Richard’s parents are here (our first visitors – so exciting) and at the weekend we took a wonderful long trip around the Samana Peninsula to explore more of the island. We hired a car for the first time and had some wonderful adventures, more on which we will post shortly.
We did, however, have one less than wonderful experience which merits an entry for its absurdity alone. One of the reasons for maintaining the blog is to show how differently people live and think in the Dominican Republic from our own set of values and norms. Here is a great example.
On Sunday night, we all went out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Samana. We chose the restaurant for two reasons. Firstly it’s amazing location; it nestles in the hillside high above Samana and offers a spectacular view of the Bay, the Malecon (promenade) and Cayo Levantado or “Bacardi Island” as it is nicknamed (can anyone remember an advert from about 20 years ago for Bacardi? Loads of people in a pub in Peckham drinking Bacardi are suddenly transported to a tropical paradise of white sand and lazy palms – the advert was made here). Secondly, it had a half decent write up in Rough Guide as worth a visit: “perched on a high hill overlooking the bay, Chino serves generous moderately priced portions of good Chinese food”
Whilst the location was spectacular, to put it mildly, the food was absolutely terrible. The two worst offenders were “chicken with ginger” that was full of pieces of raw ginger the size of pound coins so was completely inedible and “prawn chop suey” that I refused to swallow for fear that it would not be the last time I encountered it!
To say that I hate restaurants that offer bad food and bad service is to understate the fact by a considerable degree. If I go anywhere and receive good service or one person goes out of their way to be particularly helpful, I will always acknowledge the effort and offer the highest praise to the individual and/or their boss if possible. On the flip side, however, I will not usually let bad service/bad food go unchallenged.
I asked for the bill and my first reaction was to just pay and leave and obviously never go there again. But after a few seconds reflection I realised this was only because I didn’t have sufficient command of the language to really state my case and that in an English speaking restaurant there is no way I would have let that kind of food be served to us unchallenged. So I decided I would give it my best shot regardless!
Richard’s parents are the nicest, kindest sweetest people in the world but they hate confrontation of any kind so to avoid making them feel uncomfortable I took the bill to the bar and started to explain that the food had been fairly terrible (a lot of it had gone back uneaten) and that I thought they should take something off the bill to reflect the fact.
Rich written about “la calidad Dominicana” and how complaints generally fall on deaf ears. Complaining in restaurants is no different. There is definitely no sense of the customer is always right so the restaurant manager was having none of my complaining and certainly wasn’t going to reduce the bill. In my world, however, the customer is always right so I decided to seize back the power in the situation and not pay for the two aforementioned dishes that were completely inedible. This reduced the amount I was prepared to pay by about £10.
I went back to our table and told Rich to take the others back to the car as we might be heading for an ugly scene. I then went back in to the bar with only £40 (£10 shy of the total bill) and offered it, saying this was all I was prepared to pay for such terrible food (still about £40 more than it was worth in all honesty). The Chinese restaurant manager went ballistic! He tried to grab the money and the bill from my hand and said he was going to call the police, presumably trying to frighten me into paying up. This had quite the opposite affect (remember he is dealing with someone who has given birth 4 times and who has been working for six months at a school in Nagua, I don’t scare that easily!). So, still clinging to the £20 I had managed to hold on to, I told him to call the police, I would wait, and they could sort it out.
After about 5 minutes, Rich came back to see what they delay was. At this point the restaurant owner discovers which our car is and shouts to one of his friends to come and block our path out of the car park. So I tell Rich to leave this bit to me get the car out of the car park before we can get blocked in, and meet me on the street at the bottom of the hill.
After a few more minutes, when Rich and my family are safely away, I tell the Chinese man I don’t think the police are coming so I offer him the £20 in my hand and say he can take this, give me the bill and I will be on my way. He refuses and gets on the phone again and we wait a while longer. No sign of the police so I offer the money again, tell him I have waited long enough and start walking away. At which point he grabs me and won’t let go. I pull away so he grabs me tighter and wrestles me to the floor in the car park and pins me to the ground. I started yelling and screaming at the top of my lungs in both English and Spanish and attract quite a crowd of kitchen staff and other diners who do nothing but stare on in disbelief. Finally an old Chinese man appears who has some English and some influence over the crazy owner and tells him to let me go because the police are here.
Someone helps me up and then everyone starts talking at once, in Spanish that I can’t understand trying to tell the police what has happened. Eventually it’s my turn. Fortunately, one of the policemen speaks English as the level of language I now need is way beyond what the chapter called “In the Restaurant” covered in my Spanish course! I tell him we had just had a meal that was mostly inedible, that I had tried to come to a reasonable compromise with the manager who had refused to negotiate, called the police and then assaulted me and pinned me to the floor when I refused to wait any longer. Now this is clearly an extreme reaction even by DR standards as the policeman apologised for the man’s absurd behaviour and told me to go home immediately. I showed him the £20 I was still offering to pay and asked if I paid this was I free to go. He said yes of course and apologised again.
I was tempted enquire about pressing charges against the restaurant owner for assault but at this point I just wanted to get back to my family and go to our hotel. The law, as everything else here, works in a mysterious way and I didn’t fancy spending the night in police station with only my Spanglish for company, only to find the next morning the Chinese Mafia has taken a baseball bat to our hire car.
In the same situation, most rational people might have followed my first instinct; pay up and shut up. But there is too much of that here. There is a huge divided between the wealthy and the poor, those with power who make the rules and those with none who are too frightened of losing their jobs or homes to challenge their employer about the harshness of their working conditions or their landlord about the poor quality of their house.
So as I examined the bruises on my arms this morning, I had to ask – was I right to try to chalk one up for the small voice? In all honesty, I never felt frightened either by the crazy 12 stone Chinese man who tried to sit or me or by the presence of the police. The situation was farcical and I never felt at serious risk. In the same situation would I do the same again – yes, I would.
We are trying to teach the kids many lessons about life as we continue on this journey. Whilst the scene at the restaurant is not something I would have wanted them to witness we have talked over what happened and why. I don’t want them to grow up being afraid of sticking up for themselves or others, of defending a principle or fighting against injustice. They need to learn to evaluate risk and then act appropriately but they also need to learn that simply being afraid is not a good enough reason for not doing something.