I’ve now been in the Dominican Republic for 3 weeks. In my first update, I discussed a bit of what I’m looking for from this chapter of my life, but now, I’ll share about how I wound up here, what it has been like and things I’ve observed about this place.
First of all, let me address why I chose this as my first “destination.” You see, all of last year I had a poster on my wall next to my goals that said “The Road to Argentina” – because I was under the impression that I was going to Buenos Aires. If we talked at all, I may have even used the phrase “I’m moving to Argentina”.
Yes, I know – D.R. is NOT Argentina – so, what?! Why DR?!
Well, last year (and really for the last few years), I’ve had a rather intense schedule of wedding photography – sometimes shooting jobs every day of the week, literally. In 2021, I took a 3 week trip to Hawaii and found it highly restorative. This is partly where I got the idea for D.R. as my first stop.
Some things I loved about Hawaii were – beaches/ocean everywhere, secluded beaches, natural beauty, the jungle/rainforest, hiking, mountains and beach in the same day, etc. I found my peace and really connected to my spirit there.
So, this past November, when I was finally starting my life on the road and finally beginning some more research for the international leg, I was really feeling that need for restoration in a tropical environment. The more I researched Buenos Aires, the more I realized it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. It didn’t seem to have access to hiking or the type of “beach” I was looking for – secluded, quiet, small… I realized that I wasn’t really looking for a coastal city on the mainland, at least for now, but really the vibe of an island – a place where I could decompress, reconnect with my soul and reorient. I didn’t exactly want Hawaii due to the distance and price point, plus – I’m on the “Latin country” phase in my travel life. So, I searched for islands with mountains and I came up with DR. I discovered Puerto Plata and chose it based on the photos I saw online, the fact of the mountain in town and well, of course, the beach. I had high hopes, and well… it’s turned out to be an interesting time of challenge and adjustment.
I had an 8:30 am flight from Newark to Puerto Plata. Coming from Newburgh meant I didn’t get more than about 3 hours of sleep the night before my trip. I got to the airport on time (thanks, Tam!), dropped off my bags and headed for the TSA. In spite of having Global Entry/TSA Pre-Check, I was STILL made to empty all my equipment from my carry on bag. Uhg. At least the line itself didn’t take a long time – though waiting for them to inspect everything … Oy.
The flight, which was only about 3.5 hours, was one of the most turbulent I had ever experienced – literally and emotionally. The flight attendants tried not once, not twice but THREE times to push the beverage cart, and each time, the seatbelt signs were re-lit, the captains came on the intercom to tell them to go back to their seats. Finally, they ended up carrying trays with cups of water/juice to people – with about 40 minutes left on the flight.
Meanwhile, I was feeling quite emotional. Thoughts were flooding my mind about everything I had just experienced over the course of the last year or so and I was starting to go into a bit of a shock. Not only was I exhausted from lack of sleep, but I had just spent 2+ months with my closest friends and family members, most recently, living for 3 weeks with someone who was previously my partner for years a handful of years ago and who has become a stable and reliable friend, saying goodbyes, letting go of most of my material belongings, finishing up jobs and transitioning out of “work mode” and finally arriving to my international nomadic lifestyle – something I’d been dreaming of for a long time – but which, admittedly, I hadn’t done terribly much planning for, in terms of itineraries, outside of basic research. Although, I had put a LOT of effort into my packing.
Back to the scene: seatbelt signs, lit; sitting on an aisle seat with two people filling out my row, more than halfway back the plane; flight turbulence; I can’t look out the window and I’m starting to feel claustrophobic. Thoughts and feelings flooding me… naturally, as someone who’s been told that she feels “too much”/is “too sensitive” – I was doing what I could to hold back my tears. Wiping my eyes with my sleeve every time I failed. I believe in crying. I believe that crying is strength and a release. But – when you’re in a place like a plane… perhaps it’s better not to make a scene. I wanted nothing but to get up, walk, and hide in the lavatory for a few minutes to let the tears flow, blow my nose and collect myself. I started feeling trapped every time I looked up and saw the damn seatbelt sign – which was on throughout the majority of the flight – preventing me from moving anywhere, stretching my legs or taking care of myself in private. So, in spite of it not being a particularly long flight, I wanted nothing but to be off the plane. And too bad it wasn’t due to excitement for arriving at my longly-awaited new chapter.
FINALLY, we landed. Finally, I could get off the plane and find a restroom to clean myself up – and breathe.
I made it through customs and immigration just fine and then went to change some money. (In Spanish!)
I had a taxi waiting for me – someone recommended by the hosts of my Airbnb.
And the adventure begins…
The Basics of Day to Day Living…
Shelter: Where I’ve been staying
I’ve been staying in Airbnbs. I’m currently in my third one, and in the second town – Cabarete. Tomorrow – I’ll move to another.
Originally, I had been looking at staying in hostels, for the community aspect and access to tours/activities. However, I didn’t encounter anything that seemed “right” in Puerto Plata, so I opted for Airbnb – since having a kitchen was important to me.
The first place I stayed in Puerto plata was a small studio/1 bedroom apartment in the center of Zona Colonial. This is the old part of town, the “downtown”, walkable section. It revolves around Parque Central – “Central Park” – which is basically a square with the Cathedral, (don’t think of a massive, architecturally beautiful structure like in Europe…), a two-level gazebo type structure, lamp-posts, some trees and benches. Bright orange and aquamarine blue buildings line one side of the square, paint well maintained. It’s pretty, but doesn’t feel very authentic. Probably well-kept because most of the tourists from the cruise ships are brought there on tours. When I arrived on Sunday afternoon, it felt like the city was closed – it was not very busy. Streets fairly deserted. However, during the week, it’s much busier – and I woke up to motorcycles, trucks and cars every morning there – whereas, in my other places, it’s been the roosters bringing me into consciousness.
In the first apartment, I was close to the malecón – a boulevard with a large sidewalk (with a not uncommon site of plenty of local Dominicans with camping chairs, beers and loud music emanating from a car or speakers) that runs along the coast. (I have yet to find an accurate translation for this word.) I stayed in this apartment only a few days, but every time I walked out the door, I noticed the same older guy sitting outside across the street. We chatted sometimes, and he was a friendly sight when I’d get back later; he’d always say hi and ask me what I had been up to that day. The downtown has all the old colonial style architecture, and the main tourist traps: the Umbrella Street and the Pink Street. I’d usually like these types of places, but it feels out of place in this type of city. They are cute, sure, but clearly there for the tourist appeal – as it doesn’t have any authentic feeling about it – especially as compared to another neighborhood where locals would crowd outside the little Colmados (convenience stores), plantains and potatoes in baskets outside, chips and other packaged snacks hanging behind the counter, music blaring, drinking beers, and chilling. Instead – fancier places and tourist gifts shops… Except – if you happened to walk around the artist area – where people have painted the outside of the little wooden houses – bright colors, palm trees, designs and more. It’s got real character over there. Hey, maybe I’m wrong and there is some authenticity or history in those sites…
My other Airbnb in Puerto Plata was in a neighborhood called “Los Maestros”. It was further up the hill and every morning, instead of darkness from tinted windows, all the natural light you could ever want filled the space, along with a view of the ocean-filled horizon. Different colors every day, depending on the weather. It was a view I’d never tire of, reminding me of the feeling I had when I used to walk around downtown Newburgh and see the view of Breakneck Ridge, Storm King Mountain, Polopel Island and the river – every day different with the weather and lighting. Los Maestros is a little further out, so the neighborhood is quiet – except for the roosters and the sounds of construction on the apartment building being built next door. Walk out of the living room and into a patio with a swinging cushioned chair and an umbrella’d dining table. Go past the chairs and up the blue metal spiral staircase, and you’re on the roof. A 360º spin and you’ll see the ocean and rooves of other houses on one side and the jungle covered mountain on the other. So lovely that I went up regularly and sometimes brought reading and writing materials with me. This area was definitely a richer, middle class area. The houses were typically 2-3 stories and had indoor/outdoor patios with ornate gates and metal bars. Clearly built more recently than in the Zona Colonial, and using concrete rather than wood. Walking around, it’s quiet, calm and highly residential. The occasional people passing on foot or motorcycle; everyone says “hola” or “buenas” as I walk by – even if they’re behind their fences. Hardly any businesses are in this area, but there is a prevalence of banana, starfruit, coconut palm and other fruit-baring trees in people’s gardens! I love that!
Right now, I’m in Cabarete. It’s a small beach town a little further East along the Northern coast. More on this in a later update.
Sustenance: What and how I’ve been eating…
When it comes to food, I’ve mostly been cooking for myself in an effort to be economical and also to stay on top of my diet – something which I let go over the course of the last year or so. Of course, I have eaten out some, though. It’s been a mix of “typical” Dominican food (buffet style, rice, beans, plantain, meat) and normal, cheap food – a pizza, a hamburger, a club sandwich, etc. At “home”, I’ve been making breakfast, which consists of eggs, toast with guava jelly, coffee and usually, avocado. I can’t seem to get enough of avocados when I’ve been in Latin countries – they are just better. These actually taste like a fruit. Can you imagine?
In preparation for these travels, I put a lot of effort into what to bring with me/packing. Something I’m pretty proud of having figured out is what to bring for the kitchen. You see, from the travels I’ve done in the last few years, I realized that kitchens can be very unreliable when on the road. It’s actually quite annoying to try to prepare a meal in an Airbnb or hostel when there isn’t: 1. a reliable full-sized/sharp knife, 2. a good spatula/turner (e.g. for eggs), 3. salt, pepper, herbs and spices, 4. a way to store/travel with prepped items or leftovers. So, in packing, I solved these things for myself by creating a “travel kitchen” – a case with various tools (including knife, peeler, mini sharpening stone, spatula, corkscrew, chopsticks, grater and so forth), reusable storage bags, reusable beeswax food wrappers and containers of various basic seasonings (e.g. salt/pepper, thyme, rosemary, chili powder, garlic powder, paprika, etc.). These things have all, already, come in handy and allowed me to have a sense of comfort, control and ease when it comes to food prep and management. This has been so helpful in adjusting, especially when it’s a bit stressful to get the grocery shopping done.
Firstly, I’m a bit out of practice when it comes to meal planning and grocery shopping. Being that I was shooting weddings, I often would eat meals on the job – so I didn’t do as much dinner cooking over the last year (or more) due to that. Now that I’m not busy or having my eating schedule dictated by an erratic and hectic work schedule, it is more open ended. However, I’m also in a new country, where all the packaging is in Spanish, stores are set up their own way, and different things are available. So, it’s not exactly obvious. Not to mention, I generally need to take a taxi to get to the store. But, I’m managing, nonetheless. I’ve managed to cook a dinner with some chicken thighs, broccoli, and potato-like veg as well as a pasta/veggie/chicken dish. Lunch sometimes consists of ham/cheese sandwiches, fresh fruit, salad, yogurt, etc.
Transportation: How I’ve been getting around
Firstly, I’m someone who likes to walk. During the pandemic, I walked hundreds of miles around downtown Newburgh, plus hikes. Last April I did a tour around Peru’s most well known treks – Machu Picchu/Inca Trail, Rainbow Mountain, Cañon del Colca, Humantay Lagoon, Paracas… etc. I’m no stranger to being a pedestrian. Also, I find walking to be the best way to discover and really understand a place, since you actually can get to know the streets, the people, and so on. However, Puerto Plata does not seem to have a huge walking culture. Also, there is the small matter of feeling comfortable in the place – when it is very clear that I am a foreigner. I ultimately came to feel more confident in the streets, but … it took some time.
In general, I’ve found it rather frustrating to get around, and this has sometimes prevented me from getting out as much as I might have otherwise liked – since it just added another easy excuse to my arsenal of resistance. It’s not like in Paris or NY where ample public transit exists and is organized, has a website to look up directions and times, etc. No. It’s not even like in Amsterdam, where bikes rule.
In Puerto Plata, motorcycles and cars dominate. Traffic is heavy. Crossing the street is a death wish. There are cross-walks, but I’m not sure why. Drivers don’t always respect traffic lights and there are not “Walk/Dont’ Walk” signs. You have to wait… and wait.. and wait some more. Sometimes, minutes pass. Sometimes you have to strategize – wait at the median. Cross with the scooters/motorcycles that are turning left. Sometimes a motorcycle guy will cross the street to walk you across. Sometimes you just run. But, eventually you learn to calculate the speed of oncoming traffic and anticipate how much time you have to cross.
Like I said, it’s not like in Paris or NY. Public transit is complicated – mostly existing in the form of guaguas and shared cars; it’s hard to access as a foreigner. Guaguas are like mini-buses/large vans that get crammed with people and go from town to town – but sometimes they are also little buses or even old cars. In order to use them, you have to talk to people to be instructed on where the stop is, how much it “should” cost, and so forth. Then once you go to use it, you have to negotiate the price for yourself. If you don’t know some Spanish, good luck to you. It’s not well documented online or organized by a city or corporate company. It’s definitely for locals. It took me two weeks to have enough explanation to get it, plus having a destination and then being explained by multiple people. I did manage to take one from Puerto Plata to Cabarete, and now I have a better understanding.
Outside of this, to get around town, there are taxis and Ubers, which will run you about $150-300 pesos per ride ($2.67-5.33 USD – at time of writing), again, depending on what you can negotiate with the driver, ahead of time, because there are not meters. Sometimes, taxis are just someone’s personal car. The process of using Uber is not like in the US. The app will suggest a price that you offer the driver, then you wait for drivers to accept the price and make you a counter offer. Then you choose. I’ve generally found that when I put in the suggested rate from the app (usually 100-150 pesos), someone would accept the ride, but then ask me to pay 200 pesos. The driver would either ask me directly to pay more or they would ask me where I am or where I am going to. All of these things I found particularly frustrating, as you start by putting your pick-up location and destination into the app. The driver could easily see this information. In general, however, I found Uber to be more economical than direct taxis.
Finally, and the most common way to get around town is the motoconcho – the motorcycle taxi. Remember when I said motorcylces dominate? For sure, private citizens are zooming around on their bikes, but a good ratio of motorcycles are men with vests that have a registered number, borderline harassing pedestrians to drive them around. (Or already driving someone around.) It took me until only a few days before I left Puerto Plata to finally feel courageous enough to take one. But, once I opened the doors to it, well things have shifted a bit. Often the driver would ask me to pay 70 to 100 pesos, but I generally actually paid 50 pesos ($.88). At first it was scary, but soon I got more used to it – and it’s almost comforting to feel the wind in your hair and on your arms – until you notice the traffic around you. But, I’ve gotten to be more relaxed and confident about it, especially since it’s significantly less money and easy to find them – as they are literally everywhere (almost like the Parisian metro stations).
Activity: What I’ve been up to to pass the time
When I thought about what I would be doing here, or how I’d feel, I had Hawaii in my head. My Hawaiian trip was perfect (except the price point). I had rented cars and drove around 4 islands, exploring at my own will. Hiking whatever trails I felt like, independently. Visiting beaches and random view points I discovered from Google Maps. Very first world.
I had imagined this might be like Hawaii and Peru combined.
Well… it’s the Dominican Republic.
It’s hard to get around. Renting a car is still a practical option – though expensive. Excursions and tours exist. But, generally, they are fairly expensive – at least compared to Peru – where everything was generally affordable – so I didn’t even think twice about doing them. $15-45, usually. (Except the Inca Trail trek was several hundred dollars, but it was 4 days, all inclusive.) Here, most of the tours are $80-300. That’ll add up really fast. So, I’ve had to be more choosy about things to stay on budget. Especially since I’ve been spending more on my lodging too. In Peru, I generally had private rooms in hostels – and never spent more than $18 USD / night. Here, I couldn’t find reasonable hostels. My Airbnbs have been $28-38/night + fees, so not horrendous, but still higher than I had been hoping and adds up quickly. I did attend an excursion called the 27 Charcos – which I would highly recommend if you’re ever in Puerto Plata – as well as going up the Teleferico (cable car).
That being said, usually my favorite activities when traveling include walking around and taking photos. I’ve done a decent amount of that, but it did take some time to feel comfortable to have my camera out in town. (For example, I haven’t brought it out in Cabarete yet.) I want to document things, and have the image quality from the camera, but I often feel uncomfortable having something so conspicuous and expensive. Not to mention, I’ve felt a bit uncomfortable about the voyeuristic aspect of it. Things that never seemed to bother me when I was in Europe in/around college time.
In addition to exploring, trying new foods and talking with people, I’ve spent a good amount of time in my Airbnbs – reading, writing, editing and doing other activities. I started working on a memoir. I’ve now done 2 blog posts. And I’ve written over 30 pages in my journal. Additionally, I’ve started bringing my writing tablet around and capturing the (sensory) experience of being in certain places. I’ve finished two books (Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield) and started two more (Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, and Somewhere & Nowhere, a memoir about a bike trip across the US).
Another thing I’ve been doing is participating in something called Pace Groups. It’s a form of online group “therapy”/social support groups. I’ve been involved in this for about a year now. I have a regular group that meets weekly, with ~8 women. The members have sometimes changed, but it’s pretty consistent. It’s been really nice to have something I can rely on week to week, at the same time, with the same people. Also, there’s been what they call “pop-ups”, which are sessions about a specific topic open to the whole “Pace Community” – limited at the standard 8 participants. For the last few months, I’ve been attending one called “WTF: Major Life Transitions” – and it’s been like having a support group for going through big changes. It’s so refreshing to connect with others who are also going through a big shift and discuss what comes up about that. It’s a form of understanding/support that friends and family can’t really provide – not because they are bad or something, but there is just something special about talking to other people who are going through something similar emotionally (even if the circumstances look totally different).
And… of course, there is the “beach”. I had expected that with the beach so “available”/close, I’d of course go there every day. Again, expectations vs reality. I’ve hardly “gone to the beach” – in the sense of a “beach day” or going to hang out and swim, etc for the whole day. I have done walks along the malécon, walks along the shore, feet in the water, some sitting and enjoying, and so forth – but I definitely have not gone every day. In the apartment in Los Maestros, it was a 30-40 minute walk to “the beach”. Then, there are the taxis. So, now you understand the complication. When you’re trying to be economical, you don’t want to spend potentially up to $10 (round trip) for a taxi to/from the beach every time. I know it’s not much, but it adds up, so you want to make sure that you’re going to make the most of whatever outing you do. The other thing is, when the numbers you’re dealing with are actually 150-300 pesos, it has a stronger emotional significance, especially when a typical number of pesos to take from an ATM might be 400/600, 1000, 1500 or 2000. Psychologically, it feels like you’re spending more than you might actually be spending (200 pesos from a 1000 peso withdrawal, for example, that’s already 20% gone, 40% for a round trip in the average taxi, leaving you with 600 pesos for whatever you’re actually doing). The same feels true when eating out or doing shopping. I know it’s important to “think in pesos”, in terms of knowing “appropriate” costs for things in this economy, and I am, but I also need to stay mindful of my spending in dollars, since I’m not actively earning for the time being.
The process of slowing down – and adjusting to a new lifestyle of uncertainty
I recently saw a meme online that said something to the effect of “measure the success of your day/your value not by how much you did, but by how present you were” and this struck me. For a long time now, I’ve been someone to think about my value and success in terms of what I’ve gotten done – but I also know that this method is flawed and often leads to feeling like I’m not good enough – since there is always something else left on the To Do list at the end of the day. It leads me to an inability to fully relax, because it’s not allowed – there’s always something that needs doing. I must always be actively “doing”, in order for my life to count and be worthy, valuable and meaningful. And then, there’s the flip side – that whatever I’m doing in that particular moment is the wrong thing and that something else would be a better use of my time. Man – that is annoying, but this happens all the time.
This mindset is something that I am still struggling to break and replace with something new. I’ve had many thoughts throughout the last few weeks second guessing myself, telling myself I’m “doing this wrong” or that I should be “doing more to take advantage of being here” or “do more” to “enjoy it.” When in reality, part of why I came here was actually to slow down. To take a break from the incessant compulsion to be DOING SOMETHING – ALL THE TIME.
But, with over 30 years experience in having to do EVERYTHING, partaking in every activity, not being allowed to quit or to miss out on something, it’s actually quite hard to slow down. (Imagine that!) So, in slower moments, instead of feeling relaxed and at peace, I’ve oftentimes overcome by a rush of anxiety. Or a rush of loneliness. Or a rush of sadness. Or a rush of panic about “OMG What have you done?!” Or a sense of being lost and not knowing what I’m doing. Or uncertainty about what I “should be doing”. Or “you’re doing it wrong”. Or FOMO. You see, I was comfortable in being busy, even if I was stressed out. I was comfortable with a packed schedule of work. With overworking. Overdoing my social life. Not taking time for my “self” to decompress. I was used to being “on” all the time… Until I burnt out. I typically had no energy left for myself. Even when I was traveling Peru last year, I had my itinerary. Little room for change or going with the flow. Tours all the time; getting picked up at horrendous hours between 3am and 7am; overnight buses to maximize opportunities. This way of being is not sustainable. But I was comfortable using these external factors and obligations to others to have structure and force me to prioritize. And without them, there is space for the uncertainty and all the anxiety that goes along with it. And space to discover my own rhythm. And to embrace all of the feelings of life, even those uncomfortable ones and the negative thoughts. Space to question those thoughts and realize that actually, I’ve been doing alright at adjusting to a new lifestyle on the road, living in a foreign country, eating different foods, negotiating in a different language, finding somewhat affordable shelter, getting around in a place without “official” transportation, not getting food poisoning or other ills of travel (from contaminated water or mosquitoes), checking in with people regularly, learning new perspectives, meeting new people, looking internally, and yes, occasionally doing some touristy things.
TL;DR: In summary…
Puerto Plata has been an interesting mix of frustration, anxiety, discovery of place, discovery of self, ocean views, reading, writing, and speaking lots of Spanish. I spent a lot of time alone, a lot more time in my airbnbs than anticipated, but by the end of the 2.5 weeks, I started to make a few friends. I’ve started to uncover some new ways of seeing things and understand that taking time to be in the airbnb or even doing some of my personal activities is part of “taking advantage” of being here. I’ve started to discover ways to find community here and get around more easily. It’s been a bit rocky, but I’m learning to embrace all of it – and let go of the pressure and expectations from previous travel, and with it, some of the anxiety of not having much structure or external obligations.
With that, I bring this update to a close. If you’ve stuck with me this far, thanks so much for reading! Keep your eyes open for another update soon.
Phone Snapshots From Puerto Plata (other photos to come at a later time)