“Going Native”

This essay was originally published in 2006 at the now-defunct InverseOnline, a website dedicated to all things South American.

Barranquilla, Colombia:

“Where you from?” the driver asks in Spanish after a few minutes in the air-conditioned cab. He had picked me up on the corner near my apartment, sweating under the morning sun in my khakis and button-down dress shirt with the sleeves rolled-up to the elbow. He was running me to the university, but it wasn’t that fact, or even my appearance that tipped him off to my foreignness. In fact, it’s never my appearance.

“Take a guess,” I say, playing this game for the zillionth time.

“I don’t know. Aruba, maybe? Curaçao?” The nearby Dutch Caribbean has been the most common guess since I moved here to Barranquilla, trumping even perennial favorite, Brazil.

“No, neither.”

“I don’t know then,” he concedes.

“San Andrés,” I lie.

“Ah, okay.” And this satisfies him.

San Andrés is one of two small islands off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, but officially belonging to Colombia. It has a history typical of the area—strategically located during colonization and therefore christened repeatedly under shifting European banners, including Spain, England, and the Netherlands. The English maintained dominance for a while in the early 1600s and the language stuck among the few colonists and their many African slaves. Spain regained control and later, the islands became an administrative department of Colombia.

Everyone here knows that though sanandresanos are Colombian citizens, most speak English and a West Indian patois spiced with Anglicized Spanishisms, which explains my trouble with masculine and feminine articles and other lapses in grammar. It also keeps the cab fare from increasing, since I’m still considered a “poor” Colombian and, thus, not a “rich” gringo.

“So do you study at the university?”

“Yes,” I lie again. “Business administration.”

“Nice,” he says.

That explains my khakis and button-down. It also keeps the cab fare from increasing, since I’m still considered a “struggling” student and, thus, not a “well-heeled” professor. English professor, to be exact.

To be honest about my job or my nationality would have been an invitation for an endless slew of questions: How do you like Colombia? How about the women? How about the weather? How about President Bush? How’d you end up in Colombia? But the women, they’re hot, right?

He says something else that I can’t make out exactly, but by the tone and his face, it sounds like a joke, so I nod and smile. I hope he just turns up the radio and quits talking, as I’m not in the mood for further interrogation. He does and the recycled salsa saves me for a while. I’m only functional, not fluent in Spanish, and my listening ability is much worse than my ability to construct sentences and articulate myself—it comes and goes in waves.* Half the time, I can ask a question with complete accuracy and not understand a word of the response. It doesn’t help that I’m a good mimic with a great accent. It also doesn’t help that, thanks to my own ethnic hybridity, I happen to look Colombian. Or Brazilian. Or Aruban.

Or maybe it does.

My white co-workers at the university often get quoted higher everything. Higher cab fares. Higher prices for that hammock or hat. It pisses off my friend and colleague, Kelly, from rural Ohio. “We’re not all rich,” she often says. Sometimes, after pizza and a movie at my apartment, she gets me to hail her a cab so I can negotiate the cheapest fare. With short sentences in a commanding voice, I can be as native as anyone else, and I still have to laugh at the idea of me hailing a white woman a cab. In New York, it had usually been the reverse.

I don’t often hang out with my co-workers, not least of which because I really don’t drink and, despite having a population of almost two million, there isn’t much more to do when you’re living in Barranquilla. But it’s also the idea of being singled out as one of “them.” One of the gringos. One of those norteamericanos who comes down to the tropics to drop large quantities of dollars indulging in large quantities of alcohol and sex. A perpetual spring breaker in a Hawaiian shirt with sunburned skin and rhythm-less hips. Not that my co-workers are like that, but it is the prevailing perception, and not without good reason. I get to overhear people talking about “those gringos” when they don’t know I came with “those gringos.” Then there are the looks I get from Colombian women when they see me walking innocently with Kelly. Or from Colombian men when they see me speaking fluent English. It’s humorous and sad at the same time, that I’m seen as a social climber. A gringo-lover. Sometimes, on road trips, the police look suspiciously at my foreign resident ID. Much more suspiciously than they inspect Kelly’s.

On occasion, I hang out with my friend René, a Canadian who teaches at a local bilingual high school. His father is originally from the Congo, and René tells me in his French-accented English how in certain restaurants and nightclubs, employees come up and ask him to leave. That is, until they hear his French-accented Spanish and realize he’s foreign and therefore obviously loaded. We understand each other because, while in Colombia we occupy two different places on the Latin American racial spectrum and are therefore treated differently, we’re both from North America and subsequently both subject to the same “random” searches at Customs and Immigration once back at “home.”

I think of calling René about a doing a trip somewhere off-limits to foreigners in the interior of the country when the driver asks me at which entrance gate I want to be dropped-off. I tell him the back gate, partly because it minimizes the walk to my office, but also because it’s where a couple of the security guards I’m friendly with are posted. I’m actually friendly with all the guards, hard workers from the south side of the city who are doing good to have landed this particular gig. They’re a mixture of young and old, all but one are men. And all, given a different set of historical circumstances, could have been me, guarding an ivory tower of academia that they’ll never be a part of. Maybe that’s why they greet me with firm handshakes and smiles and shoulder pats, the more familiar—Eric and Rubén at the back gate—playfully saluting me with great flourish: “Oh, Professor Ernst Koeningsburg.”

I’ve exchanged cell numbers with a couple of them, the ones around my age who always invite me down south to eat at their house some lazy Sunday afternoon. At the time, I have every intention of calling them. But a tiresome schedule and my own laziness usually trump those planned encounters; visiting a place and working there are two completely different animals. Yet when I see them on campus, we have our brief conversations like a couple of neighbors, or cousins, maybe. And I think that, in some respect, they’re proud of me. They see a little bit of themselves, as if given a different set of historical circumstances, they could have been me, a college professor, teaching my native language in a foreign land.

And so I pull up to the back gate at a private university with only a handful of students darker than I, giving the driver a blue five-thousand peso note, knowing I could have argued the price down a thousand, but not wanting to haggle over the equivalent of not even fifty cents.

“Okay, thanks friend,” he says as I exit. “Good luck!”

“Thanks. You too,” I say and close the door, smiling in anticipation of this morning’s non-Spanish-sounding baptism.

“¿Qué tal, Eric?”

©2006, EW2

*My Spanish is actually much better now.

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Paris, je t’aime

My relationship with the City of Light was not love at first sight. The first time I laid eyes on the French capital was in March of 2004, when I snagged a $350 round-trip ticket from Washington to Paris for Spring Break. I spent much of that week trying to not slap the hell out of waiters, cashiers, and one metro station attendant who better be glad there was a plexiglass window separating my hand from his face. But the people on the street were polite and courteous and gave me no attitude whenever I asked what arrondissement I was in or for directions to the nearest McDo (in my defense, I was on a student budget).

Because of that, I decided to drag my family along for another try. Maybe it was because we had a ten-year-old traveling with us, but everybody, including the amazing waitstaff at Café Odeon, showed us the utmost respect and made sure we enjoyed ourselves. Many thanks to “Shrees le chef,” as they dubbed my little brother Chris; he’ll realize when he’s like 30 how much we pimped him on that trip.

Also, forget the Paris you see in Meg Ryan-type romance movies. I mean, that’s Paris too, but real Paris is very colored. Folks from all the former French colonies – from Africa (North and Sub-Saharan) and the Antilles to Indochina and the Indian Ocean – paint Paris more shades of brown than you can get mixed at Home Depot. Good-looking brown folks, too! And this diversity is manifested in the thousands of nook-and-cranny nightspots dotting the city, where hip-hop, house, rock, lounge, soul, samba, and salsa all get played sometimes under the same mansard roof. I don’t want to even start on the food in a place where even a dollar-bag of cheap croissants from Ed is packed with lip-smacking buttery goodness.

Paris is like New York in the sense that when you exit almost any metro station, the scene is on-and-poppin, and each neighborhood has distinct characteristics that keep you firmly rooted on the same side of town. Barbès, Montmartre, and Pigalle in the north are all different, but united under an urgent energy transcending Barbès’ controlled chaos, Montmartre’s bohemian chic, and Pigalle’s titillating trashiness. More centrally located, Le Marais is all nouveau flash and glamour, whereas the Opéra and Place de la Madeleine are old-school opulence. The Champs-Elysées in the west and the Bastille in the east form the poles of Paris nightlife, while the Puces de Saint-Ouen flea market just outside the Périphérique has hotties, hoodies, and hummus all in one place. And that’s just the Rive Droit; Left Bank, I hardly knew you.

There are, of course, the “must-sees” – the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe – but I was moved more by the ethnographic busts and scale models at the Musée D’Orsay, or the intriguing design and exhibits at the Institut du Monde Arabe (where, incidentally, I had my first official Parisian date!). But, like anywhere, it’s the atmosphere that seduces you: the stylish old ladies with poodles in pea-coats, the inexpensive wine and inattentive drivers, the canned mackerel with mustard sauce, catching the eye of someone still on the train as it pulls away from you and the platform, movies like Amélie,First Ladies like Carla Bruni, and the packing of as many unnecessary letters into a language as possible.

Paris, je t’aime.

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“Why Should White Guys Have All The Fun?”

According to the short bio in the back of his best-selling “self-help” tome, The Four-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, Tim Ferriss “speaks six languages, runs a multinational firm from wireless locations worldwide, and has been a world-record holder in tango, a national champion in Chinese kickboxing, and an actor on a hit television series in Hong Kong.” Dude is my age. Damn.

Fundamentally, Ferriss is all about “lifestyle design,” which includes personal outsourcing, information management, and mini-retirements that maximize personal free time (to be filled with things you want to do, not have to do). On his blog this week, Ferriss interviews one of his own inspirations, Rolf Potts, writer and professional vagabond who just released his second book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, “a philosophical book about seeing time as wealth and using travel to actualize that wealth.” Now, many folks might not be all that into philosophy, but picking up and traveling, leaving our comfort zones, experiencing the unfamiliar all require a philosophic leap of faith that both Ferriss and Potts try to encourage through their books and websites.

Granted, looking at them – young, Abercrombie-esque, “affluent” white guys – a person of color with a possible interest in international travel might not exactly see themselves reflected in the life experiences of these guys. In fact, the dearth of recorded, comparable experiences by colored folks is the reason for this blog. But these two gentlemen have inspired me to take their advice, borrow some of their techniques, and use their knowledge and experience, plus the seemingly-inexhaustable positive energy reflected in their writing, in planning my life journey.

I’ve certainly encountered racism in my travels and would never assume that the same open arms extended to Nordic-looking Tim Ferriss by the TV producers in Hong Kong would be extended to Caribbean-looking me. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t get on a show in Germany. It doesn’t mean I couldn’t write my own show and have it produced in Venezuela (or Hong Kong, for that matter). I also know that there are streets I can walk down in Latin America and not get a second look as an easy tourist target, while Tim Ferriss wouldn’t last ten seconds without being swarmed by screaming multitudes hawking native trinkets, blood emeralds, overpriced designer knock-offs, or underaged girls. But it’s not about comparing myself to these guys with an attitude of disdain or jealousy. On the contrary; right now, I’m trying to do what they’re doing – traveling and writing professionally – and damn if I’m not going to learn a thing or two from these intrepid lads. As deceased black muti-billionaire Reginald Lewis once asked, “why should white guys have all the fun?

There’s plenty of fun to go around.

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Two more short but excellent interviews with Rolf Potts about his new book and the art of long-term travel can be found on World Hum and Vagabondish.

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What I Appreciate About the USA

When I left the states for South America in 2005, I was definitely not a patriotic person. I mean, 200 years of slavery, a hundred years of legal segregation, and another forty of trigger-happy police incursions and a societal fear of black men do not exactly compel me to sing “God Bless America.” Still, living abroad has instilled in me what I’d call a passive sense of nationalism, manifested as a nostalgia for certain uniquely American cultural attributes that can’t be found anywhere else. The United States is absolutely not “the best country in the world.” No place is. But the US definitely has a lot of cool stuff going for it. This is my list of ten things I appreciate about the States:

10) Magazines. I mean, damn, one whole wall at Barnes & Noble (or Books-A-Million) is dedicated to the glossy, shiny alternate universe of magazines. There’s one for every geek boner you could imagine, from crocheting to dirt biking to porn. And besides the staples of every black household (Ebony, Essence, and the ubiquitous Jet), I get to see gorgeous people of color smiling back at me from the covers of Vanity Fair and Men’s Health and Time as if we’ve actually overcome!

9) Healthy Foods. Here in Colombia, a small, 10-slice pack of turkey breast costs $6. At Winn-Dixie, a pound of sliced turkey breast costs $4. Tropical and temperate fruits. Peanut butter. Protein bars and granola bars and low-carb bars and cereal bars. Yeah, lots of it might be processed and/or preserved, but dammit…we grow tall and big and strong in the USA!

8) Concerts. Mavis Staples. Kid Sister. Seu Jorge. Bebel Gilberto. Afrika Bambaataa. Julieta Vanegas. Dave Hollister. Santogold. Crosby, Stills & Nash. Los Lonely Boys. Black Dice. Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens. All free this summer in New York. That’s just one venue in one city for one season.

7) American Cinema. Citizen Kane. Gone With the Wind. Imitation of Life. Gilda. All About Eve. Blazing Saddles. Young Frankenstein. The Wiz. Jo-Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling. Jungle Fever. New Jack City. Juice. Lean On Me. Krush Groove. Love Jones. Eve’s Bayou. I Like It Like That. Casino. Heat. The Shawshank Redemption. American Beauty. Fargo. Requiem for a Dream. Any Given Sunday. A Christmas Story. The Hours. Bring It On (just playin’). And absolutely everything in between. (I couldn’t even begin to wrap my mind around a “comprehensive” list.)

6) Landscapes. The amber waves of grain on the Great Plains. Purple mountain majesties of the Rockies. The rocky cliffs of California. The infinite flatness of the Everglades. Volcanoes and pine forests and glaciers and beaches with black and white and beige and coral sands. America is beautiful.

5) Black American and Southern culture. Of course, these often overlap. Grits and eggs and grits and bacon and grits and fish and grits and corned beef hash and grits and fried bologna and cornbread and collard greens and barbecue and boiled crabs (with potatoes and corn and Roger Wood sausages) and, yes, chitlins and music at parties and games of spades and tonk (or “tunk”) and drawls and twangs and shit-talkin and rankin’ on somebody’s mama til somebody gets mad and breakin out movie lines like “You ain’t got-ta lie, Craig!” and breakin out old dances like the Reebok and the Cabbage Patch and the Running Man and the Roger Rabbit (and the Squirrel and the Tawlet Bowl and the Woop and the Tootsie Roll) and HBCU football games and step shows and dropped r’s (pahk the cah, nah!) and words like chuch and mm-hmm and well! and my-my-my and Jesus Lawd and the odd-count grunt that generations of black women have perfected when receiving bad/interesting/surprising news: mmm. Mmm-mmm-mmm. Mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm. Thems my peoples.

4) Diversity. There is no other country on Earth with more than two truly international cities. There’s always been the gateways – New York, LA, Miami, San Fran. The capital – Washington. The classics – Philly and Boston. The magnet – Chicago. But now, even bastions of regionalized Americana are noticeably microcosmic – Atlanta, Seattle, Dallas, Houston. On any given weekend, you can leave your Mandarin Chinese class to fill-up on some pad Thai before hitting a salsa spot and then an afterparty with a Brazilian DJ. Or you could just go straight to Magic City right after that pad Thai.

3) Comparative success of Black Americans. Nowhere else in the hemisphere do the descendants of African slaves have as many opportunities to develop socioeconomically than in the US, in spite of foolishness from both mainstream society (of which we’re less than 14% of the population) and amongst ourselves. Black immigrants from the Caribbean might do well in Canada, but not too many of them do that well back in their home countries. Colombia’s cool and I love Brazil, but we still got a long way to go in those places, too, which is disheartening since half of Brazil’s 200 million people are of African descent, as well as 40% of Colombia’s. And there are no Latin American Obamas, Oprahs, Colins, Condis, Kenneth Chenaults, or Richard Parsonses. In many places, like where I live, they still Driving Miss Daisy.

2) Freedom of speech and political discourse. “BUCK FUSH!” There, I said it.
Try saying “Puck Futin,” “Chuck Favez,” “Ruck Ufibe,” or “Cuck Fastro” in their respective countries, and thas yo ass.

1) English. I love languages, especially those of the Romance variety (Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian son mis favoritos). Still, much useful information about the world in which we live is only available in the home language of the country that produces that information, and in English. I haven’t seen any Spanish-language publication or broadcast news source that gives as complete coverage to global issues as the Economist. If I get lost at the airport in Dapango, Togo, I guarantee you somebody’s gon speak a lil English. It’s the lingua franca of the new millenium, y’all, and I’m glad I got to learn it growing up so I wouldn’t have to be bothered with learning its ridiculous spelling and pronunciation system as an adult.

What do my fellow expats appreciate about the States?

(Very specific honorable mentions: Marshalls, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and driving on a freeway at dusk with some hot lounge or chill house setting the tempo)

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Ike Swipes Caribbean

Please send prayers/good energy out to the brothers and sisters in the Caribbean, especially in Haiti, the DR, and Cuba, who’ve been ravaged by an active hurricane season this summer. You can watch video of Hurricane Ike here. The pictures below are from eastern Cuba, sent to me by the Saint Augustine-Baracoa Friendship Association (check them out to send clothing and other needed supplies to Cuba). Check out the wave surging over that five-story building! At the bottom are two shots of my very good friends in Cuba. Communication with them has always been limited (phone service in Cuba is spotty and Internet access is a joke) and I hope they’re okay.