Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ugly American

We witnessed a really ugly American today and I can't stop thinking about it.  The ugly American is a stereotype that you hear about all the time but we have been lucky enough to run into it very little.  Most of the travelers that we have crossed paths (Americans and others) with have been exactly what you would hope that they would be...patient, nice and most of all respectful of the people whose countries we are guests in.  We understand that the cultures in these countries are different from ours and we generally act like students, learning about people and trying to have as little of an impact on their society as possible.  We know that as gringos we stand out without doing anything.  Besides our pale skin, we dress differently, we act differently and often we can barely communicate in these people's language.   It can be awkward but we have all been to places that have been ruined by tourism and the last thing that we want is for the local people to resent our presence as tourists.  We know that people assume that we are rich to be able to travel at all but we know in our hearts that we are not as rich as people think we are as we try to make our small budgets stretch as long as possible.  We spend most of our times in this precarious balance constantly being taken advantage of and on our guards to not get completely ripped off while still trying to contribute to the poor economies and to help out the people whose society we are invading.

Today on the beach, we witnessed a horrible display of ugly an ugly tourist and were horrified that this American would represent us so poorly.  On this beach, like many others that we have visited, some entrepreneurial locals support themselves by renting umbrellas and beach chairs.  A few others had built champas (temporary structures built of wood and covered in branches) to rent out to larger groups.  A solo American guy had camped out in the shade of one of these champas near us.  We soon heard an angry local woman speaking loudly to the guy in Spanish and then heard him cussing her out in English.  Our Spanish is still poor but our ability to interpret situations is strong.  We immediately knew that she was trying to tell him that he needed to give her money to sit under her champa or move to another part of the beach.  We have been in his shoes before but the interaction was always different.  When it happened to us, we offered an apology and moved away.  It was always friendly and no big deal.  This guy was irate that she would treat him like this.  It was obvious that his Spanish was as bad as ours or worse that that he didn't really understand what she wanted from him.  He was saying truly awful things that I cannot repeat on this blog.  She was calling him things like pinche americano.  The guy had a Canadian friend who I don't think was traveling with him but maybe they had crossed paths before.  He looked over at us and Rob politely explained that she just wanted money for the use of the champa because that is how she supports herself and when the ugly American walked over to him after a while, he repeated what Rob had said as an explanation.  Well that just set off the ugly American even more.  He went back over to the lady and started yelling in English that she didn't own the beach and that the beach belongs to everyone.  We were relieved when he finally moved on down the beach talking under his breath about how awful "these people" are to tourists. A few minutes later, we were listening to a group of Panamanian teenagers that were hanging out in a nearby champa.  They were talking and laughing about the whole dramatic incident and then we heard them repeating some of their newly learned English phrases..."piss off, b&*h" was their favorite.

I'm so glad that we have witnessed so few interactions like that but I recognize the huge amount of damage that this behavior causes.  Even though every other American on that beach was polite and respectful, this lady and everyone else on the beach will continue to think that all Americans are rude and think that they are entitled to special treatment thanks to this guy. Its people like that who give all of us a bad name and I honestly wish that the ugly Americans would just stay home.


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