The plane sways; I feel the roar of the engine over the island of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. We will land soon in the capital.
I sit near the wing. I taste the ocean already. I can already hear the yells of “Cómo tú tas?” (how are you?) and “Klk” (what’s up?) in the distance.
The light blue waves crash against the side of the Malecón, a popular area where businesses and hotels overlook the ocean, glistening. I’ve spent many nights here with friends, dancing, drinking, and talking about old times. I’ve had good and bad memories. Learning experiences. TOO many to count, but if I needed to, I could count to 307, my old apartment number, in Spanish.
This feels like my second home. The ocean is untouched. Dark blue, light blue, other colors mix to create an ocean no one swims in, atleast on this side, but only to admire. Boca Chica, a beach named The Little Mouth and Juan Dolio wait on the other side.
And just like that, we touch down. People clap. I put my hands together, along with the majority who look like me. Sometimes if I dress a certain way and don’t open my mouth to reveal my American Spanish accent, I fit in. Some cheer. They haven’t been home in years. The woman next to me looks so excited; she hasn’t seen her son in six years.
I speak of nostalgia.
I watch the sunrise and the sunset. The scents in this country, The Dominican Republic, take me all the way back to 2014, when I just turned 22 and graduated from college.
I moved here by myself, 22 and alone, to a little town in the campo (country side) called San Juan de la Maguna. 4 hours on a Caribe Tours bus from the big and bustling capital se llama Santo Domingo. To be honest, I was terrified at first.
I can still remember the smell of the countryside. When I first found out what Presidente beer was. There’s nothing better than that cold beer on your lips at the end of a hot, long day. Those nights sitting at the neighborhood softball games, watching fathers, uncles, cousins, and friends square off against each other after a long day of work. The bachata, music traditional to the island, music blasting in the background. A horse’s hooves on the hot, almost melting asphalt, striding past my small studio apartment in the morning. The shudder of my large wall fan that violently shook every morning and then retired, with the rest of our appliances and our little town’s electricity.
If I wrote a book, I’d tell you about every Tuesday and Wednesday morning. These mornings, like clockwork, our electricity decided that it was tired and it wanted to go somewhere else, and it did, leaving us powerless and signaling the start of the day at 7:30AM. I’d tell you about that one time I’d just put $25 dollars worth of groceries in my refrigerator on a Tuesday morning and lost it all.
I’d speak of how American culture, especially rap music, has touched this tiny island of 10.5 million. How you can see a picture from Google Images of the rapper 50 Cent on the side of a Barber Shop wall, when I’m positive he’s never gotten his hair cut there.
That two part little black coffee maker I’d fill with Café Santo Domingo, and then add water to the upper section. How I had a scar on my hand from all the times I reached for the coffee maker on the stove, only realizing that it was too hot to be touched. Jumping, burning myself, rinsing the burn with cold water, until I learned. Kind of like life, until you figure it out. Kinda.
I packed my things and moved. The next day I decided to board a bus to that big, overwhelming capital city, Santo Domingo. I spent 2.5 months living in a hostel run by a Salvadorian man named Oscar. I still remember his smile. I ate breakfast daily with his family, he checked on me to make sure I was home safely every night. I spent so much time responding to emails with my resume, not hearing back, going for runs right next to the ocean just to reduce the stress. I think I checked my email at least 100 times a day. The hostel was four blocks away from the ocean, the thing that became my saving grace.
I called my parents and told them of my struggles.
“Your grandmother would tell you nothing ventured, nothing gained. Don’t you dare think about coming home. Stay where you are and figure things out. It will work out.”
I stuffed my face with Pica Pollo, the Dominican Republic’s fast food version of Chinese food- but fried chicken, French fries, and those wonderful, wonderful, plantains. How did I not know about plantains?
I didn’t have any friends. A month later, I met Nicaury. Two months later I met Jessica. Three months later I met DJ. And Candida, a friend of a friend, along with her wonderful family. People that honest to God know me and love me for who I am. And they see me clearly. Your friendships are supposed to wildly change and flip your life upside down. As they have.
It hasn’t always been easy.
Santo Domingo taught me patience. It took my “I write in my calendar book with pen because I don’t want things to change” perspective and kicked my culo repeatedly until I threw all my pens outside of my window in exhaustion and frustration and bought a pack of pencils.
I fell out of love here.
I learned how to pour a perfectly foam free glass of beer and got a beer belly in the process! Can you imagine? I learned that when you rent an apartment, you probably will NOT have furniture for a while!!
Kitchen table, what is that?? How about a box crate?? Plates???
Try eating your dinner out of the pot while sitting in the middle of your empty living room.
Put a poster on the wall. Smile at said poster. You made it. Imagine my happiness three months later when I bought my first IKEA carpet, full of the colors red, black, green, and yellow. Something that lit up my world.
I did not have much, but what I had was mine. I was proud.
Also, the first job offer isn’t the best one. And surprise! A job can also withdraw an offer even after I bought those new sleek adorable blue work pants and that new black watch. These were my first pair of work pants in my life that I had tailored, and this will always be a lesson I remember.
Oh, and my favorite; that life can just smoothly knock the hell out of you as well. I learned how to laugh when I tripped and fell on my face. God laughed with me.
You see the unemployment, the poverty in some areas, learn the history behind Haitians and Dominicans; you see the colorism, the gigantic gap between the rich and poor. You see cueros and tígueres (you stay away from these men that we call “dogs” in English), the problems plaguing the country, how paradise doesn’t force your hand at personal growth, how you don’t take your phone out of your purse in some areas, and any taxi off the street is a NO-go. Later, you slowly but surely begin to notice the sanky pankies and chapiadoras (gold-diggers) at the clubs Onno’s and Parada 77 on the weekends.
But, you stay. You love it anyways, despite the flaws and all the things you wish desperately to change.
I find myself back here for my birthday. Walking around, taking it all in, eating mofongo with two of my dearest friends. Laughing right next to the ocean. The woman at the airport called me corazon (my heart) and gave me a big smile when I ordered a beer. I almost jumped over the counter and wrapped my arms around her. I’ve felt so empty since I moved to Spain, and now, having quit my job and leaving an environment that didn’t fit me as a 24th birthday present to myself, I’m just here to refuel and simply hug my friends.
I wonder if I could make this home, or if there are too many overwhelming memories here. I wonder if I will ever be in love again. I want it to be healthy this time. I wonder if I could live in paradise because you know, is this real life?
I’ve seen the struggles. I’ve experienced them first hand; heard stories, I’ve had my dear friends share. You look at your friends and wonder how long they will stay, how long before the environment changes, if things will be different when you return, how long paradise will just be a place where you work 9 to 5 during the week and drink and party on the weekends.
I remind myself to stop talking when the car goes past blasting music, how to resume speaking when you can no longer hear the strong rhythm of the bachata or salsa music bumping out of the speakers. I learned Romeo Santos lyrics. I learned the phrase “la luz se fue” (the lights are gone) and you adjust accordingly. Yell. Curse! Scream when those lights go. Give it your all.
One time I called the electricity company to see when they would come to my apartment to install the electricity when I first moved in, but they told me “ahorita” (in a little while)… They showed up three weeks later, after I ran out of candles, and figured out a way to bum off the free Wi-Fi at the Chili’s restaurant up the street.
Everything, from customer service, and errands at your local Bank/ Banco Popular, to getting anything important done, is ahorita. But whenever I called the colmado (bodega/ small mini market) down the street and asked for eggs, two avocados, and butter, then, whoa- the deliveryman was at my front door five minutes later. Everything is spontaneous, operating in a strange, rhythmic cycle that almost makes sense after two years, but then it doesn’t.
Bonye, an open-air concert, is where you spend your Sunday nights. Don’t go right when it starts because the reciting of the Dominican National Anthem will take at least 15- 20 minutes depending who is leading the Anthem and how proud they are of their country. Go to the club Parada 77 after, buy empanadas from the man standing next to the club with the light blue plastic cooler because he makes them at home and they are simply wonderful. Pay $0.20 cents for a lollipop when you finish your night because maybe it will have gum inside. Surprise!
Sit at the colmado and order a Presidente Jumbo beer. Order a chimi (chicken sandwich) from César on the corner of Delgado y Bolívar, your good friend with the food cart next to the colmado and the newly renovated KFC (that has the wifi password you can’t figure out). Ignore the men looking and whistling at you “mi morenaaaaaa” (my little black woman) or “flacaaaaaa, ven pa ca” (skinny girl, come over here). Keep walking. Understand this is a part of the culture. Smile when a man yells at you on the street, “it’s wonderful you are doing exercise for your body, my child.” Strangely, once in a while, cat calling can be nice. When it’s hot and not even raining, take out your umbrella to shield yourself from the burning sun and it’s daily 85-degree temperatures.
Put some bass in your voice and tell the man or woman trying to skip you in grocery store line that you were there first.
Pack into a little 1995 Honda Civic or Accord (sometimes missing seat fabric and always missing seatbelts) to get where you need to go. Pay your 25 pesos/ $0.50 cents USD one way. Yell when you need to get out. If you are the smallest one in the back of the car, you might even have wonderful opportunity to sit on someone’s lap. Address people with “corazón” or “amigo/ amiga” and a smile.
I’ve learned a lot here.
Sometimes it feels like I’ve outgrown it and something else is waiting out there for me.
Time will tell.