Sunbeams worked their way through the small leafy openings in the palm trees that lined the edge of the airport exit, forming shadowy, thought-like patterns on the pavement below. I stood in the shade of the airport terminal with my backpack, and a sense of anxious fear weighing me down. Watching the patterns of sunlight wave back and forth in the breezes against the bleached white concrete in front of me, I thought about the kind of trip that lay before me. The first step was leaving this airport, was anxiously unsure of what I should do next or how to go about it.
The goal was to travel using the locals gaucho bus system to get a better view of what it was like to be a Dominican, and save some money. Gauchos are essentially someone’s privately owned van that they now use like a bus. The owners are very resourceful and don’t stop picking new people up until every seat is full. People will be literally hanging out of the doors and windows, clinging to the bumper before the bus will leave.
While the idea of riding the country in Gauchos felt authentic, and appealing, I was new to this area, and somewhat terrified about being a murder statistic on CNN.
Let me explain why I thought that.
I made the grave mistake of reading the U.S. Travel Advisory Page on the Dominican Republic. The results were terrifying.
My yellow belt in Taekwondo, while extremely formidable (lol), was not up to the same level of the local gangsters on the Dominican Republic. Some of the stuff they were saying sounded like it might exceed my third grader’s knowledge of self-defense, and overconfidence from action movies. The story that really stood out to me was about a Dominican person who followed an American couple home, to murder them both with a machete. I found this news rather alarming.
Was a solo trip here going to be safe?
Was I making a huge mistake?
But most importantly, Was I going to get murdered by a machete wielding maniac?
To top off this pyramid of anxiety, there was the nagging promise of a safe taxi ride. I wouldn’t necessarily be doing the journey justice in taking their offer (as I wanted this to be a more authentic, soul journey), but I would be reassuringly safe taking a taxi across the island (but also broke). But then something different happened.
The palm trees shook violently under a gust of wind, breaking the methodical wavy pattern I had been watching, and freeing my spell of interest in them as a means of avoiding action. The least I could do was try, and then take a taxi wherever I wanted to go on the island, hopefully without machete wounds.
Tightening the straps on my backpack, I left the safety of the airport’s central area, and stepped into the intense the spotlight of the Caribbean sun. If this country was going to rob me, they would have to do it right outside of the airport.
I approached a group of airline workers on break, who looked like they could help.
As I stumbled over a line of broken Spanish asking them where I could find the bus station, one of the workers peer up from their conversation and pointed me towards the highway with a nod and a smile. It wasn’t exactly the most reassuring, as this removed me from being murdered in front of the airport, and back into a ditch again. At least I finally had something to work with.
“Gracias Amigos!” I said, and headed across the very long parking area of the Punta Cana Airport.
Bus station is a very loose word wherever you go. It can either mean a large, air conditioned building outfitted with bathrooms and a restaurant, or a tiny roof hovering over a spot of grass on the highway, or even just a spot that other people happen to be standing as well. But in the Dominican, it can also mean anywhere along the highway you are brave enough to stand by with your thumb sticking out.
Soon enough a Gaucho came coughing up the road, and we got in. All of my fears were about to be absolved, as the people running the bus had no machetes at all.
When we got into this makeshift bus-van, which was all but falling apart, I couldn’t understand the price. Mistaking 30 Dominican dollars, for 300 Dominican dollars, I began trying to haggle in the most pathetic way possible.
As the money manager was trying to persuade me against ripping myself off, I started arguing that I wouldn’t pay any more than 300. 300 was my final price.
Most of the people in the van were either laughing, or smiling broadly about my incorrectness, as they should. I was being the stock foreigner that it has become impolite to mock in the 21st century. I was completely at their mercy, but these were not bad people. These were the best people.
The man didn’t take my money. He could have. But instead, he helped me correct my mistake.
Annunciating as clearly as possible, he said, “Trenta! Tres, y zero, trenta!” miming with his hands as he talked, showing me that it was 30 dollars, not 300.
I looked like an idiot. That being said, I could not have been happier about my significant mistake. These were kind people. It would have been easy to take all of that money, because I was not only offering it to him, I was refusing to pay any more. He could have taken the money, and I would probably be writing this post about how my first ride wasn’t such a great deal, but that travel in the Dominican is expensive. I’d be ignorant.
Happily handing over the correct amount of money, I seated myself comfortably on a lumpy wooden bench, and looked out to the scenery around me. There were plenty of shady areas near the side of the road where I could get lost in the patterns of possibilities, but I barely noticed them now. I didn’t have time to get lost in the shady uncertainties as we raced along the highway towards the next bus stop. There was sunlight on the land around me, and I knew that as long as I paid attention, I would get where I needed to go.