Blending in isn’t just for tourists. There are plenty of foreigners who live and work in foreign countries and forget how important it is to adapt to the host country. Not looking like a tourist has many advantages. Below you will find some tips on how to blend in while in Latin America.
Why blend in?
For starters, it’s safer to look like a local than a tourist. Tourists are often targeted by thieves and pick-pockets. Travelers are given special tourist prices, higher than the normal rates. Dressing like a tourist can be disrespectful at times. For example, when entering churches or cathedrals in Latin America, you shouldn’t wear sleeveless shirts, shorts or flip-flops. You won’t get stared or pointed at for being a gringo.
Blending in is a two part process: physical and social. Physically it involves what you look like and socially it involves how you act. While there are some things that you can’t change, there is plenty that you can. Taking Latin American cultures and customs into consideration is a polite thing to do; it will help you enjoy your time there.
Blending in physically
Even though there are numerous blond haired, blue eyed Latin Americans, there are far more dark haired, dark eyed ones. On the whole, Latin Americans are shorter than their American or European counterparts. They may not be super thin, but they are also not very heavy either, rather in between.
Obviously there’s not much you can do about your height. Apart from dying your hair or wearing contacts, you probably can’t change those features. However, your physical appearance is more than this; your clothes and accessories can either help you blend in, or cause you to stand out.
Let’s start with clothing. For the most part, Latin Americans don't wear cargo pants. If you’re wearing them, it’s a sure sign you’re a tourist. Shorts are mainly used for the beach, although some women do wear them in the city. Be aware that showing your legs is an open invitation to whistles, stares and kisses being blown at you. Both men and women use jeans and they tend to be tighter than the jeans worn in the USA. In the summer, women wear skirts and men wear shorts.
Shoes are also an easy way for people to tell you’re a tourist. Ditch the flip flops and Birkenstocks; they’re beachwear. Opt for comfortable dress shoes. Thousands of Latin Americans walk all over the place in dress shoes. You can too.
Although there are tons of wonderful shirts that have the city or country that you’ve visited written on the front, save those for when you get home. Button down shirts or T-shirts for both guys and gals are fine. Keep in mind that clothing is worn a bit tighter than what you may be used to. Leave the baggy clothes at home
Remember, seasons are the opposite in the southern hemisphere than they are in the northern hemisphere. It may be cold where you are in March, but it’s actually the end of the summer and the beginning of fall in Latin America. Locals start wearing fall clothing around that time. If you show up in shorts and a tank, people will know you’re not from the area. In the summer months, January to March, it does get warm, but it depends on where you are. Twelve hours of daylight means there’s less sun and less heat. It tends to cool off at night, so be sure to bring a jacket.
Lastly, ditch the hats and sunglasses. Sombreros really aren’t worn by the majority of the people. Sunglasses are more of a fashion statement than anything. If you are going to wear sunglasses, make sure it’s sunny. No reason to wear sunglasses in the middle of winter. It should go without saying that walking around with a guidebook under your arm and a camera around your neck won’t make you look like a local. Try copying the necessary pages of your guidebook and taking those with you. Stick your camera in a backpack or purse. As for money and ID cards, just take what you need. If you’re going out for coffee, you won’t need 100 dollars. ID, passports, credit cards; they should never be with you while you’re out on the town. Carry a copy if necessary, but leave the originals in a safe place.
Blending in socially
Let’s start with stereotypes. As mentioned above, there are blond haired, blue eyed Latin Americans. Some may be tall or heavy. They may speak other languages, have spent time in another country, or live in mansions. Forget about stereotypes. It's best to come with an open mind and take in everything around you. There are some cultural items to remember when in Latin America
One important thing to keep in mind is the personal space bubble. In Latin America, people stand closer together than those in other countries. Although it may seem intrusive when someone is just a few inches away from your nose, resist the temptation to step back. Personal space is simply smaller. When you’re greeting or leaving women, use air kisses near the check. When men greet men, they usually shake hands and embrace. When leaving, make sure you say good-bye to everyone.
When meeting someone, you’ll find out that time is relative in Latin America. If you’re meeting someone for lunch at noon, don’t be surprised if they’re a half an hour late. They’re not trying to be rude, it's just the way things are. Next time you plan on getting together with someone, delay your arrival time.
Make an effort to learn a bit about the country’s history and culture before you go. This is a great way to start a conversation. Latin Americans love conversing; be ready to talk about anything. Try keeping abreast of the news, especially the local news as it’s a favourite topic among Latin Americans. People like to express themselves with gestures, so use your hands when you talk. Remember the personal space bubble. Since people stand close together when they speak, they don’t need to talk loudly; lower your voice while carrying on a conversation, or you’ll be accused of shouting.
Using the language shows you’re making an effort to learn more about the country. Spanish is the main language used in Latin America. Learn the basics, you can use it in many countries. Portuguese is used in Brazil; French is still used in some countries. Most people, especially the young, have a decent grasp of English. However, if you are going to use English to communicate, speak a bit slower and without slang. At the same time, there’s no need to shout or speak to people as if they were ignorant. Ahtough they may not understand you, write things done. Latin Americans are very helpful and will go out of their way to show you where something is, so be considerate and make sure to thank them for helping you out.
Don’t be afraid to try something new. Latin America has loads of local delicacies you can try. When dining out, wait for others to be served before beginning. And be sure to hold your fork in one hand and your knife in the other. Cut one bite at a time and keep your fork and knife in the same hands. Don’t switch hands.
Going along with trying new things is venturing out. Use public transport. At first it may seem like a daunting task, but you’ll get used to it. Besides being cheaper than taking taxis, it’s safer as well.
Prices might take some time to get used to. Although things might be considerably cheaper than in your home country, keep in mind that salaries might be lower. Don’t go on and on about how cheap things are, because for those earning money in the local currency, they’re not really that cheap.
Most importantly, remember that you’re a guest and as such don’t speak badly about the country you’re in. Of course, there are going to be differences, some good, some bad. Don’t compare your country to theirs in a negative light. No one wants to hear how horrible their country is. Compliment instead. Latin Americans are proud of their culture and native people. Food, handicrafts and the arts are good to compliment. It’s best to take advantage of your time in the country and see some of the local festivals and events. They’re unforgettable and a great way to get an inside look at the culture.
Blending physically and socially will greatly help you the next time you’re in Latin America. Make an effort and you will be rewarded for doing so.
Sharon de Hinojosa (naturegirl321) has lived and worked (mainly teaching English) in the US, Scotland, Spain, the Czech Republic, China, Korea and Peru. She has taught short-term in Venezuela and Taiwan. She regularly contributes to the forums on Dave’s ESL Café, Living in Peru and Expat Peru. Her work has been featured in books by Viva Travel Guides. She is the author of The Ultimate Peru List and the LA Job List. When she’s not teaching or helping people in Peru, she enjoys redecorating her house with her husband in Lima.