My First Christmas Abroad – Part 3

After reading Part 1 & 2 about my beliefs on Christmas and how Dominican’s celebrate differently than North American’s, I hope you’ll appreciate how absolutely at peace I was with my decision to be abroad for Christmas in 2014. Of course I missed my family and friends. More than anything though, all I could wish for was that every single one of them was enjoying Christmas in whatever capacity brings them happiness and no stress. Christmas morning I slept in until about 9am. When I woke up, I immediately called my family to say Merry Christmas and chat for a bit. My apartment was ‘decorated’ with clothing hanging to dry on a drying rack after being at the beach the day before. My mind was rested from a good night’s sleep and the sun was shining (when I finally opened the curtains!). Amazingly it was just like any other day except fewer people in the community were working and stores were closed. And I felt … Happy. Later that day, with a handful of other students and friends from IIC Casa Goethe (my Spanish school), we hopped in a carro publico and made our way about 30 minutes outside of Sosua along the coast to a small community called Saboneta. On the outskirts of town we were met by our guide and her jeep, waiting to take us to her farm where we would meet the horses and begin our day. We all got saddled up and acquainted with our horses and then slowly set off through the streets of the little town toward the mountains. Locals were sitting on their porches chatting away as normal. Kids were playing in the streets. Bachata and Merengue music could be heard around every corner. And we clip clopped through waving and saying ‘Feliz Navidad’ to the locals.

Horseback Riding on Christmas

Horseback Riding on Christmas

Once we set off up the first hill, our guides checked in to make sure we were all doing ok in the saddles and then shortly after that we had our first opportunity to go fast, straight up a large hill. I’ve been horseback riding only about 10 times in my life and I’ve never gone any faster than a saunter, so this was particularly exciting for me. And off we went straight up the hill. How exhilarating! The strength, speed and agility of the horse, balanced with the concentration it took from me to stay on her … amazing! Do it again! Do it again! (it wasn’t time yet though) We climbed a fairly well-groomed dirt road for a good half hour and then headed down into the valley where we got the first glimpse of the river that we would be crossing with our horses. This was also the rest stop for the horses and a relaxing snack and dance break for us.

The beautiful river

The beautiful river.

Break time for the horses.

Break time for the horses.

Horseback Riding on Christmas

Dance break for the humans.

After a leisurely break, we mounted the horses and started our true adventure through the river and jungle of the Dominican’s beautiful mountains. The horses navigated their way down a short, slippery and rocky slope to the river and then in we went! No time to reconsider, the horses were following the leader and he was already on the other river bank! Each of the horses daintily waded into the water stumbling on rocks and regaining balance almost with every step, but never losing a passenger! The water was up to the horses’ tummies which meant our feet were fully submersed in the river and occasionally up to our knees. Don’t be fooled though, the rest of our bodies didn’t stay dry with the splashing from our own horse as well as whoever happened to be in front. As dainty as they may be when they are trying to choose the path of least resistance, they sure can make a splash as they clomp into a river. We quietly followed the leader along the sandy banks of the river for awhile and then criss-crossed back and forth down the river to follow the best pathways along the beaches, rocky banks and through the jungle. More than once I found myself drifting off into a relaxed day dream as I bumped methodically along the pathway surrounded by large leafy trees, the bubbling sound of the river passing by and birds singing in the distance. My mind completely relaxed and I was able to just enjoy the freshness and revitalizing spirit of nature. I’m not sure if others in my group felt the same or not, but they were equally quiet and there were times when no one in the group spoke for five or more minutes as we trotted along the trails. It was complete human silence, only broken by the sounds of nature. After traversing the river and riding through various different types of foliage, we reached an open field where we were allowed to run with our horses to the other side where we would meet our final path back to the main road. A couple of the others were seasoned riders and took off at the speed of light. Me and my horsey, Puerto Plata, started with a trot and then next thing I knew she was going full speed ahead. I was a little torn between fear of losing my balance and the exhilaration of going so fast. In the end, exhilaration won as I’ve decided that I love horseback riding and need to find more opportunities to improve my skills so that the fear of falling off doesn’t inhibit me from going as fast as the horse can take me. We all met up at the last trail and clip clopped our way slowly back through the little village to the farm. I can’t really put in to words how much I enjoyed the three hours we spent amidst nature with the horses, but I know that for Christmas 2014, I found my holiday happiness, my tranquility and my sanity on a horseback trip through the mountains and rivers near Saboneta, Dominican Republic.

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My First Christmas Abroad – Part 2

Check out Part 1 for the background on my Christmas beliefs before delving into the following post.

*Beware, some sarcasm may ensue half way through this post. You have been forewarned.

Pretty much from the minute that I started making travel plans in the summer of 2014, I knew that I would be away over the holidays that year. My friend had asked me to photograph her wedding in the Dominican Republic on December 28, 2014 and by the end of summer I had confirmed that I would be there. I decided to fly into Dominican Republic on December 11th (before the Christmas rush and high prices) and leave at the beginning of February (after the Christmas rush). That gave me about seven and a half weeks to enjoy Dominican life. Keep in mind that I’m not on vacation while I’m traveling, I’m working as a travel agent, so I spend a good chunk of each day working, just like you. The big difference is that before work (or after), I can walk to the beach.

I was so busy traveling throughout the autumn of 2014, I didn’t really have time to think about what it would feel like to be abroad for Christmas. The thought crossed my mind occasionally and I wondered if I would be homesick. Would I miss my family? Would I miss the tree and the presents? Would I feel lonely on Christmas day? Would I be able to find turkey dinner? But, I was too busy living every single moment to think that far into the future.

Once I got to the Dominican Republic I settled in quickly, made new friends and reconnected with old ones. I immediately felt at home. I arrived on December 11th and went out dancing my first night. You could tell it was Christmas because there were a few decorations at restaurants and shops, but they weren’t very prominent. There was a small Christmas tree in the lobby of where I was renting and the bar that I went dancing at had a wrought iron tree / candle stand, but overall, just like Dominican in general, it was ‘tranquio’ (which translates to quiet).

A couple of days before Christmas one of the motoconcho drivers that I had met invited me to come spend Christmas with his family. I wanted to go sooooo badly, but I knew that it was a ploy to show me off as the ‘white girl trophy’. I contemplated going for the experience, but I didn’t know him very well and in the end I decided that as much as I wanted to see a real Dominican Christmas, I knew that I would just be annoyed if he acted like my boyfriend the entire day. So, in the end I said no.

Dominican Republic is a very poor country. They do not celebrate Christmas the American way and I’ve got to be honest, I think America could learn from them on this one. Generally speaking, Christmas Eve is spent attending church and then gathering with family and friends for lots of food (often pot-luck kind of style) and drinks. Everyone stays up late and it is all about spending time together with loved ones. Christmas day is spent being ‘tranquilo’ with friends and family. On Christmas night everyone goes out to dance and celebrate.

Most locals don’t have a Christmas tree, although you are likely to see some form of nativity scene as most families practice their faith. There will be random Christmas trinkets and old-style decorations hung throughout their tiny, basic homes from the oddest of places. Decorations are eclectic, they don’t match and you know what? None of that matters here.

Huh! Imagine that.

Shhhhh …. Don’t tell anyone ….

It actually does not matter if your tree lights are hung perfectly.
(Unless you are diagnosed with OCD and then I’ll agree that it could matter in that case)

In Dominican Republic, you will not be judged for your Christmas decorations or lack thereof.
You also have no need to put pressure on yourself because someone might be judging you. They just aren’t.
Woah! What a concept.

Sorry about my sarcasm, but one of my biggest problems with North American Christmas is the expectations that people put on themselves to impress their family and friends when really, none of that matters. It is all superficial.

Side Note – Thanks mum and papa for not ever judging me for how untidy my house was. I know I used to get in trouble for my messy bedroom as a teen, but I’m not THAT bad anymore.

Did you notice in my description of Christmas in Dominican Republic what was missing?

Dominican’s in general don’t celebrate Christmas with gift-giving.

WOAH! What is this concept? Is Christmas even Christmas without giving gifts?

Well folks … believe it or not, even though Jesus was welcomed into the world with gifts, in my humble opinion, God is not judging anyone based on what size Tonka truck they give their son or if their daughter would rather a tool set than a barbie.

Anyone care to argue that point? My comments section is open … open for nice, intelligent conversation, no bullying folks!

In Dominican (and lots of other countries) families don’t have the money to buy gifts to celebrate Christmas. Some families do, of course, but the majority do not. There are no long lineups. No one is stressed about having enough money to buy the best new shoes or most popular new toy for their kids because they are more stressed about putting food on the table (a problem for separate discussion). You don’t have to keep up with the Jones’ because the Jones’ are just normal people, struggling to get by. So, instead of giving gifts, they spend time with their friends and family.

WOAH! What if we all did that?

Nearly every day the week before Christmas I arranged my work day so that I could go to the beach for a few hours. Immediately I hear most of you thinking to yourself ‘Lucky girl. That must be nice.’ Followed by tinges of jealousy.

You know what? It was beautiful. It was relaxing, sunny, warm and not even remotely Christmas-like in Sosua on the beach. I did not hear Christmas music. I saw very few Christmas decorations. There were no extra long line ups, no stressed people, no complaints about not having money to buy gifts …. Hmmmmm … quite the concept! I bet most of you reading this would love to have a relaxing Christmas.

So, I ask you … What’s stopping you from having a relaxing, enjoyable Christmas (whatever that means to you)? Why are you letting family, friends and advertising dictate how you spend your time, money and sanity?

I understand that I’m not going to change the entire North American way of thinking about Christmas (after all, I’m not an advertising company). I know that I can’t single-handedly stop the huge influx of ridiculous advertising around the holidays, but what I can (and did) do is remove myself from the stress that burdens so many people around the holidays.

You can let yourself get caught up in the mob, or you can step aside and let it tumble on past you.

For my first ever Christmas abroad, I chose to do something on Christmas Day that would bring me joy. Something that would make me feel good and that would not cause me any stress. It was completely relaxing, enjoyable, peaceful and beautiful …

Check out Part 3 for how I spent my first Christmas abroad.

My first Christmas abroad – Part 1

(the back story on my Christmas beliefs)

Bah humbug.
Yeah, that’s what most of the world’s Christmas lovers would say about me.
I prefer to think of myself more as an advocate of less stressful holidays. That doesn’t mean that I hate Christmas (although I don’t particularly love it.) And, it doesn’t mean that I try to bring others down. It just means that I choose to avoid the chaos whenever possible. I stay away from the malls. I don’t do Christmas baking. I have very few Christmas parties to attend. I don’t listen to Christmas music. I don’t put up a tree or decorate. Some people love these things, but for me, they really all lead to more stress.

I think part of this is because I’m an introvert and chaotic situations drain me physically and emotionally. So, with a holiday as hectic and chaotic as Christmas, I feel tired and drained the whole season (which often starts before Rememberance day). That’s nearly two full months of exhaustion. And, let’s face it, if you live in the Americas it is impossible to avoid Christmas.

Even if you do your part to keep your own stress level to a minimum, it is still near impossible to avoid soaking up some of your friend’s stresses. Not to mention advertising on television, radio, buses, etc and post after post on Facebook about the long lines, the high prices, the ridiculousness of it all … but yet everyone still going crazy to meet the deadlines and high expectations that they have placed on themselves.

Over the past couple of years I’ve tried to explain to my family (who mostly understand) that I don’t really enjoy Christmas. I’m not interested in gifts. I don’t need anything and I don’t want to buy stuff for others that they don’t need or appreciate. The commercialization of Christmas and needing to buy gifts for everyone frustrates me to no end. All I want for Christmas is a turkey dinner with family. My expectation is that my mom or sister will cook the turkey because I don’t know that I could come anywhere close to doing it as well as them. However, should something happen and the turkey doesn’t turn out, I would hope we could all laugh about it rather than being upset because it wasn’t perfect.

Stress … Think of all the stresses that surround Christmas!

1. Deadline to buy the gifts, have them wrapped or sent by mail.

2. Having the money to buy ‘good enough’ gifts for whoever is on your list.

3. Buying gifts that your significant other will like.

4. Cooking turkey dinner with all of the fixings.

5. Having your tree decorated PERFECTLY.

6. Having your house clean enough for company.

7. Entertaining company (specifically the in-laws) over the holiday

Thankfully my family isn’t particularly wrapped up in material items, so it has never been about spending large ridiculous amounts of money. Of course my mom decorates for Christmas and I always appreciate how pretty it is, but I would never ever judge her if she one day decided not to decorate!

For the past few years, my mom, sister and I have tried to stick to exchanging hand-made gifts. These could be self-made, or they could be purchased from a local artist. Something interesting, not terribly expensive, but more about the thought and meaning of the gift rather than just buying for the sake of buying. Personally, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this and try to stick with it.

My mom has both made, and bought beautiful hand-made bracelets, necklaces and other jewelry. My sister made a donation in my name to the Planeterra Foundation and bought me a t-shirt from a not for profit. She also purchased a bracelet for me from Free the Children that gives water to a family for life.

For my family, I usually create a travel photo calendar of that year’s adventures. One year I also purchased garden baskets for African families to be able to start and maintain a garden, the way to a healthier and more prosperous future.

These things warm my heart because in all honesty no one in my family needs anything. We have everything we need (likely 10 times more) and if the spirit of Christmas is giving, I think it should be given to those who need it, not those who don’t!

Trying to keep this perspective alive is nearly impossible when you are bombarded with Christmas gift giving expectations and advertisements. Whether you believe in Christmas or not, you have no choice but to be subject to it because it is so commercialized.

So, in 2014 I ran away from it all and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Stay tuned for How I celebrated Christmas 2014 and why I loved it so much.

Cheat the Yankee

I truly love the differences that come with all of the cultures of our beautiful amazing world. I love that people everywhere are the same, but yet somehow totally different.

I’ve been to Dominican Republic twice before, including a seven week stay in 2012. I’m here again now for approximately eight weeks and I’m enjoying *almost* every second. I’ve been sick with a couple of different issues which was not so enjoyable and I’ve had a couple of frustrating situations. However, overall, the people, the beach, the sun, the food, the new friends from here and afar, the little town of Sosua has not disappointed me.

Anytime you travel you have to be particularly careful of tourist scams. In my opinion, high priced excursions that you book in advance of travel or on the resorts are not scams. If you agree to the price in advance, if it seems reasonable to you in whatever culture you are used to and you are happy with the quality of service you receive when you take the excursion, then it’s not a scam. However, if you arrive, take the excursion and then there are additional ‘required’ costs at the end that you weren’t advised of, that is a different story.

Also don’t forget that the extras are offered at additional cost because people DO buy them at that price. If they weren’t getting any sales from it, they wouldn’t be in operation, or at least not offering that particular product. Business is the same everywhere in that they are all looking to make money. They will not do something at a loss. However, in some places you have to be more careful of the business ‘ethics’ and ‘scams’ than in others.

Many people book excursions in advance for the ease of it as well as the security of working with a reputable company. For those two things, you are paying a higher price than you would locally. However, if you try to book the same tour locally you have to consider that you have to barter the price on your own, spend your time researching the options and you aren’t sure on the security and standards of the local company. You are also on your own if something goes wrong rather than having the backing of a larger, reputable company. Prices can go either way locally for the exact same product. It can be the same as what you were offered by your travel agent or tour operator, or it could be lower or higher. It all depends on the agreements in place between the international and local suppliers. Some times they’ve negotiated special rates because they bring in bulk clients, which also means that the local companies are very careful to please and meet the standards of the international companies. Or, sometimes you can find a local supplier and pay less. Just keep in mind that you take your chances when you do that.

However, there are lots of real ‘scams’ out there. In fact, many people joke (but they are really serious) that the national past-time of Dominican Republic is actually ‘Cheat the Yankee’, not baseball as they would have you believe. Now, not all Dominican’s do this. There are certainly fair and honest people here. But, there are also many crimes of opportunity and tourist scams that you should be aware of

Take for example this one which is quite common in Dominican Republic. Here’s a little story so you can relate …

My friend and I left from Sosua to go to Puerto Plata to enjoy the summit to Pico Isabel de Torres on the only Cable car in the Caribbean. We hopped into a carro publico (public taxi), paid our 50 pesos each for the upcoming 45 minute drive squished in the back seat of a car similar to a Honda Civic with a total of six passengers. The driver, plus two passengers in the front and then four passengers in the back seat. This is the main source of transportation here so it’s nothing new to us and for one dollar, it’s really a pretty good deal.

Keep in mind, the public transit drivers don’t speak English, the remainder of this story takes place with me speaking Spanish.

As we got close to Puerto Plate the driver inquired where we needed to get off. I told him the centre of Puerto Plata would be fine as we were heading to the Teleferico. He asked a couple more questions, but I couldn’t understand him. My Spanish is much better when I can see someone speaking and hear them. In this case because he was in the front, driving, and I was in the back with the music blaring, I just couldn’t hear well enough to understand.

When we stopped at the central station in Puerto Plata everyone piled out, including me. Before my friend was able to wiggle her way out of the car, the driver told us to stay in the car to go to the Teleferico. I explained no problem, that we would find our own way there, but he insisted (nicely) that he would take us there and I got back in the car. Let’s just say I should have known better but for whatever reason at that moment, I thought he was genuine. And, I was able to hear and see him when we had the conversation, so I understood him well.

It was about a five minute car ride to the middle of the mountain where you buy your tickets for the cable car. He dropped us off and as I started to get out of the car he turned around and told me it would be an additional 100 Pesos. The conversation went a little something like this (in Spanish):

Driver: That’s 100 pesos
Me: No. Why?
Driver: Because I brought you all the way to the Cable Car.
Me: But you didn’t tell us there was an extra charge for that. We would have taken other transportation from the centre.
Driver: But I brought you, so you owe 100 pesos more.
Me: (getting agitated) No. I’m sorry but I’m not paying you. I tried to get out of the car and you told me to stay. You did not tell me there was an extra fee. (My friend and I exited the car)

We walked about 50 meters to the front entrance of the Cable Car pavilion when the driver and one of the Cable car employees approached us. I’m not sure which one spoke to me first, but at this point I was really annoyed with the driver.

Driver: You owe me 100 pesos.
Me: You should have told us that before you brought us here. We wanted to get off in the centre, but you didn’t let us. You told us to stay in the car.
Driver: But I brought you here, there is a charge for that.
Me: Not my problem. We were going to take other transportation but you wouldn’t let us. You didn’t tell me there was a fee. I’m not paying you.
Driver: Fine, I’ll get the police then.
Me: As you wish.

He beckoned the ‘police’ nearby which was actually only a security guard, not officially police. I’m sure he thought that the idea of the police was enough to scare me, but I didn’t back down.

The security guard sauntered over from the other side of the parking lot. When he was close the Driver immediately began to explain his side of the story. His side, of course, was simply that he drove us here and then we refused to pay. When he was finished, I immediately asked if the security guard spoke English. Of course he responded no! And I’m pretty sure I snarkily said ‘Of course not!’ Not for a second did I actually believe this as he was security at a huge tourist attraction, but whatever, I couldn’t be bothered to argue over that too. So, I yammered on in Spanish explaining how we had tried to get out of the public car but he told us to stay and that he didn’t tell us there was an extra fee for this.

By this time, there was a group of about five to seven of us. Myself and my friend, the driver, the security guard and several staff from the cable car who wait outside to greet people.

The security guard just stood there listening. I quite honestly don’t know if he even said a word other than ‘No’ that he didn’t speak English. And even then he might have just shook his head. HA HA

At some point one of the staff asked how much we had paid and I explained that we paid 50 pesos each when we got in the car in Sosua until Puerto Plata. 50 pesos each was already slightly high as I believe it is only 45 pesos, but I hadn’t asked for change, so I wasn’t going to argue over it.

It was then they asked why I didn’t want to pay the extra 100 pesos.

Although my friend tells me I wasn’t loud, I was certainly angry at this point. I was arguing over 100 pesos (approximately $2.50 CAD). Doesn’t that seem ridiculous? In the back of my mind it seemed ridiculous to me too, but I knew this was a regular occurrence and felt like I needed to take a stand so that they would know it wasn’t right to take advantage of tourists.

I also know that this has happened to other tourists and generally they just pay the money and back off as they don’t know what to do, what’s going to happen or even if they are right or wrong. For that reason, it is intimidating and the locals who are looking for opportunities can take advantage. I wasn’t going to let that happen to me … at least not this time.

Driver: It is only 100 pesos. That is not expensive.

And then I kind of lost it.

Me: Just because it is only 100 pesos doesn’t mean it isn’t expensive. Just because I’m white doesn’t mean that 100 pesos is nothing. I’m not new here. You should have let us out of your car or told us the price in advance and then we wouldn’t have this problem. We could have easily taken a moto concho or walked. We tried to get out of the car but you told us to stay. You are not honest. You didn’t tell us there was a fee. I’m not paying.

What I really wanted to do was take out 100 pesos and tear it up in front of them to prove that it wasn’t about the money. I’m glad I didn’t though. It would have been a waste!

I turned to the security guard ….

Me: Ok. Now what? I’m not paying. What happens now?

There was some mumbling and grumbling between the driver and the cable car staff and a short conversation between them that I didn’t understand.

Then one of the staff said ‘Ok. Ok. Go ahead’. I looked at each of the staff and the security guard and sincerely said ‘Thank you.’

My blood was boiling. For one, I don’t like confrontation. Secondly, confrontation in a foreign language? Yikes!

Go figure, once we finally got inside it started to rain and the teleferico stopped! Thankfully only for a short period of time, so we were able to get on about 30 – 45 minutes later.

It took awhile before my blood pressure returned to a regular level.

Funny enough, one of the staff who had been involved in the argument approached me while we were waiting to buy tickets and told me how good my Spanish was. Hmmm … maybe if you want to sound good in Spanish you just have to get angry so that you talk faster and they won’t hear your mistakes!

One of my friends in Canada said to me today “Don’t forget, you aren’t in Canada anymore.”

My response? “What are you talking about????? I would NEVER EVER EVER have argued like this if I was in Canada! I would have been arrested! LOL I only did it because I was in Dominican!”

By the way, for those of you who might be concerned (i.e. Mum & Papa) … I don’t do this on a regular basis. In fact, this was the first time. And, if there had been any real chance that I was going to be arrested I would have paid the $2.50 to stay safe.

Air BnB – What’s that?

Just what is this Air BnB thing that you hear your traveling friends raving about? I’ve been hearing people talk about it for about the last year, but I’m sure it has been around much longer than that. There’s a long list of sites that offer similar (yet different variations) of private home rentals, Air BnB is one of them. Other variations are couch surfing, home away, flip key … the list goes on.

Since I started working in the travel industry and also running the Hello World meet up group I’ve been hearing great feedback about Air BnB. So, here’s the low-down for those of you who don’t know anything about it.

Air BnB is an online database of privately owned homes or rooms for rent around the world. Just like the real world, the homes vary in every way you can imagine! People can choose to rent out a room in their house or they can rent out their entire house. The ‘house’ could be an apartment, condo, shack, hut, mansion, castle or even a two person tented hammock.

As a travel agent, this is not something that I sell as it is dealing directly with private homeowners, so as an agency, we have no contracts in place for business partnerships with these individuals. It is something that you do *at your own risk*.

Air BnB is an online company dealing directly with homeowners, real estate agents or property management companies. They are not hotels or franchises of any kind and to my knowledge, do not work with travel agencies. They are simply homeowners like you and I … (oh wait, I sold my condo so I could go travel! So, not like me, but maybe just like you!)

People rent out their homes or a room for all different reasons …
1. To meet new people with similar travel interests and help travellers out.
2. To make money. They may own two or more homes, live in one and rent the others out. Or, they may be in the Property Management business.
3. To pay their bills. Maybe the owner is traveling, but has a place they have to pay for. Renting it out while they are away helps offset bill costs.
4. To boost their other travel related businesses. Many of the Air BnB hosts also run tour companies and although I haven’t found them pushy at all, they are certainly interested in having you try out their tours while you are there.

It is up to you as a traveler to decide what type of accommodations you are looking for and what price you are willing to pay. Do you want to be immersed in the culture and live with a local family? Do you want the privacy of your own apartment with the ability to cook meals? There’s a lot of variety out there, now it’s time to start sifting through it all.

The Air BnB website is very user friendly. I started browsing options immediately and only created a profile when I was starting to narrow down options and wanted to save them to my favourites.

Now, just why is a travel agent with access to thousands of hotels booking a product that she doesn’t even sell? Well, it’s pretty simple actually …

1. There are some places in the world that are very difficult to find hotels in.
2. I love to live locally and meet the people of the community. Hotels aren’t very social, usually. And, because I travel with so much equipment (camera / laptop etc), I can’t really stay comfortably in hostels for safety reasons.
3. Hotels can be incredibly expensive for a long term trip like my own, so for some parts of my trip, I’m doing Air BnB rentals to save money both on accommodation and on not eating every single meal at a restaurant.

Having said all of that, my fall trip is 80% hotel accommodations. I’m using Air BnB for my rental in Cinque Terre because it is a difficult location for hotels and I’ve chosen a rental in Dominican Republic that is an apartment with kitchen as I will be there more than a month. Doesn’t hurt to have a little variety throughout your travels!

Just in case you want to give Air BnB a try for somewhere you are planning to go, you can sign up with this special promotion link and we’ll both get a discount on our next booking! $27 off could be one free night for you AND for me!

Just keep in mind that Air BnB is not a product that I sell through the travel agency. We have no affiliation with it and take no responsibility if you have a bad experience. This is to be undertaken 100% at your own risk. This blog is purely from my personal perspective on traveling.

If private rentals just aren’t up your alley or you want a combination of hotels and private rentals, I’d be happy to help you out with finding great hotels / tours and packages for your next adventure!

Finding my Life – Part 3 – Sometimes the Stars Align

The story of how I went from Aspiring to be Inspired in August of last year, searching for my life, to a complete career change. And, how sometimes the stars just align at the right time.

If you’d like to read these in sequence, start with – Finding my Life – Part 1 and Finding my Life – Part 2 – This is MY journey.

Where do you find a new perspective on life? For me, it was the Dominican Republic, but truly, it had nothing to do with the destination and everything to do with the journey. I could have been in South America, Asia, India … it wouldn’t have mattered. It was not the Dominican Republic that taught me lessons, it was the series of events and people I met. Had I gone to another destination, I would have met a different group of people and had different events, but I truly believe the outcome would have been the same. I believe that the right people would have come in to my life to help me make my way through my own journey.

While in the Dominican, my goal was to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. How did I want to run my business. Did I want to continue to run my business? Pretty big questions to be answered on so-called vacation.

After realizing that I was in charge of my life, that I could say yes or no to anything that came my way, I was able to move forward. It’s funny how people tell you this but you don’t believe them until one day the light just turns on and you think ‘how did I not see this before?’

For months I had been struggling with the idea that I might not want to run my own business anymore. It was a vicious circle and internal struggle. My business was successful, I was well-known and I was doing well for myself.

I wasn’t happy though.

I had already timidly mentioned to a couple of my friends and family members that I might not want to run my own business any more and of course was met with lots of ‘what do you want to do? how are you going to do that?’ Simply, I didn’t know the answers to any of these questions. I just knew that I wanted something different.

One afternoon while in the Dominican Republic (almost one year ago) I wrote an email to a travel agent who I had worked with before, asking for her thoughts, advice and input on the travel industry as a whole. At the end of the email, I mentioned that I knew she was really busy and would she ever consider hiring an extra person, even for the administrative assistance, not necessarily for selling travel. For me, I just wanted to know if it was a waste of time to consider being a travel agent. After all, with all the online bookings, wasn’t it a dying profession? Come on, I know many of you are thinking that! I’ll write a good post on why that’s not true one of these days!

Her response surprised me. She told me that she was looking to expand and that she might be interested in bringing me on as an agent, we should discuss further when I got back to Canada.

Well, my little heart started racing. Wow! Here I was, offering to do something, anything to get out of the cycle I was in and suddenly, it was turning into a real possibility that I could change careers.

When I returned home in September (2012) we continued our conversations and I took the opportunity very seriously. I spent a lot of time weighing the benefits and downfalls of switching careers. This particular opportunity would have me still be my own boss, but working under an umbrella company. Was this a benefit or a downfall though? I spent MANY hours deliberating this. I would have to work hard to build my own clientele and I wouldn’t get paid for quite some time as it would be commission based, so therefore I would have to juggle running my photography business and my travel business until I was able to make a living from travel. But, not being 100% sure that I wanted to completely give up photography, that was a bit of a benefit.

So, I had pretty much made up my mind and was in the process of signing up for the travel training, but before I moved forward, I had one big task I had to follow through with and it scared me to death. I spent many days avoiding having a conversation that I thought was going to be incredibly difficult. I didn’t even know where to begin so I wasn’t beginning at all.

I had already made plans with the Adventure Travel Company for my second Peru Through the Lens trip. We had already worked on it and had the itinerary planned, the marketing done. We were really just waiting for my return to Canada to put a big push on selling it. I knew if I were to switch careers and become a travel agent for another company, I wouldn’t be able to run this photo tour with The Adventure Travel Company as it would be a conflict of interest.

My mind was made up that I wanted to change careers, but oh, how I dreaded contacting the manager at the Adventure Travel Company to tell her I was going to become part of the competition. My throat tightened and my heart pounded just thinking about it. So, I put it off another couple of days.

When I finally made the phone call and spoke to her, I explained the situation. I didn’t want to drop the photo tour, but I understood that it wouldn’t work if I took the other job. Once again, I was astounded by her response. She said, “Have you ever considered coming to work for us, here at the Adventure Travel Company?”

Actually, I had considered that option, but on their website it stated that they were looking for people with training on certain programs and travel industry experience. I had neither.

She explained that it still could be an option and suggested that I meet with her before making my final decision. So, I did.

We met for coffee and she explained all about the Adventure Travel Company and the opportunities they offered. In fact, they had an option for work from home, but be under their umbrella as well … exactly the same as the first company I was considering. Well, the benefits and commissions worked slightly different, but overall, the same concept.

Wow. Now I was really confused. I now had two options because both companies were both stating that they were interested in having me. How did this happen? I thought my mind was made up to go with the first company and then I landed back in the same spot with no idea what to do. Working for The Adventure Travel Company would mean I could sell more of the type of travel that I was interested in and I could continue my photo tour.

I thought about it for days … maybe even a week. And, I don’t just mean thought about it in passing … I wrote lists of positives and negatives of each company. I ran some scenarios of how much money I would make. I asked more questions and I cried.

And I cried.
And I cried.

I cried because I couldn’t figure out what was the right choice. I cried because I felt bad that the first company had taken so much time to talk to me and explain everything and welcome me with open arms, but then the second company did the same. I felt like no matter which I chose I was somehow betraying the other.

And then I stopped and decided that was a really silly reason or way to make a decision … based on who I thought I would offend less. Going back to the lesson I learned earlier … I could say yes or no to anything that came my way.

So, I changed my way of thinking. No more worrying about who thought what or who I’d be letting down. I wasn’t making this decision for anyone else. This decision, to change my career and my life was all about me. As it should be!

When I cleared my head and re-started my thinking process I realized that both jobs were wrong.

What? After all that, you say!

Yes. Both of the jobs that I had been encouraged to take were at home office jobs where I would be my own boss. I would work from home, build my own clientele, set my own hours. You’d all love that wouldn’t you? Well, think again … For the past 10 years I had already been running my own photo business from home, building my own clientele, setting my own hours (which often meant, simply too many!), I was lonely and isolated.

As much as I wanted to change careers, and believe me, my heart ached when I made this decision, NEITHER of those jobs were right for me.

I contacted the manager at the Adventure Travel Company again. I told her that I had decided that I really didn’t want to work from home, based on commission. Part of my reason for wanting to change careers was to switch to an office job, to have regular hours, to see people every day and to have someone else be responsible for the overall well-being of the company. Not to mention a regular pay cheque that I didn’t have to chase down (entrepreneurs out there, you know what I’m talking about!) I asked if there was any possibility of an office job, to which she didn’t have a clear answer for me at that time.

I put the travel job on hold for a couple of weeks, allowing myself time to reconsider just how badly I wanted to do it. Did I want to do it badly enough to start my own business again from scratch?

One day, I wrote a Facebook message to the travel agent that I worked with for Peru Through the Lens trip. Just a message to say ‘Hi. How are you?’. Moments later, she was telling me that she had just resigned from her job and she was leaving in a couple of weeks.

My response? True story….
‘Congrats on the new job. That’s awesome, very happy for you. Um, does that mean your job is up for grabs?’

Sometimes the stars just align.

Immediately, I was back in touch with the manager at the Adventure Travel Company to see if she would be interviewing to fill that position, and indeed, she said she would be.

A couple of weeks later, I had an interview (middle of October). It went well. I was excited. I knew that it felt right.

Several weeks later, a decision still hadn’t been made. I didn’t know what the hold up was, but I knew that I would soon have to start looking for other options if that was not going to be my career move.

I had come home at the beginning of September and started the process of trying to change careers. Here it was early November and I didn’t have a new path yet, but I was lacking inspiration and motivation to continue on my old path. Those two months felt like a year.

Another week or so passed and finally, I got the job offer. The one in office, not home based.

Holy! Now this whole thing was really real.

We talked about salary, benefits, the Peru Through the Lens photo tour. We discussed at length the differences of working in an office versus working from home and I was 95% ready for it. The other 5% was me shaking in my boots. This was a HUGE decision to make. Was I really ready for it? Could I really switch from being my own boss to working for someone else?

I guess it was time to find out!

I started my new job as an Adventure Travel Specialist at The Adventure Travel Company on November 19, 2012.

It took me nine months from the time I sat atop the Lost City and Found myself, through a break up of a two-year relationship, seven weeks traveling solo in the Dominican Republic and learning Spanish, learning to kick people off my energy bus and truly being on a bumpy journey to find my life, before a tangible change took place.

Here I am. A world away from the person I was at this exact time last year. Last year on July 23rd I was dancing in a barber shop with my friend Kelly and his nephew in the Dominican Republic. I was trying to have conversations with my two weeks worth of Spanish classes but most of the time I had no idea what was going on. It was good for lots of laughs though. And, the boys took good care of me, despite them being ‘typically Dominican men’. I visited the ‘real’ Dominican Republic, outside of the city, hung out on the streets where neighbours gathered, kids played street basketball, bachata was blaring from every little corner store and I was welcomed in to their homes with open arms.

Now, I’m proud to say that I have changed my life and my career and am happy about it. All that soul-searching from February 2012 in Peru through until now paid off.

And, instead of running away to the Dominican Republic for seven weeks to figure out my life, I’m living my life and doing my job while preparing for my first trip to Asia in just 23 short days.

Amazing how it takes so long and feels so slow in the moment, but looking back, it feels like I’ve come a million miles from where I was.

The journey continues though … life is a balancing act and some days I still feel like all of the plates I’m holding up are falling and breaking all around me. Some days I lose my balance and fall with them, but I know that if I continue to search for myself and take steps in the right direction, I will learn important lessons along the way and will find ways to have fewer plates breaking. (Finding my life – Part 4 – Plates in the air – coming soon-ish)

PS – I can’t believe it honestly took me a year to write this Part 3 blog post. I guess I just wasn’t ready until that one year mark hit. I guess it was just the right time. Funny how sometimes the stars align.

Get your dance on!

The bass booms, the walls vibrate, you can’t hear yourself think …
Your heart pounds a little faster, you can feel the blood running through your body, excitement kicks in and then before you know it, your feet and hips are moving to the music.

Not everyone loves to dance, but I for one, do. And, I don’t have to be drunk to do it! In fact, I don’t really like drinking that much so I rarely bother (once or twice a year is enough for me!). Thankfully, I’m not easily embarrassed, so I’ll head out on the dance floor to wiggle wiggle wiggle without any liquid courage at all!.

When I was in Punta Cana in April, my new friend Emily asked if I would like to go off resort and go out salsa dancing one night. That sounded like a lot of fun to me and I hadn’t really been off resort as we had been busy getting settled after the fire, then I was doing photographs and then photographing the wedding that I was there for. So, by Friday, after all of my work was done, I was ready to be adventurous! Of course, I didn’t want to be dangerously adventurous!

Emily had the idea that we could ask some of the locals who were working at the resort to go with us. We had been talking with staff on and off all week, so there were a few that we (meaning Emily lol) would approach and ask. She also had the advantage of being able to speak pretty decent Spanish for a white girl, so that helped!

The idea was that if we went with locals who worked at the resort, they would know the best places in town to go and they have to work the next day, so they wouldn’t want to kill us … that might get their bosses a little angry.

Further than that, Emily and I agreed that in order to be safe, we’d stick together and we wouldn’t drink. First of all, getting drunk off resort could possibly make us sick because of the use of local water. And, second of all, we both knew it was better to think straight than blurry! Our goal was to go out dancing and have a good time, but neither of us required liquor to do this.

Our plan was to head to a big hot spot for dancing called Mangu. We had heard that it had both American style music as well as lots of salsa dancing which was what Emily was most excited about. Me? I had no idea how to dance salsa, but I was up for trying!

Yes, yes, I know that many of you out there (including my parents) are cringing at this situation, but you just have to remember that I don’t travel to see a resort and be waited on. I travel to get a feel for what the local area is like, what the locals are like and get to know them.

Being two mature adults, we made the best choices we could in order to make the adventure out to a local club as safe as possible so that we could see what it was really like in Punta Cana, rather than what the disco at the resort with all the foreigners was like.

The group of us took a taxi off the resort and in to Punta Cana where we stopped first at The Drink. It was packed inside and out of this little bar right along the main street in Punta Cana. It seemed like a friendly place, mixed with locals and tourists. There were chairs and tables outside on the patio, a small dance floor inside and lots of people milling around in the courtyard / parking lot in front of the bar. We stayed here for about an hour or so, and then we headed off to another bar called Areito. Here they were playing a mixture of latino pop, bachata and a little bit of salsa. It wasn’t really very crowded, which made it nice. We weren’t bumping into people or pushing our way through like you would at the bars in Halifax. The dance floor was a good size and everyone seemed to have just enough space.

We stayed here for the rest of the night and never actually got to go to Mangu. We had heard it was a $10 cover charge. That was normal for us, but since we were traveling with our new local friends, we suspected that $10 US might be a bit pricey for them. So, we stayed at Areito’s.

Now, Emily already knew how to dance salsa, so no problem for her to get out on the dance floor, although the local guys surprisingly did not know how to dance salsa like we expected!

I picked up Merengue really quickly, but Bachata, that was a different story! Bachata is a dance that is very well known in the Dominican … and although I didn’t know then, come to find out, it is a very sexy dance! I got passed around between guys like a little white hot potato, each of them trying to teach me the Bachata with no luck. It didn’t help that none of them spoke English, so communication was basically nil. Then, the lady bartenders took a crack at it too and they tried to teach me to Bachata. No luck! I couldn’t be led by the men or the women! None of them (men or women) attempted anything inappropriate. I guess because I couldn’t even get the basic steps right, maybe they thought they had no hope of teaching me to be sexy and do the dance! ha ha ha This cracks me up! Despite my lack of alcohol and my lack of coordination I had a fantastic time trying to learn as well as watching the people who did know what they were doing.

When I returned home and started watching you tube to find out what the bachata was really all about, I came across this video. It is choreographed, but this is what it looks like! oooow! oooow!

Back in Nova Scotia, with plans to return to the Dominican to learn Spanish, I was determined to learn how to dance before I went back.

I checked out Halifax’s Salseraros, but they didn’t have openings for beginners until September. That would be a little too late for me! I checked out a couple of others, but no luck for lessons in the summer. Finally, I came across Latin Dance nights at Pipa and that seemed to be the perfect fit.

Pipa is a lovely little Portugese / Brazilian Restaurant in the heart of downtown Halifax. In the back and down the stairs it has a gem of an atrium where there is a bar and dance floor. Every Friday night from 9pm – 10pm the atrium hosts, Amanda Huska for a beginner Latin dance class covering the very basics of Merengue, Bachata and Salsa.

I went to classes at Pipa regularly, as well as at the Sea Port Farmer’s Market from May until July when I returned to the Dominican for the summer to learn Spanish. I got past the basics and started feeling pretty good about all three types of dance- merengue, bachata and salsa.

I was excited to show my friends from Punta Cana what I had learned so we met up and went out dancing in Santo Domingo a couple weeks after I arrived. I was the first person on the dance floor, causing quite a stir with the locals who were all looking at the ‘gordita rubia’. Not long after I started dancing, lots of others joined in. My guy friends weren’t so excited to be the first ones on the dance floor, but I didn’t care. I wanted to dance!

As I sit in my living room on a warm, but rainy winter evening, listening to my Spanish music play list, it reminds me that I really need to make an effort to get out to dance classes again.

These are three of my favourite Spanish songs … they make me want to DANCE!

Dandole – Omega

Incondicional – Prince Royce

Promise – Romeo Santos Featuring Usher

Dominino

In July 2012, while I was living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, studying Spanish I was lucky enough to meet Tabea Thomaschke, founder of Dominino (site is in German).

Founder of Dominino, Tabea with one of the children from the school.

Founder of Dominino, Tabea with one of the children from the school.

As a child, Tabea had always been interested in making a difference in children’s lives and had a love for the Dominican Republic as she used to travel there with her family. As she grew older, she began working toward her goal of helping children in the poorest areas of the D.R. She started a not for profit organization called Dominino. She went into the area of San Luis, known to be one of the poorest and most dangerous areas of Santo Domingo and she started a school for the children of the community. At first, it started out very small, with only a few children, but as her funding grew, she was able to support having more children take part. The school provides education in Spanish and some German for young children, provides a meal each day and lots of love and attention from the staff. These are three very basic things to most of us in North America, but education, food and love are three things that are severely lacking in this poorest of the poor community. The school now has close to 20 students and is making a huge difference in their lives by giving them the education which will hopefully encourage them to get out of the cycle of poverty. All of this, started by a young woman in her 20’s.

I visited Dominino while I was in Santo Domingo and wish that I could have gone back again! I knew that we were heading to a poor community, but I didn’t really know how dangerous it was until I learned that taxis refused to enter the community at all … ever. Simply because it is dangerous. We got off a local guagua (bus), then climbed on moto conchos (3 of us on each) and were driven about 5-10 minutes away to the community of San Luis.

It is here where we were greeted by some very shy, but bright children who were very excited to see Tabea again, and the couple of others of us who came to visit. Some of the children were incredibly shy. Often, in fact, not even speaking to staff at the school for quite some time until they begin to feel comfortable. These children often come from abusive homes, their health is neglected, their education is non-existent and they don’t really know what it is like to be loved and cared for.

We sat with the children, singing songs and playing games. And then, they were served fresh fruit, yogurt and cereal to fill their empty tummies before heading outside to play a couple of active games in a closed in area. All the while, I was there capturing photographs of the children in their environment. Some of them were excited to be photographed and couldn’t wait to see their photos on the back of the camera. Others were cautious, but smiled shyly. Yet, a couple of children simply were scared of the white lady with the big camera. Yes, I did make a couple of children cry. To which, of course, I then stopped photographing them. I had no interest in traumatizing the children!

3642_ShariTucker

The most heart warming part for me in the end was that two of the children who were scared of me and my camera at first, came around and actually wanted their photos taken by the end of the few hours we were there.

One of the little girls who originally was scared of my camera.

One of the little girls who originally was scared of my camera.

Dominino is a not for profit organization that does good work for underprivileged children. They accept donations and you have the opportunity to be able to sponsor a child for a year to ensure that they continue getting education, food and love. The Dominino website is in German, but Tabea has excellent working knowledge in both English and Spanish. If you are interested in making a donation to this organization please contact me and I would be happy to put you in touch with the organization.

Below is a collection of photos from my visit to Dominino. I can wholeheartedly say, my favourite photos from my seven weeks in the Dominican this past summer.

Mojito Bar – Cabarete

As it’s name suggests, Mojito bar is the place to go in Cabarete for Mojito’s! It was a popular spot for the students from my school in Sosua to go to for 2 for 1 happy hour once or twice a week. Unfortunately I don’t like Mojito’s, but they were popular and sure looked pretty! The bar had a list of 4 or 5 options for their 2 for 1 deal. I opted for 2 for 1 Pina Colada’s. Sadly they were the worst Pina Colada’s that I had ever had. They seemed to solely be pineapple juice and liquor. There was no coconut flavor at all. They were thin, weak and lacked any resemblance to what I expected for a pina colada. Even at 2 for 1 they were sub-par.

Service here was friendly and good, although regularly a bit slow because the bar is tiny and the customers are plenty.

If you are stopping by for a bite to eat the sandwiches are yummy, but make sure you order early before the kitchen closes! The fresh squeezed juice that accompanies the sandwich menu is hit or miss. It depends on the combination of fruits, but twice I was served juice that was too sour to drink. Fresh should still mean ripe!

Overall, not my favorite location for drinks, but the sandwiches were good and I hear the Mojito’s were worth it!

Mojito Bar Cabarete

Mojito Bar Cabarete

Mojito Bar Cabarete

Mojito Bar Cabarete

Mojito Bar Cabarete

Mojito Bar Cabarete

Ojo Bar Review

I went to Ojo’s on three separate Thursday nights during August 2012 for Latin Dance. The first night, arriving at 9pm was a mistake as there was no one on the dance floor … or even at the bar at all. By 10:30 a few people will start to make their way to the dance floor and by 11:30, the dance floor was usually packed with a good mixture of locals and tourists. Generally speaking, mostly young local men (19 – 35) and mostly tourist women (19 – 50) … however, certainly some couples (local and tourist) were showing off their moves too.

The drinks here were strong (Cuba libre or Santa Libre) and reasonably priced. The bar staff were always pleasant and if you are a fan of Bachata and Merengue music, this is the best place to be for a Thursday night.

It was a great atmosphere for dancing and I was comfortable dancing with my girl friends or with friendly locals. Solo women travelers should be wary of the intentions of the locals at this bar (or any bar) as often they are looking for their ‘sugar momma’s’. Return week after week and you’ll see the same guys courting various different women, sometimes within the same evening. However, if you are just looking to dance the night away, you’ll have no shortage of offers to hit the dance floor from local men … most of whom are good dancers and will make you feel like a star even if your dance skills are beginner. Be cautious of their requests for ‘Just one kiss’, your phone number or them offering to make sure you get home safely.

Need to take a break? Head upstairs to the open-air rooftop, Salsa section of the bar. You can have a seat on some comfy couches in the fresh ocean air and grab a drink from one of the two bars. And then, once you’ve rested, you can show off your Salsa moves on the huge rooftop dance floor. The best part about it is that most nights there is a refreshing breeze, which is greatly welcomed in the middle of summer in the Dominican when you are out dancing.

Overall, Ojo’s was my favorite bar in Cabarete, specifically for Thursday nights. I made a special effort to go out every week for Latin Dance to meet and dance with locals rather than always heading to the other bars with the North American / European style dance beats.

Enjoy! Be cautious!