The last one of these was a hit, so I thought I'd give it another shot. Here are my top observations about Dominican culture…
1. Motos, motos, everywhere!
In most areas of the Dominican Republic, the most common mode of transport is via motorcycle. Children are taught to drive a moto even before the official legal age. Women are carried on a moto to the hospital when they give birth, they ride a moto home postpartum carrying their newborn. Dominicans pile their whole family of 4 or even 5 on one moto and then teach their children to drive a moto themselves so the cycle can start over again. It is ingrained in the culture, but is also likely the reason why the Dominican Republic is the #2 country in the world for deaths by motor vehicle accidents.
No one tells a story quite like a Dominican. Complete with dramatic pauses and engaging facial expressions (see #13), even the most mundane of events can be fascinating.
Unlike the thousands of tourists who flock to the DR every year on a quest for the perfect tan on one of the many picturesque beaches, Dominicans themselves have no interest in their skin getting any darker. The ideal time for beaching for Dominicans is after 4 in the afternoon, and preferably in the shade of an umbrella or palm tree.
4. Qué lo qué? (KLK?)
Literally translates to “what it what.” One of the many Dominican versions of “what's up?” Rolls nicely off the tongue.
5. A little coffee with your sugar?
I have yet to meet a Dominican who likes their coffee black. If you order a cup of coffee from one of the “colmados” or corner stores, unless otherwise specified, you will be handed a tiny plastic cup with strong coffee so sweet it might make your lips pucker- at least two heaping spoonfuls of sugar per cup. I'm addicted.
6. Street music.
In some countries, the term street music might refer to local musicians playing music in public spaces. In the DR, I use the term street music to refer to the constant loud music being blasted from homes, stores, restaurants, bars, and especially the back of pick-up trucks. While walking down a street in a town for just a few minutes, it would not be out of the ordinary to hear 5 or 6 samples of the most popular merengue, bachata, reggaetón and salsa music in the country. Everyone knows the songs because they are played so frequently, so you might find yourself swaying your hips in a spontaneous sing-a-long.
7. Spaghetti: an unconventional picnic cuisine.
Prior to living here, my idea of a picnic at the beach involved some ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit or potato salad, and chips of some sort. When I've asked my Dominican friends what we should bring to the beach or river to munch on, their first suggestion is inevitably spaghetti. I haven't quite figured it out but I can definitely go with it!
An optional but quite popular beach or party beverage consisting of a reusable bottle of several different roots and herbs. The bottle is stored in the refrigerator in between uses and all one has to do is add the wine or liquor (or both!) of your choice, let it soak up the flavor of the herbs, then imbibe. Potentially dangerous but delicious!
9. Disregard for traffic signals.
And other laws as well from what I've observed. Red lights are merely suggestions. But the most interesting observation has been that people actually have to be more careful when going through a green light than a red light because the chances of someone running a red light without looking are greater than the chances of you looking both ways when you run the red light yourself.
10. Showing regard for guests at the dinner table.
At first I thought it was just me. When I would eat lunch in the work cafeteria while everyone else got a plate covered in tin foil with their name on it, I got several separate little plates of food to serve my own portions. When this happened again at a friend's house, I started to wonder. I finally asked my friend and he explained that serving one's own portions on a separate plate is a courtesy offered to guests in this country. Thank goodness, at least at work I'm now “one of the family” with my own tin-foil covered plate!
11. Bananas for breakfast.
Breakfast in the DR is not a real breakfast without bananas or plantains, green or ripe, mashed, baked or fried. Period.
12. Pet names for everyone.
Precious. My heaven. My queen. My love. Doll. Beautiful. In my experience, pet names are usually reserved for mothers to their children or between lovers. So, when the man in customs at the airport called me his queen, I was a bit taken aback. Turns out this is the norm here between family members, friends, acquaintances and yes, even complete strangers.
13. Dominance of facial musculature in communication.
While Italians are known for talking with their hands, Dominicans manage to communicate quite clearly strictly with their facial expressions. My favorites? Puckering up the lips in a direction to indicate the location of something (Where's the music coming from? *pucker lips to the left= “over there”). Also wrinkling the nose to indicate something was not understood (this one I'm well familiar with.) And then of course, the drawing the teeth together and emitting a low hiss, the classic way to attempt to get a girl's attention.
14. Free ZUMBA!
A health initiative of the federal government, free Zumba classes are offered to the public in nearly all of the big cities and towns in the country. And let me just say, Dominicans know how to shake it!
15. An exceptionally welcoming spirit.
In all my travels, no where have I felt more embraced by people, welcomed into their families, homes and lives. For those that venture out of the resorts and start talking with the locals, it may be only a few minutes before you find yourself invited to dinner with the family, to a spaghetti picnic at the beach, or at a minimum, to share in a coffee break. This friendly and open spirit is exactly what led me to return to the Dominican Republic after my first trip in 2005, and what I know will bring me back again soon.