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Living in the Dominican Republic: An Expat Speaks Out

Originally a native of Pittsburgh, Terry Lee Bandi moved to Samana, Dominican Republic, in 2002 to do volunteer work and learn Spanish — and he immediately fell in love with the area. After a stint as a restaurant owner in Samana, Terry started a tour company in 2009. He now offers numerous excursions and tours around the Samana Peninsula to resort guests and cruise ship passengers. You can visit his website at

Q: What’s one thing most tourists don’t know about where you live?

A: That Samana isn’t touristy yet. When people hear that there are cruise ships coming here, they automatically assume that it has been ruined, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I could take people to any of our main attractions outside of town on a cruise ship day, and you’d be hard-pressed to believe that it was in fact a cruise ship day. Even when we were getting 120 ships a year, it was a far cry from the number of ships that other well-known ports would get in one month. So their fears of huge crowds are always wrong.

Q: What’s the worst culture shock you experienced as you settled into your new home?

A: I didn’t really have too much culture shock. I expected everything to be different, and it was the reason that I came here. I wanted to experience and be able to put up with discomfort and “doing without.” I wanted to learn how to deal with non-ideal situations.

In the end, I guess that the hardest thing to get used to was the way the locals drive. I still can’t stand it, but at least the roads are better. I used to drive for two hours after sunset and I would literally have a migraine and want to throw up from the stress. Motorcycles with no lights, people walking two, three or even four across on narrow roads, no sidewalks, potholes every 20 feet, and NO one lowers their high beams. I’m not sure if that qualifies as culture, but it still is a problem 12.5 years later, with the exception that most of the country’s main roads are new and in pretty good condition.

Q: Do you find that living in a foreign country makes you a better traveler when you visit other places? If so, how?

A: When I came to Samana, I didn’t speak Spanish or any other foreign language for that matter. Knowing Spanish and partially understanding many other languages now really makes me a better traveler, even when I’m just traveling around the U.S.A. I find that I look for people who speak Spanish, especially other Dominicans, when I am in New York City, for example. I love to shoot the bull with them about their country. It really makes it a lot more fun for me.

Q: Which tourist attraction in the Dominican Republic is most overrated, and where should travelers go instead?

A: Punta Cana is overrated. If you only want beaches, then go there.

I have to first recommend travelers to go to Samana. It really has it all, it still has real local people and it’s safe to travel. Add to that, all of our many national parks and protected areas, countless waterfalls and the whales.

After Samana, the mountains on the interior of the island are amazing — so many rivers and beautiful valleys. The area is very hard to get to, and it’s not quite set up for lots of tourists yet, but I felt very comfortable in Rancho Arriba. I won’t recommend Rancho Arriba for just anyone yet, so you might try Jarabacoa and Constanza in the meantime: very accessible and easier to find things to do.

Q: No one should visit the Dominican Republic without tasting __________.

A: It’s the simplest and most basic food you can possibly think of, but Dominicans just make the best rice. Add habichuelas (beans) on top of it, or try a moro de guandules (rice with pigeon peas cooked together). After that, try truly fresh fish from the ocean. In Samana we are regarded as having the very best fish. When my Dominican friends travel to the capital, they have to take five to 10 pounds of fresh Samana fish for their friends who have requested it.

My tour company gives people fresh fish for lunch. We encourage people who don’t like fish to try it, and nearly everyone admits that if all fish tasted that good, they would eat it more often. It’s just fresh though. That’s why it’s so good. Well, it’s also cooked over a wood fire. That helps too.

Q: What’s the toughest thing about being an expat? The most rewarding?

A: For me, the toughest part is being away from my niece and nephew. They are ages 9 and 8, respectively. I just don’t get to see them enough. I used to crave certain foods and comforts from home; now I just miss those kids.

I came to the DR to do volunteer work originally, and although I have a business and a home here, my wife (a local woman) and I still do volunteer work together on a regular weekly basis.

I have recently started showing videos that help kids deal with bullying as well as short animated videos about not stealing, obeying your parents and other moral topics. The teachers at other schools hear about it and ask us to come. We have question-and-answer sessions with the kids about what they learned, and they even take notes because they liked the videos so much. That’s priceless.

Also, about once a month I go on volunteer construction projects to help lay ceramic tile floors. I get to see other parts of the country and meet awesome Dominicans who are also volunteer workers. I stay in a local home for a week, they take care of our necessities while we are there helping and we make new lifelong friends. It’s rewarding and lots of fun for me.

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