A couple years back, I signed up for a Spanish Language course at one of the many schools in the beautiful City of Cuenca, Ecuador. Cuenca is one of those mellow, stable, and lovely latin cities that Americans and others from around the world are “discovering” as retirement meccas.
I chose a homestay option for accommodation, and was staying in the home of Nancy and Fernando and their three daughters. I felt contentedly at home and like just another one of their kids. My ‘mom” Nancy would make me breakfast (desayuno) each morning, I would trudge off on the 20-minute walk downtown for class, I would trudge home for lunch after 4 hours of lessons, and then trudge back downtown for the afternoon activity, back home for dinner with the family, do my homework, and hit the sack.
A wonderful carefree dose of childhood in my 40’s.
One evening, I walked home in a driving rainstorm thoroughly enjoying the soaking and jazzed after thoroughly enjoying a salsa dancing lesson at the school. I had to wait for traffic to pass at one intersection, so I backed out of the rain into a doorway of the building on the corner, without looking around to see what the shelter was.
Almost immediately I felt something poking into my back. I turned around, and my eyes looked straight into those of an elderly Cuencan man. He was holding a plastic bag, which he obviously intended to give to me. He opened it slightly to show me it was bread, or ‘pan’ in spanish.
Already well-traveled in Latin America, I was used to the routine…without any resentment and understanding the reasons, I know that gringos have dollar signs tattoed on their foreheads, so instinctively I asked him in my accomplished espanol, “Cuantos?” This communicated a great deal, specifically, “I don’t really want this, but how much are you asking for it, and oh by the way, I am a foreigner who knows very little of your language.”
He paused to digest my eloquence, and then he said something I couldn’t hear over the pounding rain.
I responded “No gracias,” which seemed to be appropriate to whatever he had told me.
He insisted I take it, so with my common sense thoroughly drowned by the rain, I relented and accepted the bread.
Continuing my stroll in the drenching rain, I first was moved by the man’s generosity, and then I felt a bit guilty that I hadn’t at least offered him something for it.
Why guilt? When I first started traveling, I took pleasure in dickering prices down to the lowest possible level like many travel guides suggest to do. Then on one of my trips to Panama I bought a woven bag from a man at a bus rest area; he wore the tattered clothes and rubber boots that were typical of the poor campesino of the countryside. The man had asked for 10 dollars, and the intricacies of the weaving and color scheme made it apparent that the bag was something that someone had labored over for hours and hours and worth much more than that. My satisfaction with dickering, which had never felt great and had slowly been dwindling, completely evaporated as the man turned away after accepting my final offer of a couple dollars. No deal-sealing smile, only a weariness that conveyed so much about how difficult his life was and how he had just been devalued. I watched him walk away in his well-worn boots.
Since then, I make a point to value things using “bigger picture” lenses. I spend my dollars where they help most, and if a price matches an apparent value, I buy. If not, and it’s a special “gringo-price,” I smile and walk away, but I leave the dickering to others. The satisfaction of playing fair and leaving a bit of good will beats the hell out of the alternative.
Meanwhile the bread, of course, got good and soggy in the rain and I tossed it before I even made it home.
Later than night, I told my Cuencan ‘mom’ about my encounter.
Nancy just about jumped out her chair, scolding me for accepting anything from anyone. Basically, “mom” made it clear I was never to do that again….never accept any gift from anyone in Cuenca. I learned it was a common ploy to use old people or young children to “gift” you something to eat – which is laced with a strong drug that knocks you out and allows someone to rob you.
The next day in school, I traded the story with other students, many of which had a story of being robbed in some way during their travels in Latin America mostly through some distraction trick.
That afternoon as I walked home for lunch I retraced the route I had taken the night before in the rain, and stopped at the corner – the scene of my possible near miss. This time I looked around. The doorway I had backed into was a barber shop. I moved closer and stood in the doorway and watched the same old man as he smiled and chatted standing over a customer as he cut his hair. He looked up and waved, but I’m sure did not recognize me given how bundled up against the elements I had been.
On a table in front of waiting chairs was a bowl of bread next to a pot of coffee, clearly put there for customers.
The sunshine that afternoon as I walked the rest of the way home felt extra nice on my face.
It’s a good idea to be vigilant while traveling among humans anywhere on this earth, and this article was not intended in any way as a knock on Ecuador; it’s a beautiful country filled with some of the warmest and friendliest people I’ve met anywhere.
I’ve taken about 40 trips to Central and South America, and I’ve been victimized only once. I was pickpocketed last year in Cusco, Peru, on New Year’s Eve, while running around the main square in a chaos of fireworks and alcohol, with hundreds of other people just after the New Year rang in.
The approach I practice while traveling is thinking positively but exercising caution. I don’t put myself in situations that would be questionable anywhere on earth (late nights – dark streets) and I take precautions like dressing modestly and not carrying much money. I also make a point to come across as confident and friendly, and I smile a lot and remember that almost everyone I meet while traveling is honest, hardworking, and worthy of being treated with respect.
To understand why this potential for theft exists and why there is a need to hold your belongings tight, you simply need to be open to seeing some hard truths related to social injustices. There’s a great deal of jarring poverty throughout Latin America, largely the result of the policies and efforts of the American government and corporations to maintain these countries as sources of cheap labor and exploitable natural resources that are accessible to American corporations.
Things are slowly changing as governments throughout Latin America are beginning to stand up to foreign exploitation. Indigenous communities, in particular though, remain at subsistence levels of living throughout most regions of the Andes Mountains and Amazon Rainforest. Many willingly accept subsistence level living, but “development” also has impaired fundamental human needs like clean water, land to farm, and basic human dignity. There remain too many instances of violence imparted upon indigenous communities when they seek justice, and of attempted or successful coups when leaders display backbone by instituting policies that don’t accommodate multinational corporations or American military goals.
There are amazing vacation destinations throughout Latin America, and the countries there benefit greatly from tourism. They benefit more if the organization or company you choose for your vacation is owned by a community or organization that emphasizes keeping money local and contributes to sustainability.
If you’re willing to learn more about what’s gone on and is going on to our south that directly influences the opinion of these countries of America and Americans, take a pick of any of the suggested reading articles below.
Also, consider smiling more and dickering less on your next trip to a “developing” country.
Ecuador Court Deals Chevron Fresh Blow In Pollution Case. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/17/ecuador-chevron-lawsuit_n_1972056.html
The Paraguay Coup. http://www.wsws.org/articles/2012/jul2012/pers-j03.shtml
Bananas, How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/02/books/review/Kurtz-Phelan-t.html?_r=0
A Call to Reject False Capitalist Solutions to Climate Crisis. http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/12/07-10
Water and Mining in Latin America. http://www.canadians.org/water/issues/mining/index.html