Friday, July 18, 2014

Why I Avoid English Speakers in Latin America

 When traveling , I drift toward the barrios where you 
find the real culture, such as in Juncal, Ecuador

Fortunately in my Latin American travels, I run into very few people who speak English. I'm sure they are out there, especially among college students, the upper class, and tourist industry personnel; all of whom I make a special effort to avoid. I'm much more attracted to the barrios (the hood) where I can be among the everyday common people; that way I remain totally immersed in the Spanish language, which forces me to improve my own Spanish and get a better sense of the cultures.

Reflecting on my last blog post, It's Nice Meeting “Proud” Spanish Speakers,” I vividly recall times in Latin-American countries where I responded in Spanish to anyone who speaks to me in English in the same way so many US Latinos respond to me in English when I try to speak to them in Spanish.

Felix of Caracas, Venezuela took me in like family

One summer, in Havana, Cuba, I was  with a group of 25 Americans who were there for Spanish language intensive training at the University of Havana, sponsored by Global Exchange, Inc., based in San Francisco, CA. Upon our arrival, we were loaned bicycles for a guided tour of the city. 

As we rode along Havana's popular Malecón (the waterfront), an Afro-Cuban gentleman rode up along side me and struck up a conversation in English. I felt insulted because I thought that he was assuming that I was just another gringo who can't speak Spanish. I decided to show him what I know by responding to everything he says to me in Spanish. After several of those exchanges, he finally snapped in frustration, “MAN, STOP SPEAKING SPANISH; I'M TRYING TO PRACTICE ME ENGLISH!” 

 Dancing salsa with D. Fuentes in Havana, Cuba

At that point, my feelings of insult turned into compassion because I remember so vividly how crushed I used to feel in the US trying to practice my Spanish with native Spanish-speakers who insisted on responding to me in English. Therefore, I gave him a break.

In Caracas, Venezuela, I was hosted by Felix, a friend I met on, a web site for travelers, who showed me the city, then took me into his home in the barrio where I was introduced to his family, and where I dined and slept. The only drawback was that Felix's English was better than my Spanish, so there was no way I could resist. My only alternative in using my Spanish was with his family members who speak no English. The next day, Felix turned me over to another friend whom I also met on

While in Cartagena, Colombia, I purchased the 
South American version of Ebony Magazine

María, who also went the extra mile to ensure that my stay in Venezuela was a rewarding one. She escorted me on a two-hour bus ride into Venezuela's region of Barlovento to explore Afro-Venezuelan culture. María speaks Spanish, Swiss, and English. However in this instance, my Spanish was better than her English, but out of appreciation for all of her hospitality, I permitted her to practice her English on me until she got stuck in translation, then I would intervene in Spanish. 

If I were to move to a Latin-American country as an expat, I would not have the attitude that I demonstrated with the Cuban bicyclist. I would be willing to speak English with anyone who is learning it or already proficient in it.  

María escorted me into the black (and brown) 
region of Barlovento, Venezuela 

However, all of my travels have occurred during my vacations from work lasting two to three weeks. Thus, giving me limited time to take advantage of every precious moment to be totally immersed in the Spanish language with no opportunity to fall back on my English when I get stuck in translation. I have no other choice but to face the challenge head on and work through it. 

I was in a restaurant in the Barranco district of Lima, Perú, where I was so disgusted with the customer service that I demanded to speak with a manager. My irritation almost made me forget all the Spanish I learned up to that point, and I was disappointed when the manager told me that he didn't speak English. I had no other choice but to register my complaint in Spanish. It is cases like this where the “real” learning takes place—not in the classroom—and believe me, I'm still learning!

Friday, July 11, 2014

It's Nice Meeting “Proud” Spanish Speakers

Here in the US, I reached a point a long time ago where I generally feel uncomfortable speaking Spanish to native speakers who are also fluent in English. So many seem to have a complex about speaking Spanish to someone who is not stereotypically profiled as “Latin-American.” 

Today at my local grocery store, I experienced a surprising, positive reaction from a Spanish-speaking cashier. I noticed her conversing in Spanish with another store employee bagging the groceries. As I stepped up to check out and not wanting to interrupt her Spanish flow, I immediately greeted her with buenas, an abbreviated expression for good morning, good afternoon, or good evening.

I was pleasantly surprised by the way she responded to me as though I too were a native Spanish speaker. We then exchanged parting words, ¡que te vaya bien (have a good one)!, ¡igual (you too)!, common in the Latin-American community. I felt proud of her, and of course, pleased at the opportunity to use my own Spanish. 

Any time that I'm in a Latin-American restaurant, I tip better when staff members interact with me in Spanish. At work, there are colleagues from various Latin American countries who generally communicate with me in Spanish and are always open to giving me advice and answering my questions concerning proper grammar. Unlike so many bilingual people I meet, these gentlemen greatly appreciate my efforts to improve my Spanish.

In my quest to develop Spanish fluency, I get my best opportunities vacationing in Latin-American countries. Here in the US, I reached a point a long time ago where I generally feel uncomfortable speaking Spanish to native speakers who are also fluent in English. So many seem to have a complex about speaking Spanish to someone who is not stereotypically profiled as “Latin-American.” They forget that real Latinos come in all colors and are members of varying ethnic groups, not just Spanish, Mestizo, and Indigenous.

I had a good laugh one evening in San Francisco when a friend from India and I were walking to a local restaurant to get a snack. A mono-lingual Spanish-speaker got right in her face (not mine) asking if she speaks Spanish because he needed directions. You should have seen the look on his face when it turned out to be I who gave him the directions he needed. My Indian friend does not speak Spanish.

In New York City, a few days after my arrival from Caracas, Venezuela. I was walking from my cousin's house to the subway station, and passed by a housing project where a Latino gentleman was vehemently explaining something in Spanish to a couple of friends. He suddenly stopped and looked at me with fear in his eyes, seemly hoping that I was not a robber. After all, this was in the notorious South Bronx—at night. 

Again, not wanting to interrupt a Spanish-speaking flow, I said con permiso (excuse me) as I walked by. In eloquent English, he responded with “certainly!” Now, in a city with a relatively large Afro-Latino population, you would think that he is accustomed to seeing blacks who can speak Spanish. Why did he respond in me English?

I once read a blog post by a Mexican-American woman in Arizona who was deeply disturbed about receiving information from a business that was written in Spanish. She states that she understands Spanish very well, but would have preferred English. What's the matter, does she think her Spanish makes her less of an American? If so, she is fooling herself. Spanish was spoken in what we know today as the United States before the United States was born. Appalled by her self-snobbery, I posted the following comment on her blog:
“Here I am knocking myself out daily trying to develop fluency in Spanish, and am always amazed at people who are blessed with the knowledge of both Spanish and English who appear to be so ashamed of it as though it is some sort of a curse.”

The woman never responded. I hoped that she would have because I'm always open to seeing opposing views. Who knows, I may learn something.

There is, however, one city in the US where the Spanish speakers are in-your-face proud—Miami. The Cuban people who populate  the area love their language and culture. I entered a Cuban restaurant and the manager greeted me in English with a thick Cuban accent. When I ordered in Spanish, he and his staff happily made me feel very welcome. Even the customers who overheard me were pleased. 

I've always considered Miami to be an honorary Latin American city where no one feels a need to get cute and answer you in English. Miami Cubans don't care who you are; they are always ready to roll in their native tongue.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Any Guilt Feelings Among Black Americans Traveling in Latin America?

Terri, an African-American member of a Facebook forum, Brothers and Sisters in Latin America, posed a question to those of us who have lived or visited a Latin-American country. She wanted to know if any of us felt any guilt or felt badly that we, as Americans, get better treatment and more respect than the black citizens of the countries we visit.

The reason I personally do not have guilty feelings is because, as much as possible, I try to connect with the black community in the countries to absorb as much as I can about their black experience and history. Monetarily, I offer support in ways that I can afford, but at the same time, I do not allow anyone to take advantage of me. 

In the commercial district of Cartagena, Colombia, I came across a black woman selling her wares. Although, I saw nothing that I wanted or needed, I handed her some money just to be helpful. There were other times, in certain countries, that I blended so well with the black community that I too sometimes experienced disrespect due to racial prejudice. 

In Chincha, Perú, an Afro-Peruvian friend escorted me to a bus station to inquire about the price of a ticket to Ecuador. The man shouted the price at me in a tone of voice expressing doubt that I could even afford it. In Quito, Ecuador, I had trouble catching cabs in certain parts of town, especially at night, because I was profiled as an Afro-Ecuadorian thug. One Friday night I saw a cabbie drop off a white couple, and when I tried to enter, he wagged his finger in utter defiance. I then waved two $5 bills, LOL; he changed his mind instantly. Once in the cab, he was pleased to learn that I'm an African-American traveler and not an Afro-Ecuadorian native...sigh!

Tamara, another one of our African-American members, was generally treated with warmth and respect in her travels, however, she spoke of one isolated incident in a department store in Lima, Perú. She saw some soccer jerseys that she wanted to get for her nephew. She tried to get the store clerk's attention, but the clerk turned and walked away. Within minutes, the store clerk returned with a man who was possibly a security officer. When Tamara addressed her in English, the clerk's attitude changed abruptly giving Tamara a very pleasing smile. Tamara was so turned off by the obvious racial profiling that she decided to shop somewhere else (good for Tamara!).
Thierry, an Afro-Latino member of the group stressed that in Latin America, tourists of “any” color get treated better than local Latin-American citizens, regardless of their race. I tend to agree. I believe that if I stayed in a fancy hotel speaking English only, and perceived as having a pocket full of money, I would not have experienced any racism. In Latin America, money “whitens” your skin.

He [Thierry] also added that the great hospitality that visitors from other countries receive from Latin Americans may also be a way for them to take advantage of you, i.e., to charge you much higher prices—the famous gringo tax. Fortunately for me, my attempts to establish bonds with local citizens and immerse myself in the language and cultures of the barrios (the hood) results in cheaper prices for food, lodgings, entertainment, and souvenirs, which always saves me an enormous amount of money.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

TEAM ECUADOR: From the Black Ghettos to World Cup Competition

I have social, sentimental, and Afro-centric reasons for loving Team Ecuador

When I off-boarded my plane in Quito, Ecuador, the security staff detected a large can of insect repellant in one of my bags. They were impressed when I told them that I'm going to Valle de Chota (Chota Valley), a hot, sticky region consisting of Ecuador's black ghettos that produces big time soccer stars in national and international competition. Although, Ecuador was eliminated in the most recent World Cup competition (2014) with one win, one loss, and one tie against France, one of the world's toughest teams, Team Ecuador remains my sentimental favorite.

In my Spanish-speaking Facebook account, I posted the following message and repeated it in English on my English account:

“No soy Ecuatoriano; sino hincha del Equipo Ecuador, sobretodo los Choteños.”
“I'm not Ecuadorian; but a fan of Team Ecuador, especially of those from Chota Valley

I'm sure those who read those messages were wondering about my true nationality. Even my supervisor at work alluded to the fact that the Team USA is also playing, aren't I a fan of them?. Well, I am an American and also a US Navy veteran having served my country overseas under oath to defend this country against all enemies foreign and domestic, so it's not a question of patriotism. I have social, sentimental, and Afro-centric reasons for loving Team Ecuador. 

El Juncal in Ecuador's Chota Valley

It was Saturday, December 5, 2009 when I stepped off the bus in the town of El Juncal, in the Valle de Chota (Chota Valley) region of Ecuador. I immediately felt very much at home in a community where everyone looks like me, even though it was evident from my Spanish, my attire, and my overall demeanor that I am not from around those parts, let alone Ecuador. At first, people were suspicious of me, then that changed once we started communicating. Even the police officers who questioned me about my presence were pleased.

Agustín Delgado

Chota Valley is Ecuador's second largest black community behind Esmeraldas. This is the hometown of 30 or more of Ecuador's top soccer stars such as the retired Agustin Delgado, the all-time leading scorer for the Ecuadorian national team. He was named by Ecuador's president as head of the Afro-Ecuadorian Development Council as Delgado, and other Afro-Ecuadorian soccer stars hope to use their influence to improve the overall quality of life in their country's black communities. Nationally, 70% of Afro-Ecuadorians live in poverty, and in towns like El Juncal, where they only have two paved roads, no high school, or permanent medical clinic, the number is as high as 99%El Juncal has struggled against an endemic of racism which has left it perhaps the poorest community in Ecuador. 

The soccer field where boys practice

Augustín Delgado established La Escuela de Fútbol (the Soccer School) in El Juncal where more than 300 boys and young men arrive every afternoon to hone their skills. There is always a game going on as they practice endlessly. In some ways, poverty has proven to be a successful training method because soccer balls roll faster down the dirt lot in El Juncal than they would on a grass field in a big high-end stadium. Therefore, players must learn speed and control. The school, however, is not only interested in providing young black men with a way out of the ghetto to the bright lights of soccer stadiums. There is an emphasis on building self-reliance, self-esteem, and literacy. 

Like most Latin Americans, Ecuadorians ardently love soccer. In 2002, Ecuador's national team qualified for the first time for the World Cup finals – a fact attributed to the slow integration of Afro-Ecuadorians. For many towns in Chota Valley, success on the soccer field remains the best hope for receiving government attention. And that attention has just begun to happen.

Friday, June 27, 2014

How Travel Insurance Saved My Life

Thank You, Access America!

If you love to travel, don't test your luck; you never know when it's going to run out----Get Travel Insurance!

I was only a week into my 30-day Latin-American vacation through Mexico, Panamá, Colombia, Ecuador, and Perú. Most of my time was spent in Perú where I already had close ties with people developed from prior trips. However, after one-week, I went into the SANDWICH.COM Restaurant in the ritzy Miraflores section of Lima, Perú. I thought because of the location and the international clientele it served, the restaurant staff knew better than to mix local tap-water in its beverages.

I started feeling sick after I got half-way through my drink. The next two days, I suffered from diarrhea. At first, I tried to tough it out thinking after the diarrhea runs its course, I'd be OK. All I needed to do was get some rest—Wrong! Continuing to rough it out believing I will recover naturally, I took a two and one-half our bus ride to Chincha, Perú where I was staying and flopped down on my bed. I woke up the next morning in even worse condition. My kidneys were aching and I was extremely nauseous. The hotel manager heard my moans and groans and called an ambulance.

Fortunately, I had a lot of close ties in this town who arranged for me to be transported by ambulance back to Lima to be treated at a very good hospital, La Clínica Ricardo Palma, which in my opinion, is a hospital that will rival any hospital in the U.S. at a much cheaper cost. The medical staff was absolutely superb, although sometimes I think they gave me a little too much attention. It was also a good thing I had Access America Travel Insurance because I learned that my intestines were infected and I was to be hospitalized for five or six days. It could have been much longer had I not insisted on an early discharge. Contrary to doctor's orders. I spent the rest of my vacation at 75% of my full strength,.

Were it not for travel insurance, I would have had to pay over $4,000 out of pocket or I could have died from lack of proper treatment. Access America Travel Insurance was able to work out a billing arrangement where all expenses were paid. Access America gave me even further comfort by assigning me a case manager who followed up more than once with phone calls to my hospital room to check on my progress.

Go figure, I was so tempted to use the insurance money for something else and am glad I didn't. If you love to travel, don't test your luck; you never know when it's going to run out----Get Travel Insurance!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

For Blacks Traveling or Living in Latin America

I've been thinking of starting a support organization for black expats, tourists, students, and those working in a Latin American country to address issues specific to black people. I would even like to see a network with Afro-Latin Americans who are involved in their own civil rights struggle in their respective countries. For example, in Ecuador, there were times I had trouble catching cabs until the drivers realized that I was NOT Afro-Ecuadorian. Hmmmmm, this is s-o-o-o-familiar because, here in the US, blacks from other countries are perceived in a more positive and less threatening light than the home-grown black Americans.

One member of our Facebook forum, Brothers and Sisters in Latin America where I'm one of the co-moderators, states that the information that she receives regarding retiring abroad hardly ever has black issues involved, and stresses that her experience is likely to be different from a Caucasian person's experience.  Another member adds that her treatment in Brazil has been interesting to say the least. A lot of Brazilians find comfort in the racial democracy myth, but it is just that, a myth.

The Facebook forum, Brothers and Sisters in Latin America is a start. I think it's great that black travelers, students, company employees, and expats throughout Latin America network and share ideas and resources in addition to having a networking group within each respective country

If you have an interest in Latin America, 
be it travel, study, work, or retirement,
 Join our Facebook Forum

Friday, June 6, 2014

Don't Get “Taken” While Traveling in Latin America

Avenida Italia (Italy Avenue) in Chincha, Perú

Recently, I was annoyed by one of my blog readers who informed me at the last minute that he is flying to Perú and asked for advice. Because he did not give me enough time to explain all that he needed to know, he ended up spending much more money than he should have. Perhaps, he could afford it and didn't matter, but if you want to get the most out of any trip, it is imperative you do some homework before simply hopping on a plane! The homework is fun as you vicariously enjoy the activities of your trip while being enlightened on what to do and not to do, where to go and where not to go, how much to spend and how much not to spend..

In my last trip, I was in a large supermarket in the business district of Chincha, Perú, population - 150,000. I stopped at the poultry section to get some chicken for the family I was staying with in nearby El Carmen. The sales clerk, clearly noticing my foreign accent, instinctively blurted out a price that I knew was rather high. Determined not to be taken advantage of, I called her on her dishonesty, and insisted on paying the proper price or take my business elsewhere. Wisely, she quoted a more agreeable price.

This sales clerk attempted to charge me what is known among seasoned Latin American travelers as the “Gringo Tax,” that is, being overcharged for items and services because one is a gringo (foreigner) who can not only afford the higher price, but in most instances are totally unaware that they are being overcharged. This generally happens in tourist areas where prices, in general, are much higher; even without the gringo tax. With the exception of black heritage celebrations in February and March, Chincha has a very low tourist volume, and the action of the sales clerk I encountered was, indeed, an aberration.

Generally before traveling to any country, I spend months doing research, consulting with others who've traveled to there, and particularly with those who happened to live in that particular country. Making friends with residents of such countries on Facebook and has been especially helpful. In the event of Chincha, my home away from home; a place to which I travel regularly, I know what to pay for whatever item or service, and if I don't know, I ask a friend who lives there.

When I do pay extra, it's from the goodness of my heart; not out of manipulation. For example, in my first trip to Chincha, I saw an elderly black woman selling homemade cookies at a bus station. As I passed her table, I plopped four Peruvian dollars (nueva soles) on her table and kept walking. I didn't even want the cookies. I just wanted to donate to the cause of a struggling  black person whose job opportunities are limited because of the color of her skin..

During my travels, especially to a Spanish-speaking country, I steer very clear of tourist areas and fancy hotels, and spend little time as possible with those who speak English. This is how I improve my own Spanish, get a better understanding of the local culture, and save hundreds of dollars by being among local people who naturally know first-hand the real cost of items and services, and due to economic conditions, are much more frugal.