Now that I have returned from my travels, I thought I’d offer a few random reflections on the Dominican Republic. These are things that popped into my head at one time or another, but which didn’t find their way into another post (perhaps for good reason). Here they are…
Before I left, a friend who spent several months in the Dominican Republic told me that the nation has two primary industries: tourism and prostitution. While I saw blessedly little evidence of the latter, I did see plenty of “adult entertainment clubs” and have little doubt that prostitution is rampant and especially so around the tourist areas. I’ve heard as well that there is a good bit of child prostitution here as well. What a tragedy.
Dominican soft drinks are sold in glass bottles. This is the way it was meant to be. The Coke is much closer to Canadian Coke than its inferior American counterpart. Combine glass bottle with Coke made with sugar (instead of corn syrup) and you’ve got an awfully good beverage. It is especially good after coming in from a scorching hot, humid day.
I can’t even begin to count the number of motorbikes I saw here. The number is less surprising to me than the way the drivers ride them and the number of people who ride at a time. It is not unusual to see an entire family—mom, dad and a couple of kids—all on the bike at the same time (with none wearing helmets, of course). It’s not unusual to see a whole row of children drive by on a single motorbike. And these bikes weave and dodge, squeezing between cars and buses, swerving this way and that. This nation must see a horrendous amount of traumatic head injuries.
Today we went to a local market to do a little bit of shopping. This was really the first opportunity we’ve had to buy anything. It was my first experience in this kind of market. Here, like in many foreign countries, the marked price is just a starting point. The very moment you look at the price tag a shopkeeper is guaranteed to lower it 30% “just for you. Special deal just for you!” At every stall you pass, the shopkeeper jumps up and does his utmost to get your attention and to draw you into his stall. Once you find something you’d like, the fun begins. It only ends when you walk away and the shopkeeper chases you down to say that you can have it at the price you suggested after all. I think I did quite well and the shopkeepers are probably saying the same. I may give this technique a shot next time I’m at WalMart. “You want $5 for this pack of batteries? I’ll give you $2! I have a wife and children to feed. You can’t seriously expect $5! You’re killing me!”
I was amazed at the pervasiveness of American pop culture. Everywhere we went we saw Spongebob and Dora and Disney. A child at the project we visited today had a fistful of old Pokemon cards (from Japan, I realize, but obviously via the US). One of our translators carried a Dark Knight backpack. Television is the medium that spreads this culture. In even the poorest neighborhoods, any home that had electricity had a television. It may have been old and tiny and blurry, but it was a television nonetheless. The TV in our hotel receives around fifty channels and many of them, the majority even, are simply dubbed versions of the American networks showing the American shows. It became clear to me that America’s number one foreign export is culture.
I was amazed also at the pervasiveness of the cellular telephone. Several times we were sitting with or talking with the poorest of the poor, people who barely had the means to feed themselves. And then the silence would be punctuated by the “Nokia” ring tone. I’ll grant that cell phones are far cheaper here than they are in Canada (or even the US) while land lines are rare and unreliable, but it was still a surprise to be sitting in what was little more than a slum and to see a nice new cell phone in a person’s hand. Like in Canada, the phones come with a contract (though it is only eighteen months here, apparently, as compared to three years at home) so the phone is “free” with the commitment. There are apparently many more people who participate in the pay-as-you-go plans here and cards to recharge your minutes are sold at any respectable intersection.
Another word about those intersections. No sooner will your car stop at an intersection that you’ll be swarmed by salesmen. There is not very much you can’t buy at the side of the road in the Dominican Republic and at the intersections many things are brought right to your card window: phone cards, phone cases, phone cords, chips, candy, hats, shirts, newspapers, etc, etc. If you want it, you can get it just by waiting for the right person to walk on by.