A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – The Perception of Backpackers – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
I’ll admit it. When I was in high school I often dreamed of taking a post-high-school backpacking trip across Europe. When I was in college I often dreamed of taking a post-college backpacking trip across South America. A lot of people dream of it, a lot of people pin things on Pinterest about it, and, in reality, there are actually quite a few people who actually do it.
As a result of recent dips in ticket prices to Colombia, the tourism industry has experienced a huge boom. And, as a result of the diversity and beauty contained within a small country, many travelers intent on traversing all of South America end up detouring and spending a good chunk of their time in Colombia.
Prior to the holiday season, I wasn’t able to travel throughout Colombia. I met a few backpackers and travelers in La Candelaria, the historic center of Bogota, but Bogota itself isn’t a huge tourist attraction and backpackers especially don’t tend to linger here for long. I did, however, hear a great deal about travelers from professors and students, the individuals with whom I most often discuss cultural perceptions and stereotypes.
When talking to certain students, I was alarmed at the descriptions I was given when I asked them to describe a person from the United States “based on foreigners they have met”. I heard words that are often repeated like “ignorant” and “greedy”, but when the words turned to phrases they confused me.
In particular, one student told me that he hated travelers from the United States. He described them as very “close-minded”, and when I asked him to elaborate on being close-minded he explained that every backpacker from the United States that he had met was never interested in speaking Spanish, interacting with locals, or going places other than those frequented by tourists. He said that many of them only came to Colombia for drug-tourism and partying and didn’t actually care about the country or people.
It was a harsh critique.
I assumed he had had some bad experiences. I didn’t believe it–that is, until I had the opportunity to travel and frequented a few hostels in different cities in Colombia. There are definitely some hostels that are “party-hostels” and there are definitely some hostels that are not “party-hostels”, and the people that I met in each one varied accordingly. However, across the board, I was often disappointed by the attitudes of the fellow estadounidenses (United States-ians) that I met throughout Colombia.
In Medellin, I met countless pre-college or post-college graduates who spent the duration of their time partying at the bar in their hostel, hanging out with other backpackers, and discussing other hostels that they had stayed at. The default language of hostels: English. The default goal of many travelers: party. The more time I’ve spent around people “traveling” through Colombia, the more I’ve come to understand my students’ harsh critique of the estadounidenses that they’ve met.
However, for me, it was the level of Spanish used by other travelers that was the most disappointing. If you’re traveling through Europe, I find it perfectly understandable to not speak the native language of a country. There are so many languages spoken throughout Europe that it would be impossible to expect yourself to learn them all. South America is a different story. With the exception of Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana (countries that are not very popular travel destinations in the first place), Brazil and its Portuguese is the only outlier. Spanish is universal.
Would it hurt to learn a little bit of Spanish?
Time and time again, I’ve met travelers that can’t answer basic questions that are thrown at them again and again. I now understand why, on my “touristy days” otherwise known as my casual-dress days, I suddenly have every street-seller shouting things at me in English.
I often feel like I’m judging my fellow travelers a bit unfairly. I have a different opportunity. I’m living in Colombia for ten months and many of them are spending a week or two exploring a few cities; of course they aren’t going to be able to “connect” with Colombia as much as I can. That being said, the legacy that these travelers leave behind is often awful and has jaded many people’s perceptions of the United States.
When I think back to my study abroad experiences in university, I’m reminded of how many times I was told of my position as a “cultural ambassador”, how often I was reminded to be careful and courteous. I remember I thought it was silly back then, but I often find myself wishing now that other travelers could keep the idea of being cultural ambassadors in mind as they embark on their journeys throughout Colombia.
About our special correspondent Laura Blasena: Ever since I was a little Kindergartner I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.
I graduated from St. Scholastica in the summer of 2015 with a double major in Elementary Education and Spanish Education after student teaching as a 5th grade teacher and also as a Spanish teacher at NorthStar in Duluth, Minnesota.
While my future plans before graduation were initially to become a classroom teacher, I decided to wait a year to begin teaching in the United States and have chosen to work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bogota, Colombia. In Colombia, I will be working with a university as an assistant in the language department, attending classes, running conversation clubs, and offering the perspective of a native speaker.
I’ve always loved to travel. In college, I participated in several study abroad trips, visiting England, Guatemala, and Mexico. (I loved visiting Mexico so much that I even went back a second time!). I’m looking forward to the travel opportunities that I will have while working and living in Colombia.
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28 responses to “A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – The Perception of Backpackers – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports”
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I often feel as though many young “backpackers” are not truly attempting to invest themselves into understanding a place or culture, and are instead more concerned about posting a profile picture of themselves hiking up a mountain or interacting with a local. Although I may not truly understand what their motives are for traveling, that is often the feel I get from others. It is disappointing. I often found it embarrassing to be considered a tourist even in Europe. As you mentioned people can tell or pass judgements on this based simply on your appearance and dress. In turn, whether you look like a tourist can set the bar for how you are treated by others and how they interact with you. It is hard to consider whether there is a way to combat or change the attitudes of “backpackers” so that the attitudes of those who live in the country and those who visit can be more positive. Have you considered this at all? If so, what are your thoughts?
The view abroad of Americans is not generally a very nice one. I think you give some great examples of why American tourists are not viewed in a wonderful light. CSS seems to really stress the idea of people being cultural ambassadors. I wonder if other universities emphasize that point as well. If not then that could be some of the reason for college aged tourists being looked upon especially negatively.
When I was in Brazil studying for a year I saw some of the same attitudes directed towards me, just based on the fact that I was an American. I think that with time I changed a lot of peoples perceptions about our country and its people, but that is due to the fact that I was invested in learning about their culture and ways of living. I am not one to say that I don’t enjoy partying, but by far the most memorable and rewarding experiences that I had while abroad were not at a bar or club. For example when I was with my friends learning to cook traditional Brazilian BBQ or Or when my host father taught me how to paraglide. I will cherish those memories forever, and those are the times in which we can show people that we are not our stereotype.
When you are hosting other people in your country you are expected to treat them with respect however, hosts also expect to be treated with the same respect. Foreigner, I believe, sometime forget about the second expectation. Yes, you are not supposed to know all about the culture – the reason you are traveling most of the times is to immerse in it and learn about it – but learning basic information or cultural practices can be very helpful. You would be surprised how far a simple ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in the native langue can go. In order to make these trips more meaningful you must learn about the culture, you must embrace the community, you must step out of your comfort zone and discovery more about the country and most importantly yourself.
It is interesting to hear how other countries feel about people from the United States. Every time I have been out of the country, people within the different countries are always surprised that I am not overweight or uneducated. It is sad how the world perceives the United States but it is not very surprising. Many people around college-age do not think about the kind of cultures they could immerse themselves into but rather how much fun they could have on their trip. It is disappointing to me that not everyone can appreciate the beauty of different cultures and how important it is to opening people’s eyes to the world. I think it is important for people to break the stereotype and actually become immersed into the culture and its people. It is such an amazing experience to learn from other people. It really changes how one perceives the world. I think traveling is an important part in helping people learn how to be empathetic towards other cultures and people, which is such an important skill to have.
You make some valid points in your article. I have also learned about this when I traveled to Costa Rica for a service medical trip. Because of our mission for the trip, we spent most of our time in the authentic small, poor towns of Costa Rica rather than the capital and other tourism destinations. I was so glad I knew a good amount of Spanish for this trip. The locals appreciated the effort I put to communicate to them in their country. I think the best rule of thumb for traveling to another country is to remember you are visiting their home and you must show respect and gratitude towards any hospitality given to you.
I think that you made some valid arguments in this post. I have never been outside of the country, so I don’t have any first-person experience with this. But reading the other comments and other stories from people, I think that there is the common idea that tourists, particularly from the US, are labeled as rude and “close-minded”, as you said. I think that there is some truth to that. I also think that this attitude can change if tourists remember that they are visiting other people’s homes and there needs to be that respect for other cultures. It’s amazing how far a little graciousness can go.
It’s an unfortunate fact that a minority of people can create or reinforce stereotypes for an entire group of people. It’s only through considerable time and effort that these stereotypes can be broken down and meaningful intercultural relationships can be formed. It’s important for both natives and tourists to understand that the respect has to be mutual. Both groups need to acknowledge the differences between their respective cultures. As far as the issue of learning a little bit of the language of another country: I understand some people don’t have either the time or the desire to learn even a little bit of another language, but they may risk coming across as disrespectful or disinterested. In addition, these negative perceptions of tourists help create the stereotype of other people from their country. In my opinion, learning basic pleasantries, greetings, etc. takes very little effort and is probably worth doing.
As a first-year college student, I too have the dreams of once travelling another country. Whether that come true or not, that is unclear. One of my fears is not being able to fluently speak the language of where I am visiting. Yes, I believe that knowing a bit of the language is respectful and can quite often be beneficial. Choosing not to know the language is a choice of the tourist, but it should be brought to mind in order to show respect to the natives. If my dream comes true that I will one day travel abroad, I will keep in mind the list of a respectful traits that a tourist must present in a different country.
As sad as this is, this doesn’t really surprise me. It is definitely upsetting, but not surprising. It seems as though people from the US are so focused on the face paced life, as well as sticking to our own culture. I’ve never traveled outside of the United States, so I can’t speak of past experiences, but it’s definitely sad to hear other peoples’ opinions of Americans.
After travelling in Europe a bit I was confronted by the same stereotypes you are writing about. I spent a weekend in Scotland staying at a hostel and while I was there I looked at Yik Yak out of curiosity and much of what was being posted were very negative things about Americans and how self centered and ignorant they are. In Scotland though English is the native language so there the perceptions were coming from much more than an unwillingness to learn the local language. It was really eye-opening because when I was in Spain, a country whose language I know none of, I didn’t encounter any of this (probably because I was in a very small town whose main tourist draw was from other parts of Spain) but in a country where I could communicate easily the negative perceptions of Americans were so much more obvious.
It seems strange, and I doubt the visiting partying Americans realize it themselves, but partying in Colombia does have some cultural impacts. Even if English is practically the only language spoken and Americans only talk amongst each other, it will still be different than “getting rowdy” in the U.S. With that being said, it seems silly that so many Americans visit the country for that reason, when obviously there are so many important lessons and ideas to learn, as well as an entirely different culture to experience. I think learning a language can be very intimidating, and if one knows there will be others that speak his or her native tongue, a lack of effort in learning a new language can easily be found.
Its sad and disappointing to realize that many nations around the world have such a negative view of the US. When my family and I traveled to Europe, we actually told some Parisians that we were from Canada just so we wouldn’t be judged. It may seem ridiculous to those who have not traveled abroad, however, getting countless dirty looks when you tell people you are from the US is not a good feeling. I found it very surprising how the native Colombian you spoke with believes that American tourists only travel to Columbia to party. Coming from his point of view, I can see how he would come to that conclusion though.
When discussing the reasons why the rest of the world views Americans in a negative light it is difficult because we don’t take a step back and we lack the perspective of others. There seems to be a push to rehabilitate our image around the world by doing good, but it seems that the good we do is suppressed and the bad is highlighted. Here at St. Scholastica were are instructed from early on that it is our jobs to be ambassadors when traveling anywhere. How well does it work here at CSS and how well does it work in practice around the world?
I feel like this is a viewpoint that people take of Americans even if they have never had any interactions with them. It is sad that certain events have made people think so lowly of Americans when a vast majority don’t deserve it. Being from Canada, I have rarely had trouble with impressions when travelling around the world, although I reside just 6 hours north of Duluth people in other countries would have a completely different first impression of me. This is a real unfortunate situation many Americans only go to Columbia to party when there is so much more to explore, but you for this reason you can understand the stereotypes Columbians have clearly associated with Americans.
Your realization and discovery of how some Americans tour Columbia is a new perspective to me, but I am actually not that surprised of it. When traveling abroad, I think its very important to know that the trip starts when you plan it, not when you arrive. You must research where to go (obviously) but also understand their culture (at least a little bit) and know some key phrases that can help you find your way. Do this, and I think your experience will be much greater. Thanks for sharing!
I never knew about people really wishing to backpack across South America, let alone party while doing it. I’m sure hearing about how people see us Americas was pretty harsh. Now hearing about the tourists not being able to speak Spanish while going on a trip for a few days is understandable but if you plan to travel for a long while, you should really learn some basic phrases. But, it is surprising how fast you lose it if you don’t use it. Thanks for the story!
I enjoyed reading your post. Often times I feel Americans create a bad reputation when we visit other areas outside the United States. I too agree that on a short trip it would be difficult to learn a new language since you’re only there for a short amount of time. But, like you said if you plan an extended stay you should most definitely learn some basic phrases. This will also make it easier for you to communicate but also for the native speakers to communicate with you. I think another big point I got from this article is to be as courteous to the citizens in that area wherever you travel. Since it is the people from the U.S. that travel to these areas that set a reputation. Thank you for sharing, it was interesting to read.
You make a very good point with your article, and I could not agree more. Just recently I traveled to the Philippines as a nursing student and we decided to take this opportunity as a traveler rather then a tourist. We were being completely submerged in a new culture. I really enjoyed trying to learn some of their language and it seemed like they really liked our effort! It was such an amazing experience! I wish that others would take these opportunities and use them to their full potential. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
Interesting to hear how local residents respond to backpackers in foreign countries. Particularly because this is a prospective many will never acknowledged (especially considering they can’t always speak the same language). While I have never ventured outside the country, this reminds me of Duluth in a way. That is, many who visit Duluth only go to certain parts: Canal Park, the Lake Walk, Spirit Mountain, Engar Tower. The rest of the town is a mystery. For college students looking at UMD and CSS (like myself a few years ago), Canal Park and the North Shore were my only real impression of Duluth because that’s all my family would ever visit.
I feel no matter where you are coming from you should always have a respectful attitude when you are visiting a foreign country. It is sad that a bunch of groups that consist mostly of college students are the stereotype of US tourist. I really liked your article especially how you even conducted your own research to see if what you were told was true. One question that came up during your article was, why isn’t Bogota known as a tourist destination? Great Article!
Interesting viewpoint. It’s definitely a viewpoint that many of us who live in North America don’t get to see. I feel as though many of the travelers to Colombia are not purposely being rude to the local people, but rather they are just ignorant of what they do and how it comes across. Living in small towns of 2000 or less people I can’t say I’ve ever had to deal with what they do with so many tourists, but it would be interesting to see how similarly Americans deal with tourists from other countries who struggle to speak English.
Goes to show all the different motivations for travel. It would be nice, of course, if these backpackers could keep in mind the cultural ambassador thing in addition to their own agendas. Then again, would they care about the image of Americans they leave with the locals? It could be argued that they’re a more accurate representation of American culture than the respect and professionalism you make evident in your articles. Tourism, especially American tourists, are a curious topic.
It is interesting to hear how other countries view people from America. The term “Brits Abroad” definitely has a negative association in Europe, so it is interesting to hear about Americans abroad. It is important for foreigners to immerse themselves in the culture of the country they are and they should at least try to learn the language or some phrases.
I agree with you all the way! We have been to Mexico a couple of times while i was younger and older. When i was younger, i did not make much of an effort to learn and act like a “traveler” but rather a tourist with the stereotypical behavior. When i was older, however, i definitely tried to communicate in Spanish, especially since i had taken 2 years of Spanish, and i could tell they really enjoyed seeing the effort i put towards learning their culture.
I think the fact that CSS stresses being a cultural ambassador issue important. I attended a lecture at my previous school and they mentioned no such thing. One of my friends when she goes abroad actually tells people she’s from Canada because they are seen in a better life. Im glad though that css student are being good representatives abroad and I hope we continue to stress the importunes of being kind, courteous, and respectful to other cultures.