There is no way for me to talk about traveling without going back to the beginning. I always knew that I didn’t want to be like everyone around me. I grew up in a very close knit Muslim community in Northern Virginia where everyone went to the same schools, the same masjids, the same universities and you know the rest. I always wondered what else was out there for me. To be quite honest, Northern Virginia is an excellent place to raise children, but it’s stifling to the young adult.
I always imagined that I would get married and move away. Then, in college it dawned on me, why wait until I get married to leave? Why not now? And who’s to say that I would get married anytime soon? Here my friends…is where I started to make changes to live my life the way I wanted to.
First, I transferred to Virginia Tech and changed my major to International Studies and Spanish (two things I’m very passionate about). Of course, in studying both, there were many study abroad opportunities, all of which were way too expensive. Also, all of my classmates who studied abroad came back being able to say “cerveza” and “ron” (beer and rum), which you could learn at your local Latin restaurant. Why would I pay thousands of dollars to learn drink names? Who does that? Disappointed in the study abroad programs, I started to do my own research into countries to visit and practice my Spanish.
In my sophomore year of college, I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which follows a boy named ‘Oscar’ and his family from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey over generations. It also goes through his identity crisis being Dominican-American and touches on colorism there. I immediately felt a connection to the book and the DR. I knew that I wanted to go there. I had no idea how or where, but I just knew that I had to go. So, upon researching countries, I naturally chose the DR to be at the top of my list. I finally decided to go to the DR for a multitude of reasons–mostly because I would be forced to speak Spanish the majority of the time. I prefer to travel to places and experience the local culture and food.
When I first arrived in the Dominican Republic, I was so excited. I just knew that I would be speaking Spanish all the time and everything would be perfect. Of course that isn’t what actually happened because nothing’s truly perfect. When I first arrived at the airport and went through customs, I was completely overwhelmed. The first phrase that I learned in DR was despacio , slowly, because Dominicans typically speak as if they’re trying to cram as many words as possible into one minute.
While in DR I worked at an orphanage in Santo Domingo for a month in Los Mina and Los Jardines, which really helped me improve my Spanish. Before I left I did a lot of research on transportation and how to get around DR–all of which cautioned to not, under any circumstance, take public cars, guaguas (small minivans or buses) or motores (small motorcycles). So, I of course took all of them. I could literally go from one side of the city to the other on 25 pesos ($0.53). To be honest, I enjoyed public transport far more in DR than in the DC area where you pay a crap ton of money for delays and constant construction. The good thing about public cars and guaguas is that you can get off anywhere on the route, since there aren’t set stops making them more convenient. Obviously, you should be careful because people do get robbed, but I traveled all over the capital with no problems by myself.
I did get myself into some awkward situations because I lived in Arroyo Hondo close to 9km and would take a public car or guagua towards Los Alcarrizos (a small town) to get home everyday. So a few times I forgot to tell the drivers where to drop me and had to get dropped off by a hotel. I never thought anything of the hotel, but every time I asked to be dropped off there I would get questioned, “estás segura”?. I always thought that maybe my pronunciation was off or something so I would practice how to ask to be dropped off (déjame aquí). Then one day I was reading the local newspaper and came across an article about cheating in DR and Las Cabañas del Corazón/Sol where men go to meet their mistresses and/or prostitutes. I mentioned this to my roommate, who then told me that the hotel I was getting dropped off by was one of those places and it all made sense.
One of my favorite places was Palenque, a small rock beach about 2 hours from the capital. You can take a bus from the capital for 60 pesos ($1.28) each way. It’s a nice place to just relax and there are mostly locals there. There I had the best fish ever! All of the fish is fresh because it’s caught there and it’s super affordable. Also, you can go into the cooler and pick the fish you want and it’s served with tostones (fried plantain) and moro de gandules (rice and beans) for about 150 pesos (~$3).
Another beach without many tourists is Boca Chica, which is about an hour or so east of Santo Domingo. You can take a bus there as well for about 60 pesos. I really liked this beach because you see more locals, not to mention that the food was amazing, especially the seafood that’s caught there.
My favorite place in Santo Domingo is La Zona Colonial (Colonial Zone). If you like history, this is your place. There are many “firsts” here like the first Cathedral in the “New World” and where the Spanish first landed. Literally you can run into really interesting historical places on every street. However, the restaurants there are a little pricier than in other parts of the city and not as authentically Dominican, but still delicious.
What’s a trip to DR without mangoes? They seriously have the best mangoes EVER!! I got the opportunity to go mango picking with my landlord in Baní, a small town about an hour or so southwest of Santo Domingo. The town is quite charming and they have the most amazing mangoes, called “banilejos”. They’re yellowish orange. The best thing about banilejos is that they don’t have that annoying stringy stuff that most mangoes have and are incredibly juicy. According to locals, it’s because there is salt in the soil, which changes the taste. You can even eat the peel! There’s also a small beach there with almost black sand, but blue waters.
I definitely fell in love with the Dominican Republic that summer and with traveling in general. It was amazing!! I can’t say that I regret a thing. So, if you want to see some historical sites and relax on nice beaches, then the Dominican Republic is your place.