Sunday, May 20, 2012

Using Facebook for Latin-American Travel

As of this writing, I've traveled to nine Latin American countries, and before my trips, I try to network on Facebook, and establish rapport with the people who live in the countries I plan on visiting. Naturally, this makes my travel experience a lot warmer and more welcoming. And like anywhere, some people are more open to meeting new people than others. However, it was the friendlier ones who perceived my genuine spirit who were very good about helping me get connected and acclimated when I arrived in their countries. 

At the Jose Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba

In the Spring of 2009, I opened a Spanish-speaking Facebook account, separate from my English-speaking account making more than 200 friends throughout Latin America. Because I'm a sentimental fan of Ecuador's International Soccer team, I posted a message on the Ecuadorian board stating that I wanted to visit the black community up in the Andes Mountains that produced their soccer all-star Augustin Delgado, whom I refer to as the Magic Johnson of Ecuador. Within a couple of days, I got a response from Alexandra, an Ecuadorian woman living in Germany with her husband. After months of Facebook communication, she introduced me to her mother, Gloria, who lives in Quito, Ecuador's capital. When I arrived, Gloria showed me around, gave me plenty of advice, and sheltered me from the gringo tax, i.e., being taken advantage of by merchants and cab drivers because I'm a foreigner (a gringo).

One of the things I notice about people in Latin-America using Facebook is that they seldom turn down a “Friend” request, even from a stranger. At least that's been my experience. However, to break the ice, I try to engage them by clicking “Like” on posts that I genuinely like, and make comments when appropriate. I frequently click “Share” and post messages of my own. Likewise, they click “Like” or “Share,” and make comments of their own. And, as on my English-speaking account, I keep track of birthdays. This, over time, helps me to make myself known and eventually establish the rapport that I seek.

For example, I befriended Maritza, an reserved Peruvian woman living in Toronto who, after about one year of Facebook friendship, introduced me to members of her family in Lima, Perú, and those members of her family, to date, are still introducing me to other members of the family being that I visit Perú almost every year. A couple of her family members arranged for me to get a nice clean room to rent during my stay in Lima for as little as $4.00 per night.

It was refreshing how Yolanda, from Ecuador's Pacific Coast, started a live chat discussion with me by asking where I am from because the Facebook name for my Spanish account, Guillermo William Smith, sounds so Un-Spanish. Today, she is one of my closes friends on Facebook, and I love how she corrects my Spanish, grammatically speaking. Per her request, I will return to Ecuador and pay her a the province of Esmeraldas where it has a history of escaped African slaves rising up to defeat the Spanish to earn their freedom before the rest of Ecuador earned theirs.

The Getsamane District of Cartegena, Colombia where I stayed

For me, having a Spanish-speaking Facebook account is an excellent way to practice my Spanish, considering all the room that I have for improvement. Increasingly, I've been sharing some Spanish-speaking posts, on my English-speaking account, and some of the English-speaking posts on my Spanish-speaking account, and translating those posts from English to Spanish, and vice-versa. I've even gotten into live, extensive Spanish discussions with people from Venezuela, Perú, Ecuador, Chile, Spain, and Colombia.

Before my 2010 trip to Colombia, I made plans to visit the landmark town of San Basilio de Palenque where African slaves won their freedom from the Spanish 216 years before the rest of Colombia and other South American countries won their freedom. I went on one of the Colombian message boards publicizing my plans to visit Palenque, as the Colombians call it, and within 24 hours, I got messages from five or six people giving me directions from the City of Cartagena where I was going to be staying, and even offered me personal assistance. 

Currently, I'm planning trips to Honduras, Guatemala, and Chile, and have already made my share of friends from those countries on Facebook..

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