Final blog post

Time to go home…

I’m just spending one night in Los Angeles before I take the flight home. Sitting in this lovely room in the Hilton In LA and thinking back to the last few days in Santo Domingo, it doesn’t seem quite so bad anymore! Bad but not SO bad!

The main thing I can’t get over is how bad and how rude service is in shops and restaurants there. I’m not even overly picky about that kind of stuff. As long as people just basically do their job, I don’t need anyone to fuss or fawn over me. But in Santo Domingo… perhaps in other parts of the country it’s different… they seem to have complete contempt for the customer to the point of hatred and they make no attempt to hide it. I don’t know if Dominicans are treated the same or it’s just foreigners, or it’s white people or white foreigners… Or maybe it was just me… I don’t know but I’ve never experienced anything quite like it… Well, except maybe Aeroflot back in the day. People you meet on the street wanting money… I’ve travelled in many developing places and I know the score and it’s not a big deal… I give away a lot of money. But in Santo Domingo it seemed so many times that the amounts the beggars expected were outrageous and then they became annoyed that you wouldn’t give that amount.

Nevertheless, I was starting to come around and think that perhaps I was being hard on them and I was just a little jaded… I was trying to understand where they’re coming from… But any benefit of the doubt I was prepared to give them totally went out the window once I got to Las Americas airport yesterday for the flight to LA. Considering what my experience was like for the nine days, it’s kind of foolish of me to expect that my departure would be smooth and hassle free..

Anyway, I was hoping for a relaxing morning before heading off to the airport. The flight was in the afternoon. I was all packed and had the taxi lined up for 11.30 a.m. so I thought I could sleep in. Then suddenly, I got an early morning desperate plea for money! One of the Venezuelans I had befriended here had to pay rent and had no money and sent a message asking if he could come round to get money. I’ve met a lot of Venezuelans on my travels… and have to count them amongst my favourite nationalities in the world. I think they’re really cool people. They’ve all essentially been forced to leave Venezuela just because it’s so messed up. This guy’s parents (both) had died and he had left Maracaibo with the just the clothes on his back (no money) and was working in a pretty horrible kids amusement centre in Sambil Mall. So, it absolutely wasn’t a problem to give money, just that I only had enough money left to pay the cab driver. So the morning ended up being spent running around the Zone trying to locate ATMs. As before in Cuba, every ATM I had used up to this point, I had had no problems with… But of course in these situations Murphy’s Law comes into play and every ATM near my place had suddenly run out of cash. After rushing around for about an hour I eventually got one that would dispense cash. So, in the end everything was fine.

I left the Zone at 11.30 and went off to Las Americas Airport. I got there in plenty of time, did the self-check in and went to drop off my bag. That’s when the problems started. To describe the Dominican women working on the Delta check-in counter as a “pack of vile bitches” is probably one of the nicest things you could say about them. It’s got to be seen to be believed.

I need a visa to transit the USA, which I have of course. Entering the US from Australia and last year going back to the US from Colombia and Panama, I encountered absolutely no problems what-so-ever. But again, given everything that had happened over the past nine days including the full narco-pedo treatment you get on arrival, it was silly to think that exiting the country would be straightforward and pleasant.

I get to the counter and Miss Bitch tells me, “You need a visa to enter the US and you don’t have one”.

“I’ve registered for ESTA so it’s ok” I replied.

Then she looks at me with a look of pure disgust and says, (I kid you not) “Computer says no”.

Her attitude went from rude to unbelievably nasty. I wish I could have filmed the whole scene… I was pleading with her but she just flatly refused. And the attitude!!! She just looked at me and spoke to me like I was complete trash. I admit it was my fault too that I didn’t have a hard copy of the ESTA approval. You get so lazy in this electronic age because everything is on computer so you only need to show ID wherever you go and all your information automatically comes up. However, her stupid computer said no and she wouldn’t budge.

I went off and managed to get some internet. Of course it’s not free so you have to mess around with signing up with a company and paying when all you need is a couple of minutes. When I got connected, I looked up the US Government immigration site and retrieved my details and rushed back to the counter to prove to her that I did have the visa. When I got back to the counter, she actually looked even more pissed off that now I DID have the visa than before when she thought I didn’t. She scowled the whole time but still couldn’t get her computer to accept that I had a valid visa. She called over the supervisor to help with the situation and all that the supervisor said was that I was taking up too much time at the counter and to move on to somewhere else. Unbelievable. It was taking all my self control not to punch her… I pointed out that I had proved that I had a visa, I had a valid ticket and boarding pass so now the problem was purely hers. There was nothing more I could do. I thought she was going to spit on me or vomit on me… The look on her face was of pure disgust. The supervisor flicked her nose up at me and stormed off and just left me with Miss Check In Bitch. She continued to look at me with pure hatred for some time and huffed and puffed a lot … But eventually she agreed to let me on the plane.  

UN – BE – LIEV – ABLE. As I said before, you have to see it to believe it

I got through customs and immigration OK. I still had a fair bit of time so I went to get something to eat at the restaurant. The food at the airport was surprisingly nice but when I went to pay the bill with my credit card, the waiter just came back with that all too familiar Dominican look of contempt I had seen every day for the past nine days and yells out at me, “It was declined”. Nowhere on this trip did I have a problem with this card, not even in Santo Domingo, only him. I had really had enough by this stage… I didn’t care anymore, I just went for it and started screaming as loud as I could at the waiter. An American family suddenly rushed over to me and tried to calm me down and said, “Don’t worry we’ll pay your bill”. They probably thought I was going to take out a gun or something and start shooting. Americans are cool people too, but that wasn’t the point. Eventually I paid with another card but not before I gave him my opinion (at 150 decibels) of Santo Domingo and all of its inhabitants.

The flight went OK after that. I flew business class to Atlanta, which was nice and was sat next to guy from Tennessee who worked for the US military but had contracted Snail’s Disease in his spine while working in Uganda and was now living in San Cristobal, just outside of La Capital. He was a nice enough guy, just a REAL TALKER… He was headed to Miami to see a specialist because Dominican doctors he says are dodgy. No surprise there. We talked about the Dominican Republic and the people. He told me how much he loved living in the Dominican Republic because… and I quote exactly… “I can have a whiskey in one hand and a pistol in the other and no-one is gonna say anything about it”… He added, “And my girlfriend loves to clean the house and cook because the women here know that if they don’t keep the men happy we’ll move on”.  

And for me, all of the above is exactly why I will never return.  

Now I’m just in bed, counting down the minutes before I have to go back to the airport and get the flight to Sydney. I’m really looking forward to getting back home and getting back into a healthy routine. It was an incredible trip but I’m TIRED!

And with this post my friends, I sign off… at least until the next trip. Thank you to anyone who has taken the time to read my ramblings and looked at my photos. A big big hug for you!


Last days

The last couple of days in Santo Domingo were spent just winding down and getting ready to go home… It’s been an amazing trip full of amazing people and experiences… But I’m tired and feel like I need a good rest …. and a good detox!!! I spent the greater part of the last two days riding the metro and hanging out in the malls, Sambil, Agora and Galeria 360. Ironically, the cleanest, safest and coolest place in Santo Domingo is the metro and the happiest places are the malls.

I know I whinged a lot, more to the locals than on this blog!… But in the end I’m glad I came and I had a good time. Santo Domingo isn’t Mexico or Cuba or Colombia, but that’s ok. Every place in the world is uniquely different and it’s foolish to travel with high expectations or preconceived ideas on how a place is going to be.  

I managed to talk to a few locals…I guess the main issue affecting people here is a combination of the never-ending heat and low incomes: Doing a boring job and just getting enough money to scrape by but not be able to do anything else and on top of that constantly sweltering in the heat. Apparently Dominicans are NOT closed… They’re very open and happy people, they’re just reserved and feel more comfortable with others approaching them than the other way round. I think it’s the type of place where if you had local friends you would have a vastly different and much better experience. I wonder too if I would have felt differently about Santo Domingo and Dominican people if this had been my first stop on the trip and not the last.

A few photos from the “downtown” area around the metro stations of Pedro Mir and Juan Pablo Duarte and Avenida John F. Kennedy….



New Year in Santo Domingo

It’s my sixth day here in Santo Domingo and I’m slowly getting used to it… In the same way you get used to chronic back pain…. Ha ha, I’m just kidding! It’s really not that bad, just that it’s not quite how I expected it to be. That’s the problem when you have high expectations: The only way is down. I’m reluctant to say that I don’t like it because of that idea that the world is our mirror so if you don’t like something or something is bad then it’s just a reflection of you. The houses and buildings in the Colonial Zone are very attractive but beyond that I’m really struggling to find anything that I like about the place. I travel mainly to see a new culture and how people live, so from that perspective it’s been great and I’m grateful for the opportunity. You hope though at the same time you’re going to like that culture. But from what I’ve seen so far, it’s not a place that I have any desire to come back to.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is. Santo Domingo (at least in the Colonial Zone) just doesn’t seem a vibrant and welcoming place. People generally don’t look happy and come across as quite “closed”. The atmosphere is low-key and there are a lot of people just sitting around doing nothing, not talking to anyone, just looking dodgy. Service in most shops and restaurants is at best pretty rude so that just adds to the adds to the overall negative feeling. In other places it’s been easier to make contact with locals and get to hear a bit about their life and so better understand the city and it’s culture. Here it’s been difficult to make any contact beyond the usual pimps and prostitutes so it’s hard to know what the underlying issues are… Obviously, heat, poverty, racial issues and Catholicism play a big part. But even Havana with it’s dire economic situation and Colombian and Mexican cities with fairly high levels of low income earners come across (to me anyway) as vibrant, friendly and welcoming places. Who knows? Maybe it’s just me and I’m just projecting.

I had my first public dummy spit the other night on New Year’s Eve… It’s not something I’m proud of but sometimes these things happen. I take responsibility though and am the first to admit I was wrong.

I went into a bar just around the corner from my place on Calle Mercedes just after the countdown to midnight. I walked into the bar, ordered a drink, just a straight rum. I looked around and the general atmosphere of the place was pretty sad so I knocked back the rum quickly and walked straight out again. As I walked back out the door, the doorman stopped me and asked me why I was leaving so soon. The conversation went something like this:

Doorman: “Hey man, where are you going? Why are you leaving so soon?”

Me: “Because this bar sucks, the customers suck, the music sucks, the staff suck… Actually the whole city sucks, the country sucks, the culture sucks, the people suck and I can’t wait to leave”.

Once again, I admit this was uncalled for…

Nevertheless, the doorman’s reaction came as quite a surprise. After I finished my little rant, he replies, “Yeah, you’re right. This city and this whole country is a f***ing sh*thole and the people are the worst people in the world. They’re f***cking shit”.  

I smile ear to ear

He continues, “But you’re lucky because you can leave this f***ing sh*thole behind very soon. I’m stuck here. I work in this sh*tty bar in this f***ing sh*thole for 4000 pesos a month and the other night going home I was robbed.

“That REALLY f***ing sucks!” I replied. And then he went into the bar and got me a free drink… A Malibu and orange. So it seems the way to score free drinks in the Dominican Republic is tell people how much you hate them and their country. It was very kind of him, but despite the free drink, the bar still sucked. The main problem as I said before is that people seem very closed, even in bars and clubs. They just stand around with their group of friends generally looking unhappy. Not many people here smile or laugh. That’s my impression anyway..

The problem was New Years Eve, the most over-rated and annoying night of the year. I maintain that going out on NYE is only for bogans or amateurs or amateur bogans… It’s overpriced and tacky and it’s just another night of the year. But for me it was either join the amateurs or spend the night alone watching random clips on YouTube. So I opted to go out.

The night started upstairs. Kénol, the guy in charge of this apartment, invited me to have drinks and dinner with his Haitian group of friends. The food was very nice, certainly the best I’ve had since I left Mexico… And the Haitian rum was the best drink I’ve ever had. The one on the left is flavoured with pineapple and mango and is just amazing!  

Without wanting to sound ungrateful, other than the food and drink, the evening was pretty ordinary. There weren’t that many people there and most of the other Haitians were glued to their smartphones, so that was really fun. *Denote sarcasm*. And I’m not meshing with the culture here. In the words of George Castanza, “It’s not them. It’s me”. Some weird guy from North Carolina showed up and the vibe I got was that I was encroaching on his uniquely Afro experience… The good thing about going out on new year’s eve is that you have a built in excuse to leave at 12. And so I did.

After I left, I went to “that” bar where I had the outburst and then onto some other clubs nearby. Obviously economics is a big factor. Not a lot of people can afford to go to them so there wasn’t a huge crowd. Most people here hang out at a “colmado” which is essentially a corner store where most of the merchandise is alcohol. The “colmado” puts out chairs in the shop and on the street and plays music and people hang out there and drink. But whether it be a colmado playing merengue or a fancier nightclub playing techno, the atmosphere is the same. People sit around looking miserable and not dancing or talking. The only difference is in the fancier clubs they serve “hookahs” so people sit around in their groups and smoke. I met a couple of other foreigners and they commented the same, that the atmosphere is very sombre. Unlike Havana or Medellin where I felt totally at ease sitting in the gutter, the park or on the sea wall drinking, I don’t feel safe or comfortable in a colmado.   Some scenes from the “colmado”…
Santo Domingo is one of those places … Or again, maybe it’s just me… Where you look around and see other foreigners and the look on the face is the same. You exchange glances and the look says, “You’re not Dominican therefore you’re automatically my friend”. I met a couple of people from Venezuela and Paraguay there and so we all decided to hot-foot it down to the Malecon where there was a free concert. We hung out there till sunrise and then I staggered home back along the Malecon and watched the new year come in over the Caribbean. So, that was pretty cool.

 And now, it’s time to commit social media crime again… as if my rambling isn’t crime enough… Back to… *drum roll*… The lunch photo! I had my new year’s day lunch at this guy’s restaurant: La Meson de Luis, except that the sign on the front of the restaurant is broken so it just says, “La Meson de Lu”… 

Luis and his wife were extremely pleasant and I ordered this little puppy for my lunch: Fish creole style…

It was ok, except that I’ll say that there’s a reason you’ve never been to a Dominican restaurant outside of the Dominican Republic. The sauce was supposedly tomato and onion based… I don’t know if this dish was typical or Luis’ wife is just a crappy cook but the predominant flavour of the dish was just salt. Anyway, it was ok enough and good to try something “local” other than the usual burgers, fried chicken and pizza.

New year’s day being a Friday and me being a sucker for punishment, I contacted the Venezuelans I had met the night before and went back to the same club for more of the same: Grindingly hard and deafening techno music and a bunch of sad looking Dominicans sitting around smoking hookahs. It was a bit surreal. I stuck it out till about 3.30 and then left. I cabbed it home… As I walked out of the club I asked one guy where I could get a cab… “No problem my fren, I get you taxi” he says. Off he scurries and a few minutes later comes back with my cab. And guess who the cab is????!!! ….
It’s the police!

Police are so lowly paid that they do anything for money, including moonlighting as a cab drivers for nightclub goers. And my guess is that cab driving is probably the most innocent of their “side jobs”. So after I left the club I was driven to my apartment in a police van. I got home ok but I’m not sure if getting a ride with the police here is necessarily any safer than hailing a cab on the street.

And that’s about it. The trip and this blog is fast coming to an end. I’m really looking forward to doing some exercise, eating healthy food and hanging out at the dog park again with Benji.

Going beyond “La Zona”

You know it’s time to go home when lying in bed watching a compilation of the greatest fights on The View on YouTube becomes an attractive option. Actually, I’ve been going pretty hard so I feel like it’s time to rest up a bit and slowly start easing myself back into reality mode… Emphasis on the word “slowly” of course. I’m not done yet. I decided to escape from “The Zone” today and see what kind of life lies beyond it’s borders. I’m glad I did… My opinion of Santo Domingo has done a complete 360. Santo Domingo outside of the Zona Colonial is a completely different world. As to be expected of course… Historical centres, colonial zones or whatever you want to call it are always going to be more tourist flavoured than local but nevertheless they’re usually a hub of activity. Somehow in Santo Domingo it’s the reverse. The Colonial Zone here seems a little tired and lifeless. I guess another issue for me is that out of all the places I’ve visited, the Dominican Republic is the most “Afro”… Not that there’s anything wrong with that of course but for me it’s the culture that I feel the least affinity with.

Anyway what the Zone lacks in energy, the Dominicans certainly make up for it in other parts. I walked north up Avenida Duarte to Ramon Caceres metro station and then took the train and went and checked out a couple of high end malls, Sambil and Agora. Avenida Duarte is the main commerce route for low income earners. The entire road is wall to wall shops, stalls of all kinds and people. To describe the scene as “chaotic” would be a complete understatement. There’s no way photos or words can do it justice… It has to be experienced. The photos I’m posting here are of Avenida Duarte… As I said before, they really don’t capture the atmosphere. One thing I can’t get past noticing all the time, and Avenida Duarte is a prime example, is how dirty the city is and how much trash there is in the streets. From the cities that I’ve visited in my time, Santo Domingo is second only to Manila in terms of dirtiness. No-one seems to use bins and no-one seems concerned either… I was carrying my trash around with me but when I bought something and my hands were full to receive the goods and change I too hurled my trash into the street. It seemed really weird to so brazenly litter in front of hundreds of people and no-one blinks an eye.

The malls were as you would expect them to be… Air-conditioned and full of beautiful shops and beautiful people.  





Santo Domingo city tour: Day 2

I had a good night’s sleep last night and woke up feeling good…So, I thought I’d better continue the city tour today before New Year’s Eve kicks in. I felt a bit better about “the Zone”. I really think the problem is just the extreme heat and humidity. Everyone is so lethargic and pissed off because it’s so freaking hot. Anyway, I was done with walking around in the midday heat so I got a ride around town with this guy…
He totally looks like a crack dealer (not that I’ve ever actually met one but this is how I imagine they look like) but is actually a very respectable and polite church going family man.

First stop on today’s tour was the Columbus Lighthouse which is actually a lighthouse, mausoleum and museum all rolled into one. It supposedly contains the remains of Christopher Columbus and is built in the shape of a cross to represent the christianisation of America. It’s one of those kind of places for which photos don’t do it justice. From a distance it kind of looks like it might have been designed by a Romanian dictator, but close up, it’s quite an impressive structure.

 Next stop: The Universidad Santo Tomas de Aquino, the first institution of higher education in the new world. It’s now a church, however.

The statue of Fray Anton de Montesinos: A Spanish Dominican friar who was a missionary on the island and preached against the enslavement and harsh treatment of the indigenous people of the island.

And a few other random shots…


Ciudad Colonial Santo Domingo

I went for a stroll around my hood today and took a few snapshots. The Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo is the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the new world and so is the home of the first cathedral, the first university, the first commercial street and the first viceregal residence in the new world. The heat and the sun were diabolical… And I like travelling in hot places! Even with sunglasses on I was squinting and I only lasted about 90 minutes walking around and then I had to take refuge in the frozen foods section of a supermarket to escape the heat. I didn’t get to see a lot… I’ll give it another crack tomorrow!

Perhaps I’m getting tired and a little jaded at looking at Spanish Colonial architecture but for me, the historical significance of it being the first settlement in the new world is much more exciting than than the visual of it. While some of the buildings are certainly attractive, there’s a weird vibe in the city… I can’t quite put my finger on it, but just feels dodgy, which for me takes away from the overall impact of the city… And it lacks the energy and vibrancy of Havana or even Mexican cities. It’s only my first day here and there are many other parts to the city so I probably shouldn’t be too hasty in my judgements… But I will anyway… Whereas in Mexico, Cuba and Colombia I felt some kind of connection with the people, here I’m getting nothing.  I just feel like everyone wants to rob me.  But I’ve still got eight more days so we’ll see. Maybe it was just the heat of the day giving me “baked brain syndrome”.

Traveling in these parts as a single male traveller, you come across more than your fair share of pimps and prostitutes. Again comparing and contrasting Havana which probably has the highest amount of prostitutes and hustlers as a percentage of the population anywhere in the world… And on top of that, the city is decaying… But the Cubans have a toughness and confidence about them and somehow manage to take the crumbling city and all it’s hustlers and “own it” I’m not suggesting for a minute that any of them enjoy it and wouldn’t trade places for a better life in a heartbeat… Nor would I want to trade places with a Cuban… But from purely a superficial touristic point of view, it doesn’t seem so bad. Walking down Calle El Conde, a pedestrian only street and the main shopping street in the old city, in the middle of the day, it was just full of prostitutes and chintzy souvenir shops… But again just felt dodgy and a little weird.

They say that the world is your mirror and that the measure of mental health is the ability to see good in everything, so I hope I can come around and snap out of my negative first impression of the city.

Anyway here are some of the snaps I took. The first one is my street, Calle Hostos. I’m staying in the green building in the middle apartment.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor, the oldest cathedral in the new world, was begun in 1512 and finished in 1540. Because it was the first, it was built in a Gothic style. That’s not a bad thing but the later cathedrals in other parts of the Americas were built in a Renaissance or Baroque style which for me has more visual impact.

The Alcazar de Colon, the oldest Viceregal residence in the Americas…

Calle El Conde…

 And some other random shots…


Medellín to Santo Domingo

Last stop on the tour…
And I’ll be honest, the only thing I’m thinking right now is, “How short a period of time is it reasonable to be back at home before I start planning to go away again?”

The stomach bug in Havana was a bit of a speed bump but hey, it gave me something to write about at lest. Otherwise it’s been an amazing trip. It just seems to get better and better and I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to travel and see the world.

I didn’t write much in Medellin… Everything went incredibly smoothly without any incident. It’s a great place for an urban vacation. Among Medellin’s many virtues is the incredibly laid back, low stress and mellow vibe of the city. I put that down to the fact that pretty much the entire population of the city is stoned… But hey, I’m not judging nor saying that’s a bad thing. And as the taxi driver on the way to the city from the airport said, “Medellin… Mucha rumba!” And he wasn’t lying. For the last five days or six I pretty much lived without a conscience… Partying like there’s no tomorrow and eating as if obesity, cholesterol and heart attacks didn’t exist. But hey… I lost weight and I feel great! It makes me think I’m doing something wrong with all the brown rice, celery juice and Bikram Yoga I do at home.

The flight to Santo Domingo went well, except that the guy at the Avianca counter who checked me in must have been on his first day on the job, or he was stoned, or both… It literally took 30 minutes to check in. He made me change the flight because he didn’t think I’d have enough to to transfer. 90 minutes seemed reasonable and the airline allowed me to book it anyway. Despite the fact the time keeping is not the Colombian person’s forte, Avianca run an incredibly tight ship. Then he studied all my onward tickets for ages and had to call other staff members over to inspect them as well, like he had never seem a ticket before… Anyway, finally everything was ok and I was off.

The flight went well and landed in lovely Santo Domingo at about 5.30 p.m. Out of all the cities so far, Santo Domingo has by far the “heaviest” entry procedure. You get the full narco-pedo treatment… Photograph taken, all ten fingers fingerprinted, luggage sniffed by dogs and then everything x-rayed again. It was smooth sailing though and once I got through Kénol, the guy I’m renting the apartment from, was there waiting to pick me up. 

I only chatted to him briefly in the car but he seems like an incredibly nice guy. He’s from Port-au-Prince in Haiti and is in Santo Domingo studying medicine.

We arrived at the apartment in about 30 minutes. This is my street for the next nine days…
The apartment is fabulous…. Two bedrooms plus lounge and dining with a gorgeous dining room table.  

 Kénol has a Haitian friend who has offered to be my personal chef, (for a price of course) … I’m thinking of taking him up on the offer just so I can feel like Madonna for the next nine days. And I’m in love with the dining room table!

I only arrived a couple of hours ago and just had a quick walk around the hood. I’m staying in the Colonial Zone, which incidentally was the first European settlement in the new world… It looks nice but out of all the places I’ve been to so far… and this is just my first impression… it has a bit more of a dodgy vibe than the other places. Anyway, we’ll see.

I’m always comforted when I see this sign…