I'm typing this on my laptop in the terminal at Santo Domingo Las Americas International Airport. My flight leaves in just under two hours, so I decided I'd get my thoughts down while they're still fresh.
The Dominican Republic in some ways matches American stereotypes of the Caribbean islands, and doesn't in other ways. The biggest is that, while there is poverty and misery, there's also a fair-sized middle class as well as the conspicuously rich. This is evident in a thousand different ways, and it makes for a widely varying picture to the uninitiated.
The first thing most folks first coming here will see is the road from the airport to Santo Domingo. It is the Dominican equivalent to a superhighway, complete with entrances and exits and a center concrete divider. The road runs along the beach for most of the way; on the side away from the ocean are tin shacks and crumbling concrete buildings, and the frontage road is full of ancient buses, cars, and trucks. People stop buses going the other way along the highway to get on and off, and cars and trucks stop as well, further highlighting the difference.
Drivers in general are much more aggressive than they are in the US, and perform maneuvers that will curl the average American's hair. On one trip in from the airport, I saw a car drive straight across all three lanes. The representative of the reseller who's working with me was amused at my reaction. He said that it was a completely normal thing to do. I explained that the last time I'd seen a car do that, there was another one on the freeway upside down.
To a very real extent, Dominicans drive much more defensively than Americans. They have to: lanes are treated as, at most, suggestions; two and three lanes of traffic turn, even if only one lane is marked; cars and trucks stop in the middle of the road, or pass in the oncoming lanes, or just drive as fast as their worn-out engines will allow - sometimes 20-30 MPH on a major road. Motorcycles wander in and out of traffic, moving or stopped, as though it's merely an obstacle. My Houston-trained reflexes were constantly telling me that we were about to have a big wreck, but there was never a bump.
There are poor people on the streets everywhere you turn. The one time I walked any distance, none bothered me aside from one guy who offered to have his lady friend give me a massage in my hotel room, and he was polite about it. I'm sure I'd feel reasonably safe if I spent much time there and got to know the area, but for now I'm just happy to have someone drive me around.
The disparity in incomes is evident in the housing market as well. There are many luxury condominiums recently built or under construction in the $400,000 to $1 million range, and they're snapped up as quickly as they can be built. A middle-class guy can buy a house for $70-150,000, and there are plenty available. The real gotcha is that mortgages are ruinously expensive. A 20-year mortgage on a $150,000 house will require one-third down, and carry an interest rate of 30%. I'm not sure what a poor person does for housing (presumably, the tin shacks and such that I saw on the way in), but there don't seem to be a lot of homeless people there. I don't know how much of a difference there is in the quality of life, though.
Construction is almost all concrete and concrete block, to withstand the tropical weather. Even so, there's a fair amount of damage with every storm that must be repaired.
Every intersection is swarming with people selling phone cards, newspapers, cellular telephone accessories, and other small, easy-to-handle merchandise. I never saw anyone buy anything, though.
The native cuisine is largely chicken and rice, with tropical fruit and plantains thrown in for good measure. There are plenty of restaurants with other kinds of food, with prices suited to the middle class - my lunch yesterday, for example, was a barbecue cheeseburger (in a restaurant/bar) with French onion soup and a Coke, which came to RD$360, about $9.
Electric power is grossly unreliable by American standards. Dominicans don't bat an eye when the power goes out, which it does, on average, once a day. Every house has a generator, and most businesses have two - and some, such as my hotel, have three, one primary and two backup. Data centers invariably are well-equipped with uninterruptible power. My co-worker remarked that there was a period of a few months when they only had one power outage a month, and his generator needed work because it broke from not being used enough.
Nearly everyone understands a few words of English, but only those who work with foreigners regularly - and not all of them, as my experience with Customs shows - speak enough to hold a conversation. Without it, I'm at a real disadvantage. I can fumble my way through reading most of it, and if someone talks slowly, and sticks to common words, I can eventually figure out their meaning, but it's slow and frustrating - and I dislike forcing others to put up with that kind of thing on my account.
Could I live here? Sure, if I had enough of an income. It would take more than a little adjustment, and in particular, I'd be nervous as hell on the roads for quite a while. I'd also have to learn Spanish well. Still, it's not like some other Caribbean countries mired in abject poverty, so it wouldn't be quite the leap that living in, say, Haiti - at the other end of the same island - would be.