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Panama

Exchange, Travel

Forget ‘Tourist vs. Traveler’, go LIVE abroad!

Are you a tourist or a traveler? 

The discussion of the ‘tourist vs traveler’ is quite well-known nowadays and is basically about the different way in which people travel to other countries. Tourists are those who visit the places their Lonely Planet guides tell them are good while travelers, on the other hand, take the time to do the things locals do, emerge with the country. ¨A traveler sees what he sees, a tourist sees what he has come to see¨ as Gilbert K. Chesterton put it.

I always liked to think of myself as a traveler. Trying local foods, going off the beaten path, learning about the culture. But the more and more I read about this discussion, the more I realize that it has two mayor flaws.

First of all, there is nothing wrong with touristy. Most ‘tourist’ places are famous because they represent an important historical moment or even because they are simply really beautiful. Being in a resort is also nothing to be ashamed of, as it is probably your vacation and your main goal is probably to relax and get away from the intensity of life at home, something which simply impossible if you are a good ‘traveler’. If you give yourself completely to a new country and culture you will get back more tired than when you left, which is nice but it’s not something you should always want and I don’t think there is anything wrong with being on vacation, as long as you realize that that is what it is opposed to saying things like “Oh I love Mexico, the beaches are amazing”. I mean, yes, the beaches ARE amazing, but the fact that they won the geographical lottery should not be the main reason why you should love a country.

Second of all, even as a traveler you will not ‘get to know’ the culture. As much as I wish that were true, the contact you have with a country will always be very superficial. In fact, the only way to actually get to know a country is to live there, and not even that is a guarantee for integration and cultural learning. The thing is; culture is complicated. Very very complicated and complex and it is not something you just pick up on your amazing travels.

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Don’t get me wrong, traveling is amazing and you can certainly learn a thing or two about culture, but knowing a country is much more than that. I often meet people who have backpacked in Panama and the more I talk to them the more I realize they know absolutely nothing about the country. I lived in a town called La Chorrera, right next to Panama City and so large that it has now formed it’s own province. A tourist or traveler will most likely never end up there unless incredibly lost ’cause even though there are many people living there, there is not that much to do. However, it is such a big city that anyone who has spent some time in Panama or even looked at a map should at least have heard of it. Yet most people who have backpacked in Panama, even if it was for a couple of months, have never heard of the place. They don’t know what Panamanian people think like or any of the popular culture of the country because they are too busy looking for the ‘authentic’ music and places to stay, which in reality only exist for the sole purpose of tourism (the colonial neighbourhood Casco Viejo is a classic example of this).

But again, there is nothing wrong with being a tourist or a traveler as long as you realize that unless you live in the country and spend time with people (and I don’t mean talking to the sympathetic young man who guided you through the jungle)  you are never going to actually know it’s culture. Knowing a culture doesn’t mean some trivia about where a certain tradition came from. Knowing a culture means understanding it. It means knowing the good and the bad. Culture is like an iceberg and those who only travel will only see the tip of the iceberg while there is so much more invisible and unspoken cultural background.

I spent an intense year living in a family, surrounded by the culture, and still I only know a fragment of what Panama really is. Because a country and it’s people might be the hardest thing to define in this entire world. But trying and getting to know the culture with all the struggles that brings has been more than worth it and that’s why I would recommend everybody: forget ‘tourist vs. traveler’, go LIVE abroad!

 

Exchange, Latin America

10 things you learn in when you live in Latin America

Note: This was written from the point of view of a European girl `with Latin America. I realize Latin America is a very big concepts and that there might be a lot of differences between countries and regions. This was not mend to offend anyone, nor was it meant to state an absolute truth. I hope you could all enjoy it.

 

1. “Ahora” doesn’t mean “now”

Yes, that’s what they told you in your Spanish course. It’s what your tourist suggested in its ‘useful words segment. Even the dictionary seems to agree that ‘ahora’ translates to ‘now’. Yet the definition of the word ‘now’ seems to be a little (read: very) different from the definition people have in Latin America, and however often you try to get something done “this instant”, you will fail.

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So everything they told me was a lie!?

2. You really can’t dance

Sure, after that 6 week salsa course you took you felt fairly confident to say “Si” when people asked you if you could dance salsa, but once you got on that dance floor you realized that, even though the attempts are well-intended, it simply doesn’t cut it compared to the people who grew up in a culture where rhythm and dancing were much more important. But that’s okay because you can enjoy the fiesta just as much by just watching it.

And let’s be honest, the best way to make new contacts is to ask a latino/a to teach you their incredible skills.

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3. Music can never be too loud

Where you might have been taught that you shouldn’t put your music too loud because it might bother other people, in Latin America the concept of enjoying your own music quietly with headphones seems to be quite unknown, because if you enjoy the music so should everybody else!

And if the bus is trembling from the reggaeton beat the driver listens to all day, this should never keep you from putting on your own music at maximum volume.

Two types of music, twice the fun right?

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4. Asia is not the nr. 1 consumer of rice

I used to think rice was typically Asian untill I had to eat rice and beans two to three times a day. They eat so much rice, a meal without rice is not even considered a meal.

And then there are looks you get when you tell them you actually don’t eat rice back in your home country.

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So. Much. Rice.

5. There is no such thing as Spanish

.. Because the moment you have managed to communicate in one country, you realize that once you travel not everybody is going to understand you when you say “estaba parkiando con mis frenes”. And when you arrive in Spain aka the motherland, you might be quite confused with the things they “coger” over there.

There are numerous variations in Spanish, wether it be the way they pronounce things, words they made up or words that just mean something completely different somewhere else. I guess we`ll just have to accept the fact that you will never really speak `spanish`.

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6. Not everyone is tall, dark and incredibly romantic

In western countries the image we have of ‘Latinos’ is this Antonio Banderas, mysterious, handsome, playing a love song on his guitar with his shirt half unbuttoned. And what about Sofia Vergara with her adorable accent and curvaceous body. But once you have arrived to Latin America you soon realize that this idea was a little bit romanticized.

Besides, Latinos come in all shapes, colors and sizes. Depending on the country you might encounter people whiter than most Europeans/Americans or darker than many Africans, and everything that lies between that. No wonder, seeing the entire population of the American continent is based on immigrants from different continents.

And although many (read: all) bachata songs are about the excruciating passion between to people, the day to day romance you will get as a woman doesn’t go much further than “oye mamita, psst pssst, ven paca! ‘tas buena oye!”.  

Expectation

Reality

7. Chinese people are EVERYWHERE

One of the last things I expected to see in Latin America was Chinese people. But they are there alright, and there are LOTS of them. With their little supermarkets (chinos) and their restaurants. I have seen the most tiny villages where they only had one store, and that one store was managed by the Chinese! I don’t know how they do it, I don’t know why they do it, but I have to say: well done China! You are one step closer to world domination.

8. Addresses/directions are overrated

How hard is it to just tell people your street name and house number? Yet every time you ask someone where they live they will tell you the color of their house and the supermarket/restaurant/any significant place that is nearby to guide you in the right direction.

And once you do finally get a home address, not even the taxi driver has a clue where it is. And neither do the neighbors. So in the end you just learn to accept that yes, they live in the yellow house 15 meters behind the second chino on the largest street in your barrio.

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So you live on McDonalds street?

9. … And so is time

We have already established that the definition of ‘now’ is probably quite different from our definition, and this is probably because the whole concept of time is experienced in a different way. When a party starts at 9, you show up at 10 because you know parties start later than people say they do, only to discover you are still the first one to arrive.

And at the supermarket, where paying and packing your groceries was usually done simultaneously to speed up the process, here nobody seems to mind that the cashier is extensively talking to their co worker while taking what seems like to be forever to count your change. Oh well.

¨Yeah let`s meet at 3¨

10. It’s not all ‘Mexico’

Deep down we all knew it, but weren’t we all a bit disappointed by the fact that it`s not a giant beach where everyone walks around like a mariachi with a sombrero filled with nachos and guacamole while shouting “Arriba, arriba” and drinking tequila. Sigh.

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Exchange, Exchange Student Problems

What It’s Really Like To Be An Exchange Student


¨ Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving. ¨

 

Looking at pictures from exchange students, it looks like a lot of fun. And it is. But the thing people don´t really mention is, is that it´s really hard. Going somewhere, without knowing anyone, knowing anything about the culture. Sure, you read about it, people tell you about it. But nobody realizes how deep a culture goes. How hard it is to do something that you have been doing for the past 17 years, differently. Most of the cultural things you don’t even realize. It goes so incredibly deep and you have no idea. It doesn’t just go from country to country, it´s different in every family, depending on social status, religion, etc. etc.

I got into somewhat of a clash with the Panamanian culture some weeks ago. The things I had done with my good intentions were not the way it was wished, but I didn’t realize this until after it was already too late. This culture is not a big fan of directness and confrontations, where for me those are not a big problem and I consider them to learn from, but it was hard for me to hear all those things that I had done wrong without having the slightest idea it has ever bothered someone.

 

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People think an exchange is hard because of being away from your friends and family. Of course that is true, but I think a big part of that is because you know the way of communication that your friends and family have. You understand them and they understand you, and that´s great. It’s a big step going away from all of that and starting over on your own. I clearly remember me and some other exchange students were talking about these girls who already went home because according to them, they weren´t ready for it, to which someone said ¨Honestly, nobody really is ready for this. You just go with it.¨  And it´s true. Trust me.

I am not really sure what to say because I am not really sure how I feel. Now I changed families, again. It was not the way I expected. This whole year. I thought I would get a great bond with my family, that I would learn Spanish superfast, that people would be so interested, but that’s not how it works. Sometimes it just doesn’t work, and I tried my best for what I knew at the time. I felt good there and I am grateful for the time I spent there in Vista Alegre, but right now this new family is definitely the best thing for me. Spanish is as I wrote before also harder as it seems, and I do speak it, I just expected way and way more from myself. And people are just not always interested. They are just not…

All in all, this is a great experience. The best experience of my life? Maybe. Hopefully life has a lot more coming for me. In any case I am extremely grateful to have been able to do this and I did learn a lot, in so many ways, much more than I imagined. I hope I don’t seem to depressed or hateful. This is just the truth. People deserve to hear more than just the pretty exchange student stories.

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Exchange, Panama, The Netherlands

The Nutella Syndrom

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The Nutella Syndrom: 

liking things that you used to hate in your homecountry,
just because it’s something you know and they remind you of home

Having been on an exchange I stumbled upon this odd sensation. It’s probably a very well-known feeling for exchange students and I am sure that we will all suffer from this at one point, some more than the others.

At home, before I went on an exchange, I was never much of a patriot. Maybe I was even the complete opposite of a patriot. I pretty much thought everything from my country sucked, and other countries did everything better. Yet being on an exchange, all those things I used to dislike, I now love!

For those who have no idea what I mean with the Nutella-syndrome, let me explain. About 2 years ago we hosted a girl from Italy. She had been in the Netherlands for 3 months already, and when she came to us, her former host mother told us that she was very picky about food, but she loved Nutella. So we bought her a ton of Nutella and I asked her jokingly ¨So does the Nutella here taste better than the Nutella in Italy?¨ Then she told me that back in Italy she never ate Nutella, but coming here to the Netherlands it was something she knew, something that reminded her of home, so she liked it!

Whenever I see a Heineken commercial I suddenly feel a very patriotic feeling and I just can’t help it to tell everybody that it’s from the Netherlands. It even happens with the beers that are ‘importada de Holanda’ (imported from Holland), but that I have honestly never heard of before, like Amsterdam, Hollandia, and Breda. And that while at home I never even drank beer.

It’s just these little things that remind me of home, that make me proud of where I am from. Apparently, the Netherlands won the Baseball World Cup in 2011, in Panama. I honestly didn`t even know we had a baseball team until my Panamanian classmates told me about it, but I take much pride in the fact that we beat Cuba (which according to my classmates is a very very good team). And as I was reading the history book of my sister, desperately trying to find some Dutch painter to say “Look this is from my country! MY COUNTRY!”.

 

Another example: Robin van Persie. Oh I used to hate him so much, I am not even sure why, but thanks to him, some people at least know the Netherlands is a country, and when I see his interviews he has the same accent I have, which makes me feel like I am not the only one that makes awkward mistakes trying to speak another language.

Somehow it`s oddly comforting to think that we both live abroad, but have the same history, walked the same streets, watched the same TV channels, speak the same language and most of all, shares a culture with you.

They say exchanges are about getting to know and love another country, but it’s also about getting to know and love your own country, and I think the Nutella Syndrom is a part of this*

And when I say “No soy gringa, soy Holandesa!” (“I am not American, I am Dutch”) I say it con orgullo (with pride)!

 

*note: after going back home I experienced RNS, Reversed Nutella Syndrom, when you start missing the things you hated the most about your exchange year.