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Every country and city has its own customs and culture. The Dominican Republic has a rich history and its citizens have a strong sense of cultural identity and pride. At times, Dominicans are influenced by American culture (for example, some listen to music in English, watch American movies, or say Americanized versions of things like “hamburger” instead of the Spanish “hamburguesa”, or exclaim “omaigah”.)
Before I moved here, I lived in a Dominican neighborhood in New York City, and I had visited the island a few times, so I was familiar with some cultural aspects. Regardless, a few things continue to stick out to me; however, the longer I live here, the more I understand.
I have developed a love for colmados, little shops that sell everything from individual rolls of toilet paper to salami, from ice to matches, from chips to Brugal Rum. Located practically on every other street, these locally owned places also are places to convene, chat with your neighbors, play dominoes, and kick back a few shots of rum or “super fria” Presidentes. The other great thing about colmados is you can call and order what you need and have it delivered directly to your door.
Do you need an extra roll of bread or has an unexpected guest arrived and you need to cook a meal? Have no fear, make one phone call and these things will be delivered directly to your door for free. Of course, you could tip the delivery boy a few pesos if you so desire, but it is not required.
2) Island Time
Dominicans are very relaxed when it comes to time and this attitude affects everything from business to social plans. Businesses are a little more structured, but meetings can start late and run over time, and assignments can sometimes take longer than expected to reach completion. For social plans, this means that parties start much later than anticipated and meet-up times are flexible. People say “ahorita”, which literally means “little now” or as I would like to think “right now.”
In reality, ahorita can mean anything from the past tense use of the word with “within the past hour,” but can also mean the immediate future but can range from five minutes to half an hour to three hours, or even never. I have learned to let my expectations of “New York Minutes” go and live in the moment.
First-time American visitors to a Caribbean island may assume the best choice in apparel is shorts, a loose t-shirt, comfortable sandals, and a hat for the sun. In reality, Dominicans choose fashion over comfort. In my opinion, compared to Americans who tend to dress very casually, Dominicans take much pride in their appearance and look very put-together.
In the capital, Dominicans wear business casual/business formal regardless of how oppressive the heat is. As a New York native, I had become accustomed to wearing dark, inconspicuous clothes. Here, brighter and tighter is better. A quick walk through a major mall like Agora may make you question whether you are at a club or at a shopping center. However, all of these rules are thrown out the window upon arrival to a residential neighborhood or once at home, where people swap their formal clothes for shorts, tank tops, and chancletas (sandals).
During the work day, or at night, men wear well-fitted pants and shirts. Shoes are always perfectly shined, due in part to informal shoe-shiners who wait on street corners and by near major transportation hubs. For about 20 pesos, your shoes will look brand new while you wait.
Women wear tight fitting blouses and dress pants, and occasionally a skirt with super high heels. Hair, nails and makeup are always perfect, as a result of frequent salon visits to wash and straighten their hair. At night, women swap dress pants for short skirts or tight dresses.
4) Public Transportation
One of the hardest things for me to learn was how to get around using public transportation. In the United States, public transportation is generally reliable, operates on a standardized schedule, and rides have a standardized rate that is advertised not only on the many schedules and route maps that are visible at all bus stops, but also can be found through a quick internet search.
I would have loved to have a map when I first moved here which showed the routes of public cars, but I had to learn the public transportation system by word of mouth. However, learning the routes in this informal manner helped me understand how this seemingly unsystematic system operates.
Generally, public cars (carritos) travel along predetermined roads north-south or east-west. Carritos must be hailed from the side of the road and you inform the driver the moment you want to be let out of the car, and the driver will pull over. Busses operate in a similar manner. There is an incredibly efficient metro system in Santo Domingo that was built in 2008 and has two lines with a free transfer between them.
I absolutely love the metro due to its safety, reliability, speed (Santo Domingo can be filled with traffic during commuter rush hours), and last but not least the air-conditioned cars!
Dominicans are very hospitable. Time and time again I have been welcomed into people’s homes graciously. I am always offered coffee, a meal, and if I am an overnight guest at a family’s home I am always offered my own bed and a change of clothes. People are very giving, and for this reason more than anything else, I feel welcome here even though I am a foreigner.
What are some things you noticed about Dominicans that are different from your own country?