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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