Watch out when a Dominican says “No problem.” Chances are, when you hear that, you don’t have as serious a problem as you think you do but it may take a long time before you know that.
This is a trap ready to close on every unsuspecting tenderfoot that arrives in Santo Domingo. The simple truth is that Dominicans are just naturally happy. And they just naturally want everyone else to be happy, too.
So when a Dominican sees that you’ve just gotten into a situation which might be your undoing, he isn’t going to say, “Boy! Are you ever in for it now!” Instead, he is going to smile, wave his hand in the air, and say, “No problem.”
When my freight was lost “somewhere” or other, I was told it was “no problem.” When it finally arrived, but I couldn’t have it because of a confusion in names, at least ten people told me, “no problem.” Several days later, while I still wandered from office, to warehouse, to office, to warehouse, I asked, “What’s the problem?”
“Oh, there’s no problem,” I was told as the hand waved loftily in the air.
So it continued throughout the weeks and I discovered the true meaning of “no problem.” Because I did get my freight. Eventually. There were five different trips to the airport on five different weekends and a lot of paperwork and many, many officials but the final line was that I received my freight. One of the men whom I came to know well during this time then told me, “See? There was no problem.”
If something happens
And, herein lies the problem of “no problem” —definition.
Many gringos think that any time things don’t happen immediately, on schedule, as planned, it is a problem. Dominicans believe that if something happens at all, regardless of when, all is well.
An excellent example is a hot, tired tourist walking down the Malecón from the colonial city to his hotel. He didn’t realize how far he had walked getting to the museums and shops in the cool morning, so it seems much farther going back. Now it is siesta time and the tropical sun is reprimanding those caught in it. The tourist stops a Dominican and pleads, “Where is my hotel?”
The Dominican looks at the sunburned face glowing damply in the sun; the brightly flowered shirt clinging damply to the tourist’s torso; and the way he constantly shifts from one foot to the other trying to relieve the pressure on his blisters.
The Dominican knows the hotel is three kilometers away. Is he going to tell this poor tourist that he has much farther to walk, and increase his burden? No. The tourist is bound to get back to the hotel sometime and all will be well. So, why make him unhappy now? “No problem,” says the Dominican. “It is just down the road.”
The tourist is relieved. He is happy. He continues on his way in a light-hearted mood and covers the distance much easier (at least the first part) than if he’d suffered over the distance the entire route.
Taking life easy
“No problem” is part of taking life easy in the tropics. Yesterdays are all rolled up and left in the past as inconsequential. Tomorrows never come. What wasn’t done yesterday, there will be time to do another day.
Having learned that there are never problems in the tropical world of the Dominican Republic, I almost went into hysteria the day the script was rewritten slightly. I found myself in the rather peculiar situation of being out of town with no money, no luggage, no food, and no place to stay.
I wasn’t particularly worried —things have a way of working out. A Dominican confirmed my diagnosis by waving his hand loftily in the air and saying “No problem!” Then he walked around a coconut tree, leaned his forehead against it, and muttered in Spanish. “Ayyy. Qué problema!”
A Dominican saying there was a problem? I panicked and poked my head around the palm. “Eh?” I asked articulately. He smiled. He beamed. He waved his hand in the air happily. “No problem,” he said, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
And he was right. There was no problem. Things were rather indefinite for about a week but then worked out beautifully. Because, you see, there are “no problems” in the Dominican Republic.
(About the author: Marian Duteil came to the Dominican Republic as the wife of a Carol Morgan mathematics teacher and with her contributions to The Santo Domingo News for many months kept everyone laughing).