14 September 2016

Ilana Benady - Expat in the Dominican Republic

Ilana Benady - Expat in the Dominican Republic

We’ve had the chance to talk to Ilana Benady, 52, a British expat who has moved to the Dominican Republic with her family. Mrs. Benady who has been living there for 17 years, now works as a translator, researcher and writer.

Read more about her experiences in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you from originally?

A: Gibraltar.


Q: What made you move out of Gibraltar?

A: I went to university in the UK, and I stayed on.


Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: The Dominican Republic. In the UK, I worked at the head office of Oxfam for several years. My work there took me to several countries, including the Dominican Republic.


Q: How long have you been living in the Dominican Republic?

A: 17 years.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family? If yes, how are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?

A: I live with my husband, who is Dominican, and our 15-year old son.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? How do you cope with homesickness?

A: Not very much, we visit them once a year and speak online very often so it’s not a problem. I do miss some aspects of the UK and Gibraltar but not enough to make me seriously wish I was still living there!


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: Although it sounds like a stereotypical generalisation, it is undeniable that people are warmer and friendlier compared to Europeans. Because I am from a Latin background and speak fluent Spanish, I blend in a little better than an Anglo-Saxon expat. I have found that if you focus on commonalities rather than differences, it is always possible to find people on your wavelength wherever you go.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in the Dominican Republic? How did you manage to find a social circle there?  

A: First of all I made a lot of friends through work, which is also how I met my husband. Then through him, I met his family and friends and struck a balance between local and expat friends. I realised the importance of this after one of the first friends I met here, an expat, left the country and I was hit hard by her departure. Since then I have been better prepared emotionally for people moving in and out of our lives. I have also met some friends online (DR1 forums) and as with most parents, through our son and his friends.


Q: How does the cost of living in the Dominican Republic compared to your home?

A: It varies. Some things are more expensive; others are cheaper. I try to buy as much locally produced food as possible, which is easy for fruit and vegetables and many of the basics, but there are also many tempting imported foods that don’t have a local equivalent!

  • Q: How much is a cup of coffee?

A: Some places serve coffee at no cost: a thermos or urn of coffee in waiting rooms, for example. Beware if you don’t like sugar in your coffee because it will be served ultra sweet in people’s homes and modest establishments. A coffee shop or restaurant will probably charge about £1.40, and the sugar will be provided as an option on the side.

  • Q: How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

A: A basic dish of the day (Plato del día) in a modest cafeteria (comedor) would be two or three pounds. This would give you rice, beans, meat (pork, beef, chicken or fish) and salad and a glass of water. This dish is known as La Bandera Dominicana – the Dominican flag.

  • Q: How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

A: This varies, of course. There are places where you can run up a bill of hundreds of dollars, but a family of three going to a middle-class restaurant in our local area, which is a little more expensive than the rest of the country, would pay at least £60.

  • Q: How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

A: You can get a Chilean Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc for under RS$500, which would be about £8. A bottle of local beer (Presidente) is about £2, imported beer about £3. A packet of cigarettes is under £3.


Q: Do you have any tips for future expats when it comes to opening a bank account in the Dominican Republic?

A: You need to present a passport or Dominican ID if you are a resident. You may have to get some documentation translated by a certified legal translator.


Q: How will you describe your experience with government paperwork such as applications for Visa and work permits? Why is that so?

A: I applied for residency when you could still start the process locally. For the last couple of years, the process has changed, and you have to start in your home country, by applying at the nearest Dominican Consulate.


Q: Would you say that healthcare in the Dominican Republic is reliable? Any preferred clinics or advice for expats?

A: I would say it is hit and miss. There are good doctors and facilities here, but in my experience, there is an over-reliance on tests and limited diagnostic skills, or at least a reluctance to rely on a straightforward diagnosis. There are several private clinics in the larger cities and in the main tourist areas that cater to foreigners and have bilingual staff for that purpose, including Hospiten, which is part of a Spanish chain (Santo Domingo and Punta Cana) and HOMS in Santiago.


Q: Did you secure a health insurance in your home or in the Dominican Republic? What should be the essentials in the coverage for expats, in your opinion?

A: I have a Dominican health insurance. The essentials would depend on your age and circumstances, but some cover dentistry and medications, others don’t. The main companies are Popular and Humano.


Q: What was the most memorable about the packing and moving process to the Dominican Republic? Which was the mover you chose and how was your experience with them?

A: I can’t remember the name of the company - it was such a long time ago! My employer at the time covered the cost of shipping about four boxes of personal belongings. The only difficult part was getting it out of customs at this end (Santo Domingo), which had to be done with the help of an agent. This was all coordinated and paid for by my employer, but I remember having to make a lot of phone calls to chase and cajole him into doing his job.


Q: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as a new expat?

A: The rejection stage of culture shock hit me fairly hard. This is a typical response after an initial honeymoon period. You go from being starry-eyed about everything to feeling annoyed by practically everything about the country, even really stupid trivial things. I can’t have been a very nice person to be around during those months, but I did come through it and am still here almost 20 years later. Still loving the country warts and all. A lot of these issues are covered in the book I wrote with Ginnie Bedggood, Dominican Republic Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture (Kuperard, 2010).


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in the Dominican Republic?

A: At the macro level, I like being away from all the problems in the UK and Europe. I follow it on the news and feel glad I am not in the midst of it. This country has its own problems, so I feel the anger and frustration at the corruption and neglect by the authorities, the injustice and inequality that keeps people – and the country - behind. At the micro level, it is simply a pleasant place to live, for obvious reasons like weather and amiability of people. I have to stress, though, that we have moved away from the city to a safer and quieter part of the country that is not typical – we don’t have blackouts, the crime rate is low, the neighbourhood is cleaner so we are buffered from some of the realities that an expat living in a big city or some of the other tourist areas might have to confront. One thing that does worry me is road safety. The Dominican Republic has one of the worst road accident death rates in the world.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Any particular recommendations for future expats?

A: Aside from the obvious attractions of the country like beaches, sightseeing and sports, there are opportunities to get involved in local causes like environmental conservation, schools and orphanages as volunteer teachers, and animal welfare groups. It is also a great country to explore – with much more variety than most people realise. For example, the central mountains are like another country, with cool weather all year round. Parts of the south-west and the North West are semi-arid.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: Possibly, living here works for us in the current circumstances, but we may reconsider once our son leaves for university.


Q: What tips will you give to expats living in the country?

A: The obligatory tip is to rent before buying and get a feel for the place before committing. In the same vein, it is essential to have a good look around the country before deciding where to settle, as there is such a vast variety of options – expat enclave/local community, urban/rural, beach/mountain, touristy/non-touristy. Learn Spanish – it makes all the difference in the quality of interaction and cultivates a mixture of local and expat friends. Expats come and go. A lot of these issues are covered in the book I wrote with Ginnie Bedggood, Expat FAQs – Moving to and Living in the Dominican Republic (Summertime, 2011).


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about the Dominican Republic?

A: What About Your Saucepans

Dominican Cooking (Recipes and insight into Dominican culture, history and customs).

DR1.com – a daily news summary in English and active expat forums.

I would prefer a link to the Facebook page: Expat FAQDR.