An English-Speaking American White Girl in Punta Cana: Primer Tiempo

imageMy sister and I recently travelled to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. To be honest, initially I wasn’t overly excited to be going there. I embrace new situations and adventures, and I say “yes” to nearly every opportunity, and I did say yes to this too, but I was scared to death. I’d never been out of the country, let alone to a third world country, and I was actually scared. Feeling scared is not completely foreign to me, but this was a new kind of fear– one I wasn’t certain I knew how to handle.

After a long day of connecting flights, we’d finally arrived. We passed through immigration and customs before getting to our final gate where we were greeted by Dominican heat and humidity. The Punta Cana International Airport is mostly outdoors. Its roofs are made of thatch. Although it had some modern conveniences inside, it was becoming more and more abundantly clear that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. And naturally, everyone spoke Spanish. I took a little Spanish in high school, but I certainly didn’t remember much more than hola and bueno. Immediately, I was out of my English-speaking comfort zone as this was something I’d never seen, felt, or experienced. My anxiety continued to rise.

Frantically, I began to text some loved ones back home of my arrival. My efforts proved futile, as I was unable to connect with anyone. The anxiety continued to rise. And I also grew disgusted with myself for my abundant reliance on technology to “feel connected”.

We were on a group trip, so we had plenty of experienced travelers with us, but that didn’t seem to subside the unease that continued to grow in the pit of my stomach. A bus would take us to our resort, and it was during that ride that I began to feel a very heightened sense of my own white, middle class privilege.

The road was long and dark. Dominican locals on mopeds and other travelers accompanied us on the 70 mph speed limit “highway,” but they were few and far between. There were no street lights, traffic lights, or convenience stores along the way. No Starbucks on every other block. There were very few four-wheeled vehicles. There was darkness. And what seemed to be desolation, although of this I could not be certain because it was after 10:00 pm.

And still, in spite of being a part of a group, in spite of having my older sister sitting beside me, I’d never felt so alone and scared at the same time.

Things seemed to improve as our bus rolled up to the gated resort. Palm trees illuminated by twinkle lights lead our way to the grand hall where we would check into our rooms. The check in procedure was antiquated by American standards, as there was no computerized check in, rather our reservations had been tracked on form documents that had been typewritten. Resort personnel filed the paper documents in wooden file cabinets rather than in a nebulous iCloud. Wifi, I was quickly coming to learn, would likely be sketchy.

When we arrived in our room, my anxiety had piqued, and I began to cry. Over and over, I apologized to my sister because I didn’t know why I was crying; in fact, I was laughing at myself through my tears because I couldn’t pinpoint what in the hell was wrong with me. Why was I crying?!? Here I was, on the vacation of a lifetime; a trip I hadn’t even had to pay for; a sunny island where all I’d be asked to do was relax. And that was part of the problem– I don’t know how to relax. I’ve spent most of my life always “on”. What would happen to me if I gave up total control? If I allowed myself to let my hair down and really take in my new environment? If I allowed the discomfort to transform me rather than trap me?

I’d decided on the former. I wanted to transform.

To be continued…

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