By Carly Mehl
In preparation for my trip to Dominican Republic, I was hearing the same advice from everyone. Every person I talked to was warning me of the danger that this beautiful country entailed, urging me that whatever I do, not to leave the resort area.
Most of the travelling I’ve done has been cheaply planned by booking hostels, couchsurfing, or making friends with people along the way and staying with them. I have also had the opportunity to visit beautiful places in luxury when tagging along with friends on their family vacations. Travelling spontaneously is how I have met the greatest people and left with the best stories. Staying at a beach front property, waking up to a view of the ocean and a schedule-free day of lounging by the pool was the epitome of relaxation and an experience I thought I would only ever dream of.
I got bored. I wanted to see more of Las Terrenas than from the inside of a gated community in a country whose natives are guarded from entering. My friends and I got in the rental car and headed into town with our lack of Spanish and little idea of how far a US dollar should stretch versus a peso. The locals sit outside of their homes along the busy streets watching and waving to us as we drive by, the men blowing kisses to us girls. It became clear that white people rarely come into this part of town. Naturally, when they see a tourist, they are in awe. What Americans mistake for danger is the fear of difference in culture and sadly, racism.
The behavior of local vendors that is misinterpreted as haggling, is simply a person trying to make a living. It is understandable that seeing an American, and wanting to sell something to them while they have this rare moment is overwhelming for them. Since most visitors are strategically constrained within whatever American or European owned resort and distracted by amenities giving them every reason to stay within the gates. Telling people that leaving a port would be unwise and extremely dangerous is the way that the hospitality corporations make their money. Stay at our beach, eat our food, go on our tours, and buy from our gift shops. Some people will visit a country at the slice of the land that is owned by a bigger chain like a cruise line, where instead of hiring natives, they bring in outside workers from whatever country they hire from.
This is a major problem in so many countries. Local tourism is how these people make a living for their survival. The idea that leaving the resort puts you into extreme danger is such a stretch from the truth and is a marketing tactic used to discourage local money circulation. Elementary school students in the United States have been shot and killed in places we deem the safest yet if we leave the Marriott, we will be killed? These people in third world countries lack the resources and education to help them learn how to communicate with tourists. How could they possibly know that the way they have lived their entire life, and their natural behavior is such a culture shock to visitors? The corporations take advantage of this gap in society, and so far it has worked for them.
When planning a trip to any country, it is important to learn the culture of where you are going. You could read up on China to ensure you don’t offend anyone with a gesture you may think is normal but someone may find disrespectful. If you were going to Italy you might read that there are a lot of people who pickpocket. Taking precautionary safety measures is important when travelling, but do not let privilege keep you from meeting extraordinary people. Having common sense and a good judge of character is all that you need to experience things off the beaten path. Leaving the gates of “safety” led me to follow a trail to the top of a mountain that overlooked beautiful scenery of the entire town, where before I was zoomed into the shoreline. In a market, I met a boy named Saori, a professional surfer who works at a surf school in Las Terrenas, and we have kept in contact and plan meet in future travels. We crossed paths for a reason and I am so glad I ignored everyone’s advice. Having friends all over the world is special and something I wish for everyone.
For anyone going somewhere tropical or exotic on vacation over the Holidays, I encourage you to step outside of your comfort zone. Leave the main roads, talk to strangers, and eat everything.
Carly Mehl is a Staff Writer for The Comment