Monthly Archives: July 2011

In Chile, A Strike Against Racism And Racial Profiling

It was an extremely unfriendly stare, one that conveyed disdain, perhaps even hate.

Traveling throughout South America I’ve grown used to stares. In small towns and rural areas especially, people aren’t used to seeing a black guy traipsing through their town with a backpack “like a gringo”, as someone in Quito once said to me. But even in a big city like Bogota, I would draw attention. I often wondered what was the fascination. Colombians come in every hue, so it couldn’t have been the color of my skin. Or maybe it could. I can only surmise that it may have been the fact of seeing a black person backpacking. Like seeing a black person on the ski slopes. Not entirely unusual, but to some still odd.

So then, those stares in an urban center like Bogota was just out of bewildered wonder, I’m thinking; thoughts of “who is this person and where is he from?” But never once were any of those stares like the one the security guard at Jumbo directed at me. Never once!

This town desperately needed a new supermarket. So it was with much anticipation that the people of Calama welcomed the opening of Jumbo. Jumbo is a large chain of supermarkets that reminds me of Publix in Florida, right down to the green signage, color schemes and layout.

Most people in Calama had been shopping at Lider, which is now not much of a surprise to me that it has the feel of a Wal-Mart in the United States. Lider is owned by Wal-Mart. But Lider would be so overcrowded with shoppers on most days that there weren’t any shopping carts left. To score a shopping cart, shoppers would have to follow someone leaving the store to their cars. Or go down to the underground parking garage and stalk people at their vehicles. And if you had a shopping cart, better keep an eye on it until it was filled with your groceries, staking claim to it. Any empty shopping cart was up for grabs. I learned that lesson the hard way when it took me almost a half hour to get a shopping cart – I followed a nice couple out the store and helped them load their groceries into their car – to take possession of their cart. Once I made it into the supermarket to begin shopping, I turned my back for a moment to grab some apples in the produce section. When I turned around, my shopping cart was gone! Gave new meaning to “how do you like them apples!”

So Jumbo, with its better quality and larger selection of everything, and enough shopping carts to go around, was seen as a blessing for this booming mining town. On Opening Day, my roommate Zach and I headed over to Jumbo. It was wall to wall people! So many shoppers it was hard to move about the aisles. We shopped, left and were very happy, as most Calamans, that Jumbo was here.

FOOD CHAIN REACTION: The brand new Jumbo Supermarket in Calama, Chile.

A couple of days later, I returned to Jumbo to pick up a few items. It was still busy but not nearly the insanity of Opening Day. Going about my business of shopping, I met the cold stare of the security guard in the produce section. I was walking toward him and he locked eyes on me. Weird, but okay. As I made my way around he followed, all the way to four aisles over where the “hand off” occurred. Another security guard assumed the tailing. When I looked up, he gave me a look that said “I’m watching you!” Okay, maybe I’m imaging. I’ll shift over to an aisle where there is no security guard, see what happens. Sure enough, here’s another security guard steps from me and looking directly at me. I shift aisles, he shifts to the same aisle as me. I switch aisles, here he comes. I return to the previous aisles, he’s right behind me. I switch again to another part of the store and another guard comes. Okay, let’s go all the way over to the Wine & Spirits section. Ah, wait, is that Ciroc vodka! For a second I forget about the guards as I spot my favorite vodka, in Chile! I had not found P-Diddy’s vodka  – he’s the man behind it -anywhere else in South America. I reached to grab the bottle and out of nowhere a security guard appears and stands right next to me! He gives me a look. I start to say something, but instead I put the bottle back and head for the cash register. At the cash register, you guessed it, there’s a guard standing there looking at me – to make sure I pay, I guess. Now I know something’s up. But I say nothing, leave the store and share my experience with my roomie Zach. He tells me that at least in this part of Chile, racism runs deep, especially against Colombians, many of whom in town happen to be black. And of course since I got to town I am constantly mistaken for Colombian until I open my mouth to speak. Then people ask where am I from. Now, I must say here people in Calama are generally pleasant and friendly. I’ve had no problems. That is, until Jumbo came to town.

At the ice cream parlor I frequent, the Chilean women who work there said when they first saw me they thought I was Colombian, but then my jovial and confident manner was “different” and so they asked my nationality. They said Chileans naturally assume I am Colombian because I am black, as most blacks in Chile are Colombians. Okay, I have no problem with that.

Zach, a white American who has been in town for much longer than I have, tells me that his Chilean friends share with him that there is a racist attitude in town against Colombians, again, a good number of them black. So when I come in contact with Chileans in Calama their second reaction is curiosity as to who am I. Their first reaction – I see it in their facial expressions – is caution.

I tell Zach in all the time I’ve gone to Lider, I’ve never been tailed by the guards there or made to feel uncomfortable as with Jumbo. So I know I’m not imaging things, as one or two people tried to suggest. I decide to test the Jumbo waters again to make sure. I return to the store and act like any normal shopper, not doing anything unusual, not trying to draw attention. But on this day, the following by guards happens again. Okay, that’s it! I ask a store employee for the store manager.

The employee, a mid-management middle-aged man, asks what’s the problem. I point to the security guard standing nearby and express my concerns. He suggests that instead I should talk to the head of security, who turns up within minutes.

Nice digs, not so nice attitude toward certain customers

I explain the situation to Pedro, the head of store security. He listens and shows understanding. He then apologizes when I tell him I will simply return to shopping at Lider. He and the other mid-management employee practically plead with me not to do that. Pedro tells me they want all their customers to feel comfortable shopping at Jumbo. He asks if I wish to file a formal complaint. I do. But before I file the written complaint, he shares with me a confession of sorts. He says that on Opening Day, a Colombian man – who, yes, happened to be black – was caught shoplifting. He says the man left the store with 20 bottles of shampoo and was nabbed in the parking lot. He tells me it was then that the guards were placed on heightened alert and advised to keep an eye on Colombians, which in this town that generally means black people. But more specifically, to keep on eye on Colombian men. White Colombian men don’t get the same scrutiny because they blend in to the larger population. I then tell Pedro that in my country that’s called “racial profiling” and that it’s not only wrong, it’s discriminatory and dumb policing. It reminded me of when I lived in Matawan, New Jersey, and after a long day at work I went to a local 7-Eleven convenience store to buy a bread and milk. I was dressed respectably, in a nice suit, carrying my briefcase. But appearance meant nothing to the store clerk. He immediately began to watch my every move. Meanwhile, three white kids between the ages of 12 and 15 who had obviously learned from previous experience that the store clerk would focus on me – a black person -used that bit of knowledge as an opportunity to shoplift. I watched the store clerk keeping an eye on me while the three juvenile delinquents stuffed bags of potato chips, cookies and other items down their pants and under their shirts. They left the store and I, for one, was glad the idiot clerk got ripped off. And yet, as I left the store I didn’t know if I felt more sad for the wrongheaded store clerk or the kids who at their young age had already learned racism and were using it to commit a crime. I wonder where those kids are today. In jail for even worst crimes? That’s the stupidity of racial profiling, my friends.

I dictated my complaint to Pedro, he wrote it in a book he said the store manager reviews at the end of each day. The book contains praises, complaints, suggestions, concerns filed by customers. Pedro noted that I was American and not Colombian in the complaint, not that it should make a bit of difference.

Two days later I returned to Jumbo, feeling a bit uneasy about it. I grabbed a shopping cart, entered the store and was greeted by a smiling guard who said “hello…welcome.” Not once was I followed. The same security force inside the store – a dozen or more – practically ignored me. Even when I walked by one of them, a ho-hum yawn of boredom was all I got. Others simply went about just standing where I had seen them, no following, no talking into hand-held radios, nothing. Wow, what a difference a stern complaint makes. I went to the produce section and the security guard who had given me that disdainful stare just days earlier, looked at me and looked away. He also stayed put. Okay, let’s go grab that bottle of Ciroc, see what happens. Nothing. No guard suddenly at my side.

I left Jumbo feeling I had scored a victory not only against racial profiling, but for decent downtrodden-yearning-to-breathe-free Colombians who migrated to Chile just to make an honest living and send money to their families back home. And in the course of challenging stereotypes, the Chilean yo-yos have received an education in how not to make assumptions based on skin color.

Mike traveling, improving our small world one step, down one aisle, at a time.

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I Could Get Used To This, But Not A Chance!

Dressed for the office

This isn’t how I had envisioned my life at this point in time: after a long day at work, headed home in a chauffeured sedan to a four-bedroom house with three bathrooms, small but functional kitchen, laundry room, large living room, cable TV, a gated driveway and enough yardage for an adopted, sprint-happy German Shepherd renamed “Honey”.

As the dark gray sedan got started toward my home for at least the next five months, I thought this all so jarring to my compass, and that instead of the backseat of this shiny late-model car I should be somewhere in the Andes Mountains or salt flats of Bolivia, making my way from the northern arid deserts to the cool blue southern glaciers of Chile, with an overstuffed backpack firmly attached to my probably aching back.

But life throws up detours and sometimes roadblocks and it’s left to us as individuals to decide what’s the wisest choice: take the road and forge ahead; scale the obstacles or turn back – in essence quit – and just go home.

This was a big one. While I was in Peru the call came: come to Chile for six months to teach English to the bigwigs of one of Chile’s several mining companies. Many of these executives and managers need to learn English – or in some cases just improve what they already know – because English has become necessary in their jobs. Chile exports billions of dollars worth of copper to the world and the men and women who run these mining companies sometimes travel abroad or do business with others who speak English and little or no Spanish. So there’s been a push for English lessons at these multi-billion dollar corporations.

I must say I have actually been enjoying. Of course, there’s been a few glitches here and  there, but that’s the case in any job. Nothing ever goes smoothly 100 percent of the time. And yet, the experience is one that I won’t shed any tears over once the fancy car is gone, the house has been vacated and the job is done. Such is my love for travel and to explore the world. Being stationary for a total of six months – I’ve been on the job for a month now – was never part of “the plan” when I left Miami in February. Eight to 10 months in South America, tops, and it was supposed to be “Hello Europe!”

But I had made a decision last month, not knowing exactly what to expect, and it has turned out to be a wise move, even if I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. I have gone from sometimes sleeping in a tent and couchsurfing the homes of perfect strangers or toughing it out in crappy hostels, to now working on a luxurious corporate campus where I’m fed each day a fantastic lunch and evening snack while I rub shoulders with men and women the miners and other workers practically bow or curtsy to and treat with the reverence reserved for religious figures or heads of state. I watch as some of these top executives walk down a hallway or through a lobby and how employees quickly move out of their path and greet them with the tip of a hat. Power. Powerful.

Out the front door. The garden needs work 🙂

These thoughts racing through my head are interrupted by the chauffeur. I hear him call out “Don Misha-El” – most people in Chile mispronounce Michael as it would be pronounced in Spanish. He asks where I wish to be taken. He just picked me up at a park area in Calama, Chile, that doubles as a pickup, drop off point for commuters. I tell him “home” and repeat the address he already had been given by dispatch. “But don’t call me ‘Don’,” I tell him. “I’m no ‘Don'” Maybe out of force of habit,  a sense of respect or decorum mandated by his employer, he insists on “Don”.  I stop correcting him after three or four tries.

For those who – oh, heavens! – are not regular readers of this blog, get up to speed on how I got the job and ended up in Calama, Chile. Do it now then come back and pick up the story here. Or do it after 🙂 For the rest of you keeping up with this twisting travel saga, read on for the scintillating details of my day in Corporate Chile. [Hmmm…why doesn’t that have the same stinging ring as Corporate America?]

My new routine: Twice a week and soon-to-be three times a week, my alarm goes off at 5 a.m. Those days are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with Thursdays to be added in August. At 6:10 a.m., my ride arrives. “Good morning Don Me-sha-El” – “Good morning. Just Michael, please.”

He drives me to Monolito Topáter – a monument to the Chilean heroes of the war fought against Bolivia and Peru, known as the Pacific War. The monument is a rendezvous point for vans and buses that take workers to the copper mines and other work sites.

At Topáter I leave my chauffeured car and board a large private bus – soon to be upgraded to a corporate van – reserved for executives of the company. The bus is very comfortable, has cushy seats that recline, with pillows and blankets provided. Given the hour and the length of travel, most people just grab a blanket and a pillow and go to sleep. The trip from Topáter to Mineria Gaby, a copper mining business co-owned by a private consortium and the government of Chile, is 1 hour and 30 minutes. I arrive at Gaby by 8 a.m., when I sit down with my first bleary-eyed student. For now I have a total of eight students at Gaby, but I will take on several more. Each individual lesson is 90 minutes.

I conduct the lessons in the offices of each executive, a challenge because some of them can’t seem to turn off work, hold off on their calls, for the duration of the lessons.

At about 1 p.m. it’s lunch time. I head for the “casino” – that’s what Chileans call a cafeteria or dining hall. There, hundreds of miners and other company employees are chowing down on what is usually a fantastic lunch prepared on-site. Lunch options are three to four options with a variety of salads and desserts. And of course, cold beverages, tea and coffee are always on the menu.

After lunch, I conduct workshops that usually include speaking and working on grammar or on whatever weakness the student wishes to work on. The workshops are voluntary by I encourage them to come, especially the ones that need it.

My afternoon continues with more lessons, usually three or four more students. By 8 p.m., I’m making a mad dash to Bus No. 3 that will take me back to Calama where my car and driver await. An impressive caravan of buses leave the corporate campus with miners and other workers assigned to specific buses. Bus No. 3 is reserved for the executives, managers and other administrators and their assistants.

On the bus, I watch a movie on my laptop – I’ve been catching up with missed episodes of “Lost” – or simply plug in my iPod and go to sleep. I arrive in Calama at 9:30 p.m., home by 9:40 p.m., in bed by 11 p.m. or by midnight.

On Mondays, I teach English at the language institute with whom I have a contract to teach at Gaby. The institute is located right across the street from where I live. At the institute my students include everyone from execs to students to housewives. That breaks up the monotony of just dealing with corporate types. I walk home for lunch on those days 🙂

Since my days are long when I am at Gaby, I get three days off – Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Works out great for me because I can use those perennial three-day weekends to explore the region. I’ve already gone off to San Pedro de Atacama, a small desert town I really like. Other towns reachable by bus in a matter of hours include Iquique, Antofagasta, Chui-Chui and several others worthy but not in any tourist guides.

I’ve slowly gotten used to the routine of working in Chile among Chileans. But as I sat on that bus home, looking at the mass of people on the bus, tired from a long day on the job, I think to myself, “What am I doing here? I did I get here?” This, working in Corporate Chile,  the house, the car, the dog named “Honey”, was the farthest thing from my mind. But I automatically smile and say “I like it. Just don’t get too used to it!”

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Alone But Hardly Lonely

Padre Miguel and I in the heart of colonial Quito, Ecuador

I have known loneliness. I don’t recall exactly at which point in my life the feeling washed over me. I do know I felt alone, adrift. But I also remember shaking off whatever it was and going out to do something fun. That’s just me. I have lived byars longa, vita brevis – “art is long, life is short.” Why sit around moping. Life is too short. I have seen too many of my peers die young. Snatched by illness or circumstance. I, too, have had some close calls and I’m lucky to be alive. Happy to be!

So when a friend, former newspaper colleague and now loyal follower of this blog asked me if I ever experienced loneliness traveling alone, especially for such a long period of time, my immediate response was no, not really. Sure I sometimes miss family and friends, but it’s not something that ties me down. And it’s hard to feel lonely when your spirit is continuously lifted by the breathtaking beauty of places I’ve already visited. If anything, I feel a bit of sadness, wishing friends and family could see what I am seeing.

I truly believe that the energy you project is what draws or pushes people to or away from you. It’s called aura. With apologies to Odd Couple Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, I don’t always feel “happy and peppy and bursting with love”. Sometimes I just want to be alone. But my good aura never shuts down, sometimes a bad thing because it also acts as a magnet for the world’s wackos:

“Quickly, do you know the capital of Bolivia?” a reasonably sane-looking man stops me on the street and asks.

“Yes, La Paz”.

“No it’s not!” he says to me. “Bolivia doesn’t exist, so how can it have a capital?”

“Okay,”  I say as I shift to flee mode.

“Bolivia only exists in your head. Your mind plays tricks. Tells you things. Makes you do things.”

“Aha…” is my simple response.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“The United States.”

“Do you know the capital of the United States?” he asks.

“No, I don’t. Goodbye!”

Then I think what the heck! Of all the people on this street, why does he pick me?

Now, all you out there itching to show off how smart you are, I know Bolivia has two capitals. For those who don’t know, Bolivia is one of a handful of countries with two capital cities. Sucre, where the judicial branch of the government is located, is the constitutional capital, while La Paz, where the Congress and president are based, is the administrative capital. So there! Just saved you some typing 🙂

I’ve always said I’m a magnet for crazy people. Is there anybody else out there who feels the same? Let me know that I’m not alone. But thankfully some people with all their marbles do approach. Because of them,  on this trip I’ve never been alone for any length of time or experienced loneliness. If anything, it’s been the opposite. Now, of course, dear amateur psychologist, you can be alone or feel lonely even in a crowd. But that hasn’t been the case for me at all. Something in my personality? Must be, because even when I’m wearing a frown (we all have our moods 🙂 here come the complete strangers!

On those days I want to be alone with my thoughts it hardly seems to happen. Some soul will look my way and strike up a conversation. Fast forward to us hanging out about town like old friends. It’s happened time and time again on this journey. It happened on the Caribbean beaches of Colombia. On a bus in Cuzco, Peru. Everywhere! But notably, it happened in the colonial center of Quito, Ecuador, where Padre Miguel one afternoon emerged from his church.

I was but one of hundreds of people snapping pictures of the centuries-old buildings when the portly catholic priest walked past a bunch of camera-toting tourists to ask me where was I from. A few minutes into our conversation, the good priest offered to give me a walking tour of colonial Quito, where he was born and reared. It was a fantastic tour, complete with anecdotes about where he played soccer as a child and the troubles he got himself in as a teenager. Father Miguel had information you would not find in the guidebooks, and he presented it with vivid accounts. He was a master storyteller!

I thought a tour like this would cost a lot of sucres, but at the end of the day I rewarded the priest with some sugar cookies he kept staring at in the reception area of a monastery he showed me. He ate the whole bag of cookies, and I chuckled a bit because as he gobbled them all, he didn’t offer me not one. 🙂 He obviously loved those cookies and I appreciated that he took more than an hour out of his busy day – every step along the way people would stop him to chat about this or that – to give me the history and his history of the city.

In nearly six months of travel, the list of people I’ve met just randomly on the street is long, too long to name them all. We’ve exchanged e-mail addresses and become Facebook friends, and I’ve added them to my list of people to visit when I get to their country. Travel does that. But I believe that if I were traveling with someone else, I wouldn’t have met as many people as I have met. When couples travel they generally don’t open up to others or people sense they just want to be left alone. Solo travelers draw conversation. People who travel as a pair or in groups are in their own little circle, forming an invisible barrier that they sometimes don’t realize they’ve erected. Of course there are exceptions, but solo travelers, generally have more fun than people traveling in pairs.

I recently posed the question to followers in the Mike Tends To Travel Group on Facebook as to whether solo or coupled travelers have more fun and I didn’t get many responses (I think couples were biting their tongues 🙂 but my friend Anita Gianella of Milan, Italy (she now lives in New York City), offered that it depends on many factors, such as the situation, mental status or the reasons for travel.

“Generally, travel alone means more time to think about themselves, past, future, dreams,” Anita said. “(It) means to be more prone to meet other people…and so sometimes more fun :)”

Anita added: “But travel with a real love, love with the “L”, I think it’s amazing.”

College chum Gan Sharma of New York City disagrees.

“Single, definitely, single,” he said. “You are not bound by somebody else’s agenda. Some people may not enjoy the same things you do. You are free to meet new people.”

Well, the two of them have good points. Anita is right about if you travel with someone you are madly, passionately in love with, it’s amazing. But does that bond with your significant other lead to meeting strangers, sane or otherwise? The short answer is it depends on the couple. On this trip I’ve met couples but the interesting fact about them is they behave like single people more than couples, even the ones who couldn’t keep their hands off each other. In other words, they sometimes explored the city or some museum on their own, didn’t put up a wall around them and were very eager to chat and hang out with others. And they were great fun to be around. There was never that sense I was a third wheel…Oh, but did we digress? 🙂

My point is Beth, my friend and former colleague who asked the question, loneliness never seeps in with so much going on during travel and if you are open to meeting people – and even sometimes when you are not. It all depends on how you feel about the skin and the world you’re in. When you travel, you must live in the moment. And live as if tomorrow may never come. Because, for all we know….


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