SOSUA, Dominican Republic- I rate countries on how often I smile while walking down the street. I call it the smile index, a more simplified and personalized form of Bhutan’s Happiness Index. If something about a walk through the streets of a country makes me smile, laugh, or stand in bright eyed wonder multiple times a day, then I know that I found a good place: it will then rate highly on my index of places in the world to return to.
The Dominican Republic ranks high in the smile index. I hear people laughing and joking in the streets, I don’t know how many times each day I hear a little sing song chant that goes like, “Que bueno, que bueno.” People here seem happy, they smile in the streets and laugh.
Listen for yourself:
If I walk down the street and I meet nobody, if I don’t know the name of the guy who lives next door to where I stay, if I never catch a glimpse of eye contact from the cashier at the market, if nobody looks at me with any sign or semblance of curiosity, if people wear scowls or are too busy to acknowledge me when I say hello then this is a place that would rank low in the smile index.
It is my impression that I smile more in places where the people I meet smile back. I like happy places, any other rating of a place is impertinent. I don’t care if I am in the pale gray confines of a smog choked Chinese urban jungle of apartment high rises, if the people there are smiling, I smile too.
I like to talk with people, discover new faces, ask fool questions, and hear stories — I like to travel — and meeting people is what traveling is all about. When I walk through the streets and don’t stop smiling at people — when they don’t stop smiling at me — I am happy. If I am happy then I have found the prime directive of travel. If a person that I meet smiles all day long from their stool by the side of the street, they they have found the prime directive of life.
I have been to 45 countries, and this was enough to teach me that I would gladly trade a dozen Angkor Wats, a few Egyptian Pyramids, and a truck load of Great Walls of China just to learn the names of the people in the streets where I go for my daily walks — just to have people smile back I me when I say hello to them as we pass in the streets, just to meet people who are just as curious about me as I am them, who share a few words of friendly chatting that does not have ulterior motives to receive money.
I have been in Sosua, Dominican Republic for almost two weeks. I know the people in the streets:
There is Ernesto, the fisherman; Daniel, the guy who sits in a chair on a street corner; Sandi and his wife, the owner of a perpetually vacant bar; the Bottle Collector, whose business so interested me that I forgot to ask him his name; Andre, a former journalist and French Canadian expat who I drink beer with in front of our hotel; a kind faced, though somewhat meek old Haitian man who lost all the remaining family he had in the earthquake; Sara, the lady who runs a botique down the street who also has a baby; and a half dozen other people who have populated my impression of the Dominican Republic with faces, names, and personality.
This is all I want in travel. I have been through Egypt and I never once once went to the pyramids, I traveled through Peru and did not go to Machu Picchu, I did not visit the Great Wall until my third visit to China, and I must say that I never felt I missed very much.
Some travelers say that I miss out, they tell me how good their tour to someplace was and how should do it too, and then they asked me what I did with my day in a foreign land.
I tell them that I just walked around, talked to a few people. Perhaps my travels seem pretty boring, but if I can remember the countries I visit in faces, then I have accomplished my main objective.
The average wage for a common worker in the Dominican Republic is around 3,000 to 6,000 pesos — $80 to $160 a month — but the general sense of happiness here explodes beyond these numbers by leaps and bounds. If happiness and wealth were related, then the people of Manhattan would be smiling, and the unemployed man sitting on a stool in front of a lotto stand in the Dominican Republic would be scowling. The true attributes of happiness, as measured by smiles, is reversed.
The Dominican Republic is a good place to be –the smile index is nearly off the charts here.
I was informed by a Dominican friend in Sosua that the country side of the Dominican Republic is dangerous. That people get killed there. He ran his forefinger across his throat to demonstrate his point. Three foreigners have been murdered in Sosua within the past month.
There is a flip side to the smiles. A traveler still needs to take caution amongst the friendly faces, be aware, and alert.
I walked passed a young guy playing with a .32 revolver a week ago. He was just sitting on a bench with the pistol in his lap looking at me. It was not a particularly frightening situation, I am comfortable with firearms, the presence of a gun is not an automatic single for fear. But it was an indicator none the less, and indicator that this place is deeper than the smiles.
This is a culture that seems more prone to pulling out a gun and shooting you than it is trying to put on fake happy faces to fool you with clever scams. The touts don’t give chase, the shop keepers will call to you but they don’t follow you down the street. Some of the men seem rough here, there seems to be respect parameters that need to be honored.
Part of respect means that you don’t cover your head and cower, but that you look people in the face, smile, and say hello.
Read more about wealth, poverty, and happiness around the world
- Tourist charity and street children
- Hippies in San Pedro Guatemala