Hanging With the Hustlers of the Dominican Republic
Story and photos by Dave Seminara

In the Dominican Republic, tourists are like kings and queens. It is not uncommon to see these sovereigns-for-a-week getting pedicures and massages, tropical drink in hand, on the country's pristine beaches. A vacationing writer joins the fray with his family, being alternately fêted like a caliph and hustled like a rube.

Dominican Republic travel story

Tourism accounts for about 10% of GDP in the Dominican Republic, the highest share of any country in Latin America. And so the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the country's economy. Aside from the hundreds of thousands of Dominicans who work in hotels and other businesses that cater to tourists, there are legions of street hustlers, including some I met like Maximo from Arroyo Salado, Luciano from Sosua, and Pablo from Puerto Plata. They make a living prowling the nation's beaches and touristic sites for customers.

As I found out, these folks are now hungrier than ever. As a traveler entering this desperate scene, one feels a bit like a fat turkey tiptoeing into a den of lions.

I typically avoid hustlers who bum rush me while abroad with "I give you good price!" "I take you on special tour, my friend!" entreaties. But in the DR, I broke all my usual rules, listening to every offer and hiring people left, right, and center to perform services both vital and frivolous. But I still didn't please everyone, especially a poor soul named Pablo from Puerto Plata.

"I saved your life man," he told me one day after guiding me to a workshop where I bought a hand-painted globe for a quarter of the price I saw it for at a nearby souvenir stand. "What you gonna do for me? What you gonna do for Pablo?" he repeated, rubbing his hands together as if he were about to become the beneficiary of a life-changing windfall. "It better be big!"

No Tranquil Day at the Beach

At Playa Arroyo Salado, the river of the same name splits a glorious two-mile beach of golden sands and towering palm trees into two chunks. It was lunchtime on Easter Sunday and the holiday revelry was already in full swing. A line of cars, their tiny frames rattling with thundering, repetitive, God-awful-to-my-ears Reggaeton music, formed a slow-moving conga line as we searched for a parking spot. Scores of children took turns jumping off a bridge into the mouth of the river.

Dominican Republic playa arroyo

We drove past at least a dozen humble, colorful food shacks along the beach and a woman greeted our car as I pulled into the only parking space I noticed. I assumed that she wanted me to pay for the parking spot—which was fine. But, as it turns out, this isn't how Dominican beaches work, or at least not this one. "Parking is free if you eat at our restaurant," she said in Spanish. But I didn't know if I wanted to eat at her restaurant.

At a nearby parking lot, a man in a bright red jersey directed us into an impossibly tight spot that I wondered how we'd ever get out of. The man approached, seemingly wanting us to pay for the parking space. But no, he handed us off to another gent named Maximo.

The game wasn't about parking, it was about snaring customers for the day, tourists who would rent chairs and umbrellas, then purchase meals and drinks. I was hungry and elected to leave our fate in Maximo's hands, so we followed him onto the vast beach past large, festive groups of people clustered in plastic chairs around booming speaker systems, each pumping awful music into the air the way an unscrupulous factory belches noxious fumes. Maximo hoisted a plastic table above his head, asking us where we wanted to set up.

I asked for a spot that was un poco mas tranquilo, but it was Easter Sunday and tranquilo was not the order of the day. People were grilling meats, dancing, socializing, swimming, and living it up after a season of sacrifice and Covid lockdowns. We settled upon a patch of sand near the least deafeningly loudspeaker system in the area. My sons, Leo, 13, and James, 11, looked furious. They dislike beaches and were put off by the festive crowds. We had to shout to each other to be understood and I resorted to one of my standbys: Sorry guys, the complaints department is closed.

As Maximo scurried off to fetch some plastic chairs, it started to rain. I couldn't stop smiling, not because I enjoyed the noise and confusion, but because I couldn't help but find amusement in the absurdity of it all.

Although it seemed like chaos, there was a system in place and all the beach hustlers played their own roles in the playa ecosystem. Some scouts monitored the parking lot for arriving cars, others, like Maximo, set up chairs and fetched food and drinks. Women sold toilet paper outside the makeshift toilets for 25 Dominican pesos (40 cents) if you spoke Spanish, or $1 per portion if you did not. On other beaches we were to visit, women offered massages or pedicures on the beach, while men sold trinkets and jewelry. But not here because the crowd was entirely Dominican, and locals didn't need such things.

Maximo returned with plates of grilled chicken, fresh grouper, and chicken fingers for the boys, all covered with layers of clear plastic wrap. The food was good, if a bit lukewarm. Where did it come from? I had no idea and didn't care. The rain subsided. We were a bit wet but we were together as a family on a glorious beach. Life was perfect at that moment, at least for me. Maximo returned with the check—the meal was a bargain—and he asked if there was anything else we'd like.

I joked that Leo—who still wore a scowl—wanted to meet a Dominican girlfriend. "Un momento," Maximo said before hustling off. A minute later, he returned with Violeta, his 12-year-old cousin, a cute shy girl in a pair of jeans and an Adidas t-shirt. Leo was mortified and they were both too shy to say a word to each other, beyond hola. But I learned that on Dominican beaches, anything is possible.

Dominican Republic travel beach

In Search of Luciano

My brother Peter recommended we base ourselves in Cabarete, a beach town renowned for kite and windsurfing on the country's north shore. Peter has been visiting the places for years and knows all the beach hustlers in the area by name. I should probably explain here that I use the term "hustler" affectionately. A hustler isn't necessarily someone who takes advantage of others. Hustlers are also people who hustle and improvise to make a living. This sort of hustler is everywhere in the Dominican Republic. They hustle to survive.

Our first visit to Playa Sosua, just outside our base in Cabarete, was on a drizzly Tuesday. The beach was almost empty, save for a smattering of hustlers and the odd tourist eating lunch under shelters.

We arrived in Cabarete on a Sunday afternoon. The sun didn't come out until Thursday and much of the intervening time was rainy and windy. In a destination with plenty of indoor attractions, this may have been tolerable. But the North Coast of the DR is no place for indoor fun in the best of times, and these were Coronavirus times, when every museum and tourist attraction in the country, save beaches, was closed.

Our marching orders for Playa Sosa were to find Luciano, my brother's preferred beach hustler there. A series of hustlers backed off when I told them I was looking for Luciano. It was almost like walking through a red light district with a woman on your arm. Oh he's with Luciano they muttered before shuffling off in defeat.

DR wrong lucianoLuciano was a wiry, balding man who was wearing a wife beater tank top. I showed him a photo of Peter, and asked if he remembered him. Luciano studied the photo carefully as though it was an ancient treasure map. Claro, claro, he said. Of course he remembered him.

Luciano set us up on the beach and brought us some delicious chicken mofongo, a Dominican/Puerto Rican specialty made with fried green plantains, which are mashed with garlic and mixed with pork cracklings. The price was very reasonable—around $30 or so for lunch for four people plus the chairs and umbrellas. Once again, I had placed my trust in a Dominican beach hustler, and he had come through for me.

I took a photo of Luciano and texted it to my brother. After we left, he broke the news to me that I had found the wrong Luciano. And so, we returned three days later, when the sun was finally out, with more precise directions. Look for the Luciano who hangs out near the lifeguard stand.

Luciano number two, who also reassured us that he knew my brother but was much more convincing than Luciano number one, set us up on the beach and also brought us chicken mofongo. He was extremely nice but sadly his mofongo was crap. Sorry Peter.

Sandro and the Nepotistic Grifters

My brother's favorite hustler is named Sandro. Sandro's beach—Playa Grande—was much more to my liking than busy Playa Sosúa. It was big, probably a mile long at least, and almost completely undeveloped. It had lots of natural shade.

playa grande inDominican Republic

When we asked for Sandro, the man we queried asked if we wanted Little Sandro or Big Sandro. I guessed Big Sandro and when a smiling Dominican with a beer belly came ambling over I immediately showed him Peter's photo and asked if he knew him. "That's my brother, Peter," he said.

"Yep, he's my brother too," I replied.

Sandro turned out to be a delightful character and he actually knows my brother well. In fact, Peter had recently sent him a bit of money to help tide him over during the pandemic. Sandro sells wooden handicrafts and also fixes up meals and chairs for visitors. He told us that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner stayed at Amanera, the luxurious resort at the far end of the beach last summer. I later went down to investigate and, sure enough, the place is preposterously expensive enough that this could be true.

travel in Dominican Republic

A security guard told me the villas range from about $2,000-$7,000 per night. He claimed the place was sold out though there were no tourists lying on the hotel's sun beds. "The people stay in their villas because it's not sunny," he explained.

A Souvenir Hunt With Persistent Pablo

Puerto Plata, a sprawling port town of about 300,000 people, is the only proper city on the North Coast of the Dominican Republic. On a rainy day, we figured it would be a good place to kill some time. Hustlers in Puerto Plata, at least on rainy days, congregate in the city's principal square, Parque Central. We were approached by three or four of them, one by one, as we parked our car and trudged through the rain across the square.

I listened politely to their pitches. Given the pandemic and the rain, business was beyond slow. But we just wanted to wander around, and so I said no to all the would-be tour guides. We were hungry and the few restaurants open near the square looked unappealing. Sensing our indecision in the rain, an eager hustler approached us.

"You looking for a place to eat?" he asked, before introducing himself. "I'm Pablo."

Pablo was wearing a sweater and jeans. He was handsome in a way, for a guy of around 40, but he had too much gel in his hair.

I was leery of him because he talked too fast and was much too eager.

"I used to live in Rochester, too cold though," he said, clutching his biceps and shivering to emphasize his point. "I only lasted six months."

"Rochester, New York?" I asked. "I grew up very close to there in Buffalo."

"Yeah," he said. "I married an American woman."

I asked him a few questions about the area but he knew nothing about it, leading me to believe he was trying to set us at ease by concocting a fictitious American connection. Pablo escorted us a few blocks away to a local restaurant that turned out to be a decent recommendation. After lunch, we ducked into a souvenir store and I found a mahogany globe I fancied. It was so colorful and rudimentary—all the places were very crudely drawn and often misspelled—that I had to have it. But the shop owner wanted a preposterous $260 for it.

James came into the shop to warn me. "Pablo says don't buy anything here," he said.

Pablo was waiting for us as we exited the shop.

"You want that globe?" he asked, as we started to walk back toward our car in a light rain.

"Maybe," I said. "But it was too expensive."

"How much did he want for that globe?"

"$260," I said, but immediately regretted it.

"$260? No way!" he exclaimed, throwing his head back, and laughing hysterically.

"Follow me, I'm going to take you to the factory where they make those globes," he said.

And so off we went, back through the main square and in a direction we hadn't previously explored, past colorfully painted but very shabby homes and humble shops in the rain.

Dominican Art shop

At one point, Pablo exchanged cross words with a man standing in front of a souvenir shop. "You see," Pablo said. "They don't like it when I bring tourists right to the workshop!"

And with that, we followed Pablo into a small workshop where a Black woman with most of her teeth missing was presiding over bins full of trinkets. "She has globes, you should get one of the big ones," Pablo said, pulling a couple down for me to examine.

The woman's tables were so full of piles of souvenirs, that I couldn't set the globes down, I could only scrutinize them in my hands. I picked one I liked and asked how much. The woman regarded me warily, sizing me up for several long moments. I savored the tension, loving the fact that I had no idea if she was about to ask for $12 or $300.

"Fifty dollars," she said at last.

"I'll give you forty," I countered.

The woman smiled shyly, before saying, "Come on give me forty-five then."

The way she said it was so half-hearted that I reckoned she was quite happy with my $40 offer. "I'll take it for forty," I said.

She immediately agreed and bundled the globe up in old newspapers. Pablo practically levitated out of the shop.

Dominican Republic Pablo

"Forty dollars man!" he said. "I told you! You were going to pay $260!"

"No, I wasn't," I said.

"I saved your life man." he said. "I saved your life!"

Dominican Payoffs and Pleasures

As we walked back toward the square, he said, "Put it in your car. I don't want anybody around here to steal it."

I wondered why he was so insistent but did as I was told.

Pablo kept repeating his "I saved your life man," mantra until I offered to buy him an ice cream. "Ice cream?" he repeated, looking disgusted as though I'd offered him a mug of frothy camel puke. "I don't want ice cream. Too cold today."

Pablo paced around the patio area of the Austrian-owned ice cream parlor, surveying the scene in the square as we ate our cones. I hoped that he might spot some new arrivals and scram, but he was waiting around for a big payday from us. When the drizzle turned into a downpour, I sensed an opportunity. "I'll go pull the car around for you," I said to my wife. I tucked a folded up 100-peso ($2) bill into Pablo's hand and ran for my life through the pelting rain to our car. As I hurdled over puddles, I heard Pablo shout, "But I saved your life man!"

When I picked my family up, Jen said, "Why'd you leave us with Pablo? He spent the whole time bitching about you!"

James piped up from the backseat. "He told me, 'your dad is so cheap!'"

I couldn't stop laughing on the long car ride back to Cabarete. The words, "What are you going to do for Pablo," rang in my head. I started to wonder though if perhaps I should have given him a bigger tip.

On our last day in the DR, we headed back to Playa Grande, where we had another glorious seafood lunch on the beach, served up by Big Sandro. Still feeling like perhaps I'd slighted poor Pablo, I bought some souvenirs from Sandro and gave him a generous tip.

A trio of women, a pair of sisters and their granddaughter, as it turned out, had a little massage tent set up on a mini-bluff just above the beach. The granddaughter told me her price was $20 for an hour and I agreed. Her hands were warm and soft and she turned my knotty skin into putty as I listened to the sound of the waves crashing into the shore.

Five minutes into an already heavenly massage, I felt another set of hands on me. I assumed it was a hustle—I'd be charged $40 instead of $20, right? I clarified the price and they assured me it was just $20. I was floored by their work ethic. Rather than just take a break after she was done with one client, the youngish grandma pitched in to give me an even better experience, even though I was just a visitor who may never return to the beach. I wanted to erect a statue in their honor but had to settle for a photo.

The Globe That Didn't Save My Life

Dominican Republic souvenir globeThe globe was wrapped up so I didn't have a chance to properly examine it until we returned to the States. When I set it on my desk, I realized why it was on sale. The stand wasn't level, so it wobbled around like a drunk after last call on St. Patrick's Day. I had to prop it up against a wall to prevent it from toppling. I sanded the damn thing for a good hour but accomplished nothing more than making a big mess.

I didn't want a globe that needed to be leaned up against a damn wall! As I thought about it, I realized why Pablo was adamant about me stowing it in my car. He didn't want me to inspect it too carefully.

After some time passed, I made peace with my wobbly souvenir. After all, what appealed to me about the globe in the first place was how childish it was. I liked how my adopted home state of Florida was spelled Florid. The fact that Thailand looked like one impossibly long, skinny finger and was located in between "Tai Peh" and "Bermanie" appealed to me.

I still admire how the Dominican cartographer, who is clearly addicted to some kind of hallucinogenic drug, spells Singapore "Singapour." The very best souvenirs represent places and people we want to remember. They take us back on vacation. If my globe had been purchased in Switzerland, I would be furious. But I bought it in the Dominican Republic, thanks to a guy named Pablo who says he saved my life. And so as a memento, my delightfully imperfect globe is just about perfect.

Dave Seminara is a writer and former diplomat in Florida. He is the author of the books Footsteps of Federer: A Fan's Pilgrimage Across 7 Swiss Cantons in 10 Acts and Mad Travelers: A Tale of Wanderlust, Greed & the Quest to Reach the Ends of the Earth 

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Following the Grooves in Martinique - Darrin DuFord
Coconut Mafia Friendship Club - Luke Armstrong

See other Caribbean travel stories from the archives

Read this article online at: Hanging With the Hustlers of the Dominican Republic

Copyright © Perceptive Travel 2021. All rights reserved.

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Footsteps of Federer: A Fan's Pilgrimage Across 7 Swiss Cantons in 10 Acts

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Mad Travelers: A Tale of Wanderlust, Greed & the Quest to Reach the Ends of the Earth

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