Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic Report of what it's like to live there - 03/13/12

Personal Experiences from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic 03/13/12

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

First expat experience.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

CT, direct flights from Boston and NYC, about 4.5 hours.

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3. How long have you lived here?

20 months.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Trailing spouse, U.S. Foreign Service.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Housing pool is split between apartments and houses. Commutes can be a short walk or a 45-minute drive. Traffic is a nightmare here, and negatively impacts commute times. We live about 4 miles from the Embassy, and at 6:45 a.m. it takes 9 minutes to arrive, but at 3:30 or 4:00 p.m. it can take over 45 minutes. The New Embassy Compound is being built north of the city, and housing will be centered around it. Completion is estimated to be in 2014.This should alleviate the commuting issue, but will isolate the Embassy community from the commercial centers of the city a bit.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Groceries are readily available at about a 15% premium. Imported goods are widely available, but definitely more expensive. Household staples tend to be in good supply at all times, but some of the specialty ingredients can be a bit dodgy. When I find rare ingredients in the store, I usually buy a 4-month supply, because you never know...Amazon and Netgrocer can supplement your grocery needs quite nicely. Fresh fruits and produce are abundant in the supermarkets, but you can get better prices at the open markets and on the side of the street. Sadly, it is almost impossible to find fresh asparagus. This is tragic. Meats vary wildly in quality, but there are 2 or 3 decent butchers in the city. Seafood is abundant (tropical island, et al.).

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

A set of tires, specialty flours (bread, semolina, maseca), a LOT more spray-on sunblock.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Most major U.S. fast food is available here. Costs are about 10% higher, and I wish I could say it wasn't as good... but alas it is. Many fast food restaurants have large, indoor playscapes, and provide a safe, air-conditioned place for kids to play. Hey, at least they're working off the calories, right?Dominican food overall is fair-to-middling. There are some restaurants in the city that try really hard, but just don't have the same flavor profile you'd expect. Outside of the city you can find fabulous French, German, and Italian food in the beach towns.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

I have not encountered organic foods other than in the extremely-overpriced "organic" section at the supermarket. The selection is not great. Again, Amazon/Netgrocer is your friend. If you're a vegetarian, there are a lot of veggie options. Gluten can be avoided with a somewhat higher degree of difficulty.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitoes and dengue are a risk, especially in the city. Malaria can still be found out in the country. Cockroaches can be a problem in the rainy season (they're big, too).

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

DPO and pouch here. DPO is quick most of the time, i.e. 7-10 days for Amazon, 4-6 days for Zappos, never more than 14 days for anything else. Pouch can take up to 3 weeks to arrive.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Widely available and cheap-ish. Average salary for live-in housekeeper is about $250/mo. Work ethic is definitely below our expectations, but mostly acceptable. Expect to train your employee for a little while before s/he "gets it".Also expect to re-train a few times in your stay here, as they tend to slack off as time goes by.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The embassy has a small gym and a pool open to the Mission community. There are many gyms and athletic clubs all over the city.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

I have never used an ATM here, but I know people who have. I use credit cards in established businesses and carefully review my statement each month. Credit card/ATM fraud are real issues here. Be prepared to operate on a cash economy.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

English newspapers are available online only. You can get English-language TV from most of the providers here (they all have a selection of U.S. networks), and costs are about $50/mo. for the premium packages. Also look into a good VPN to stream Netflix, Hulu, Amamzon Prime, etc.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

You need to be strong in Spanish. Almost no one here speaks English. Dominican Spanish is also much harder than Castellano and South American Spanish, so expect a learning cure even if you're solid.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Anyone with mobility issues would have extreme issues getting around this city and country. Sidewalks are crumbling and littered with trash and debris, many buildings do not have elevators, and attitude towards people with disabilities can verge on the sub-human level.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

There is one taxi service that is RSO-vetted... Apolo Taxi. The Metro is apparently safe and cheap, but covers a limited corridor now. Another branch is opening soon. We are told to not use any form of public transportation, as they are not safe.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

The streets are not well-maintained, and sometimes non-existent outside of the city. Even in the city the roads suck. I highly recommend an SUV here, the bigger the better. Roads flood often, and ground clearance can become an issue. Also, the rule of the road is "the biggest car wins".Having a larger SUV will make your life a little easier in traffic and outside of the city. We have a Toyota FJ Cruiser, and it's perfect for this post.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Available, our 6Mb down/1.5Mb up plan is about $90/mo. but worth it. There are cheaper options.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Get a cheap throw-away one here. Less to be stolen if you're mugged. If you must have the latest/greatest iPhone/Blackberry/Android phone, be sure you can unlock/jailbreak/root it before coming. The services to do that here are unreliable and expensive. Claro and Orange are the 2 biggest carriers, and have affordable plans. Expect to pay about $20/mo. for 250 minutes.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No. It's a RD$500 fee to clear customs for each pet ($12).

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

There are good vets and kennels here. Ask other pet owners for recommendations.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

There are no jobs for expats on the local economy for anything that would be considered a decent wage. The opportunities in the Mission are few and far between as well, and post HR has some issues they're struggling with (on-boarding times, first paychecks).Salaries are also ridiculously low in the Mission. Think grad-student levels and attitude (i.e. captive audience and slave wages).

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Suits are the norm on the visa line and in the more public-facing positions. Guyaberas and business-casual are acceptable as well. Purchase light suits and clothing... the heat can be brutal. Think linen and silk.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Petty theft is an ongoing issue. Car break-ins happen frequently, muggings do too. Violence has increased in the last several months with reports of random killings on highways and in the city in order to rob people. Drugs are moving in, and some of the Mexican cartels are beginning to transit through here, plus there are the Dominican and Puerto Rican cartels operating. If you're smart and take necessary precautions, none of this will be an issue.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Dengue, cholera, malaria are all real concerns. HIV is prevalent here too. Medical care runs the gamut from medieval to excellent. Post has a good list of doctors, and medivacs are only 1.5 hours to Miami for emergencies. Post Medical office could use some help, but I hope that changes when it turns over.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

The pollution in Santo Domingo is unhealthy. My wife and son suffer from allergies and are miserable 8-10 months of the year, and I am a former smoker who feels like he smoked a pack of cigarettes every time I'm outside for more than 30 minutes. Outside of the city, the air quality is fine, as tradewinds blow almost year-round. Luckily an escape from the pollution of the city is only a 30-minute drive east of the city in Guyacanes, the closest nice beach.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Rainy (Mar. to Dec.) and dry (Dec. to Mar.) seasons, hot and humid most of the year. Expect temps in the mid-80s during dry season, and in the mid-90s with unbearable humidity in the rainy season. Air conditioning is a must. Hurricanes are also a very real risk from June to December.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

We use a local Montessori school and have been extremely happy with it. The main Embassy school (Carol Morgan) has its share of issues. I'm not in a position to comment on them. There are other options, however.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

I have no experience with this, but I would assume not many, based on how physically- and mentally-disabled people are treated in Dominican society.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

As stated above, our local Montessori has been amazing. Our son was 2 1/2 when he started, with no Spanish.2 of his teachers spoke Spanish and English, and he adjusted relatively quickly. This year he's in an all-Spanish environment, and thriving. Many different members of the Embassy community have differing opinions, my suggestion is to ask around and take all advice with a grain of salt.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

This is difficult to answer...We have found that all of the options are geared towards kids who are 7 and older. Some of the clubs have activities for younger kids, but they are heavily split across gender lines (i.e. karate for boys and gymnastics for girls).

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Large mission, ~250 strong. A good number of U.S. citizens here too (~250,000 according to ACS).You can hang with only Americans if you like... I don't recommend that.

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2. Morale among expats:

Low to fair. There are a lot of problems in this city and this mission. I hope that the new Embassy and migration of the housing pool will alleviate some of the problems, but for now this place can be pretty dismal at times.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

You can be as social or reclusive as you want. It's up to you.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

The singles and young, childless couples I know all have a great time. There is a huge amount of nightlife, and no scarcity of singles and other couple to mingle with. There are also myriad opportunities for travel around the island, with as much or as little social element as you desire. Those of us with families lament the lack of secure green space in the city. There are no parks or playgrounds that the RSO has deemed safe enough to play, and many times the parks are littered with trash, and playground equipment is in varying degrees of disrepair. The Mission is building a playground at the Chancery, and there are several private clubs with playgrounds in the city. We belong to Club Naco (they have a diplomatic rate with no inscription fee), and they have all kinds of activities for kids, as well as a playground, 2 pools, and a safe environment.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Latin culture is not overly accepting of homosexuals, but discrimination is not that apparent in everyday life. There is talk of banning gay marriage via a constitutional amendment, but as of this date, the D.R. is still a huge destination for gay couples and gay weddings.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Haitians are actively discriminated against, and therefore some very dark-skinned Afro-Americans may experience this. Asians (especially the Chinese) do not have the best reputation here either. Women can be objectified by Latin men, but this is no different from anywhere else in Latin America. Just about every religion exists here in the D.R., but Christianity and Roman Catholicism especially are the norm.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Almost all of our trips to the beaches have been wonderful. We prefer to stay away from the all-inclusives (there are literally hundreds of those), and hit the small beach-front condos and villas. We also took a drive through the agricultural region (Constanza and Jarabacoa) and the mountains which was fabulous. The Embassy community is large, and tends to band together.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Beaches, cigar factories, coffee and chocolate plantations, history, whale watching (Jan. to Apr.), fishing, sailing/boating, off-roading, horseback riding, hiking, trekking, rum, surfing, kiteboarding, windsurfing, eco-tourism, etc. There's a lot to do once you get out of the city.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Beach vacations, excellent rum (Barceló), cigars, crafts.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

This is a tropical island, with all the benefits and hardships associated with that category. It is possible to save money, as labor and local goods are exceedingly cheap, but if you want to get out of the city (and trust me, you do), it can get expensive, as you start paying "Gringo prices".The beaches here are exceedingly beautiful, there are mountains in the middle of the island which give a break from the tropical heat (think 15 degrees cooler most of the time), and the island is close to the U.S. if you just need to get away for a weekend or so.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes. The differential/COLA makes it possible to do so, but you have to forgo some adventures.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes, but definitely only for a 2-year tour. It'd be a tax on my sanity to spend a third year here.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Winter clothes, expectations of customer service, American punctuality.

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3. But don't forget your:

Spanish dictionary, sunscreen, sense of adventure.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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