You're about to leave on your big trip. Your bag is packed (or if you're like me you at least thought about what you need to pack), the excitement is building, but so are your fears. In preparation for travel to many countries, Americans are warned to be on high alert. Watch your pockets, don't take out your wallet if you don't need to, don't look lost, people see Americans as gullible moneybags. That's great advice, isn't it? Don't look lost. In a foreign country. To which you have never been, and perhaps do not have the skills required to ask for directions. Super. When I arrived in the Dominican Republic, I was given a cheap, $10 "burner phone", as we liked to call them. We were told not to take our smartphones out of the house, as it will put a target on us. What I'm telling you is to be cautious, but don't freak out.
After a few days in the Dominican, we had figured out for ourselves what we were comfortable with. We had seen countless people with iPhones and other smartphones, so pretty soon, none of us brought our burner phones with us. I'm not telling you not to listen to your predeparture safety instructons, not at all, but consider the fact that the program you are with is responsible for you at some level, and they need to give you every possible precaution. For an idea of what being American means while travelling, please enjoy this recount of my debockle returning home to my host family from the beach:
In the Dominican, you can reach just about anywhere on the island for pretty cheap using public transportation. On our first free weekend, we had taken Caribe Tours from our program center in Santiago up to Sosua, a beach town. I did experience some unwanted American attention on the way up, as I caught someone trying to pickpocket me (I recommend tight fitting pockets), but I had used the same company the day before and that was my only problem. In the late afternoon, part of our group went to buy their return tickets while we saved the spot on the beach. Only one returned to our spot to tell us that the last bus was leaving in twenty minutes, so needless to say, we packed up quick and hurried to the station. Upon our arrival we found out that all the the seats had sold out, so two girls on the program and myself had to find a new way home to Santiago, about an hour and a half away.
As none of us had connection, we went over to get a taxi to the nearest big town, where we could get a different bus the rest of the way. The drivers knew they had us at a disadvantage and told us it would cost DR$1000 ($20) to get to the nearest town, as in their words, its 75 km away. Yes people, I'm here to tell you that gringo prices are very real. In reality, it was a fifteen miute drive, and the bus ticket from Santiago to Sosua, which took about 2.5 hours, was DR$160. We were getting ripped off and we knew it, and they knew we knew it. When we got dropped off, we gave the man DR$600 and left without saying a word. I'm not saying I would recommend giving taxi drivers less than the agreed upon amount, but as we still gave him a more than fair wage, all went fine.
From here we got on a different bus company, which took us back to Santiago with only one hiccup. Granted, it was a rather large hiccup, the type that makes you almost throw up, as the bus stop was on the opposite side of the city from our houses, it was dark out and none of us had internet, but one hiccup nonetheless. We started walking in the direction of our houses, but it was aimless. We walked, three gringos, for 25-30 minutes through Santiago, walking through a few streets I would have preferred not to have been on, but nothing happened to us. After all we had heard beforehand, we thought we would for sure at least be approached by someone, but we were not. A couple head nods, and that was it. Eventually, we reached a few bars where we could get WiFi and called an uber the rest of the way home.
I wont lie, the entire time we were walking around the streets of Santiago, I thought we were going to get jumped because of how many precautions we were given, and hell, I was almost robbed that morning. But what I learned from that experience is that yes, you need to be careful when your traveling, but no more than if you were walking around a US city at night. You wouldn't pull out a wad of cash and start counting it on a NYC subway playform, or talk extra loud and draw attention to yourself in the nightime streets of Philly, so why would you do it in another country? If you use common sense and trust your gut reactions to whatever situation you may find yourself in, you'll make it out just fine.
In case this story got you more worried about your trip, go look at the pictures of the beach to calm your nerves. And then go pack your bag. You should really get on that.