If the world told us all of her secrets from the beginning, there wouldn't be so many of us who suffer from wanderlust; in search of hidden beauty and a curious culture.
The Dominican Republic is a gold mine of wondrous coastlines, emerald forests and vibrant culture and nothing quite says 'Welcome to our Island' like a thatched roof airport and a local merengue band singing tourists through the usually mundane queues at customs. Once through, you have 3 months to feast upon everything the Hispanic island has offer, though if you want to stay longer, no one will hunt you down about an overstayed visa. They'll just charge you about $10 extra when you leave. The beaches aren’t too shabby really. One of the first things to learn about the Dominican is that they have their own version of time. A Dominican 5 minutes usually equates to about an hour in real time, so patience is a virtue and rum helps us whilst we wait. That said, life still ticks over in slow
motion and people do indeed have a lot of life about them. Life that connotes vibrancy, happiness and soul. So first, a Westerner must shake off all their usual societal expectations. For example, queue etiquette, speed limits, no loud music after 11pm, fast service, vehicles that are intact... And so on.
In fact, anyone who travels and still cares about these things really should take a step back and give himself a new mantra of acceptance and adaption. We have to revel in the madness, the bizarre and the chaos. So fresh off the plane, my journey began Dominican style in a crowded fridge on wheels/coach (they ADORE air conditioning) with chairs that reclined to an almost horizontal position so you can comfortably nap on the passenger behind you. I was heading to my current home on Rancho Baiguate in Jarabacoa, a town in the mountains in the centre of the island.
Quite often when we travel, things awe us and then we compare them to home.
Our subconscious reminds us of how abysmal UK weather is whilst we bask in the rays of the tropical sun. Yet sometimes aspects of life and landscapes are not comparable, they relocate our entire beings and place us in another world. We are engulfed in wonder and amazed by difference. The ranch has that effect; animals roam around freely, flowers blossom all year around and nature thrives alongside us. Although a donkey braying at 6:30 on a Saturday morning will not miraculously cure a hangover.
Whilst I'm here, I have the privilege of helping out with a permaculture project with a couple who could definitely be called citizens of the world and have more enthusiasm for soil that a dog for a bone. Coming from academic life and bar tending in a cosmopolitan, hectic city to sticking my hands in the earth every day and learning about the importance of each living organism is quite a drastic change. Yet I think within each of us, even the most detached workaholic living in London, there is a connection to nature that can be exposed by getting our hands dirty and learning about the planet. It is therapeutic and fulfilling and in the end you're helping to create a sustainable and organic environment; positivity blooms within you and all around you. Aside from the garden, it is impossible to be lazy on the ranch. When, as a volunteer, you can do white water rafting, canyoning, horse riding, assault courses, trekking and much more for free, you would be a fool not to take advantage.
Canyoning in particular is quite spectacular. Preferably in a small group of two or three, guides lead you through a lush forest on the side of a mountain, down waterfalls and through a river until you reach the final 32m descent. Repelling down a waterfall of this height is exhilarating and potentially nerve-wracking. As an activity, canyoning isn't for the feint-hearted, but it is an incredible experience allowing people to conquer fears and venture deep into the forest to discover hidden caves and waterfalls that would be otherwise inaccessible. If adrenaline doesn't feature in your description of fun, taking a horse out on a lengthy ride through the mountains and along the river is beyond liberating. Your worries blow away in the wind, and you catch yourself grinning stupidly as you connect with the graceful animal you are riding and the beautiful scenery unfolds before you. Sundays are great days for a ride in this country; everybody is in party mode so everywhere you look you witness a slice of culture. In Jarabacoa people congregate by the river, taking their horses, food, children and rum with them. The streets are equally as packed and lively, music blasts from every home and vehicle; even the swarms of motorbikes that buzz past have speakers attached where they usually precariously balance five children or a propane canister. Please note that those who fret about health and safety may suffer from a panic attack and so are advised not to drive or look out of a window whilst in any vehicle here. Furthermore, it is actually fact that cars containing five seats were manufactured for 8 people and it is completely acceptable to sit on the windowsill with your top half outside if it is your utmost desire to cool off and get some air. Dominoes: the local’s favourite sport. Competition intensifies as the crowds get bigger at weekends.
Music plays a pivotal role in the Dominican culture and all generations will dance to same bachata and merengue beats all night. It expresses emotion and passion and is perpetuated by its popularity as clubs and bars are crammed with swaying hips, quick feet and some impressive routines. The older generation strut their stuff with pride whilst the youngsters quickly learn and dance with them. Upon reflection, it is quite amusing to compare the Latino snake-hipped, smooth moves that merge two figures into one with the awkward half stomp, half bounce of the house music devotees of the UK who tend to stand alone or accidentally bump one another when the beat drops.
The famous Punta Cana is the Dominican's own tourist trap and one of the party towns,
playing European and American style music most of the time. The area boasts of miles of white sandy shores, turquoise waters, nightlife, luxurious hotels and the Caribbean dream. All of those do indeed exist there, but the area doesn't have the same vibrant soul of the rest of the country. In truth, it is the only place on the island that felt lacking in the culture that I'd grown to love. Yet unfortunately, it is the one place that many tourists are told is 'safe' and are urged not to leave resorts so that they continue to pad out the pocket of the corporations rather than contribute to the local economy.
Before travelling here I was incessantly warned of the impending doom awaiting me due to crime on the island. Sometimes, constantly hearing that the place you're going to reside in for a while is dangerous can create a minute niggling worry within the dark recesses of the mind. It makes you dubious about the answers you receive when you ask a stranger for help or anticipate that the group of young men your about to pass on the street will try to block your path, so you cross over. However, if you heed the warnings, absorb them and then simply live and have faith in the people and culture you're assimilating too, you begin to realise that, in general, people have a lot of goodness in them.Dominicans are the kinds who share with another, they share emotions and possessions.
They are bright, happy people who have countless bank holidays and constant festivities of some sort. They will give anyone a helping hand and will listen to anybody's story with a keen ear. Quite often in this world, those who have less, give more. More of themselves and what they own and they are proud to do so. Dominicans have a little sparkle in their eye; they are fun loving, relaxed people united by rum, sun and fiestas.