Some Company Finally
Trip Start Jun 11, 2005
33Trip End Sep 01, 2005
He went to some of the same places I was two summers ago, so we chatted about Guatemala and Lago de Atitlan. But he also traveled in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, which I've never been to, so it was nice to hear about all of that. He said Nicaragua is amazing and really cheap, so I think I'd like to get down there at some point.
We went out to dinner the first night he was here and I think they poisoned us. We shouldn't have ordered everything in our mock Texas accents, saying things like, "Hey boy! Fetch me another one of dem survessers! Damn boy, you are TAN!"
I recently finished reading Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut. Admittedly, I love anything Vonnegut writes (with the possible exception of Galapagos), but Hocus Pocus is easily one of my favorite novels. For anyone that reads him, you know that everything has an aspect of social commentary, sometimes more delicately hidden than others. Hocus Pocus discusses Vietnam in a way that demands that you respect the soldiers involved, yet still allows you to abhor war in general, and be incredibly angry with our leaders for the quagmire that was Vietnam. But there are a ton of other wonderful things in the book as well. There's a line about the behavior of Americans abroad that is brilliant. The line is said by a woman who grew up abroad and has returned to the States. I don't have the book with me to quote it exactly, but the term she uses is "arrogant ignorance." It struck a chord with me because that same day I had witnessed the perfect example of such behavior.
I was in a Pharmacy and I saw a guy wearing a Luchenbach, Texas shirt. There are tons of Americans down here. So there is no automatic comradery simply because you meet a fellow English speaker or even a Texan, but I thought the Luchenbach shirt was enough to warrant a comment, even though he was obviously a bit of a redneck - a Bubba if you will. I said to the guy, "You don't see a lot of Luchenbach shirts floating around the world." He said (you'll have to insert the thick Texas drawl), "Nope, sure don't." This was all the response I would get. He then walked up to the counter with his three bottles of Pepto. A woman rang them up and gave him the price. He stared at her blankly. She said it again, slower, but still in Spanish of course. Why? Because we're in Mexico. The guy said (loudly because volume can always overcome a language barrier), "I DON'T UNDERSTAND YOU!" This sounded like "I dunt uhnderstaind ewe!" Then he had a hearty laugh, nudged his buddy a little to remind him how witty and hysterical he was. Then he said, "Honey I don't know what you're talkin 'bout. I don't know Spanish!! Let me see, let me see." And he kind of crawled over the counter to look at the computer screen to see what he owed. Once he figured it out, he threw the money down, and shared another laugh with his buddy he would undoubtedly be drinking Coors Light with later and shooting at Mexican birds with a 22 he always carried in his truck.
This bothered me for several reasons. One, before visiting a country whose citizens speak another language, you should make an effort to understand the basic phrases and numbers in that language. If you don't manage this prior to the trip, carry a phrase book. It's a great way to learn. You might not look terribly cool pulling out your book every time you make a purchase, but I assure you it's better than declaring how proud you are of your ignorance and climbing over a counter. But the last bit is what really bugged me. Since when is it ever a good thing to be ignorant? Are these the high school jocks and frat daddies that bragged about how badly they failed a test? We need to keep these people at home where they can't embarrass us. My friend Beverley said that as travelers we are ambassadors for our country. This is true. We are creating world opinion with every interaction we have abroad. How we carry ourselves, how we treat our hosts and our fellow travelers, and everything else we do abroad affects how people feel about Americans and about the United States. And in case no one has noticed, the U.S. is having a bit of an image problem these days. We owe it to ourselves and to everyone else to act appropriately. Sorry for the rant. That guy was just such a moron. What happened to the good old days where if you couldn't speak the language you starved to death?
I'll say one more thing. Yes, most of the world does speak English. But that doesn't mean that they should have to. And, yes, that's empowering....for them. Not for us. We should still make an effort to be gracious guests.
I guess I'm done. We went out last night here in San Miguel. The town has a pretty nice night life, it's just incredibly expensive. Maybe I'm spoiled by dollar beers in Austin, but Mexico shouldn't have $2.50 beers and $4 drinks. Fernie and I have decided to go old school tonight and drink at the apartment before going out. It will be a lovely evening I'm sure. Maybe we'll teach some Mexicans how to do the straw trick.
ADDITION, JULY 11:
I've found the Vonnegut passage. Here you go.
When she was living in Berlin, she told me, she had been appalled by how ignorant so many American tourists and soldiers were of geography and history, and the languages and customs of other countries. She asked me, "What makes so many Americans proud of their ignorance? They act as though their ignorance somehow made them charming."