My favorite part of any episode of Caribbean Life or Beachfront Bargain Hunt is the little button at the end — you know, after the nice couple from Vancouver buys their dream house on a tropical beach, they wax poetic for sixty seconds about it being the best decision of their lives. They’re tan, relaxed, happy — and possibly hiding an IV drip of coconut rum behind their His ‘N Hers lounge chairs.
Watching those blissful “after” segments from our couch in Brooklyn over the past couple years helped reinforce the Big Life Changes my husband and I were planning — trading in our cosmopolitan city life for the sleepy pace of Las Terrenas, a fishing village-cum-expat melting pot in the Dominican Republic.
We’ve been living in “LT” full-time for a few months now and so far, it definitely ranks as one of our top five best decisions. But there’s also more to life here than eighty-degree sunsets and bottomless piña coladas. And since I’m neither a travel writer in thrall to ad dollars nor a producer with market share to conquer, I thought I’d drop a little knowledge on anyone planning to make a move like ours — because paradise isn’t always all that and a bag of plantain chips. No, with spectacular weather come spectacular sunburns, and April showers bring standing water and bloodthirsty mosquitoes.
Paradise isn’t always all that and a bag of plantain chips.
So before you go running off to fulfill your HGTV-fueled dreams of sand, sun, and surf, know this:
1. Adults can get diaper rash too
Your butt has never been as swampy as it is after three days of sitting on a plastic beach chair in a wet bathing suit. The temptation to cast off “real” clothes in favor of a bikini-and-board-shorts-based uniform is strong, but I recommend a dry change of clothes at least once a day — and a big ol’ jug of baby powder — if you value the unblemished state of your smooth North American ass.
2. You’re in the jungle, baby
I grew up in New England with a yard full of critters. We had June bugs and crickets, garter snakes, wasps, and orb weavers. My husband lived among the famed flying cockroaches of Louisiana for eighteen years. We’re not fauna virgins by any means, but OH HOLY FUCK THE SPIDERS IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC ARE BIG. And I’m not even talking about the cacatas (translation: tarantulas) that dart across the road at night like small dogs accidentally gone off-leash. I’m talking garden variety six-inch circumference house spiders, and they came to play. Yes, like that nice couple from Vancouver we are living in our dream house, but all manner of creepy crawlies are living right here with us.
If you’re gearing up for a move to the tropics, I suggest you come to terms with giant spiders, roaches, frogs, snails (they love hanging out in the washing machine!) lizards, snakes, mice, and coco rats real quick.
3. This is not Monopoly money
Adjusting to a new currency (and internalizing its value compared to what you’re used to) is not for the faint of brain. Watching me try to convert pesos to dollars in my head is like watching a dog in one of those post-surgery lampshade things try to lick its former balls. But the thing is, many people move to the islands specifically for a lower cost of living — and that savings flies out the window when you have no idea how much you’re spending because you have no idea what 32,187 divided by forty-five is and you just say Fuck it three times a day at the checkout counter and pledge to reckon with the math later. What I’m saying is I should have downloaded this app a long time ago.
4. Learn the lingo, gringo
Speaking of getting lost in translation, I’m appalled by how many English-speaking retiree refugees fail to learn basic [insert primary language of country they’re moving to] before they cash in that one-way plane ticket. I happen to live in an expat enclave (in a predominantly Spanish-speaking country) where you can actually get by on English + abundant hand gestures, but that’s because the Europeans who live and work here are all fabulously bi- or trilingual and the locals are forced to learn at least a little English to cater to tourists. (Still, my husband and I try to speak exclusively Spanish to our native Dominican pals and store proprietors, etc.) But in many of these hole-in-the-wall beach towns — desirable because they’re so far off the beaten path — you’re going to miss out on a lot of potential friends, opportunities, and drink specials if you don’t make the effort to engage in la lengua materna.
5. It’s not just the sun that burns
As in many Caribbean, South, and Central American countries featured on the reality teevee, the primary mode of hired transport here in the D.R. is motoconcho, and if you don’t know the proper way to hurl yourself up and over as a passenger, you’re liable to wind up with a “Dominican tattoo” — the large inner calf burn that results from your exposed leg being seared against the motorbike’s tail pipe like a nice piece of tuna. It hurts like all fuck, and the scar will be roughly the size of the entire island of Hispaniola.
6. Casts make for very bad tan lines
Q: What do you get when you let someone with no experience, no helmet, and whose last car was a Dodge minivan drive off the lot on a rental Vespa?
A: A broken bone! (Or two.)
Most people seem to think if they can drive a car, they can pilot a motorized scooter, no problem. And yet, if the line of patients in casts and slings waiting for their follow-up appointments the day my husband went in to the local E.R. to get his clavicle and scapula reset was any indication, perhaps a few practice rides around a closed course would be a good idea. Unless you’re really looking forward to moving to the Caribbean, sitting on the beach, and gazing wistfully at the clear turquoise waters in which you’re forbidden from submerging your plaster-encased shoulder for four to six weeks.
7. Say goodbye to Jimmy Choo
After a couple months of wearing nothing but flip flops and open-toed strappy sandals, I can’t return to cold weather and real shoes without developing a blister or two on every toe. It’s like localized Bubonic plague and it’s both hideous and freakishly painful. Case in point: I just spent four days in Toronto on business and within an hour of walking around a mall in the featherlight, slip-on Sketchers that I’d bought for the express purpose of coddling my newly minted Caribbean feet, I began weighing the pros and cons of voluntary amputation.
8. Tomorrow is another day
They say it in those buttons all the time. Caribbean life is taking it slow. Cue wide angle shot of happy couple ambling down the beach without a care in the world. But once you actually live here, you kinda do have some cares. Like plumbing emergencies and palm fronds in the road, busted window screens (hola, mosquitos!) and a million things that need to be painted, installed, or repaired in constant rotation. Well, as advertised, the wheels of paradise grind slowly. We’ve been waiting four months for the residency cards we were told would be granted in ten days, and while the giant chunk of concrete that was mysteriously hacked out of the side of our pool shed has been repaired . . . it still hasn’t been painted white to match the surrounding surface. Maybe it never will be. (Or yeah, smartass, maybe I should just go buy a paint brush.)
As advertised, the wheels of paradise grind slowly.
After fifteen years in New York City, the loosey-goosey attitude toward time down here has been the biggest culture shock for me, but I’m trying to develop a Zen attitude toward it and pass that on to my future neighbors. So, much like when my New Orleans-born husband warns tourists not to fall for it when a guy on Bourbon Street bets you ten bucks he can tell you where you got your shoes (he’ll just say “You got them on your feet” and you’ll be honor bound to pay up), we’ve developed a mantra for anyone coming down to the D.R. and hoping to get a task accomplished on any kind of specific timeline.
For example, if you call the plumber on Monday and he says he’ll come by “mañana” — so you get up early to meet him on Tuesday — well, congratulations on understanding Spanish.
But where we live, mañana doesn’t mean tomorrow. It just means not today.