Do you daydream of your volunteer experience in the rhythm of merengue and bachata against a backdrop of succulent greenery and turquoise water? Then volunteering in the Dominican Republic will be the perfect choice for you. This country is mostly known as a place where honeymooners and other holidaymakers flock in the high season, however, the moment you step out of the air-conditioned and all-inclusive tourist zone, there will be a number of things that can catch you off guard.
So before you set off on your Caribbean adventure, read about these 11 insider tips:
#1 Staples of Life
The economy here is the largest in the Caribbean and Central America, but be prepared to see huge differences between urban and rural areas while your are volunteering in the Dominican Republic. For example, big supermarkets are found only in cities and even there it might be a problem to buy some international goods like cosmetics or medicine and they are likely to be pricey. So if you are used to particular products, double-check their availability in the place where you are going or bring enough supply with you.
Electricity is mostly produced by private companies and this sphere is loosely controlled. In the countryside, only 40% of houses have access to it and power cuts happen quite often. Sometimes, electricity can be available only 12 hours per day according to a schedule. The time of planned blackouts can be checked online, which is quite ironic if you need electricity to go online in the first place. So when you start volunteering in the Domencian Republic, be sure to bring a flashlight.
#3 On guard of law and justice
There are two types of the police in the Dominican Republic – the Policía Nacional (national police) and the Policía Turística, in short ‘Politur’ (tourist police). The latter was established in response to the corruption among the former one. Politur officers usually speak English and can assist in case of a theft or assault. It’s important to have a proof of identity (or at least a photocopy) with you at all times.
#4 Sensitive subject
Volunteering in the Domenican Republic requires a lot of sensitivity. The relationship with the only neighbouring nation on the island, Haiti, is tense because of drug smuggling and black markets at the border. Haitians immigrate en masse both legally and illegally to DR and build a community, which usually take low-paid jobs. This results in xenophobia among Dominicans towards Haitians. Therefore, a foreign traveller should be careful about this topic when talking with locals.
#5 On the road
Affordable public transport is mostly represented by buses and guaguas, private minibuses which run certain routes. When taking a taxi or a motoconcho (a motorcycle taxi) always negotiate the price in advance. Even if you are an experienced driver, think twice before renting a car or a scooter because the Dominican driving style is quite risky, roads are loosely regulated and rules exist mostly just on paper.
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# 6 Water
Tap water is not drinkable – that is the first thing that you learn when reading about health precautions in the DR. However, better safe than sorry, so keep in mind that the water quality is quite low. Get used to buying bottled water and use it not only for cooking but also for cleaning your teeth and washing your hands. Even if local people may do otherwise, that is because their bodies are adapted to this kind of water and for an outsider the adaptation can take more than 6 months.
# 7 And more about water
Now of a different kind, water that comes from the sky. The climate of the DR is split into two seasons – wet and dry – and their months vary across the country. In the wet season, hurricanes happen sometimes and fierce rainstorms can keep you indoors for hours. But the good news is they do not affect the average temperature much, which is still around 25 °C. So make sure to plan your trip for volunteering in the Dominican Republic well!
# 8 Watch your money
The national currency is called the Dominican peso. However US and Canadian dollars as well as euros are accepted in tourist locations. In 2014 the Central Bank introduced a new family of banknotes with a updated design and security features, but the previous money is still in circulation. So don’t be surprised to see a 50-peso banknote in different colours. Watch out for commission when exchanging foreign currency at banks and avoid such transactions on the street.
# 9 Don’t get stung
Mosquitoes often cause annoyance to people who come to the Dominican Republic. The basic activity would be to avoid bites by covering yourself with long-sleeved clothes, using sprays and bed nets. It`s necessary to consult your doctor and specialized websites, for example, here, about vaccinations and other health precautions to avoid malaria and other local diseases.
# 10 Gender matters
When it comes to male/female relationships, the Dominican society is still quite traditional with guys seen as strong decision-makers and girls as flower-like housewives, even though many of them are well educated and have jobs. Gender roles are strictly defined and manifestations of machismo and homophobia are widespread. At the same time, prostitution is legal in the DR and in tourist areas there is a phenomenon of ‘sanky pankies’ – men who start relationship with foreign women to get their money or help in getting a emigration visa.
# 11 De fiesta
Festivals and parties are the key to the social life of Dominicans. When volunteering in the Dominican Republic try to visit as many as you can. Every holiday is a good reason for an all-nighter on the beach or in a local bar. Colourful carnival traditions generously mix with international holidays like Halloween. Easter week is one of the biggest events on the calendar and despite its religious context that is the time that people are partying. Even excursions and water activities are prohibited from Friday to Sunday throughout the country.
As a general tip to soften the culture shock: learn as much as possible about the Dominican traditions and history before your volunteer project. Read travel blogs, talk to people who have visited the country, compare their experiences, but double-check the current situation online. And in the end, come with an open mind and trust your own eyes, because no one is cut by the same measure.
Guest contribution by Alena Dziamidava – edited by Volunteer World