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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

My Faux Pax in Panamá



After traveling to five consecutive Latin American countries in December 2010, I was a little tired and felt that I could use a break from speaking Spanish. When I got to Panama, I approach a couple of black airport workers, and asked if they speak English. I assumed such because I’ve met an enormous number of black Panamanians who speak perfect English. However, that was in the US, not Panamá. Both men copped an attitude. One of the workers simply walked away leaving his co-worker stuck to deal with what they perceived as an English-only gringo. The one left behind reacted more positively when I continued my inquiry in Spanish.

This experience came to mind after reading a recent  travel article entitled, “Five Things You Don’t Say While Traveling,” one of which is “do you speak English?” The writer pointed out that there are basic foreign-language expressions that every international traveler should learn before crossing borders. Even if you're light-years away from fluency, a rudimentary grasp of simple phrases in the regional tongue—like "please," "hello," "thank you," "no thank you," and "where is the bathroom?"—will work wonders. It's a show of respect. And locals will likely be more responsive and helpful to anyone who doesn't behave as if all citizens of the world ought to speak English.