Felices fiestas

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All the best for the year ahead – hoping 2012 is a better year for the world as a whole and the DR in particular.

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Updated fuel prices

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The Ministry of Commerce and Industry sets the prices every Friday.
Fuel prices per gallon for 3 – 9 December 2011

Premium gasoline – RD$220.30
Regular gasoline – RD$205.10
Regular diesel – RD$193.60
Premium diesel – RD$200.20
Propane gas – RD$107.60
Natural gas – RD$24.99 per cubic meter.

Source: http://www.seic.gov.do/Lists/Precios%20de%20combustibles/PreciosDeLaSemana.aspx

Shopping in the east coast region

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Since the book went to press, the San Juan Centre in Bávaro has opened.

San Juan Shopping Center

It’s a large mall with a branch of Distribuidora Corripio that sells domestic electrical appliances. The Centre also includes a multiscreen cinema (Caribbean Cinemas), a Pola Supermarket and lots of boutiques and eateries. Pizza Hut and Chef Pepper are two popular examples.

Location: north of Coco Loco Crossing, Bávaro.

Somos Todos

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Today is International Day against Violence against Women and the 51st anniversary of the murder of Dominican national heroines the Mirabal Sisters, Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa, by order of then-dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1960.

Although the decision to commemorate this crime of political violence by declaring it a day against domestic violence doesn’t make absolute sense, there is an alarming rate of domestic violence and feminicide in the DR and as much as possible needs to be done to address this, including raising awareness. Around 200 women are killed by their partners or ex-partners every year, one of the highest rates in Latin America and the world.

Here is a short film on the subject by Francisco Montás, starring his niece Sofía and sister Angela, made for the Mirabal Sisters a Minute and a Half Film Festival.

Comparing Elections

Could You Survive An Election In The Dominican Republic?

If you’re British, you’ve already had some training! British expat residents of the Dominican Republic, Ginnie Bedggood and Ilana Benady bemusedly watched from afar the UK General Election of May 6th 2010 and then compared it to the Dominican Republic’s Congressional and Municipal elections exactly ten days later. Have no fear, Brits, you are catching up fast!

Campaigning DR style - ruling party activists handing out government food packages to the voters

Ginnie was amazed at the seeming lack of organisation in some parts of the UK. “People lined up for three hours and still couldn’t vote? Things have changed since I left the UK. I thought that sort of thing only happened here” she said reading reports that in Hackney, Islington, Leeds, Lewisham, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield long queues led to many voters being turned away and unable to vote as the 10 pm deadline arrived. “This feels like politics DR style” said Ilana pointing to the 28 claims of major abuses with the postal voting system across 12 London Boroughs which the Metropolitan Police were examining.

One major difference between the two countries is the amount of information generally known about politics in the other country. Your average José on the streets of Puerto Plata knows all about the British MPs expenses scandal. José already knows his own politicos are corrupt but hearing about the UK expenses scandal, which was writ large in the DR media, gave him the chance to extend empathic solidarity (and a bit of superiority!) to British expats here. Your average Joe on the streets of Wigan might be hard-pressed to quote an example of political corruption in the DR.

But rest assured it exists. It is perhaps more colourful than in the UK, certainly noisier, arguably more deep-seated, occasionally more dramatic and without doubt more in-your-face. Ginnie and Ilana did not hear about any UK cases where voters sold their registration card; in the DR the selling of the ID card or cédula is a common practice. In the 2010 the DR voter registration authority, the Junta Central Electoral, made strenuous efforts to overcome this by allowing voters to apply for a replacement cédula up to 48 hours before the elections. In practice this just meant that José had two votes! Nor were there cases of political rivals shooting each other in the UK. In the DR, whilst not common, it does happen.

One of the things a new book by Ilana and Ginnie, Moving To and Living In the Dominican Republic, does not do is to walk you through the voting process in the DR. This is because legal expat residents do not have a vote unless they become citizens and the vast majority of expats do not become citizens. However, the book walks you through just about everything else, from how to find a doctor or school, to how to set up a company, how to buy property (s l o w l y!) and, if you needed it, how to use your leisure time.

An indispensable read for anyone wanting to move to the DR or indeed any developing country, it not only provides all the practicalities but it also sets this in a historical, geographical, cultural and linguistic context. And for the parts which will make you smile, the authors include anecdotes from their combined 30 year experience of life in the DR.

Would there ever be a ‘hung’ Congress in the DR? Unlikely. The results of the May 16th election were overwhelmingly in favour of the ruling PLD party. Would there ever be a coalition-style government in the DR? At present there are only two main political parties – “Jeeves, prepare my duelling pistols!”

Ginnie Bedggood   June 2010

El Salón

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Dominican hair salons offer some great opportunities for observation.

Apart from the equipment, they have nothing in common with their British counterparts. No bored teenage trainees mumbling their pre-programmed “been anywhere nice on holiday” or “done your Christmas shopping yet” questions.

In Dominican salons you get a gaggle of loud, feisty banter between stylists and clients, about a range of subjects, from the personal to the political, to showbiz and sex. As a foreigner, I’m not always expected to join in, and somehow I’m relieved, because I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t be able to meet the pace or volume of these exchanges.

Another difference is the prices. A good salon in London will charge at least £100 for a cut and style. Here you can have that done for under RD$1,000, and that’s in the really good places. There are hundreds of mid-level places where they’ll wash and dry your hair for about RD$200, and cut and dry for not much more.

I’ve got good, strong hair. Not ‘pelo bueno’ in the Dominican sense because it’s not straight, but thick and curly with a tendency to frizz, especially when the weather is humid. When it was long, Dominican stylists would urge me to have it dried straight, even though the effect is very temporary in a humid climate. Also, the temperatures they use on those hairdriers have to be felt to be believed. Sometimes my hair would smell scorched for days, even after washing.

Photo: Pedro Guzmán

Long hair in this climate, like the practice of wearing skin-tight jeans and artificial fibres, is an enormous challenge to the balance one tries to maintain between style and comfort. In the end I couldn’t hack it. Wearing my hair loose was like torture, and what’s the point of having long hair if it’s going to be tied up all the time?

For the same reasons that I only ever wear loose clothing and natural fibres, I went for the short cut. The downside is that short curly hair looks horrible, so I have to keep it very short, and a good cut by someone who is used to non-Afro hair is essential.

Welcome To Your New ‘Normal’ Life In The Dominican Republic

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Part of the charm of living in the Dominican Republic is how different it is from your country of origin. Walk down the street in any small village or town and you will be amazed at how many people appear to know you. They don’t, of course, all know you but they will all greet you and smile – it’s the way things are here. Resist, if you can, the urge to turn to your partner with a wary, suspicious ‘Do I know him?’ Do what the locals do, acknowledge the greeting, return it and smile back.

– Photo: Pedro Guzmán

The slow pace of life will probably also come as something of a surprise. Warm temperatures year round make for a more relaxed, slow pace but so too do high unemployment or under-employment which means that many people have time on their hands. No sense in rushing to do what little you need to do today when, in fact you have all day in which to do it. While this can bring frustrations for the new expat, conditioned by half a lifetime of frenetic activity, it is, in the long term, better for one’s health.

Some things about the DR are less productive of good health or even of an extended lifetime. Witness the driving skills or lack thereof and you might well wonder how the DR’s 10 million inhabitants have actually managed to live as long as they have!

What the new expat won’t know, and can’t be expected to, at the start, is how to achieve the normal tasks of everyday life in this environment and it is for that reason that Ilana Benady and Ginnie Bedggood have written Moving To and Living In the Dominican Republic. Between them they have been living in the DR for some 30 years. There was no ‘How To’ manual when they moved here, so the information contained in the book has been gleaned from their own, not always easy, experience.

Yes you can ask the helpful locals, assuming you have Spanish, but be prepared for literal responses rather than being told everything you need to know! This is partly because other people don’t know what it is you don’t know and don’t wish to offend by assuming you know very little. The second reason is that interpersonal relationships are considered very important in the DR and people do NOT want to upset you by telling you things you would prefer not to hear, even though they are the truth. Thus ‘Is the bread shop open all day?’ will elicit the response ‘yes’ because to a local ‘all day’ means the time bread shops are open here viz. 8 am (give or take!) to midday and 4 pm to 8 pm. Go at 2.30 pm and it will be closed.

After 4 or 5 experiences of this nature, the new expat could end up feeling that the locals don’t know what they are talking about, or are being deliberately obtuse. Neither is the case, but the new expat’s lack of information can place them in both a vulnerable and powerless position. Moving To and Living In the Dominican Republic seeks to remedy this by providing page after page of factual information as well as advice. Looking for a school for your children? Read the section on Education and see the directory of schools. Looking for a doctor or surgeon? Read the section on Health Care and see the directory of medical facilities. Want to become a legal alien? Read the section on Immigration and Visas. Not only does this book provide the information, in many aspects it also walks you through how to use that information.

Have it under your arm when you apply for a driving licence or set up a company in the DR and you’ll impress even experienced expats with your level of knowledge!

Ginnie Bedggood May 2010

Happy Hallowe’en!

Dulce o truco? – adapted from a post first published 2006

How times change. When I lived in the UK, I was usually completely unaware that it was Halloween until the first knock on the door, and so would either have to pretend not to be at home, or gingerly hand over unsatisfying gifts like apples. This gesture would absolve me from a trick, but as it did not quite comply with their definition of a treat, you could see the sugar-fuelled reproach in their  stares.

Once in a while I would remember the significance of the date and buy a bag of mini-Mars Bars at the corner shop on the way home from work. Instead of ‘once in a while’, it’s probably more honest to say ‘once’.

Fast forward a few years later and I’m amused to find myself chaperoning a ghoulish group of tots around the neighbourhood, in their quest for Halloween handouts.

I even learned something new last night – trick or treat in Spanish is “dulce o truco”. Our ragged little brigade of imps and demons was well prepared for receiving “dulces” but to my slight disappointment did not have any “trucos” up their sinister little sleeves.

Some houses obliged, while others simply said “no tengo” without any fear of retaliation from the creepy contingent. I can report that my son came home with a satisfying haul of goodies.

Not all Dominicans are that keen on Halloween. Some see it as an over-commercialised tradition that has been imposed from outside, which threatens to displace home-grown culture. Others are vaguely aware of its pagan roots, and through convoluted logic, conclude that it is a form of devil-worship. For both these reasons, some (but not all) schools choose to skirt the subject.

My son has been to four schools in the last eight years. The first replaced Halloween with a ‘dress-up day’ where the children were asked to come in dressed up as their favourite literary character. The costumes were not to be bought, but home-made. In this way, the school manages to ignore Halloween, strike a blow for creativity, promote the love of reading, and snub consumer culture and over-commercialisation in general, while satisfying the children’s desire to dress up. Sadly, not all parents go along with the guidelines, and shop-bought superheroes and other commercial creations invariably end up making an appearance.

The second school did have some sort of celebration, fusing the harvest festival with Halloween, but did not make a huge song and dance of it either. The third school had no active commemoration, although I’m not sure what the reasoning was. The current school celebrated Halloween for the first three years but this year it was re-branded as a fall festival. There may have been objections from teachers and/or parents.

In contrast, many businesses love it, and are happy to festoon their premises with pumpkins, witches, goblins and spiders webs many weeks in advance.

Aplatanado

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One of the biggest compliments a Dominican can give a foreigner is that he or she is “aplatanado”. Literally it means that the newcomer has become like a plantain, but what they’re actually telling you is that “you’re one of us”.

It’s not a compliment that is dished out lightly. In the Dominican Republic, plantains are much more than just a staple food; they are central to the national identity. The iconic breakfast dish in the DR, mangú, is made with boiled and mashed green plantains, garnished with fried onions and served with fried cheese or even fried salami. Tostones are fried green plantain slices – not to be confused with fritos or fritos maduros – fried slices of ripe plantain. Dominicans are so attached to plantains that they find it difficult to imagine that there are countries where not only does it not feature in the daily diet, it is considered exotic, obscure even.

Mofongo

As expat Brits in the Dominican Republic, Expat FAQs: Moving to and Living in the Dominican Republic authors Ginnie Bedggood and Ilana Benady accepted that they would never fully transform into Dominicans no matter long they lived in their adopted country, but there is a process of “aplatanamiento” that they, like most foreigners in the DR were undergoing.

How do gringos qualify for aplatanado status? On a superficial level it happens when the foreigner is seen to be embracing Dominican ways of doing things, like dancing, enjoying the local cuisine and using uniquely Dominican turns of phrase. Dominican friends will react with delight and pronounce the gringo “aplatanado”.

But eating rice and beans, dancing merengue and bachata and saying “un chin” (a little bit) is the least of it. The minor things that initially seemed strange, “wrong” or even unpleasant or annoying and go on to become normal, correct and even pleasurable are what really indicate that you’re well on your way to becoming “aplatanado”.

A gringa aplatanada will turn around when someone calls out “rubia” even though she’s a brunette, because rubia, literally “blonde” extends to all white people in the DR. When it rains, she won’t think twice about putting a plastic bag on her hair along with her Dominican sisters who live in fear of their hair going frizzy.

A gringo may start using the ubiquitous Dominican nose wrinkle as a gesture indicating that he didn’t hear or understand the person addressing him. And gringos who are well and truly aplatanado will accept sweets in lieu of coins in their change at the supermarket without batting an eyelid.

And it doesn’t fully hit home until you go “home”. All those things that used to be normal now seem so very odd – washing up with hot water, orderly driving habits, the lack of a neighbourhood colmado with a home delivery service… and people complaining about the “heat” of a Mediterranean summer.

This is when the foreigner who has moved to the DR finally starts to think of it as “home”.

Expat FAQs: Moving To & Living In the DR does not contain a secret recipe for becoming aplatanado but it contains a lot of inside information about the country and how things work there that will stop you walking round looking as if you got off the last banana boat.

With almost 30 years of aplatanamiento under their belts, as it were, Ginnie and Ilana have written a detailed handbook for prospective residents in the DR with detailed historical and cultural context, practical information about almost every aspect of living in the country, negotiating the bureaucratic procedures, unraveling its mysteries and, most importantly, understanding its people.

For more on plantains and other delicious Dominican foods, see www.dominicancooking.com

Expat FAQs: Moving To & Living In the DR 

Summertime Publishing, 2011

Price $25/£15/€20

ISBN 9781907498725

www.facebook.com/ExpatFAQDR