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Lindsay de Feliz, British expat blogger in the Dominican Republic
Published Monday May 14, 2012 (18:45:49)
Lindsay's blog: yoursaucepans.blogspot.com
Lindsay's Expat Focus column: www.expatfocus.com/lindsay-de-feliz
See below for interview transcript.
Expat Focus: Okay, Lindsay, you're a British expat.
Lindsay de Feliz: Yep.
Expat Focus: Living in the Dominican republic.
Lindsay de Feliz: Yes.
Expat Focus: You're also a well-known blogger, and soon, in the near future, going to be an author as well.
Lindsay de Feliz: Very exciting.
Expat Focus: Before we come on to that, let's go back to the beginning and find out a bit about you and your background, and what took you to the Dominican Republic in the first place.
Lindsay de Feliz: I was basically a marketing person, and worked as marketing director of various financial companies, and then I became very interested in scuba diving. And it got to the stage where I was spending as much time as I could diving. So I was using all of the salary I earned to go off to the Maldives and Thailand, other places, the Caribbean, diving.
Expat Focus: It's a hard life working in marketing, obviously. [laughing]
Lindsay de Feliz: [laughing] Obviously, yes.
Lindsay de Feliz: But I thought, this is silly, why do I spend all my time working--and at that time I was working in the city, so it was a 2 hour commute to work every morning--when I could be diving. So I decided to leave England--I was around 44, I think--and become a scuba diving instructor. And that's what I did.
Expat Focus: Okay, and when was that? How long ago was that?
Lindsay de Feliz: That was eleven years ago.
Expat Focus: Okay. And you went straight to the Dominican Republic to do that? Or somewhere else first?
Lindsay de Feliz: I went to the Maldives first, and then I went to Singapore to do my instructor's course, which you have to do before the examination. Then the exam was canceled in Singapore, so I went to Thailand, did the exam there. I then went back to Singapore, I went to Borneo. I was looking for work in the far east. But you can't work these days unless you have work permits, which are very hard to get in the far east at the minute. So the only place I could work legally was in Europe. So I ended up going backwards, and I went to Minorca. And when I was there it was fine, but it wasn't nice, hot, toasty sea. And there weren't shoals of beautiful, colored fish. There was the odd rock, and if you were lucky a lonely cod would swim past.
Expat Focus: [laughing]
Lindsay de Feliz: So I decided I really did want to dive somewhere warm. And I thought I really should learn Spanish, because I could speak French and German, and the more languages you speak as a diving instructor, the better you are. So I decided to go somewhere warm where they spoke Spanish, and I ended up in the DR.
Expat Focus: Okay, and that then was again, what, 10 or 11 years ago or so, when you first arrived?
Lindsay de Feliz: Yeah, just over 10 years ago, yes.
Expat Focus: Okay. And what were your initial experiences when you first arrived? What were your first thoughts? Was there some sense of culture shock at all?
Lindsay de Feliz: It was a positive culture shock. It was total euphoria. There were no rules, you could get on a motorbike--which I've never done in my life, I was terrified, but the main taxis here are motorbikes--and you didn't have to wear a helmet, you didn't have to wear seatbelts, there were no obvious drink driving rules--not that I do drink and drive.
Expat Focus: [laughing] Of course not, of course not.
Lindsay de Feliz: It was just this total lack of what you could and you couldn't do. You could smoke anywhere you wanted. There was music in the streets, people were so friendly, you got on a bus and people said good morning and spoke to you and laughed. It was like party time, all the time.
Expat Focus: Yeah. I can imagine that's very different from presumably working in the big city when you were still working in marketing. The complete opposite of that I would expect.
Lindsay de Feliz: Totally different. There weren't as many cars on the street. And of course you had the Caribbean sea, beautiful white beaches...
Expat Focus: What about the language issues? You said you were learning Spanish, or you had learned a fair degree of fluency in Spanish by that stage, is that right?
Lindsay de Feliz: I knew no Spanish when I came here, apart from hello, and goodbye and thank-you. But because I'd already learned two languages, French and German, I have an aptitude for picking it up quite quickly. And remember, in the Dominican Republic, around 15 to 20% of the population are from Haiti, and they speak Creole, which comes from French, so I could communicate with the Haitians, even though I couldn't with the Dominicans. And I set myself the task of learning to speak Spanish as quickly as I could.
Expat Focus: Okay. And if you hadn't done that, if you'd been one of these expats who, for whatever reason, had decided not to learn a foreign language, could you have got by in the DR with just English? Do enough people speak English, or would it have been very difficult?
Lindsay de Feliz: Very few people do speak English in the tourist areas, on the coast, so in the North--that's Sosua, Puerto Plata, Cabarete. In the East--Punta Cana, Bavaro--people do speak English in the hotels or in the tourist related places. But most bank managers won't speak English. If you go to the electricity company, or the water company or the telephone company, they won't speak English. Some people do manage because they have a Dominican friend who will go with them and do that type of job for them, but you miss out on so much that the country has to offer if you can't communicate with the people.
Expat Focus: Yeah, so everyday life would've been very difficult without at least some degree of Spanish, or some other language.
Lindsay de Feliz: It would.
Expat Focus: Okay. Are there many other expats in the Dominican Republic? Are there expat clubs and societies, that sort of thing, or not so much?
Lindsay de Feliz: There are lots and lots of expats, but they are concentrated, in the main, in the areas where the tourists tend to be, so in the North and the East. There are quite a few people working in multinational corporations in the capital, Santo Domingo, and it's a very big country for mining, so there are Canadian companies to carry out mining, who bring in expats to do that for them. Gold mining especially. There aren't any clubs as such, but there is a website called dr1.com which many of the expats are involved in, and that has forums, and a lot of people meet other expats through that.
Expat Focus: Right. And are they mainly American and Canadian expats, or is there a large number of British expats there as well?
Lindsay de Feliz: There aren't very many Brits. I think the latest figure I heard was around 1,500. There are mostly Americans and Canadians. There's big groups of Germans, especially in the North. There's a very big group of French people in the northeast, in Las Terrenas, and the Russians are coming as well.
Expat Focus: All right, let's talk a little bit about the culture in the Dominican Republic. I know from reading your blog, you've talked about things like generosity, the importance of family, maybe some things which aren't quite so positive about people not always telling you the truth, or at least telling you what you want to hear instead. Are those the main aspects of culture there? What are the big points that people should know about in the DR?
Lindsay de Feliz: The main thing, I think, is the friendliness. Everybody is incredibly friendly and very neighborly. But they will often, if they see an expat, they will think you have more money than them--which you do--so there is often a dual pricing. So if a Dominican goes to buy something it costs 10 pounds, and if a foreigner goes it'll cost 20 or 30 pounds. Especially when you first come, that happens quite a lot, so you do need to be very careful. And, a lot of things, the prices aren't laid down, so you'll go to the dentist, there won't be a list of prices, so if you need a filling you could be charged considerably more as an expat. So that is one of the negatives. But the main culture is one of friendliness, neighborliness, of people helping each other out. Yes.
Expat Focus: Okay. And I know on occasion in your blog you've drawn a link between that generosity and friendliness, and the degree of poverty in some places as well, in the sense that in order to enjoy your life when you have nothing you have to develop a sort of positive outlook; you have to share things with other people, you have to expect them to share things with you. Do you think that's right? Is it really poverty which is driving the culture that you're talking about there?
Lindsay de Feliz: Yes, I think it is. I mean, 40% of the country live below the poverty line, so they're living on less than two dollars a day, and the other 40% are only slightly better off. So when you are that poor, when you've got nothing to eat, and everybody takes their turn having nothing to eat, other people will always help them out. So I think that the fact that so many people are poor--and I had no idea when I came here that that was the situation. If you go to the tourist area you won't see that, and yet 40 yards back from the beach people will be living in abject poverty. It's quite shocking really.
Expat Focus: And there's very little sense of social mobility, in the sense that people, if they're born poor, they're likely to remain poor. Is that correct?
Lindsay de Feliz: Exactly. That's right. It's very hard to get out of poverty. Education is very basic. Even though there is free education, their children still have to buy uniforms, they need transport to get to school, and school is not compulsory, and the poorer people can not afford to send their children to school. And even if they do, the level of education is not that high. So it's very hard to get out, once you're in the poverty trap, it's very hard to get out.
Expat Focus: Now, anyone reading your blog, and I've mentioned it a few times, I should give the address as well. Now correct me if I'm wrong. It's yoursaucepans.blogspot.com, is that right?
Lindsay de Feliz: Yes, that's right.
Expat Focus: Okay. yoursaucepans.blogspot.com. And I really do recommend it to anybody who's listening. It's an excellent blog, it's got everything an expat blog should have: it's funny, it's informative, there's lots of photos. It's really a superb read. So do go and check it out at yoursaucepans.blogspot.com. But anyone who follows that blog I think pretty soon realizes that there are major differences between the life you might lead as an expat in Spain, or in France or New Zealand, and the way of life in the Dominican Republic. So tell us more about life as an expat, rather than a local in a developing country. What do you need to do to thrive and survive? Is it just a question of changing what you do, or do you need to change your mindset as well?
Lindsay de Feliz: You need to think as if you are living in Britain in the 1950s.
Expat Focus: [laughing] Right, okay.
Lindsay de Feliz: For example, you can't buy, if you come to cooking, you can't buy pre-packaged, microwaved food. So if you want mashed potatoes, you can't buy a bag of Smash and add boiling water. You have to buy potatoes, peel them, and cook them. If you want a steak and kidney pie, you have to make the pastry, and you can't buy anything pre-packaged.
Expat Focus: This is already sounding like a nightmare for somebody like me, I must say.
Lindsay de Feliz: On the one hand, it's a nightmare, but on the other hand you soon realize that you are eating a lot more healthily than you were in the UK.
Expat Focus: Right.
Lindsay de Feliz: Things that you take for granted, like electricity, half the country does have 24-hour electricity, but half doesn't. And even those that have 24-hour, it goes off a lot. So you have to have an alternative source of power. So, such as an inverter or a generator. Water doesn't come all the time. So you need a big tank on the roof, that you then use by gravity feed, for on the days when you don't have water. There's no piped gas. You have little Calor gas cylinders that you need to go and get filled up. So those are just the things on the basic day-to-day ideas. You live here as an expat, you need to not let the frustrations of the country get you down. Otherwise you end up becoming unhappy because you're so frustrated. You just need to chill. That's the best advice I could give.
Expat Focus: Yeah. Yeah, and I think as a reader of your blog it's... I've said it's entertaining and it's informative and so on, but there are also some posts now and again where, I think, as a reader, you think, 'wow, how would I have reacted to that? That's quite a difficult thing', or a frustrating thing, and that, you know, 'that would have made me angry', or 'I would have questioned why I was here', and so on and so forth. So it's good to see that you've developed that sort of mindset where it doesn't faze you anymore, and you can sort of put it in the past and get on with it. With things.
Lindsay de Feliz: Yeah. It's a balance really. On the one hand, those things will frustrate you, but then if you go back to England I find it strange if I go into the bank that everybody doesn't say 'Hello, how are you?'
Expat Focus: Aha, yes. [laughing]
Lindsay de Feliz: And, you know, you can't chat to people that you don't know on the street. It's six of one, half dozen of another. It's just different.
Expat Focus: Yes. Okay, let's talk a little bit about the darker side. I mean, I know we've talked about developing a positive mental attitude and not letting things faze you and frustrate you, but some years ago you experienced a very difficult period, didn't you? I think back in 2005 or 2006, when there was a burglary in your home. Tell us more about that and what happened.
Lindsay de Feliz: I was out at a local karaoke bar. I drove home, and I went to open the gate to the house, and there were two guys there who were attempting to rob the house. And they didn't want to get caught robbing the house, so they shot me, from close range, just here [pointing to her throat] straight through the throat. And my dogs then attacked them, they left. I was discovered, taken to hospital on the back of a motorbike, because there's no ambulances, had an emergency tracheotomy, and then was taken to a hospital in the capital where they put in chest drains so I could breathe again. And 12 days later I was fine. And a month later I had the bullet out.
Expat Focus: Wow.
Lindsay de Feliz: Thats why I don't speak as strongly now, because of the shooting.
Expat Focus: Okay, and so how are you feeling now? Apart from your voice are you completely recovered? Physically, at least, from it?
Lindsay de Feliz: Yeah, I recovered physically within probably a month I would say, apart from the voice, and there's unfortunately nothing that can be done about that because the first hospital, instead of doing a little tracheotomy-- I've seen it done in the films where they just push a ballpoint pen in.
Expat Focus: Yes. So have I, yeah.
Lindsay de Feliz: [laughing] Well they didn't do that, they cut a four-inch cut to put the tracheotomy in, and sliced through my vocal chords at the same time.
Expat Focus: Oh... Gosh. Okay, well it's a story, isn't it? It's a hell of a tale, I mean I must say I'm not aware of any other expats that I'm in touch with that have been through such an experience. And how did it make you feel afterwards about living where you're living, about being an expat there? I mean, was there any thought in your mind, 'oh my god what am I doing here, I want to go home', or 'I want to go somewhere where it's safe,' or safer at least?
Lindsay de Feliz: No, in fact, it was the opposite. When I was in hospital I probably had around 400 visitors. I was never alone, day and night. And people came to the house when I came back, and the generosity of the Dominicans and Haitians who lived here was amazing. And they saved my life. I mean, they found me, picked me up, you know, fought to make sure that I made it. So I was incredibly grateful to the friends I had. And it was one of those things, it could happen anywhere I think.
Expat Focus: Of course. I mean it's not as though there's no crime in the UK or the US or anything like that, so, yeah.
Lindsay de Feliz: Exactly. I think you're probably less likely to get shot in the UK than you are here, because guns are all over the place. A lot of people have guns. But it didn't put me off the country, no. It didn't put me off at all. And hopefully it won't happen again.
Expat Focus: Fingers crossed. Absolutely. All right, let's talk a little bit more about the health services then, because you talked about your experience, after you were shot, which I guess there was good experiences there and maybe not so good when we look at the tracheotomy and your voice, but generally speaking what are the health services like in the DR?
Lindsay de Feliz: If you live in the tourist areas, there are very good hospitals, because they're there for the tourists, and they're well equipped and have everything you want. In the capital, Santo Domingo, and the second biggest city, Santiago, there are world class hospitals. That's where I was eventually taken, to the capital. And they do heart transplants, hip replacements, they are world class. There is a public health service which is only to be used in dire emergencies. If you are admitted there you get a bed, but you don't get sheets, you don't get a pillow, you don't get toilet paper, you don't get food. The bed is free, and the care is free, but you have to pay for all the medicines. Interestingly, the families look after you. The nursing staff don't, it's not their job, their job is to give injections. So, I wouldn't go into a public hospital unless I really had to. But every town, Dominican or expat area, has their own, what they call private clinics, and they don't have a GP as we know in England. There are a range of specialists, so there will be a gynecologist, there'll be an ENT person and you just make an appointment and go and see one of those. I don't think they will be as good as they would be in the UK or the US. But, apart from the shooting, I mean, I did get through it, so, it wasn't that bad. The health is okay. But you do need to get insurance, because nothing's free apart from the public hospitals.
Expat Focus: And am I right in thinking that there is no social security in the Dominican Republic? Is that right?
Lindsay de Feliz: They are trying to introduce one, but most people don't want to pay for it. It's part employer paid and part employee paid, and neither side really wants to give up any money. Because it's such a new system. Again, it's optional, it's supposed to be compulsory. Maybe in ten years' time it'll be up and running properly. But there are no pensions, for example, unless you work for the military, or a large corporation. So most people, if they don't work, they have no money, so they rely on their children to give them money.
Expat Focus: Okay, interesting. All right, let's cover two sort of basic expat things. I want to talk very briefly about property, and also about businesses, or starting a business. So let's look at property to begin with. If you're an expat who, you're coming to the DR, you want to find somewhere nice to live, how do you go about it?
Lindsay de Feliz: If you're looking to rent, you have to be on the ground. There really aren't many good rental websites. So you get to the place you think you want to stay, and you just put the word out that you're looking for somewhere to rent, and people will point out to you what the properties are available for rent. Sometimes in the expat areas, you will find online websites that do have some rental properties. And rent will vary dramatically in price. In a Dominican area, for example, for 150 pounds a month you will end up with a beautiful villa. In the expat enclaves you can pay a thousand, 1,500 pounds a month for the same thing.
Expat Focus: Okay. So it's very much word of mouth. Rather than going through a central repository, or central listing service. Okay, and is this the same for buying property as well?
Lindsay de Feliz: For buying, there are lots of websites again. There are lots of estate agents, and in the expat areas a lot are actually run by expats, so you are more likely to find a property if you are online than you are rental. But again, you really need to be here, because there are some that are for sale, but they haven't actually put them with the individual estate agents.
Expat Focus: Okay. So again, word of mouth is very important.
Lindsay de Feliz: Yes.
Expat Focus: And do you have a sense about prices? Let's say you're a British citizen or a US citizen, you're thinking about moving abroad, and you're considering, let's say, maybe France, maybe New Zealand, maybe Dominican Republic. How do the prices differ, would you say? I'm guessing they're cheaper where you are. Would that be fair, or am I wrong?
Lindsay de Feliz: I think, if you want oceanfront, on the Caribbean or the Atlantic ocean, at the top, you will pay 300,000-350,000 dollars for a three of four bedroomed house. If you'll want to be still in an oceanfront town, but you're living further back, probably a quarter of a million dollars. And if you're living in the centre of the country, you can get something nice for 100,000-150,000 dollars.
Expat Focus: Okay, interesting. That's, useful information to have I think. All right, let's imagine a scenario where you're, again, planning to move to the Dominican Republic, but you may not be coming with a lot of money in the bank, and you're thinking, 'I'm going to set up a business if I can'. Is that feasible, as an expat?
Lindsay de Feliz: It's feasible, but you need to be very careful, and if you don't have a lot of money it's probably not advisable. Everything will cost more than you think it will. If you're going to be legal, and pay the taxes, you may get charged more because you're an expat, so you can never tell. Labor is very cheap here. One of the things we have here are what are called the 'free zones', and these are areas which are tax-free, and there are all sorts of amazing tax breaks. The staff are all Dominican, but they're owned usually by Americans, Canadians, Japanese, Spanish people, and they're used to manufacture clothing, small tools, jewelry, and then all of the stuff that's manufactured is then exported. And those will get a lot of expats working, so if you have a manufacturing type business, then that's something that can be setup in the free zones where you have all sorts of tax breaks. Other options, people come here and setup estate agencies totally unregulated, so anybody can do that. But if you're something like a doctor, or a lawyer, you have to get all of your qualifications re-approved by the Dominican system, and that can take years, if it ever happens. So some skills aren't transferable.
Expat Focus: All right, those are the boring questions out of the way. [laughing] So let's talk a little bit more about your blog. And just to remind people, that's yoursaucepans.blogspot.com. Tell us more about it. When did you start it? Why did you start it? And what's it like keeping people entertained on a regular basis?
Lindsay de Feliz: I started it around... probably only 18 months ago, two years ago. I'd read somebody's blog and I thought 'this is a good idea', because so many things happened to me. So I started it then and I put on a post a month, I think. And then, slowly, I started to build up people who were reading it, and now I post every two or three days. Either on daily life here, or about something specifically about the Dominicans that I find interesting, or quirky, or different. And I'm also involved with a group of bloggers who are doing an A to Z of their particular country around the world. So I'm doing the A to Z of the Dominican Republic. I'm up to letter U though, so that's nearly over. But I love doing it, I keep thinking I'm gonna run out of something to say and then something happens and I can suddenly blog about it. And people are used to seeing me here, walking around with my camera, looking for things to take shots of that I think people will be interested in.
Expat Focus: Yeah, the photos are excellent, they really are.
Lindsay de Feliz: Good, I'm glad you enjoy them. I just love entertaining people, and I'm now getting a good following of Dominicans who really enjoy seeing their life through the eyes of an expat. Things that, to them, are normal, they didn't realize that we found quite so different.
Expat Focus: Have you got a favorite post, or a favorite topic, which always gets a lot of replies?
Lindsay de Feliz: The one that gets the most looks, hits, is the one about Sanky Pankies.
Expat Focus: Right! Okay, I'm glad you mentioned that, because I wanted-- [laughing] I did want to ask you about that a bit later, but now that you've mentioned it, tell us more. What is Sanky Panky, or a Sanky Panky?
Lindsay de Feliz: A Sanky Panky is a Dominican, or Haitian, whose one aim in life is to extort as much money as possible out of a foreign lady.
Expat Focus: Ah. I see. Okay.
Lindsay de Feliz: There are--we talked earlier about the problem of getting out of poverty--there are lots of Dominicans who want to marry a foreign woman, because of the fact that to them it's a way out. Maybe they will get taken overseas, where they can work hard, send money home to their family. That's fine. A Sanky Panky goes one further, though. He will try and have relationships with as many women as possible. I've known one, for example, who had eleven cell phones, each one with a different name on it, from the eleven women he had on the go.
Expat Focus: That sounds like a lot of hard work I've got to say. [laughing]
Lindsay de Feliz: And they will lie to get money. They will tell the woman, 'oh dear, I'm going to be arrested if I don't pay the police 200 dollars, please send me the money.' And each of the women will send him the money. So, ladies coming here: Dominican men are lovely, and very easy to fall in love with, but you do have to make sure that they want you for who you are and not just for your money.
Expat Focus: Yes. And I'm interested, how are men like that--Sanky Pankies--how are they viewed by other local Dominican men? Is it a good thing, or is it something which is looked down upon?
Lindsay de Feliz: It's both. On the one hand, people will be jealous, looking at the success that they're having and the amount of money that they're getting. And on the other hand, sensitive Dominicans, serious Dominicans, don't like the fact that they give a bad name to the ones who are serious. And if you're with a serious Dominican, and you call him a Sanky Panky, that is an insult.
Expat Focus: Interesting. All right, we're coming up to the end now, but we haven't talked about your book, the forthcoming book. So tell us more about that. What's going to be in it, and when will we be able to read it?
Lindsay de Feliz: The book is going to be called 'What About Your Saucepans?' and it's basically about my eleven years, ten-eleven years here. Starting from why I decided to come, how I felt the euphoria when I first moved here, how I married a Dominican and started living a life amongst the Dominicans, the shooting, and all the differences and challenges that I've faced living here as an expat. I hope it's informative about the country. It's also amusing, it can be very sad in parts (as well). I'm halfway through the editing at the moment, and hopefully it should be out (if all goes well) by the end of the year.
Expat Focus: Okay. So anyone who's enjoyed your blog will enjoy the book as well.
Lindsay de Feliz: Yes, I hope so. I think it will appeal to people who love this country as much as I do, who want to know more about the DR, and to people who just are thinking about making that big step to become an expat.