Traveling Tid Bits: Managing Common Sense and a Daredevil Attitude
Bethany E. Zick
The moment my foot connected with Dominican soil, I smiled mischievously, and my adventurous spirit took flight. I wanted to gobble up everything set before me: the new land, language, men, food, dancing, beaches, and everything else that was so terrifically unknown to me. Technically, the purpose of my semester abroad was to master the Spanish language, but off the record, I was there to have fun – and I did just that! There is something about taking off on your own to a foreign country that is so incredibly frightening that it gives you the kind of ecstatic adrenaline that you might experience jumping out of a plane, but stretched out over a four-month period. This particular adrenaline drove my common sense completely out of whack. My mother would’ve had a heart attack if she had seen half of the things I deemed to be reasonably safe.
In Santiago, any old spinster with a car that runs can join the public transportation network. The only requirement for these conchos is that they have a sign identifying which route they run. A typical concho costs about three pesos (thirty-three cents), crams in seven passengers, and lacks major parts of the vehicle, such as a window or door handle. There are motoconchos, as well; these tend to be small motorcycles, mopeds, and dirt bikes. Usually, motoconchos zip around carrying the driver, a passenger and his or her groceries or small child, and often, another adult. Drivers of both conchos and motoconchos are delightfully dangerous. At night, options are limited to walking or taking a taxi. I quickly found that cab fairs are subject to change, depending how much of a sucker you are. For me, prices were quite steep, until I learned that combining a little sass with a lot of charm got me hefty discounts.
Nevertheless, I became pretty annoyed each time I had to shell out the extra cash to take a taxi only a few blocks away, merely because I was a woman and it was nighttime. One evening after our late class had finished, a few friends and I met at a nearby pub to watch a baseball game. When it came time to leave, Jaira, another frustrated female, and I decided we would make the fifteen-minute walk back to our apartments together. Mine was only slightly farther than her’s, so I figured I could forge the last few minutes alone. After parting ways with Jaira, I realized the neighborhood seemed to take on a new personality when walking in the dark, and I couldn’t quite remember which street lead to which. I nervously sighed as I decided to take the only route of which I was sure – I would walk the sidewalk that accompanied the eight-lane highway, bypassing all those maze-like neighborhoods. It would only add a few minutes to my trip. I found that any guiding light I had was not so comforting. Occasionally vehicles zoomed past me or I went by a lonely, blinking halogen lamp.
An air of paranoia and slight dread loomed all around me, as stories of attacks popped into my head. There I was – a decently dressed, obviously American, young woman walking solo with her purse slung over her shoulder in an area where no other pedestrians were detectable. The first other visible human was a bulky man walking towards me with a small club in his hand. I was, at first, absolutely terrified, then relieved to the same degree when he walked past me briskly without even acknowledging my presence. At that point, I decided I must prepare. I began stuffing the contents of my purse in pockets and down my shirt, and I arranged my keys so that a key stuck out between each finger. I held them tightly in a fist, making a weapon similar to brass knuckles.
Sure enough, not even two minutes later, I heard someone approaching me at a run from behind. I whipped around frantically to see a teenaged boy, about my size, advancing for my (empty) purse.
Contrary to the previous ten minutes, I immediately became filled with the most intense anger that I had ever experienced. I raised my fist, and displayed the keys to my potential attacker. Surprised that I was armed, he jumped back. I shook my head fiercely, and told him to stay away from me. We paused together in a stare down, until I began to lower my fist. At this, he came for my purse again, which made me even madder. When I looked him in the eye, I detected mostly surprise, but maybe a little fear and awe, as well. Although my emotions were running high, I prayed silently not to have to actually hit him. I was certain my bark was bigger than my bite.
Finally, the teen hoodlum decided he no longer wanted anything to do with me. “Vaya! Vaya! Sigue!” he yelled, as he shooed me away. Go! Go! Continue! At that, I gave a triumphant humph and walked away as fast as my legs could go without running. Every couple of steps, I turned to send a glare that said, “Don’t even think about messing with me again.” I wasn’t sure whether to cry or to laugh with my overwhelming euphoria when I safely entered my domain.
I’m sure you are supposing I was eternally grateful and forever learned my lesson, but I’m afraid, dear reader, I’m not as wise as you are. Instead of crediting God or luck or grace or some other quiet force, I tallied on a victory for myself. I will say, though, I blame it on that same traveling adrenaline I was telling you about earlier. You know, the one that makes you believe you have supernatural powers. Exhilarated beyond belief, I continued to walk on the wild side (pun intended). A few weeks later, I took my risk-taking to a new level – hitchhiking.
The night began when I went out dancing with my two friends, Mary Luisa and Pola. We were far away from home and our feet were nearly bleeding, so we wandered into a greasy 24-hour restaurant at about 4:30 in the morning. Unable to keep up with Dominican dancing, which can last well into the morning, we were ready to find a way back home. We sat and grumbled for a while about how much a taxi would cost from where we were and at that hour. As we headed out onto the street, I thought aloud, “You know, we could probably find someone to give us a ride…”
“You mean hitchhike?” Pola wondered.
“Yeah!” The idea was sounding more and more appealing.
“Well, that would be nice if we found a ride,” said Mary Luisa a little cautiously. I could tell they both were at least amused with my scheme, but weren’t actually planning on doing it. Just then, a car rolled up to the stoplight by which we were waiting. Over their thumping music, three young guys shouted cheap flattery at us out the window. My eyes lit up.
“What about them?”
My two friends shrugged and nervously giggled. “Okay!” They both replied in unison. We had barely just asked for a ride, and the guys were already opening the doors for us to climb in. With four in the back, it was a tight fit. One guy in the front showered compliments at Pola and begged for her number, which she finally exchanged with him. Meanwhile, the guy I was practically sitting on was apparently busy stealing my wallet out of my purse. Of course, I was too high on life to notice. We dropped off Pola first, and because Mary Luisa and I lived in the same apartment complex, we got out together. I thanked our new friends again and again as I walked away with a purse that was much lighter.
About 10 minutes later, Pola called and was very concerned. “Those guys keep calling and telling me you left your wallet in their car. I was afraid they were just trying to give me a reason to come outside by myself. They said they have been driving around, because they forgot where you live. Did you lose your wallet? I don’t know what to do!”
After checking my purse and seeing that my wallet was, in fact, missing, I picked up the phone again to inform Pola of this, only to hear silence. Her cell phone had died, and coincidentally, she had left her charger at my apartment. Not knowing her home phone number or what to do, I sought out Mary Luisa, and we anxiously paced back and forth together. About a half an hour later, someone was buzzing my apartment. I rushed to answer and found a young man’s voice at the other end of the line. He was shouting at me in almost indecipherable Spanish about a “dropped wallet…drove around forever…wasted gas…Pola.” Frantically, I apologized and thanked him as much as I could, even though I knew something wasn’t right.
When I met them at their car to retrieve my wallet, I picked out the same jumbled-sounding words as before, but this time there were three of them yelling. I continued my thanking and apologizing while my shaking hand held my wallet.
“Look! Look inside! We didn’t steal anything! Check your wallet,” they barked at me all at once. Frenzied, I flipped through my wallet and saw that everything seemed to be intact.
“ Yes, yes! I see that everything is here. Here…take this money for gas. And thanks again!” With that, I rushed off.
After telling her the details of my strange transaction with the three guys, Mary Luisa let me know that Pola had found a way to contact her and was all right. It was close to 7:00 a.m. when I finally laid down in my bed, still very unsettled. And it was not until three days later at an ATM that I found out that $250 had been charged on my debit card at an all-night liquor store. Somewhere there were three very drunk scoundrels laughing their heads off at three very stupid Americans.
I didn’t go down easily, but I did go down. I called my bank, who had no sympathy. I called the thieves, who had changed their number. I even stormed into the liquor store to demand my money back from the manager on duty. My desperate, muddled Spanish was enough to draw a small crowd. At first, the manager seemed to pity me, and he actually did seem slightly worried when I bluffed about “bringing in my [nonexistent] lawyer.” I ended up leaving a little humiliated and a little broke. All I could do was shake my head, curse myself, tack on a tally mark for the loss category, and move on.
After a few more mishaps and close calls, I began to smarten up. However, it wasn’t until I returned to the States and reflected on my trip that I thought about how terrible certain events could have turned. Yes, I made it out of the Dominican Republic alive and happier than when I arrived, but my choices could have very well led me the polar opposite end result.
Going abroad is a wonderful opportunity to renew your soul and to step into the shoes of the person you have always dreamt of becoming. I certainly urge you to do just that. Set yourself free. With that said, I incidentally must warn you. In a foreign place, your common sense should be sharpened, not loosened. That’s not to say you can’t do things you wouldn’t normally do; by all means, go nuts! What I mean is always listen to your instincts. Whether they are muffled or blaring in your ear, they are usually dead on. I don’t presume that all or even most travelers are reckless as I was. But based on my experience, I feel compelled to give you one bit of advice for traveling abroad: Safely have the time of your life!