Our Caribbean odyssey began quite unexpectedly entirely out of the blue in June. Brian, an acquaintance from my then-recent days spent on the Trop Rock circuit, contacted me with a proposal to manage and program an FM radio station in the north coast town of Sosúa on the Island of Hispañola in the Dominican Republic. Melinda and I had been planning to make a move to Arizona or San Marcos, Mexico where we intended to work on photojournalistic blogs, travelogues, and lifestyle articles. I also had musician friends in both places and figured I would occasionally join them for some gigs to supplement our income.
We were leaning toward Arizona because I had loved living there in the past and we love the state. Then again – the call of the sea and tropics was nearly overwhelming – and the thought of living abroad had an extra appeal as America had become an unrecognizable madhouse brimming with highly divided quarrelsome bickering people and blatantly open racial tensions that recalled the pre-Civil Rights era.
It didn’t take us long to decide on making a move to the Dominican Republic. The Island’s Heart of the Caribbean proximity to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica made the choice that much more appealing.
We began the long, arduous process of preparing for the move abroad. Getting passports in order, storing our van and RV, making sure all our animals had their paperwork up to date, and sorting through towering stacks of clothes and bags full of electronics and other gear to choose less than 50 pounds of possessions with which to start a new life.
However, as our departure date drew near Brian’s schedule began to change, and his plans became more erratic to the point where I decided we needed to make arrangements to be independent of him. I started to regard Brian merely as the catalyst that set us on our path to the D.R. rather than as a legitimate employment possibility. Good thing I did, too, because he ultimately bailed out and left us stranded – if one can call being stranded in paradise stranded?
In reality, Brian’s abandonment of the masterplan was less a stranding than it was a financial inconvenience which merely required a readjustment of our budget as well as our plans.
The original plan was for us to share rent and expenses with Brian in a three-bedroom house. Sharing lodging would have brought our lease down to around $200 per month. The radio station was to be our primary source of additional income and would have made life in the D.R. much more affordable and feasible.
We had envisioned a thriving and dynamic radio station that was intended to be the voice of the community and a gathering place for the expatriate community and Dominican locals alike which we would actively serve with weather reports, local news, restaurant deals announcements, and bar reports. I had planned to have a few select programs as well and feature some local Spanish-speaking local DJs alongside English-speaking DJs for bilingual broadcasts. I also reckoned that as the only English broadcast we would become an essential resource for all prospective international tourists through our Internet simulcast as well as all the expatriates living in the country by way of our FM broadcast carried nationally via the state’s radio relays. There was also the added possibility of tie-ins with the cruise ships.
The music program was to feature primarily fresh, new artists and some tropic-friendly classics in the mix. My primary intention was to emphasize a broad spectrum of island music and rock artists whose styles evoked warm, sunny vibes. There were also a few Conch Rock artists from Key West such as Dani Hoy and Key West Chris Rehm that we’d hoped to promote to the masses of tropically-oriented tourists and tropic-zone-wandering expats whose orbits include the Dominican Republic.
Brian had also proposed that Melinda could help with and be part of his product line sales at Amazon. All such possibilities, hopes, and opportunities were dashed and lost in his departure from the plan.
It was a pretty grand vision with lots of potential but that all fell through and we were instead set adrift with no plan other than to start over in the Dominican Republic.
When Brian abandoned the project, it ended up adding an unanticipated $300 – $500 per month to our overall expenses.
That’s $300 more than we had left in our budget which had been further decreased by our van needing four new tires, alignment, and an oil change for the thousand mile journey to the airport in Miami. There was also the hotel for one night and baggage charges. Our budget was well-tapped.
I’d made a 4-day booking at the Mary Rose condo hotel on Dr. Alejo Martinez, Sosúa because Brian was supposed to arrive on Aug 15th. That soon changed to the 18th. We couldn’t afford to stay at a hotel and have money left over for a long-term rent for the rest of the month or the next month, so I made arrangements with the manager of the Mary Rose to move to long-term lodging figuring we could relocate when or if Brian finally showed up.
In the meantime, we were both writing and calling Brian to ask him what was going on. We could see on his Facebook page that he’d bought some lakeside property in Wisconsin and was building a cabin there.
Brian’s last message was that he’d be down around the 28th — and that was the last we heard from him. We tried to find his Tiki Island Radio bar or Gordito’s restaurant, and neither any longer existed. There were just empty spaces where the bar and restaurant had very previously been. Further investigation into the matter with newly-acquired local friends revealed that there was no connection whatsoever between Brian and Gordito’s either. It didn’t look like Brian was going to be coming down. We were on our own in an entirely new land, 1000 miles away from home with no budget and no prospects for income or any local support network as would have been the case with the promised bar, restaurant, and radio station.
We would not be living the future we had been offered or were planning on — though we had planned on being independent of Brian just-in-case. And now just-in-case had become the case.
In retrospect, there were one or two conversations with Brian that had given me pause. He’d blathered on nonsensically too much a time or two and when someone does that it usually means there is some degree of deception. After that call, I began making plans to be completely independent of Brian, able to survive on our own. I’d run quick calculations and crunched some numbers and found that we could, conceivably, live a much better quality of life on the tropical island of Hispaniola for 30%-40% less than what we’d been paying to live in the flat wetlands and bayou country of Lake Charles.
As a result, it’s taken us two months even to begin to regain our financial footing somewhat and recover slowly but not quite so surely! Our recovery has also required an assiduously unwavering focus and drive to succeed here in the Dominican Republic where it is an entirely foreign “third world” developing nation – and a Spanish-speaking one at that!
But now in the late depths of October, we can finally begin to breathe it all in, to take stock of our situation and decipher the readings on the instrument panel of our lives. We can start actually to inhale the island, its culture, vibe, and essence – we can begin to experience it in the slower tempos of island time and the ambling laidback rhythms of Dominican culture. We can now take the proper time to drink it all in; one leisurely luscious sip at a time.
For the same amount that it used to cost us to live in a small 30 foot RV in a campground with few amenities other than a very spotty WiFi, running water, and electricity — we now live in a fully-furnished third-floor apartment in a beautiful complex aptly named the Trade Winds. Each morning we awake to splendid views of lush tropical grounds, a surprisingly picturesque swimming pool, laundry, Internet, cable TV, and weekly maid service. We usually share a few pre-noon rum drinks, some new Spanish words, and a couple of swaying merengue grooves with her when she comes. Women carrying freshly-picked sweet ripe bananas, papayas, pineapples, and Dominican avocados — whose seeds are larger than the whole avocados we used to buy in Louisiana — deliver these local treasures every morning at the cost of $2.50 for a bunch of bananas and two abnormally large avocados. They are so fresh and tasty that one has to experience them for oneself to fully appreciate the depth and richness of their sun-drenched flavors.
Surrounded by lush, verdant, tropical tree-crested hills, ridges, and emerald gullies we are immediately reminded that we are living in the Dominican Republic on the Island of Hispaniola in the Heart of the Caribbean. Various species of Palm Trees sway in the consistently cooling breezes. The prickly warm sun shines with stark crystal clarity that lends a surreal, otherworldly quality to the air and uncannily bright, stunningly clear light.
To top it all off, we have our very own tropical open-air version of the bar in the TV series Cheers — “where everybody knows our name.” The quietly unassuming quintessential local treasure that is George’s Oasis Bar is located on the ground floor of the Casa Mañana apartment complex a very drinking-friendly one hundred feet to the southeast up the hill and across the road from our flat. Sat in the midst of what looks like a micro version of a Costa Rican jungle replete with bananas, papayas, avocado, and guava trees, bright, open-air, casual, and warmly welcoming it’s the epitome and very essence of what a neighborhood bar in the Dominican Republic should be. And, as its sign so accurately declares; George’s Oasis Bar is most definitely “a place where the locals meet.” And because of owner George’s overt hospitality, acute local knowledge, and highly-developed social networks, we were able to make a group of good friends very quickly. George was Russian-born but was a resident of Brazil for most of his life traveling the world as an engineer designing, upgrading, and building breweries the world over.
When I grow up, I would like to have a job as George had.
Another sixty feet up the hill past George’s is our local colmado (mini-mart), De La Cruz, which carries a surprisingly decent variety of basic staples, canned meats, rice, beans, assorted sundries, water, ice-cream, wines, beers, and the ever-essential and thankfully ubiquitous rum.
We had initially planned to get over to Puerto Rico on the ferry and check it all out. But now, as the whole world well knows; there is no Puerto Rico – only the shell of what it once was a mere month ago – before Irma and Maria laid it flat and bare and broken. Our island was more fortunate than most of the Caribbean by far. We were also planning to head over to our nearby neighbor island Cuba as well – and that is still possible. Cuba also escaped the main wrath of the hellish winds that wander these timeless corridors of warm glowing cerulean waters and their imposing emerald specks of terra firma from June to November.
We have ridden out two historically devastating hurricanes here on this magical masterpiece of tropical geography and precipitous geological splendor. This craggy carving of wind and tide born upon warm azure seas.
Now I am ready to write about these enchanted, haunted isles and their peoples. These Caribbean regions are as exotic as can be imagined – and then some. They are as often filled with horror and chaos as they are with dreams and wonder. They are as unknowable and unknown as any place on or part of this Earth. And far more habitable and welcoming than most. There are vast, obscene riches and staggering, wretched poverties – though not of the spirit. There is as much exquisite fetid ugliness as there is a wistful unbridled beauty to be found within the island’s folds and atop the canopies of verdant golden sun-silvered treetops.
And for now, at least, these islands are home.