We just landed in the tourist port in Puerto Plata, and immediately we’re ambushed with all the western comforts I came on this trip to escape: first-world stores like Versace and incredibly overpriced taxis. Moments after disembarking, I’m being hounded by cab drivers and tourist-devouring vultures. I look to my roommate and we both share a knowing look… “let’s get the f**k outta here!”. On our way out, we find a taxi that drives us to a place willing to rent us scooters for three days. I say ‘willing’ because almost everyone we meet insists that the country- the people, the roads, and the weather are too dangerous for us to handle.

Top of Pico Isabel De Torres

They aren’t far off. Some of the roads are cracked in half, others are flooded, and every time we sit on our scooters there are thunderstorms. Despite these setbacks, the adventure we set out on formed a different opinion in our minds. Most locals chuckle at the sight of two Americans wearing flip flops and a bathing suit and kindly respond to our broken Spanish. An important distinction is between genuine kindness and a few coy individuals that will prey on ignorance. One action to take is learning local prices on staple items to know your purchasing power. When renting our escape pods, I’m quoted $60/scooter per day. Immediately, I act offended to such a high number. Negotiation tactics 101: I get him to cut the price in half, and then I keep bartering. During our conversation, I ask him what he paid for lunch. He replies that it was the equivalent of $4; I compare my lunch in Miami to his and the cost of scooters in Miami to the rate he wants to charge me. He’s in shock for a moment that I turned such a trivial question into bargaining leverage, but then we settle on $23/scooter per day. Be confident in the prices you are willing to pay and be willing to walk away. Without that confidence, you will get charged a premium for being a foreigner.

Before beginning your adventure, you may find it useful to download maps of your area. If you have a personal compass in the form of a roommate however, it’s good to keep him handy. When you’re feeling as adventurous as us, get ready to brush up on your Spanish and get to know some locals. Having a general plan when you’re new to a place is useful, but don’t be afraid to break from it for an impromptu adventure. I can’t stress enough that your experiences are mostly dependent on how vulnerable you allow yourself to be. If you’re willing to open yourself to strangers, you will be surprised at how much love you’ll be received with. Although scary at first, if you lead by example, others will also open their hearts to you. Conversations will become about deeper feelings and purpose, allowing you to connect intimately with amazing people.

On Thanksgiving morning, I wake up early enough to eat first and second breakfast before heading out to work alongside some locals. Before leaving, two women I have gotten to know invite my roommate and I to eat Thanksgiving dinner with them. I am very surprised by the warm invitation, and I tell them that since we will be exploring the country during the day we’re not sure if we will make it back in time for dinner.

Even before that adventure can begin, I make my way to Altamira for a few hours to plant Cacao trees and make chocolate to be sold in grocery stores around the country. Having the opportunity to work with the women here is so enriching; they are so happy to have us here and working alongside them. They teach me how to sort through the seeds, then they explain the process of roasting, and finally how to mold the chocolate. Just look at this woman’s beautiful smile — it says it all.

The woman who taught me how to mold — feeding me some chocolate :)

On the way back, I meet Steven- a boy that is studying computers and software development. He’s explaining to me that he wants to help his father with his medical practice by making him an application that would help him manage his patients easier. He speaks with such a passion that touches my heart, so I offer my services as an instructor and consultant for free. And then my heart continues to melt as Steven, who just told me in all his pride and strength about his path, looks into my eyes and profoundly blesses my soul. In his eyes I’m met with so much gratitude that I feel lost for words. I hadn’t realized at the time, but a woman nearby overheard our conversation; later on the ship she briefly told this story to a group of our peers, and their reaction warmed my heart again. Being able to help in any way possible is my goal for this trip, and hearing my story being shared was proof that I am on the right path. After exchanging contact info with Steven, I venture back to the ship to continue with the next phase in the bulking plan: lunch one and two.

planting Cacao trees in Altamira

Filled with food and love, I’m ready to venture back out into the country… My intelligent roommate was unconvinced. The rain is pouring, but he knows there is no escaping the woes of Mo. Within 2 minutes, I convince him and two lovely ladies to join me on an adventure. Ready for the rain and oh-so-terrifying roads, the four of us make our way east towards Sosua. Someone cheeky from the ship told me that even though the weather was horrible and rental shops would be closed, that I may be crazy enough to convince locals just past Sosua to rent me their kite boards to go kite surfing. Of course, I was game for that… and within 5 minutes of leaving I realized that I forgot swimming clothes. Naked kite surfing, here I come!

At ‘Fun City’, strapped in and ready to race!

Maneuvering through traffic and water-filled crevices on the scooter is requiring tremendous focus. As the rain gets worse, Liz reaches her angel-like hand over my shoulder to shield my eyes from the pelting drops of rain that blind me with each sting. Suddenly, we pass a go-kart track to my left. After hitting a few potholes, we turn around to check if it’s open. Lo and behold, during a thunderstorm, they are open! Liz sweet talks the guys at the track and gets us extremely cheap tickets to go kart for 45 minutes. The track is called ‘Fun City’ and I would definitely recommend going for some competition and hilarity. Make sure to butter up the guys there to get the fastest kart ;) After I won a few laps, the downpour went from kittens to torrential waves so we huddled under a covering until it got lighter. Then we continued east to Sosua.

We got into town just as the rain picked up again… surprise surprise…

We quickly find a place to have first dinner and order some delicious seafood and Presidente, the local Dominican beer. Before leaving, I look for the bathroom. It turns out in this part of the country, people’s bathrooms are outside of their homes and they lock the doors from the outside. The bathrooms don’t have electricity or a flushing toilet. I knock on the closest door I find and a man answers. In my broken Spanish, I ask to use his bathroom and he says yes! I’m really blown away by his generosity because not only did he come out in the rain to unlock the door for me, he also went in his home to find me a candle and matches so that I would have light. This man who barely understood my horrible Spanish, who doesn’t owe me a thing, went out of his way to help me. As if I needed more reasons to fall in love with the Dominican Republic and her people.

Getting back to the ship was proving to be a challenge and a half. In the dark (rain is a given at this point), we keep going until the rain becomes unbearable on the eyes. About 20 minutes away from the ship, we’re forced to pull over under a gas station where many other motorcyclists are seeking shelter. Within minutes, the streets were flooded so we decide to hang around until it was ‘safe’ to drive again.

We strike up conversation with the other stragglers and even though our Spanish is truly limited, we have such a good laugh with them. They’re so genuine and lovely. One of them asks how much we paid for the scooters. After figuring out our numbers, he was surprised that we were able to get them at such a good price — SCORE: Americanos 1, DR 0 ! Finally, the rain subsides enough that I recommend we leave. Although they warn us against it, we have dinner with amazing people to attend. Off into the flooded roads…

beautiful strangers

On the ride back, I’m getting annihilated by massive waves every time a truck passes by. Somehow, we arrive at the port in one piece. We park, immediately sprint to the ship, and get to our room five minutes before dinner. Jump in the shower for 30 seconds, change, and run to the restaurant. There is a huge line waiting to be seated but we get to the front like VIPs at the club.

Friendship bracelet

We walk into the dining room to see two place holders with our names: Mo and Erik. After a bountiful amount of hugs, we stare at the letters on our plates eager to open them. With everything handmade, a friendship bracelet slings down the card that greets us with such love. The amount of laughs throughout the meal shows how strangers can quickly become family, which of course means dinner went on for hours. You turn your head one way and see two people wrestling over the light fixture, while I turn my head back and all of a sudden of chocolate is being tenderly fed to me. The night has only just begun for us. After copious amounts of dessert, we head to the dance floor. I am not a dancer, and before tonight, I was terrified of performing in front of an audience. Amongst my new friends and family, this all melted away. I brought my partner out, and we let the flavorful tunes of salsa and bachata take over.

Dinner crew!

The rest of the cruise was great, but I’ll end here to share my main message: open yourself. Only when you’re at your most vulnerable can you experience things that will change you forever. If you love freely, you will be loved fiercely. It is terrifying at first, but there is no denying it- you will come back from any experience changed for the better if you go with an open heart. Because of this trip, I have decided to be stronger than my fear of judgement or failure. Already, it has impacted my life positively in many ways. The day I came back home, I was able to finish a climb that I normally would never have attempted. With no fear of failing, I was just in the moment. In the moment, I surprised myself. So go out there and surprise yourself. Be the better version of you — without fear, because people will love you for who you are if you let them.

Bonus: When we were returning our scooters on Friday, we ended up meeting some of the guys from the night before from under the gas station. They hollered our names as we drove past, so we stopped to look. They were thrilled to see us again, and we were delighted to be remembered so fondly even though we met so briefly. They invited us to go on an adventure with them, but since our ship was leaving soon we were unable to join them. This is the power of opening yourself up to strangers! Love and be loved.