23 August 2016

Sarah Kuras - Expat in the Dominican Republic

Sarah Kuras - Expat in the Dominican Republic

We’ve had the chance to talk to Sarah Kuras, an American expat who had moved alone to the Dominican Republic for a year.

When Ms. Kuras was offered a teaching position at the Dominican Republic where she had made some friends from her previous trips, she quickly grabbed the opportunity to live abroad. While salaries are lower, rental is cheap so the cost of living is affordable if you spend at the right places.

The language was a communication barrier at the start as most locals speak accented Spanish but after overcoming that, Ms. Kuras found the locals generally to be very caring. Living in a popular holiday destination, she also enjoyed the day trips to various towns, museums and mountains. However, she warned about the lack in service, transportation and mailing infrastructure. Additionally, Ms. Kuras advised expats to take safety precautions and build a trusted network of connections.

Ms. Kuras, a marketer in New York now, blogs in her free time. Read more about her experiences as an expat in the Dominican Republic in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you from originally?

A: United States.


Q: What made you move out of USA?

A: I had an offer for a teaching job in the Dominican Republic.


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

A: I moved to the Dominican Republic and had lived both in Santiago and Santo Domingo. I chose the Dominican Republic because I had friends there from previous trips with a non-profit. I had always wanted to live abroad so when I had the opportunity, I jumped at the chance.


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

A: I lived there for one year.


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

A: I came alone.


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

A: I definitely missed my friends and family. I purchased an unlimited internet plan for my phone so I could spend time talking with them through video chat or messaging. I also had savings so that I could visit my home state during the winter holidays.


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: Dominicans generally are very family oriented and welcoming. My coworkers and others I met during my time there were more than happy to show me around or give me advice. Some can be a little wary of outsiders, as not many people move to the Dominican Republic but once you gain their trust they are the most giving and caring people. The neighbours in my first apartment there always kept an eye out for me and my roommate, and any time we passed by their house, invited us over for coffee or juice.


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: With my work schedule, I had a hard time meeting new people. My social circle consisted largely of other teachers. My closest friends were other Americans or English speakers who I met through teaching.


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

A: Salaries are certainly lower than in the United States. Teaching jobs that provide housing are ideal since you can save your earnings for food and entertainment. Rent it is much cheaper in the Dominican Republic than in the United States. At one point, I lived in a furnished room in a beautiful apartment in a prime location in the capital with an elevator, parking garage and security guard and it was $350 a month. A comparable apartment in New York City would have been at least $1,500. Groceries are about the same, if shopping at major supermarket chains, because imported goods are pricey. A fluent Spanish speaker going to a local market could get much better prices.

  • Q: How much is a cup of coffee?

A: Prices depend on what you are looking for. At a small ‘colmado’, or corner store, a small cup could be about 25 cents; a latte or something more complicated at a coffee shop could be about $2.50.

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

A: At a Pico Pollo, a decent lunch can be had for about $2.50.

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

A: Depending on the restaurant, meals can be as much as a decent meal in New York City - $20USD and more per person.

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

A: Wine will be as much as you want to spend… I don’t smoke so I’m not sure how much cigarettes cost. However, what I found interesting is that packaged goods like cigarettes are offered in much smaller quantities than what you would expect in the states. This way a local can purchase a small amount with just the change in their pocket.


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

A: Go with a fluent Spanish speaker. Customer service is not a priority in the Dominican Republic. I was lucky because I had a colleague from my school go with me to the bank when I opened my account. My school provided me with an official letter and had a relationship with the bank so that I just had to provide ID and the letter to open the account.


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

A: These are extremely time-consuming. Gather all the papers you are told that you need – and then some, and be prepared to wait on many lines. The government offices are overwhelmed with visitors and do not have decent systems for processing. Be ready to go multiple times and to be told conflicting information. Do not get flustered or upset; it is not because they are trying to make things difficult, it is because sometimes employees truly do not know the proper procedure.


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

A: If your employer offers healthcare, please take advantage. Otherwise, ask your colleagues for recommendations of doctors to visit. I was very lucky in that I did not need to visit a hospital during my time there. When I was ill, I knew what medications to purchase, and they were available over the counter without a prescription. While in the United States, things like antibiotics and birth control require a prescription, you can go to a pharmacy and purchase these things. My advice here is to ask if they have a more “economical” option as pharmacies will try to sell the name brands to you first. Confirm the amounts and dosages on the package with your preferred brand at home to ensure they are selling the correct product to you.


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

A: My job provided a health coverage package so I didn’t have an option of what to choose. Take advantage of any health coverage offered to you. I also had a backup health plan in the United States.


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 sold most of my furniture, stored the rest with my family (for which I am grateful!) and I only brought three large bags with me. I brought mostly clothes for work and the essentials, deciding to buy anything else I needed upon arrival. In the large cities like Santiago and Santo Domingo, you can find anything you need in the big stores. If you are moving to a smaller, more remote area, bring sunblock and bug spray as these are harder to come by at the local stores. Additionally, consider bringing any small, handheld and hand powered kitchen appliance that you really really need, as these can be more expensive and of lower quality here. Shipping items to the Dominican Republic can be challenging as they don’t have a standardised mail system. Once, I received a package and had to pay to pick it up – and the person who sent it had to pay postage to send it, so we paid double. Of course, it wasn’t anything very important – it was a package filled with fun magazines from the US. As a result, they were the most expensive magazines I ever purchased.


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

A: The biggest challenge was orienting myself to my new city and learning the local dialect. The Dominican accent is unique and takes a little getting used to. Now, I speak Spanish like a Dominican.


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

A: The positive side of living in the Dominican Republic is that you are living where people go to vacation. This means that a weekend road trip can be to a remote beach or resort, to a waterfall, mountains, or dancing in the capital. The negative sides are the public transportation, as the system is piecemeal and there is no real map – you just have to learn as you go and ask people for different routes. While I had no problems with safety, I was very cautious and never carried around anything particularly valuable. Many of my students warned me about robberies and other small crimes but I never had a problem. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t put yourself in any situation that could be compromising. I had a favourite taxi driver and stored his personal number in my cell phone. He knew my most frequented locales and was able to pick me up and drive me where I needed to go and I could arrange this through text. I always felt safe in his car. Ask a local for a recommendation and make sure you have a few cab numbers stored so you can get around.


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

A: For those in Santo Domingo, check out Zona Colonial, the historic neighbourhood and dance the night away at Las Ruinas, where Grupo Bonye plays for free every Sunday night. On certain Thursday nights, you can find live Jazz just off the main square. Spend weekends travelling to other towns such as Barahona, Jarabacoa, Las Terrenas and Samana. Pick a day to visit the myriad museums in the Plaza de la Cultura, including the Modern Art Museum, the Museum of the Dominican Man, and the Natural History Museum. During the Christmas season, check out Parque Sid, or Parque de las Luces, an entire park lit up at night with lights and activities. If you need to get cool during the day, a trip to Agora Mall, Blue Mall or Acropolis for some mindless wandering and window shopping will take an edge of the heat.


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

A: I’m back in New York now, but who knows what the future holds?


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

A: Find a job before you move, if possible. If you’re looking to teach, many schools provide housing for foreign teachers who are recruited from abroad. Once your there, it will be near impossible to find a position with housing included. Brush up on your Spanish and attain the highest level of fluency you can before moving. Only at resorts and at selected retailers (this is rare) will you find English speakers. Get to know your local shops and gain a level of trust with the storekeepers. Say hello to your neighbours and any guards on the street. They will look out for you. Share your snacks. Share your seat. Share everything – it is a communal society and people do care about you.


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

A: While I was there, I wrote many blog posts with guides about the different cities and towns I visited and also wrote a lot of helpful content related to Santo Domingo.

Additionally, I found the DR1 forum to be very helpful. Que Hacer Hoy RD was my go-to for events. Use Aldaba (click Dominican Republic) to find jobs. Use the keyword search. Other helpful guides are popular expat blogs such as Drinking the Whole Bottle and What About Your Saucepans?.