IF YOU BOTHER to learn a little Spanish while travelling the Americas, it goes a long way: you'll find that the negative label of Gringo doesn't appy to you any longer. The wide grins you receive from the locals when chatting to them, even in broken Spanish, makes it worthwhile. As an Englishman, I feel we ignorantly expect foreigners to speak English; our school system wrongly allows us to drop languages altogether at high school. The limited French I recall has certainly helped me learn Castillian, and also made me wish I'd followed Mr Walton's advice, and not given it up at 13. When I have kids (if, more like) then I'll ensure they're bilingual. I meet plenty of Europeans who speak three or more languages, putting us to shame. The picture of the English abroad isn't helped by a recent article I read online, about ex-pats living in Spain; they have English cafes, bars and every other amenity you can think of to save them the trouble of integrating or learning a language; it's pig-ignorant, quite frankly.
So I've taught myself a little over the years. Michel Thomas has helped, and Madrigal's Magic Key To Spanish has been indispensable. I try to read the local papers with the help of a dictionary (Guatemala's El Diario, with multiple lurid double-page spreads of drugs and murder, is enough to put me off breakfast) and use shops and cafes owned by Spanish-speakers when in tourist-saturated areas. Besides becoming a diving instructor, improving my Latin lingo is my main aim for this trip. I'm getting there; you know you're improving when you can make people laugh in their tongue. They'll go out of their way to be more sociable and help you, as they appreciate the effort.
This region is awash with Americans, and you don't meet many who bother to learn Spanish...despite them having a massive latino population. I've met some pretty cool ones this trip, but they're a rarity. In fact, as far as the locals are concerned, you're American until you open your mouth; they dominate the tourist market out here. Europeans speak at a massively reduced volume compared to them, too...why does everyone in the bar need to hear your conversation? It's not like many of them are interesting.
I've been sat in several coffeeshops in Guatemala and witnessed plain ignorance. One middle-aged woman was trying to order lunch there, and was mouthing her words slowly, while leaning over the counter towards a puzzled waitress. "Don't you people speak English?" she asked, incredulous. "They don't even speak English..." she said to her husband, who whistled through his teeth. I was sat next to another couple one morning, who had asked for the bill by rubbing fingers together and saying "How much?" Delightful. The waitress gave them a figure in Spanish, which was met by bemusement and a request for repetition. After a minute of confusion, I turned and said "It's sixty-five..." I wasn't being clever, merely trying to be helpful. But she ignored me and turned away. When her husband returned and asked if she'd paid, she told him "I don't know how much it is." Eventually the waitress had to write it down for them. Imbeciles. Did she think I was running a scam in my local cafe, where I translate prices and include a fee for my services? The waitress rolled her eyes at me as they left.
The other thing which strikes me about several US travellers is their paranoia and limited (or blinkered) world view. When I told one the other day that I was heading for El Salvador next, he asked me where it was. Next door, I told him. While island-hopping in Belize, a trio aboard a privately-chartered catamaran were flabbergasted that we'd come down from Cancun. They told me I should stay out of Mexico. When I asked why, they said "Drug murders." Oh. Didn't see much of that in Cozumel. The north of Mexico can be dodgy, and I'm not about to visit Juarez anythime soon...but we had no problems whatsoever. Even the Lonely Planet scaremongers sometimes, and we all know which nation publishes those guides? By far the funniest were a couple we met at the Tikal ruins. Finishing dinner, a wide-eyed woman approached us and asked how we'd got to the site. When we told her by bus, she began quizzing us as to what kind, and was it a local bus? Turns out that her and her fella wouldn't travel in shuttle buses, as they had the word Turismo plastered across them; which obviously meant bandits would jump out of bushes at the side of the road and gun everyone down. As a result, they were still wandering around trying to find a way of there hours later...conferring with each other in whispers and nervously approaching various locals. They're all in on it! They're going to get you! If you're going to get robbed, you're going to get robbed. No point worrying about it all the time. I think that if I was shitting my pants that much, I'd feel safer just not leaving the house...maybe just watch Whicker's World re-runs, or something? Judith Chalmers never got mugged.
And just try talking to a Texan about US involvement in right-wing coups in developing countries over the last 40 years. I read The Shock Doctrine, a superb expose by Naomi Klein. Milton Friedman, the Chicago School Of Economics and the CIA have all been involved in creating misery for millions of people in developing countries, while lining the pockets of Western multi-nationals. From Indonesia, where Suharto's western-sponsored takeover triggered the deaths of 140,000 people, to Chile in the 70s, when a democratically-elected president was effectively murdered by a right-wing coup backed and instigated by the US. Argentina and Brazil suffered from western make-overs to their economies; people lost jobs and plunged into poverty, social services were cut, and trade barriers broken down...leading to cheap foreign imports and the decline of national industries. These were then bought up at knockdown prices by western businesses when they collapsed. In Argentina, thousands of people were "disappeared" by the police state in the so-called Dirty War. The brutal secret police would turn up in the dead of night in their trademark Ford Zodiacs (supplied free by Ford, naturally) and take people away to be tortured and murdered. When the country's car producers collapsed in the face of western competition as trade was thrown open, guess who generously bought their plants for peanuts? The book is equally fascinating and repellent. The IMF and World Bank are exposed as the profiteers they really are. After loaning Brazil billions to get off her knees in the 70s and 80s, the head of the Federal Reserve raised the interest rates in the States, effectively doubling Brazil's debt overnight. Can't pay us back? No problemo...just sell us your oil and mineral reserves. Corporate piracy.
So there I was, arguing with a Texan diver named Jeremy, all buzz-cut and brawny arms. He didn't want to listen, and was horrified I was suggesting the CIA had blood on their hands. This fool was arguing that the US invaded Iraq to get Saddam's WMDs. I started laughing, and pointed out that war makes money for Halliburton, and the likes of Rumsfeld and Cheney laugh all the way to the bank. That's why Vietnam went on so long; why the Lusitania was allowed to be sunk by a U-boat to bring America into WWI; why Pearl Harbour was allowed to happen to allow entry to WWII, despite Australian intelligence cables to Washington informing them about a huge Japanese fleet heading for Hawaii. Jeremy got off his bar stool, informed me of his origin, and told me I didn't know who he was connected to. He was taking all this very personally, despite me pointing out that I wasn't knocking Americans per se, merely those making money out of human misery. I stopped short of using 9/11 as an example, as he already seemed ready to start brawling with me. His next point was that they learned Colonialism from the British. Was this an excuse, I asked? Shouldn't lessons have been learned? And I suppose by that, I could say we learned from the Spanish and Portuguese? He told me that I was the most antagonistic person he'd ever met. I think I was getting to him. His next rant was all about how the US "saved your asses in the war". I thanked him, and said we were relieved to have finally paid off the money we owed them in 2006...61 years after the war ended. He then informed me that someone had to be the world's policeman, pointing to the threat from North Korea. He didn't appreciate me telling him that a Swiss company sold them the nuclear technology; the sole American on the board? Donald Rumsfeld.
Jeremy didn't speak to me at the dive shop the next day. And, shockingly, he didn't ask if he could borrow Naomi Klein's book, either. Ignorance, like they say, is bliss.