. But there is nothing like sitting outside in the sunshine in the early morning, listening to all the sounds, drinking fabulous coffee and eating fruit straight off the tree.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

RIP Shakira

Shakira aka Shaka died yesterday. She was a Belgian Malinois, and was only 9 months old. Shaka was given to us by some friends who had a large litter of Malinois puppies and wanted to take them to a dog fair in the capital. Most hotels aren't too happy about a hotel room full of pooping pups so they came and stayed in our guest house and to to say thanks, gave us Shakira.

She was a typical puppy and more. Chewed everything, stole cushions from the house at every opportunity, and although was fabulous with the cats inside the house she would turn into a murderess if she caught them outside.

A couple of months ago she killed one the the neighbours chickens, which stupidly flew over the wall. The rule of the jungle here came into play and she was poisoned. That's what happens in the campo when you kill a neighbour's chicken. We did not know of any vets here but I phoned one who told me what to give her which I did, and then we discovered the local vet.

His name is Dr Francis. You can tell he is a doctor as he wears a special ring. Not sure if that is a Dominican or an American thing. Francis is very large and wears a vest, although he sometimes puts on scrubs if you are lucky. His surgery is only 5 minutes drive away, and in the main area it has 4 cages in it. One with 2 monkeys in, one with budgies, one with cockerels and one with rabbits and chicks in together. He also has a long line of jam jars with a Siamese fighting fish in each one. If you are feeling rich you can bet on a fish and they put two in a jar together and see which one wins. Makes a change from the lottery I suppose.

Francis is there 24/7 and you can call or visit whenever you like, he also loves animals. The trouble is I am not sure he actually knows what he is doing. Shakira has been sick on and off since the poisoning episode - each time the same symptoms, not eating, lethargic, and obviously very anaemic as her tongue and gums were very pale. He managed to cure her each time with diagnoses ranging from gastro enteritis due to digging up dead cat 3 times, lung infection, heart problems, cancer, and the latest was sickle cell anaemia. Anyway, this time she was very ill, and died whilst at his surgery. He performed a post mortem and said it was definitely poisoning and she was bleeding internally. Probably due to the first time.

When I took her in for the last time he was busy stuffing a parrot, so am hoping he will not stuff Shakira. You can never tell with Francis.

I should say however that he successfully sorted Cojo's hernia and chopped his balls off at the same time. Cojo is the 3 legged cat. He also believes in natural remedies for the animals - raw mince for diarrhea and shark oil for chest infections - which I have not been able to find.

We will miss Shaka, always full of life and great fun. The other dogs are missing her too.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sanky Panky

Most Dominican men would love to meet and marry a foreign lady. This is for a whole variety of reasons. Firstly is probably economic. Foreigners usually have more money, which is not difficult as the average wage here, for those who are working is around 100 pounds a month. They also can potentially give a Dominican man the chance to have a visa to leave the country, whether temporary or permanently. Many Dominicans dream of working and living abroad, believing the streets are lined with gold in what they call Nuevo Yol (New York). Another reason is status, which is very important to Dominicans. If you have a foreign girlfriend or wife, your reputation increases amongst your peers. And finally there is the relationship aspect. Dominicans believe that foreign women make better wives in that they are less controlling, less confrontational and less argumentative.

However, whilst several relationships between Dominicans and foreign women work well, there is, amongst the Dominicans, a breed apart known as Sanky Pankies. These are men who make a business out of relationships. They will usually work in tourist businesses, hotels, bars, tour

agencies, and their main source of income is making foreign women fall for them and then send them money on a regular basis. Those who work well will often have several women on the go at once.

For those people on the outside looking in on these relationships, it can be somewhat unbelievable that women would allow themselves to be scammed like this. However, Sankies can be very persuasive. Often the women have been unable to find a partner or love in their own countries, and Sankies appear to be totally unconcerned about looks or age. They can make a woman fall for them in days. Whilst the woman is on holiday they make some money, maybe have meals paid for them, or she will buy him a new mobile phone or some trainers. However, the real income starts once the woman returns home, desperately in love with her Dominican man. The ruses used to be that their mother was ill or they were in jail and could she please send some money. And for some reason the women always send the money. Over the past few years though, the Sankies have become more and more demanding and it appears to me that more and more women are being taken in.

If a Sanky believes he has someone who will send him sufficient money on a regular basis then he will say he has left his job, or he will actually leave it. He will use a variety of reasons such as his boss said he could no longer work as he has a foreign girlfriend, or, if the woman visits often, he will say that he cannot take sufficient time off work to be with her. They will then expect the woman to pay his 'wages'. These would have been from US$ 150 to maybe 250 a month, but they will increase this figure dramatically up to US$ 1000 a month. And the women will send the money. They will often ask for their rent to be paid. Usually they will live in a typical Dominican house with the rest of the family paying around US$30-50 a month, but suddenly they will say they live in an apartment which costs more like US$450 a month. When the girlfriend visits they will be in the apartment, but as soon as she leaves they will move out, but she will still send the rent.

They all use the "I am in jail and please help me get out" card. This can cost a serious amount of money such as US$ 5,000. Now, more and more are trying it for smaller amounts saying they have been stopped by the police for speeding, or for not wearing a helmet on a motorbike and if the girlfriend does not send money they will go to jail. Whilst it is true that once the police know a Sanky has a foreign girlfriend who sends a lot of money they will ask for a cut, they often work together with the Sanky to extort money.

The family will often become involved and help to take money from the unsuspecting girlfriend. The standard practice is to take the girlfriend to meet the family who are always very nice and always live in a basic Dominican house. Then the mother will become sick, and she may even call the girlfriend directly saying she has cancer or something equally bad. She will beg the girlfriend for help. The Sanky himself will often be sick, and fail to mention that Dominican Republic has public hospitals where treatment is free, although medicines are not. This is another way of raising a large amount of money.

However, whilst all of this is not right, the worst is when at last the girlfriend marries the Sanky and then obtains a visa for him to go and live with her in her country. Some have up to 6 women trying to get visas for them at the same time, and some even marry several times. The Sankies will say that they are working to get the visa and need money for a passport and each of the women will send money. Even if he only has one applying for a visa for him, very often once he arrives in her country he will leave her within a matter of months. She of course will be broken hearted and several thousand dollars poorer.

Not all Dominican men are Sankies. Not all of those who work in tourism are. But those who are true Sankies are expert con men who prey on foreign tourists who are often at a vulnerable stage in their lives. And they are becoming more demanding and more outrageous. If you do start a relationship with a Dominican man, you need to be aware of the potential Sanky ploys, and if you are already with one, try not sending him money for a while - see if he hangs around. if not, you know what he is.

If you want to know if your man might be a Sanky Panky, click on the tab marked Sanky Panky questionnaire at the top of this page or click here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Toilet Paper

In the Dominican Republic, in the campo, which is the word for village, there are no toilets. If you are lucky you have a latrine - a hole dug in the ground - with a little hut built on top of it, or plastic sheets around it for privacy. Most people will just do as the bears do - and go in the woods.

Obviously there is no toilet paper, so the alternative of choice is a tusa, which is a corn on the cob, without the corn. Having learned this, I assumed that when you wanted to take your trip to the woods, firstly you had to gather wood for the fire. Then you had to go to the river to collect water. Make the fire, boil the water, cook the corn and eat it. Once the husk had cooled you could then take yourself off to the woods armed with your tusa. As long as it was not too late.

Luckily that is not the case. The chickens eat the corn, straight off the husk, so the yards are full of readily prepared tusas, which can be gathered and stacked for whenever the need arises.

We do not live in the campo at the minute, so luckily we have toilet paper. However, we are on an economy drive. Toilet paper costs around 15 pesos a roll which is about 30 pence. But my husband went to do the shopping at a local supermarket and he bought Charmin. A big pack. It cost an absolute fortune. There was no way we could justify spending that amount on toilet paper, especially with 4 men in the house. As it was double thickness, I made them unravel it all and make two rolls out of one - still considerably softer than a tusa.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Off we go

My very first post on my very first blog, and very exciting it is too.

I am currently writing a book, called surprisingly enough, "What about your saucepans?", which is what my mother said to me when I told her I was leaving the UK, my well paid job, and my husband to go off and travel the world as a scuba diving instructor. I left the saucepans behind as well. I am trying to get the book published at the moment, so in the meantime have started this blog, to give you something to read until the book appears.

I will be talking about all sorts of things related to the Dominican Republic, the country, the people, their customs and habits, what it is like to live here.

I hope you enjoy it.