Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Stranger in Town, But No Newbie

El Conde"How do you know where to go?" I am often asked of my travels. When I got off the bus in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) from Punta Cana after 4 hours, I marveled at the difference in feelings from when I got off the plane in Rome two years ago. Then, I was so nervous I stayed in the airport for 2 hours before venturing out into the city. Now when I arrive in a new city in a new land, long gone are those feelings of anxiety. As long as there's a way to get to the airport, I can always go home. That makes me feel like I'm never lost. I know how to get home. I'm not even sure if that makes sense, but that's how I see it.

Someone once asked, "What if you get lost?" Well, when I get to a city I've never been to before I'm already lost. The key is to find where I need to go. I help myself by studying the city's map before I go so that I am somewhat oriented to the city. I familiarize myself with major streets & landmarks so that I can gauge how far (or close) things are, which direction they are, and what to say when asking for directions.

Here's an example: Before I left Bávaro (Dominican Republic), I pinpointed the bus station on a map & located the street of my hotel in Santo Domingo. From there I could tell it wasn't within walking distance, so I would have to catch a bus or taxi. Forever frugal, I knew I'd have to ignore the hawking cabbies when I arrived and find a friendly local to point me to the right bus stop. This is where how to ask comes in handy. Instead of asking for Isabela Católica 155, a street or address they've probably never heard of, I ask how to get to Parque Colón, a park that had popped up more than once on various maps & was listed as a must-see site. That meant it was probably pretty popular and well-known. My hotel was a few streets from there, so I'd ask for further directions once I found my way to the park.

Bus StationAfter I got off the bus, I found a nice young lady waiting to cross the street so I asked her which bus stop would have a bus to Parque Colón. She was more than willing to help. After adjusting to Dominican Spanish, I got directions and asked her how much it would be so the driver wouldn't charge me some exorbitant fare. Once I got to the bus stop, I asked another young lady there which bus I needed. She explained that I needed a gua-gua, un coche, to get to my destination. I was confused. A car? At the time I didn't understand what she meant. She knew this and GOD bless her heart, she stood with me until this car full of people stopped and she told the driver where I wanted to go. She surprised me by walking off afterwards. I'd assumed she was waiting for a ride, too. I hurriedly thanked her and hopped in. (See, that's why I'm not afraid to travel. There's always someone willing to go out of their way to help.)

Parque ColonThe driver dropped me off at what I thought was Parque Colón. Turns out, it was Parque Independencia. Not a problem. I was closer to my hotel than I was previously. I checked the map in my guidebook and saw I was within walking distance of my destination. I asked a man how to get to Parque Colón and he told me it was a direct shot down El Conde. (I had to strain hard to understand the lilting Spanish of the DR.) As I walked, I realized I must be in the heart of Zona Colonial. I'd read about it online and in the guidebook. How exciting! There were cobbled streets, old 16th century buildings, stores, lively shoppers, and restaurants. Within 10 minutes, I was in Parque Colón. Once there, I asked a passerby how to get to Isabela Católica, the street of my hotel. I checked against my map & knew I could take it from there.

Isabela Católica street signAs I was turning down my designated street, I was accosted by a tour guide who tried to sell me a slew of services and steer me toward certain hotels. Little did he know that although I was a stranger, I was no newbie. I'd done my homework and was set. I peeked through the window of his office where a nice German couple was being railroaded. I thanked him profusely and was on my way, thankful I'd done my homework.

Three minutes later, I was checking into my hotel and dropping off my luggage to head out and explore Santo Domingo, doorway to the "New World."

Me on the beach

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