I recently read this article after a couple bottles of wine with a fellow expat. We laughed. We were in total agreement that these stereotypes are indeed real, and, of course, that we could do it better.
Just because it’s awesome
However, my perspective is very different based on how I travel and the fact that I live in Peru. Somewhere along the last 14 months, I made the transition for backpacker/traveler to expat, and there is simply no going back. I was hit by the divide between the two when I started to brave some of the gringo trail. It can really be summed up in one standard conversation amongst backpackers: “How long have you been traveling and how many countries have you done in that period of time?” When it comes to my turn and I respond with an inconceivable “a year” and “just Peru” the conversation tends to awkwardly die.
I admire your endurance, and I understand now that my frame of reference forces people to reanalyze what they think they know. I’m sorry to say that no, you aren’t going to learn a whole lot about the culture, language, and local people when you are plowing through city after city. Regardless, I still think it is bad ass that anyone can throw all of their crap in a nap sack and head overseas to live out of said-nap sack for x amount of time.
Unfortunately, this divide exists. When I went to Africa, my American volunteer coordinator said something to me that I will never forget, “I realized last year that just because someone comes to Africa, does not mean that they are a cool person.”
Below are the stereotypes that are bound to drive any expat nuts when they wander onto El Camino Gringo AKA The Gringo Trail1.
1) The Guy Who Knows Better
His bartering skills are top notch. He’s tried all of the local cuisine, not to mention that he
A prime example of “guy who knows better” behavior.
knows where to get it. He pronounces restaurants, foods, and basic items with perfect pronunciation. We will just let him continue paying double for produce, eating in the places your local friends have warned you about, using incomprehensible slang from three countries back, and taking crazy-stupid transit. After all, he knows better.
Time on el camino: 1-3 months
2) The Guy Who Is Fluent Until You Introduce Him to Your Local Friends
He’s been traveling Latin America for a few months. He took three years of Spanish in high school, and an additional two years in college. He’s very open about that fact that all of this education has culminated in his preparation for his fluency exam to begin working as a translator. So you invite him out for a night on the town with your local friends, thinking that they’ll get along just fine. After 15 minutes of awkward one-way conversation, he fakes an illness and goes home. (Tragically, this guy and guy #1 are sometimes the same person.)
Time on el camino: 3 months
3) The Idealist
The idealist has been around for three days, and this is without-a-doubt the most amazing city in the world. And you, you miserable, jaded expat, are a pathetic excuse for a human being for no longer acting like this is the most amazing place in the world. The language, the food, the music, the produce, the markets, the lax drinking laws, and the cheap transit all have the idealist convinced that this the coolest place on Earth and thus it is where she shall poetically dwell until the end of time. I’ll keep appreciating your enthusiasm, sweetie, because those things are awesome. In fact, they are indeed what drew me here, and most certainly what keep me here. However, from where I am sitting, I also see a serious poverty issues, a total disregard for sustainable environmental and safe hygiene practices, and an oppressive class system that is bordering on caste system. I’m tired of paying an hour’s wages for a box of tampons. I am sick of being treated like I am rich when I am so freakin’ poor that I can’t afford to go home, and I secretly have dreams about reliable plumbing and drinking the tap water.
Time on el camino: Less than a week
4) The But-These-Drugs-Are-So-Cheap Guy
He touched down four weeks ago, and he hasn’t come down since. He has a bright future in drug trafficking and international smuggling. What’s more is that he is convinced that the cops won’t touch him because he’s a gringo. He knows all of the street dealers, smokes mari walking down the street, and tactfully sniffs bumps in front of la comisaria. In the intermission, he is more than happy to remind you that you are nuts for not taking advantage of the rock-bottom market. Honey, I just hope you keep enough money on you for a bribe.
Time on el camino: A month
5) The College Kid(s) Traveling on Mommy and Daddy’s Budget
You, my devout expat, starved yourself living well below the poverty line so that you could pay for your one-way ticket to an unknown land where you knew you would continue to
What I imagine their parents look like…
live way below the poverty line while getting ripped off by locals for the foreseeable future. Then these kids come along, seeing everything in dollars and failing to understand that your ability to survive is centered around your ability to negotiate and think in the local currency. They eat in gringo restaurants and stay in the most expensive backpackers’ hostels, but refuse to be identified in tourists. They travel in packs even in broad daylight, out of fear that separation will result in imminent robbery…or worse. If one of them doesn’t feel like participating in an activity, the world ends and they all stay inside. Well, all we can say to them is, “Kudos to you for making it out of the country for your first time.”
Time on el camino: 2 weeks
6) The Superior Volunteer
There are NGOs all over South America. Many of these are targeted a young college students who are expected to pay for the opportunity to offer their services. I participated in one of these in Africa post-graduating and I absolutely believe that they are an excellent opportunity to learn more about another culture, world, people, etc.However, many of these South American NGOs over staff their school, projects, initiatives, etc. with temporary PAYING interns/volunteers. This means that you get situations like three teachers per classroom of 10 students. Rather than realizing that they have been ripped off and are in fact making no difference whatsoever, they adopt an air of superiority. They are the kind of people that say to recently inaugurated backpackers, “Why don’t you speak Spanish?” They, much like the college kids, stay in their groups. They get rip-roaring drunk four nights a week, because deep down they know that it won’t make a lick of difference at “work” tomorrow.
Time on el camino: 2 months
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1: The Gringo Trial (or El Camino Gringo) is the standard path that gringos take in between popular cities and sites. It is not uncommon for backpackers to run into each other multiple times while traveling the Gringo Trail.
**I do not own nor do I claim to own rights to any of the photos in this post.