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Right after graduate school, my husband and I spent two years living in a Mayan community in Guatemala, working in education and international development, immersing in the local culture, and forming lifelong friendships. Ten years have passed; we have two kids, a house, non-profit careers and our passion for travel is still there.
When I earn a month sabbatical, there’s no question how I want to spend it. The definition of a sabbatical is to take a break from work to rest, travel, study and pursue your dreams. Mine is spending at least two weeks in a Spanish-speaking country, renting a house in a local neighborhood, and introducing my kids to adventure, travel and most importantly how the majority of the world lives. It’s our first international trip as a family of four. The Dominican Republic seems like a good fit.
When we arrive, we find our driver Ismael and load into his minivan. Over the next hour and a half we wind through Dominican towns, making our way to the coast. Chickens, banana trees, tiendas, street vendors, motorcycles, tin roofs on cement block houses, music. This is what Guatemala looks like—Kenya and Cambodia too.
Day 1: After a wakeful night with two sick kids, a rooster starts crowing and the birds are stirring in our thatched roof home in Cabarete. I get my first view of Choco National Park out my window. It’s breath-taking. And by afternoon the kids are over their 24-hour bug.
Day 2: We go to the beach on motoconchos. We’re approached by many vendors selling jewelry, hair braiding, trinkets, massages, woodwork. They’re all members of an association and have uniforms and badges. I’m shocked by their organization and politeness.
We devour calamari, ceviche, papas fritas and two cold Coca-Colas at the Front Loop. The kids proclaim they love calamari. The Swiss owner decorated the bar for the World Cup. Soccer fans from all over the world converge on this small restaurant to cheer on their teams. The locals could care less about futbol, they are baseball fans.
We return home on motocochos. It’s the heat of the day. We retire inside for siesta with fans pointed on us. Once the pool is in the shade around 4pm, we venture outside to swim. We hear bachata (Latin music popular in Cuba and the Dominican Republic) playing from houses nearby. Locals walk by us greeting, “Hola, buen tarde” through the fence.
I’m asked many times where I’m from—my Spanish is too good for a Gringa. Though Spanish is helpful in this part of the country, it is definitely not necessary. Many ex-pats and retirees from Europe and the U.S. settle in Cabarete and the surrounding area. The restaurants and rental properties close to the beach all cater to English-speaking tourists.
Over the next two weeks, we adopt the local culture. We listen to bachata. We play dominoes. We hang our laundry out to dry. We jam with the musicians. We take cold showers. We eat rice, beans and plantains. We drink rum. We devour ice cream. We greet the vendors by name and negotiate prices. We buy a toy boat from a local wearing a Vail, Colorado shirt.
We venture beyond town to explore the beauty of the island. We enter caves and jump into their cold hidden lakes. We ride horses through a mountain village. We snorkel in Sosua Bay. We walk miles on the beach. We discover colonies of sand dollars. We canoe on the lagoon. We apply sunscreen and insect repellent but still get burned and bit. We sample sweets at a chocolate factory. We tour an amber museum. We explore a Spanish fort. We ride the cable car in Puerto Plata up to Montana Isabel de Torres. We feed rescued monkeys. We make friends in the neighborhood and with others from Bulgaria, Switzerland and Canada. The kids learn to body surf and boogie board.
We spend lazy days at home enjoying our family time. We play hide and go seek, cards and marco polo. We taste food blindfolded. We save lightening bugs from drowning in the pool. We play iron chef with mangoes.
We go dark on social media and let the rat race of American life fade away. We thrive in the Dominican Republic. As our trip comes to a close, we dream about our next overseas trip –where should we go next?