Friday, June 29, 2012

What the tourists don't see

The Dominican Republic is a beautiful country, with amazing beaches, mountains and rivers. Millions of tourists come here every year, and several return time and time again, enjoying the scenery, the way of life and, of course, the people.

However, just a few minutes away from where the tourists stay is the other side of life here. Here are just two examples.

The first example is Juan Dolio on the south coast which has the most beautiful beaches.

However, less than a couple of minutes walk from the beach, where the tourists never venture, there are hundreds of Dominicans and Haitians living in appalling conditions.

These children proudly show off their bedroom made of
 cardboard where 3 of them sleep
The kitchen of another home nearby

The second example is Barahona in the south west of the country. Just outside Barahona you can find a truly exquisite hotel called Casa Bonita, enjoyed by several tourists each year. What makes this hotel different, is not only the fact it is amazingly beautiful, but they also do a lot of work for the environment and help local businesses and people.  All the produce for the restaurant is sourced locally including the fish caught by local fishermen from Barahuco. In addition Casa Bonita has partnered with the Dominican Surfing Federation to work alongside the local population in restoring the beachfront and train surfers in ecosystem management and conservation. The hotel also encourages the guests to work with local Dominicans to refurbish local shops and learn about larimar, the beautiful local stone. To learn more about Casa Bonita you can look here.

The pool. Imagine the sunsets from here. Stunning.

However, drive up into the mountains which rise behind Casa Bonita and there is a side of life that again the tourists don't see. The people there have no running water, no electricity, no medical facilities, no stoves, and just live off the land and their animals, venturing rarely into Barahona for essential supplies and to sell their produce.

The kitchen, where people cook using charcoal or wood
The people may be poor but the area is beautiful

Congratulations to Casa Bonita for doing what they can to work with the local people and the environment and also for introducing their guests to the local area and the people. It would be lovely if more hotels could do the same and also if the tourists could venture out of the resorts so that they can really understand more about the country and its people.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Dominican queues or lines or not!

I spend a lot of time trying to understand why Dominicans behave in the way they do, but one thing that has me totally baffled is the waiting in line, or queuing as we say in British English.

Queuing is something we British are excellent at and always have been. However, we are not very good at waiting. If we go to the dentist or the doctor and have an appointment at 2 pm for example, we will arrive on time,  calmly take our seat in the waiting room, and sit there. By 2.05 we will start looking at our watches. At 2.10 we will start to get agitated and by 2.15 we will be yelling at the receptionist. Dominican waiting isn't like that at all.

Waiting room in a public hospital

In the doctors, dentists, lawyers waiting rooms, Dominicans will wait patiently, sometimes for hours and hours. The appointment may be at 2 pm and the person you are waiting for will invariably still be at lunch and will often arrive an hour late. No one makes a fuss, people just wait, seemingly stress free while any expats there get more and more frustrated. Everyone chats among each other, maybe eating or drinking, but basically no one appears to have any problems at all waiting, even for hours. Nowadays if ever I have to go to the doctor, dentist, lawyer, immigration or any other type of office, I always make sure I have nothing else to do that day and take a book, water and food, and sit there calmly and chill and wait.

And when it comes to queuing, Dominicans are very good at that too, especially at election time where they can spend hours in a line, waiting to vote.

So we have a nation of people who know how to queue beautifully, and who are patient and stress free sitting for hours in various waiting rooms, but what I want to know, is what on earth happens when they go to the colmado, the corner shop, when the whole process of queuing and waiting goes out of the window?

Every time I go into my local colmado someone jumps in front of me and yells "Dame" something or other, which means "Give me". Not a please or a thank you in sight! The kids, who can't even see over the counter, push themselves in front of me, slam their 5 pesos down on the counter and yell, "José 5 pesos of butter!" Not one person has ever come into the colmado and just waited for me to finish with my order. And does José the owner tell them to wait? Not a bit of it. He leaves me in mid-order and gives them what they want! Not just once but several times.

José in his colmado
It doesn't just happen in the colmado, it happens in every shop or bar or fast food place. People will push in front of you.  I can't understand how shopping is so urgent that the fabulous ability to do stress free waiting totally disappears.

British people queuing for bread during the war

Can anyone explain to me what makes a colmado different from a dentist's or a doctors? Does anyone ever actually wait in line in a colmado?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Z is for Zapote and Zacarias

The last in my A-Z of the Dominican Republic, and I am feeling sad it has come to an end because I have really enjoyed writing it and also learned a lot from researching and from your comments. Thank you all.

Z is for Zapote and Zacarias Ferreira. The former is a fruit and the latter my favourite Dominican singer.

Zapote is known as Sapote in English and is a rough brown skinned fruit which is orange on the inside with a single stone in the middle. Apparently it can be eaten on its own and is also used in smoothies, milkshakes, ice creams and desserts. However my step sons assure me it has a strange taste if you eat it on its own - I have never tried but I have enjoyed the milkshake, just blend with sugar and evaporated milk.

The fruit has all sorts of medicinal qualities and is said to be an aphrodisiac and good for gastro intestinal problems. The oil from the stone apparently can cure baldness, and is also a diuretic and good for the throat and heart conditions. Finally the latex from the tree is a cure for verrucas!

Zacarias Ferreira is a bachata singer who was born in Tamboril, near Santiago in the central north west of the country, an area famous for the traditional Dominican music known as périco ripiao, which his father and his uncles all played. He then went to Santo Domingo where he joined the National Conservatory and also sang with a local bachata band.

périco ripiao

His first album, Me Liberé, came out in 1997 and won the prestigious Dominican music award, the Cassandra and he won it again with his second album.

When I first came to the DR, in 2001, his music was played everywhere and I fell in love with it immediately. There is just something magical about the music itself as well as his voice. The very first dance I had with the man who is now my husband was to a Zacarias Ferreira song – Amiga Veneno which means poisonous girlfriend! Here is a video featuring 25 of his best known songs including Amiga Veneno.

I cannot think of a better ending to the A - Z series of the Dominican Republic than Zacarias Ferreira, as when I hear his music, wherever I am in the world, it just transports me back to the DR where it is played in the colmado, the supermarket, on the bus, in the homes, you hear it everywhere. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

How to understand a Dominican Man

I receive several emails from foreign ladies who have Dominican boyfriends or husbands asking for information or advice, so I thought it might be useful every so often to tell you what I have learned over the last 10 years, living with and then married to a wonderful Dominican man, and also bringing up two stepsons.

When I learned Spanish and could more or less speak it and understand it, I thought life would be a lot easier, in that I could understand perfectly what my husband was saying to me. But not only do you have to translate from Spanish into English so that you get it, firstly you have to translate from Dominican Man Spanish into Spanish and then into English.

Let me explain. Time within a relationship is totally different from normal time. Dominican men live in a sort of space bubble.  When he goes out there are only three times. Five minutes, twenty minutes and then two hours. Five minutes is up to an hour, or an hour and a half but never ever five minutes. Twenty minutes is around three hours and two hours is all day. So lesson one is always make that translation and you will not be hanging around waiting.

Of course they often do not tell you how long they will be, as many Dominican men have a habit of just disappearing and you have no idea where they have gone or when they will be back! One minute you think he watching TV and the next minute he is nowhere to be seen. We had some friends coming to see us a month or so ago from a long way away. They weren't planning to stay long, just an hour or two. They arrived and he was nowhere to be seen. I called and he answered. He was miles away in town, and had just gone without saying a word! I told him to move his ass back sharpish - "Mueve tu culo!"

Or they may say they will be back ahorita - later. That is a very dangerous word as it could be days, not just minutes or hours.

When they return from whatever, you will ask why they are so late and what they have been doing. The answer will always begin with "Lo que pasa..." which means "well what happened...". I have learned that anything at all which follows this phrase will not be the whole truth! So lesson two is whatever follows "Lo que pasa.." should not be believed!

And finally, another dodgy word is "Claro". Not the telephone and internet company, but the word meaning of course. You ask if they will be back on time and they answer "Claro", "Of course". The translation of this word is "No way". Telephone and ask if they have been to the supermarket and the answer is always "Claro" when they haven't!

So, living with a Dominican man is great fun and fabulous as long as you learn the new translations for words you thought you knew.

If you want to know more about relationships with Dominican men and read real life stories then check out It is a site for anyone who wants to know about the country and the people.

Also, to learn more about Dominican men and the culture of the country, you can read my two books "What About Your Saucepans?' and "Life After My Saucepans." They tell my story, warts and all, how I made the decision to leave the UK and come to the DR and the ups and downs of living with and marrying a Dominican Man. Most readers love them, and they are both best sellers on Amazon. You can buy then in  kindle and paperback versions on all of the Amazons sites, in Chapters as well in Canada, and on Smashwords for the iPhone, Kobo and Nook versions. I hope you enjoy them and please let me know what you think of them and if you have time, leave a review as well!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Y is for Yola and Yaniquque

Letter Y of my A-Z of the Dominican Republic is for Yola and Yaniqueque (pronounced yannykaykay).

A yola is a boat, usually wooden or sometimes fibre glass, in which Dominicans, and other nationalities, travel illegally from the DR to Puerto Rico, which lies 100km or 62 miles to the east of the Dominican Republic, and which is part of the USA.

Immigration to Puerto Rico is a relatively new phenomonem which began after the death of Trujillo in 1961. This was followed by the overthrow of Juan Bosch and the US invasion in 1965. During this period the restrictions on migration were lifted and the borders between the US and the DR were opened, leading to thousands of middle class and professional Dominicans moving to the US and Puerto Rico.

In 1960, the population of Dominicans in Puerto Rico was only 1,812, in 1970 it was 10,843 and by 1980 it was 20,558. The census in 2010 showed 68,036 Dominicans of whom of 30% are illegal.

However, the illegal immigration to Puerto Rico is relatively new, with the first recorded illegal trip happening in 1972. The people who go on yolas are not the middle class professionals, they go to escape poverty with the dream of making more money in Puerto Rico.  It is thought that over half of those who leave on yolas are women, who leave their children with a family member in the hope of finding work to send money back to them.

The yolas are usually very overcrowded as the people who run these trips like to maximise their income and all money is taken up front. The person who organises the trip does not travel him or herself, and therefore it is immaterial to them if the boat is overcrowded. It costs between 30,000 to 40,000 pesos per person to make the crossing, which is in the region of 700 to 1000 US$. The people are usually recruited in the larger cities and then travel to the woods and undergrowth near a predetermined beach. They hide out in the woods waiting to be told at what time they should leave, almost always during the night or the early hours of the morning. The captains of the boats are paid around 30,000 pesos to take the people and return.

Yola journeys are not for the faint hearted. A trip can take 26 to 28 hours, that is assuming the weather is good and the captain does not get lost which often happens as yolas rarely have radar.  The route is across the Mona Passage which is notorious for high waves and sharks. As the boats are overcrowded, some people fall overboard, some are washed overboard by high waves, some are thrown overboard to save the yola from sinking and sometimes the whole boat sinks. Some die of starvation or dehydration if the boat becomes lost at sea.

No-one knows how many people have died making these voyages as often bodies are never recovered. One of the worst tragedies was in 1989 where as many as 500 died near Mona Island, and often we hear in the news about other smaller scale disasters where 30 to 60 die.

The US coastguard catches hundreds or thousands of Dominicans every year trying to make the trip. As well as Dominicans there are Haitians and Cubans. In 2003 for example as well as 1469 Dominicans captured and returned to the DR, some 2000 Haitians and 1500 Cubans were caught as well.

To try and deter people from going, the Dominican government shows pictures of dead bodies floating in the water and posters with sharks pointing out the dangers. However, if caught by either the Dominican or Puerto Rican authorities, the travellers face no charges, although the captains are usually sent to jail. Many will then simply try again.

When you go in a yola, there is always someone waiting for you. Illegal journeys are journeys to your death

Once they reach Puerto Rico the Dominicans are normally collected from wherever they land by a member of their familiy and they quickly blend into society, many working in unskilled areas and sending money home to their family.

Yaniqueque as it is known in the DR, is also called Johnnycake. It is originally a cornmeal flatbread eaten as an early staple in the US, and is thought to originate there from the native Indians. It is also called hoecake in the southern USA as it was cooked on a shovel or hoe over an open fire by field workers.

The word is thought to come from Jonakin which was the name given by the slaves to a cake made of corn.

Yaniqueques or yanikeke are the Dominican version of the jonnycake, supposedly brought over in the 19th century by the cocolos who were descendants of slaves working on English speaking caribbean islands. They are made with flour and baking soda and are typically deep fried. You will often see yaniqueque for sale on the beach, and Boca Chica beach in the south of the island is famous for them.  If you want to try making them, there is a great recipe from Mari here.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Beautiful Country, Beautiful People

I have always said that it is the spirit of the Dominican people I adore. It is very hard to put into words and explain what makes them so very special, so I thought I would try and use pictures.

Firstly the country itself is beautiful. Look at this sunset, taken in Juan Dolio by my sister.

And the same Caribbean sea is just as fabulous in the day time.

In the south west the mountains tumble into the sea. The view is absolutely stunning.

Back to the people. The best way is to show you a video of photographs taken by Paul Gerace who has been taking photographs in the Dominican Republic for 21 years.  His website is in the list of sites and blogs I follow on the right of this page. I hope you enjoy the video, and the music. It shows all different situations and people, and I think it really shows the spirit of the country and the people.  Enjoy!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Public transport - I love it

This is an extract from my monthly column in Expat Focus. You can read the full article here.

A standard guagua or bus

We arrived at where I had to get off for the next part of the journey and now I had to decide whether to get a publico which is a shared taxi, or another guagua. 

They can get a little full!

The guagua is 50 cents more expensive but you have a seat to yourself, whereas in the publicos there are two people on the single front seat, or even three sometimes,and four or five in the back.

Squished in the front seat next to the driver
The publico man tried to persuade me to go in his car and promised there would only be two of us in the front seat. I looked at the lady next to me, who whilst very nice, had the biggest bottom I have ever seen.

State of public taxis (publicos) isn't regulated!
The idea of travelling for over an hour jammed on top of the handbrake and squashed between her and the driver was enough to put me off, and when the driver assured me he would be much quicker than the guagua as he was a very fast driver, that was decision made, so I went to catch the guagua.

Monday, June 4, 2012

X is for Xenophobia

For letter X of my A-Z of the Dominican Republic I am looking at  X for Xenophobia. Xenophobia comes from the Greek xenos meaning stranger or foreigner and phobos meaning fear, so literally it is a fear of foreigners. It is also defined as a deep rooted irrational hatred towards foreigners or people of other races. Why is this in my A-Z of the Dominican Republic? It is because some Dominicans are xenophobic towards Haitians, and various international communities and organisations such as the United Nations are often accusing the country and government of the DR of xenophobia towards Haitians by violating their human rights.

This will be a long post, as to understand why such xenophobia exists and in what forms, it it necessary to go back in time and examine the history between the two countries. And although Hispaniola is one island, we are talking of two countries, two nations, two different cultures, two different languages and two different backgrounds. It is like comparing the Chinese with the Americans, or the Russians with the British. Haiti and the Dominican Republic are much further apart in many ways than say Canada and the USA.
Haiti is the third of the island on the left

When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, he named the entire island La Isla Española and it wasn’t until 1697 that the Spanish formally ceded the western third of the island to the French, who were already there and developing it at full speed, by means of the Ryswick treaty.

The border crossing
From then on, the two countries began to follow totally different economic paths, which had far reaching effects or their future populations and economic, social and cultural development. What we now know as Haiti concentrated on sugar and became the most productive colony of the northern hemisphere. In order to achieve these massive levels of sugar production, the French imported huge numbers of African slaves. By 1790 there were more than half a million black slaves, and only 30,000 whites, and 27,000 freemen both black and mulatto.

However, in what is now called the Dominican Republic, it was a very different story. The Spanish weren’t interested in sugar, so they didn’t import any large numbers of slaves. The population was much smaller than Haiti and practised subsistence farming along with only a small amount of sugar cultivation. So by 1790 in the DR there were 125,000 white Spanish landowners, 60,000 slaves and 25,000 black and mulatto freemen. The blacks were a minority and as the Spanish were encouraged to marry the freemen and also the slaves, the mulatto population grew. This was the demographic basis for the present population composition of Haiti and the DR. Haiti is genetically African, The Dominican Republic is genetically Spanish with some African and some like to think, Taino Indian bloodlines mixed in.

When the Haitian Revolution broke out in 1791, the white French fled the colony both during and after the revolt to escape the wrath of their slaves. Those few remaining were massacred, leaving Haiti as an almost totally black country with a relatively small number of mulattos.

Following the revolution, in 1804, Haiti became the world’s first sovereign black republic and invaded what is now the Domincan Republic, leading to a twenty two year occupation during which the Haitian president, Jean Pierre Boye, tried to destroy the Hispanic culture by closing the university and tried to stop the influence of the Catholic church. These policies increased anti Haitian feeling in the country which eventually gained independence in 1844. This difference in racial make-up helped amplify and worsen Dominican-Haitian rivalry.

When Trujillo was elected President in the DR he described the Dominican Republic as Hispanic, Catholic and White and Haiti was Afro-French with a voodoo religion. He considered Haiti to be a threat and the antithesis of the DR and his fear of the influence of the Haitian culture led to the Parsley Massacre of 25,000 Haitians in the border area as I described in letter T for Trujillo.


After the 1937 massacre, Trujillo subjected the Dominican population to a constant barrage of anti-Haitian propaganda. Haiti and Haitians went from being good neighbours to becoming the scapegoats of Dominican society. By stimulating nationalism, Trujillo sought to distract the public opinion by focusing on a foreign enemy. No target was more convenient than Haiti, given the long history of animosity between the two countries and a whole generation of Dominicans was raised learning to dislike and distrust Haitians. Furthermore, antihaitianism allowed even the poorest of Dominicans to feel racially and culturally superior to Haitians.

Trujillo’s heir, Joaquim Balaguer continued the policy of xenophobia, instilling fear against Haitian imperialism and deepened the view that to be a Dominican is above all else not to be a Haitian. The Dominican definition of their identity as a people was based upon this. Schools and newspapers spread propaganda with the goal of dismissing the African heritage of the Dominican Republic and to distinguish between Dominicans and Haitians. The Dominican people are described as a white people of Hispanic descent. Trujillo, in the Dominican Republic, celebrated the concept of la Hispanidad (Spanishness). However, when a person’s skin left no doubt as to their black heritage, a concept of "Indianness" was quickly created to explain that away. Thus, a Dominican whose skin color is midway between a mulatto and black is identified as being of Indian origin. Hence this obsession by the Dominicans to define themselves as something as not Haitian and African, stems from the relationship with Haiti, going back to the colonial era.

Dr Joaquin Balaguer

It is however unfair to tar all Dominicans with the same brush. Many are neither racist nor xenophobic, and many went out of their way to hide Haitians to save them from being massacred by Trujillo, including the Dominican politician Jose Francisco Peña Gomez, who is believed to be of Haitian descent and was adopted by a white Dominican family. He became Balaguer’s most feared opponent in the presidential elections, and despite his colour, he was very popular amongst Dominican voters. However, in order to defeat him Balaguer stirred up massive anti Haitian feeling, which was made easier for him as the Haitian President, Jean Betrand Aristide was an outspoken critic of the way Haitians were treated in the DR. Balaguer responded by starting the mass deportation of Haitians and in a three month period about 50,000 Haitians were deported. In May 1994 Balaguer defeated Peña Gomez by playing the nationalist card once again.

Peña Gomez
Today, anti-Haitian bias is most noticeable in the Dominican Republic's deportation policies, aimed not only at both legal and illegal Haitian workers, but also at Dominicans of Haitian descent and children born to Haitian parents. Many are simply seized, then dropped off at the Haitian border; a country which some of them have never even been to. I was working in my colmado once when the police came in and rounded up all the Haitians in there, drinking and playing dominoes. They put them in an open sided cattle truck to take them away. I was appalled by this and so climbed into the truck myself, telling them to arrest me too. This caused great consternation but nevertheless, the truck drove off to the police station, with me in it, and after various frantic phone calls from the Captain in charge, we were all let go just before we got to the police station.

Officially, the Dominican government has publicly condemned the systematic abuse of Haitians whether legal or illegal in the country. They are allowed free medical care in the public hospitals, and I have not known anyone turned away. However this obviously puts a tremendous strain on an already overloaded health service. In addition, Haitian mothers are often denied birth certificates for their newborn children delivered in Dominican hospitals, meaning that their children are effectively stateless. The Constitution does gurantee citizenship to anyone born here, apart from those who are only briefly passing through on their way to somewhere elese. Hence legally the country can deny birth certificates to these Haitian babies by simply saying that the mother is in transit.

No one knows how many Haitians are living legally and illegally in the Dominican Republic with  the figures ranging from one to two million. Most come looking for low-paid, unskilled work, in the sugar plantations, agriculture and construction. Not unlike several countries, the Dominican Republic is dependent on the availability of cheap labour to meet the demands of its growing economy. Haiti, from having been one of the richest countries in the Caribbean is now one of the poorest countries in the world, due to having to pay high reparations to France when they became independent, a series of poor and ineffective governments and massive deforestation as the people cut the trees down to make charcoal for cooking.

The border. DR on the right and Haiti on the left

However, after the earthquake the number of Haitians here increased and it must be said that the Dominican Republic was one of the first and most effective in terms of helping its neighbour after that appalling disaster.

To understanding the xenophobia against Haitians one needs to understand history. Genetically Dominicans are different from Haitians and understanding where they come from may help to understand why Dominicans deny their African heritage, and concentrate on their Spanish heritage more. Dominicans have been taught for generations that Haiti and Haitians are the enemy, whether borne out in fact by invasions, or in political rhetoric by the likes of Trujillo and Balaguer. That is not unique to the DR, as several countries use an opposing power to help win support for themselves, such as Margaret Thatcher and the Falkland Isles, and George Bush and the war on terrorism and Iraq.

Haitian Jean, my fabulous former gardener - a gem of a man 

Not all Dominicans dislike Haitians, and not all are xenophobic. The country could not function effectively without them, but the deep seated mistrust is unlikely to disappear without education, and great political will.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Killer for hire

When I first came to this country, I was amazed at the lack of fights. In England I was used to seeing brawls outside pubs on a Friday night, or violence at football matches, and being at the train station in London late at night was always a frightening experience. But in my 10 or so years here I have never seen a fight, which is amazing. However, that does not mean that the country is totally peaceful. Look at this advert which appeared the other day in an on line free classified ad website here in the Dominican Republic. I have translated it into English - so don't bother trying the email address as the original was in Spanish!

Professional killer for hire: 

Place: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Date: Thursday May 31 2012 
If you have a problem and you feel helpless and do not want to sit around doing nothing. 
There are moments in your life when you feel totally helpless and you want to get even with someone by killing them.

For a betrayal 
The death of a loved one 
For harassing or abusing someone 
An unfaithful lover 
A debt that you don’t want to or can’t pay 
I will fix it for you. Just contact me. Don’t leave comments on this page. 
Send me a email telling me what you are looking for. 

When you first see this you might be forgiven for thinking it is pretty far fetched. Unfortunately, although I have never seen an advert like this before, it is not unusual at all for Dominicans to take the law into their own hands and kill someone with whom they have a grievance or paying someone to do it for them. Many expats have lost their lives because they do not understand this. There have been those who have killed someone in a traffic accident, and even though it was not their fault, they have subsequently been murdered by other family members. People have even been killed for not paying redundancy pay or disagreements over land. In Santo Domingo last week, a man shot another who owed him money in a busy shopping mall. Also last week in Higuey, a money lender was shot on his porch. It happens all the time. Men will kill wives or girlfriends if they think they are unfaithful. I do not know where the custom comes from. Whether it is because there is no faith in the justice department or the police to catch criminals and punish them, or whether it is culturally ingrained. All I know is that in this country, if something happens which harms someone, financially or physically, whether it be your fault or not, the chances are that the family members will take revenge – or pay someone to do it for them. The golden rule is never to upset anyone, and if you do, try and work it out before they take their revenge - which is often pretty drastic.