COSTA RICA EXTRA (by Jacqui de Klerk, Yahoo Travel) — Yes, I am a gringa and I’ve been there; I’ve worn those faded shorts, I’ve been out for dinner looking like I just exited a jungle (well, I had just come out of a jungle…), and I’ve worn my hair in an awful mess. I’ve lived in Colombia (I’m originally from South Africa) for the last two and a half years and I’ve had to learn that just because I’m playing explorer, I don’t need to look like a complete, weatherbeaten mess.
Unfortunately, other tourists in Latin America haven’t gotten that message. I’m tired of seeing unwashed and unshaven travelers wearing what seems to be fifth-generation hand-me-downs or a T-shirt way past its use-by date, giving all of us foreigners a bad name among the locals. It’s time for foreign visitors to Latin America to help change our reputation — for backpackers to be perceived as clean and neat, and for all the negativity about us “gringos” to be washed, and I do mean washed, away.
If you’re thinking about traveling around Latin America and aren’t keen on being perceived as the typical sloppy backpacker, I have composed a list of suggestions to forever destroy that stereotype. And remember to ask yourself this golden question when deciding what’s suitable or not: What would you do/wear if you were in your home country?
1. Please look nice.
I know you plan to climb mountains, trek through jungles, or go mountain biking, but remember that South America doesn’t only consist of wild jungles, deserted beaches, and alpine mountains. There are big, fancy cities just like the ones you have back home. And in cities, people dress nicely. I am sure that if Indiana Jones were visiting Bogotá or Santiago de Chile, he would leave his hat, boots, and lasso in his hotel room. South Americans take pride in their appearance; it’s a social status. One nice skirt, a pair of trousers, or a good shirt doesn’t take up much space and will help to camouflage you among the crowds to avoid looking like a tourist.
2. Shower. Please.
I know you want to live freely and be one with nature, which is perfectly fine if you are actually in nature. But if you are going to be interacting with other people, you need to shower and use soap. Add a splash of perfume, and soon you’ll be attracting people, not flies.
3. Wash, brush, and perhaps even style your hair.
A neat plait, a pretty clip — and for guys, maybe just some water — are simple ways to make a big difference in your appearance. Take a look at the locals’ hair; do the girls have their hair piled up in a messy bun? Do men go out with “bed head”? No, they take a few minutes before they leave to style and arrange their hair, and throughout the day they are constantly finding mirrors to make sure they look good.
Guys, that shabby three-day shadow doesn’t make you look cool, intriguing, or handsomely dashing — locals will treat you like a beggar or a drug addict. And even worse is the slovenly hippie-long-beard look. Not going to help you to blend in. If a beard is
necessary to help with your manliness, please keep it well groomed.
5. Leave your cargo pants in the mountains.
Trousers with a million pockets and zips and a removable bottom section that accompanied you in Patagonia should not be worn anywhere but in the mountains. And even though you feel so comfortable in them and swear they are clean and ironed, they are not acceptable in a city. The right trousers have pockets only in the normal places and aren’t water-/wind-/fireproof.
6. Chill out, no one’s going to rob you!
Foreigners tend to clasp their bags tightly to their bodies or hold them firmly in front over their stomachs. But the tighter the grip, the more gringo you appear to be and people will think you’re carrying something really valuable. Relax, keep your bag properly closed, near to your body and you will be fine.
7. Minimal body language.
When you are in your hometown, do you nervously dart your eyes from left to right, checking every single person around you while vigorously swinging your arms back and forth? This kind of behavior is a dead gringo giveaway. Try to keep your eye and head movements to a minimum, act natural, and walk casually — not too fast, not too slow — as if you were taking a stroll at home.
Latinos dance freely and smoothly, unlike gringos who tend to dance with stiff, jerky, uncoordinated movements. Take a salsa or samba class, loosen your body, and feel the beat. Knowing how to dance is a great way to disguise your foreign status on the dance floor and impress the locals.
9. Learn the lingo.
If you fail in all of the above, knowing some basic Spanish and/or Brazilian Portuguese phrases will reveal to the locals that you are not another typical arrogant traveler, and you will be received with an even bigger smile. Some advantages include avoiding being ripped off by a taxi driver, negotiating a price, and simply being able to talk to the locals to discover and appreciate their culture.
Let’s work together to change this awful stereotype so that we can stop being recognized as those grubby/shabby/without-a-sense-of-style gringos. I want to be proud to see another foreigner, not hide in embarrassment to be associated with one of them. And remember, we are in their country, so we should at least try to respect their norms and values. Learning how to do this is hopefully one of your main motivations for traveling, after all.