Friday, October 31, 2014

A Spanish-Speaking African Nation

The Republic of Equatorial Guinea is a small former Spanish colony in West Africa near the equator. The nation is divided into two parts; the mainland, which borders Cameroon and Gabon along with several small offshore islands. 

The Fang people constitute 80% of the population and are themselves divided into 67 clans. The Bubi, who constitute 15% of the population, are indigenous to the nation's off-shore island of Bioko. In addition, there are coastal tribes, collectively referred to as Ndowe or "Playeros" (Beach People). Together, these groups compose 5% of the population. Two small groups of pygmies also inhabit the country, the Beyele and the Bokuign, Their population is dwindling..

The Portuguese explorer Fernão do Pó, seeking a path to India, was the first European to arrive in Equatorial Guinea via its island of Bioko in 1472. He called it Formosa (Beautiful), but in 1778, the island, adjacent islets, and commercial rights to the mainland were ceded to the Spanish Empire in exchange for territory in the American continent. 

From 1827 to 1843, the United Kingdom established a base on the island to combat the slave trade which was then moved to Sierra Leone upon agreement with Spain in 1843. By the year,1959, all three regions were united as the colony of Spanish Guinea. Equatorial Guinea gained independence from Franco's Spain in October 1968.

Since the mid-1990s, Equatorial Guinea has become one of sub-Sahara's largest oil producers behind Angola and Nigeria. The country has all the ingredients to be a success in Africa with big oil reserves, low debt, fertile land, and a small population of less than 800,000 people. Driven by oil and natural gas production, Equatorial Guinea boasts the highest level of per capita income in all sub-Saharan Africa, at $22,300 per year, or roughly four times more than South Africa and about the same as Portugal, according to the International Monetary Fund. 

Inronicaly, despite the country's good financial standing, a good three-quarters of the population live below the poverty line. A dictatorship, fosters corruption and undermines economic development.  It is very common to see officials asking for bribes around the the country.  Vast oil revenues fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president. Human Rights Watch describes the problem bluntly, saying that “corruption, poverty, and repression continue to plague” the nation.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Be Careful About Getting Sick in Latin America

I don't know if this applies to every Latin American country; I traveled to nine, but in Perú, I inadvertently ingested a beverage that made me very sick. My biggest mistake was not going to a farmacia (a local pharmacy) where, unlike in the US, you can explain in detail what's going on with you and the pharmacist will provide the appropriate remedy—no prescription needed. Such a procedure has been known to work for many, many people over the centuries. This is something that I should have done early in my illness instead of thinking it will go away naturally with proper rest.

Upon arriving in my room in El Carmen, Perú, without undressing, I crashed on the bed. The next morning, I woke up in a lot of pain. Fortunately, someone heard me moaning and groaning and called the local medical clinic. They didn't have the equipment to deal with my illness so they took me to a hospital in the city of Chincha Alta, 30 minutes away. 

Here is the catch about receiving medical treatment away from a big city in Perú and most Latin American countries; somebody has to pay cash up front; no debit or credit cards. My friends didn't have the money, so the hospital staff had them wake me up while I'm totally incapacitated demanding “plata” (cash money). Fortunately, unlike in the US, medical treatment in Latin America is not expensive so I managed to swing some cash asking for a receipt in order to later file a claim with my travel insurance company to get reimbursed.

The next day, it was determined that I needed more professional treatment, but first, the hospital contacted the American Embassy, which is policy when an American citizen is hospitalized in their country. The American Embassy got in touch with my travel insurance company, and arranged for me to be transported by ambulance to Lima, the capital city, which was a little over two hours away.

Before, the ambulance could take me, however; I had to come up with another 100 nueva soles in cash (about $33.00, still barely a fraction of US cost), but I didn't have that much cash on my person. It was a good thing I had friends in the community who went to an ATM for me to withdraw cash. Yes, I had to give up my pin number! I would not have been surprised if they took out more than needed. Fortunately, I didn't seem to miss anything.

As I plan future trips to Latin America, I will certainly make sure I have adequate travel insurance as I do on all of my trips. Most importantly, I will take precautions to make sure I stay in good health while traveling, which includes being vigilant about my food and beverage intake. And finally, I will make sure I have enough cash hidden on my person in the event of the unexpected.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Expats in Ecuador

 Avenida Colón in Quito, Ecuador, which borders the Mariscal District 
(Gringo Land)

It was my first morning in Quito, Ecuador where I rented a room in the city's Mariscal District, better known as Gringolandia (Gringo Land). The name Gringolandia is due to the large number of foreigners from around the globe who either live in the area or are on vacation. The businesses in Gringolandia cater particularly to those foreigners. 

I stopped in a bookstore looking for works by one of Ecuador's famous black writers. Upon entry, I could not help but to notice the confederate flag on the wall. It didn't upset me, but I did wonder what interest would a confederate have have in a third-world country filled with people of color.

The neighborhood where I stayed 

in Quito's Mariscal District

 When the owner got off the phone, he was very respectful; even greeted me as “sir.” He was the first American expatriate (or expat) I've ever recall meeting in a foreign country, and I've been to 14. It turned out that he didn't have what I was looking for because the books he was selling were in English to accommodate the English-speaking expats in the community.

Many of these expats are economic refugees from North America and Europe taking advantage of Ecuador's much cheaper cost of living. This includes medical costs, which are only a fraction of those in the US.

The place where I rented a room at $12 per day.

An added benefit to being an expat in Ecuador, as well as many other countries, I'm hearing, is that because of the lifestyle changes in a new environment, people lose excess weight, and their overall health improves. The produce is organic, and the food does not contain a lot of foreign substances like here in the US. In fact, people have been known to get sick when they return to the US because of the Standard American Diet (SAD). Also, with public transportation being so plentiful, people do not drive. There is a lot of walking in cleaner environments. 

As I write this post, I just learned that Inter-Nations, an international online community for people who live and work abroad, recently ranked Ecuador as the top expat spot overall. What this means to me is that, sooner or later, Ecuador will get to be so saturated with gringos that the cost of living will eventually rise.

If I were to live in Ecuador with my Spanish-speaking skills, I would avoid communities where to many gringos live and reside in communities where there are only native Ecuadorians. That way I would avoid, not only the gringo taxes, but where prices are lower to meet the economic needs of the community.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Cuba's Love and Respect for American People

One of the most joyful moments in my life was entering the José Martí Airport in Havana after off-boarding Aero Cubana airline.

Some years back, a group of us American students had the opportunity to attend the University of Havana for Spanish-language intensive training. We went legally through the San Francisco-based Global Exchange, Inc., an international human rights organization. We flew to Cancún, spent the night, and at noon the next day, we caught our 45-minute flight to Havana where  Cuban hosts welcomed us.

If you talk to just about anyone who traveled to Cuba, they will tell you how much the common, everyday Cuban citizen love and respect American people despite the long-standing conflicts between US and Cuban governments. 

 Cultural exchange between Americans and Cubans

As I made my way around Havana, people assumed that I too was Cuban until they heard my foreign accent (in Spanish), and asked where I'm from. When I told them the USA, they generally shook my hand saying, “nice to meet you.” I've been invited to people's homes for dinners, shown the town, and introduced to new friends while dancing salsa.

I felt so out of place wearing my University of Havana and other Cuban t-shirts that I bought as souvenirs because they were dead giveaways that I'm a tourist. T-shirts with English writing on them donated by American and Canadian visitors over the years are hot items to be attained among Cuban people. I saw a woman wearing a New York Knicks jersey, and out of excitement, I shouted in Spanish, “that's my team! She gave me a confused look because she did not know what she was wearing. The fact that it was in English made it a fashion statement, and that was all that mattered. 

 Attending a lecture on Cuban Culture on 
the porch of the Che Guevarra house.

If you think the US economy is bad, you should see Cuba's where basic things we take for granted are in short supply and rationed out. It's not uncommon for people to wait an hour or two on a long line to buy a loaf of bread, for example, only to find that it is sold out. The US trade embargo against Cuba that has been going on for more than half a century has a lot to do with Cuba's economic woes. And it's not the Cuban government who is suffering nearly as much as innocent men, women, and children who feel no animosity whatsoever against American people.

If you have a chance to visit Cuba be it legally or through other available means, it's a good idea to take some items that you don't need and give them to the people with whom you establish rapport. Items such as CDs, T-shirts, clothing, toothbrushes, soap, and USB flash-drives would be greatly appreciated. When I gave a seven-year-old boy a set of pens and writing paper, he high-fived me with such excitement that you would think I gave him a $20 bill. 

One of my salsa music dance partners in 
the Barrio Habana Vieja (Community of Old Havana)

Havana, like every big city, has its share of city slickers who find legal ways hustle the increasing number of tourists. A bicycle-taxi driver supposedly invited me to a party for one of his little nieces. He and his friends were to lure me into the home and have me buy all the liquor and the food so they (and I) will have a good time. The hosts at the Che Guevarra house, next door to where I was staying, pulled my coat-tail to the scheme.

The crime rate is very low in Cuba because the penalties are so harsh that would be criminals are not willing to take the chance. What would get you a slap on the wrist for a first offense in the US can easily get you ten, or more years in a Cuban prison. There are secret police who keep a close watch on their citizens and surreptitiously report the slightest infractions to the authorities. They also identify and keep watch on visitors making sure they stay safe. This is all to build their growing and lucrative tourist industry. I remember how one aggressive person approached me, and I said to him, ¡no me moleste (don't bother me)! He immediately backed off, not because he was afraid of me; he was afraid of who was watching me.

While so many Cubans admire American culture, people around the world love Cuban culture, especially the music. Cuban music, food, and the Afro-Cuban religion, Santería, are international attractions. I just hope when this political conflict between the Washington and Havana governments are finally over that the Cuban culture continues to flourish.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Ugly Side of Panamá

 Entrance to the Tocumen Mall in Panamá City

Mario, a Panamanian with whom I hung out in college proudly wore his Converse All-Star sneakers with the scribbling of his hometown of Colón, Panamá. Marjorie, a former co-worker of mine was also highly nostalgic of her country, Panamá, as well. Like Mario and Marjorie, an overwhelming majority of the Panamanians I met in my life were black, proud, and very down-to-earth.

Finally one day, while traveling from Lima, Perú to Cartagena, Colombia, I had the opportunity to get a glimpse of Panamá as I took advantage of a six-hour layover in Panama City. Unlike other Spanish-speaking countries I've visited, I felt very much at home with the high visibility of black employees in the airport. 

Having limited time I hung out at the Tocumen Mall, less than a five-minute cab ride. I spent my time checking out the shops, looking at the women, and just absorbing as much of the language and culture as I could. It was around Christmas time, thus everyone seemed mellow and content. This inadvertently enhanced my first impression of the country.

According to International Living, Panamá is rated as the world’s best retirement haven in 2014. With a spate of deserted islands, the Caribbean sea on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, Panama sits poised to deliver the best in the world of beaches.

However, as in every country, despite its beauty, charm, and attractions, there is an ugly side to Panamá, which I'm learning from personal testimonies of fellow African-Americans who, unlike I, spent considerable amount of time in this tropical paradise.

One wealthy, black business woman from Brooklyn, NY stated so eloquently in her blog post, Traveling with Racism, how she was deeply disappointed upon her arrival in Panamá to find the sheer amounts of black people who were visibly poor, living in makeshift homes along feces infested rivers, children playing bare foot and begging for food, and the vast amounts of heavily-armed police officers pushing black folks aimlessly on the streets. 

She then could not help but notice the palm trees that lined the president's home, which sits right across the highway from some of the most deplorable living conditions she has ever seen. 

One day, she attempted to enter a store that sold exclusively Western goods like Lancome makeup and Dior fragrances. The black security guard stood front and center and stopped her. He accused her of being a good-for-nothing negro trying sneak her way into a high end store. After presenting her passport and telling him that she is an American, the otherwise arrogant guard apologized profusely, and allowed her access. 

The one thing that this sister and I have in common is that during our travels, we prefer to connect with members of the African diaspora without having to use our American passports to distinguish ourselves from our brothers and sisters unless it is absolutely necessary. Such as the evening I took a bunch of friends out to dinner and found it more convenient to use my credit card. Handing over my “American” passport along with the card gave me top credibility.

Then we have Bishop, an African-American English teacher who described in his blog post, Locked Up in Panama—Walking While Black, how he was at a neighborhood parade where everyone was dancing to percussion instruments. As the evening progressed, the party died and the people dispersed.

Bishop was heading back to the family home where he was staying when the police hopped out of their patrol cars like the gestapo with M16s and Uzis drawn demanding to see his ID. Bishop presented his US passport and explained, in English, that he is an English teacher. Speaking English, and not Spanish, when stopped by the police was advice given him by his white co-workers, which has gotten them off the hook. There was no such luck with Bishop. 

The officer then demanded “plata” (a cash bribe to be let go). Because Bishop had less than a dollar on his person at the time, he was hauled into the back of the police truck at gunpoint and handcuffed to another detainee. A detainee who was apprehended while walking down the street with his three-year-old daughter.  The cops took him and left her in the street.

After being thoroughly searched at the station, there were no charges, no rights being read, and no phone calls. When the officer opened the cell door, Bishop looked at the officer and asked “por que (why)?”  The officer motioned with his Uzi to enter the hot, smelly, 8ft x 8 ft cell that he shared with 6 other men. 

Panamá, like many other countries has its share of racism and human rights violations. This could have happened to me in when I crossed the border from Ecuador into Perú as I was stopped by the the Peruvian National Police because they thought I was either an illegal alien or a drug trafficker.  Cops in Latin-American countries are terribly underpaid and often depend on bribes to make ends meet, which was the case with Bishop.

Had I known better, I would have responded to the aggressive officer in English, and not Spanish. However, I was still fortunate. Although this officer himself appeared desperate for a bribe, he also seemed to be touched by my story of traveling to explore black cultures in Latin-American countries, and the fact that I was staying with a prominent Afro-Peruvian family. 

Who knows, perhaps this officer himself may have blacks in his own family. A large proportion of brown and white Latin Americans have an African presence in their family tree than most are willing to admit.

Friday, October 10, 2014

“Acting” Latino

Where Are All the “Latino” Movie Stars?

In one of my favorite classics, West Side Story, George Chakiris who played “Bernardo,” a Puerto Rican gang leader, is of Greek ancestry.

One Sunday afternoon, I went to see a play about Puerto Rico during the World War II era. The playhouse was right in the middle of the predominately Latino Mission District of San Francisco. During the intermission, I just happened to be standing outside for some fresh air when one of the few Latino spectators walked by, looked at me, and threw his hands up in the air in disgust. I asked him, “what do you think of the play?” Again, he threw up his hands up and left the area—never to return.

It finally dawned on me as to why he was so upset. The play consisted of American-born actors trying to  “act” Latino. They obviously knew nothing about being Latino, let alone being Puerto Rican. I myself could have done a better job, especially with my Spanish.

I wrote the “Latina” play director expressing my disappointment as I explained to her that I grew up close to a Puerto Rican community and did not feel a Puerto Rican connection from the actors. I asked why she could not find real Puerto Ricans to play Puerto Rican roles considering that they were performing in a predominately Spanish-speaking community. She never responded, and fortunately, never returned to produce another play.

Al Pacino, an Italian-American played the role of a Puerto Rican from Spanish Harlem in the film Carlito's Way.

Although I've been noticing more and more Latinos such as Zoe Saldaña, John Leguizamo, and James Edward Olmos starring in films involving Latinos, I never understood why Hollywood and the stage industry always used non-Latino actors to star in Latino roles in the first place.  

The late Natalie Wood who played María, in the classic film and musical West Side Story was born to Russian immigrants. Her real name is Natalia Nikolaevna Zacharenko. Although Natalie made her mark with her excellent performance, I would have felt a greater sense of authenticity with someone of Puerto Rican ancestry taking on that role.

The same applies to the 2000 version of the film Shaft where African-American Jeffrey Wright played the role of a drug lord from the Dominican Republic. I have to admit that Jeffrey Wright did fool me with his performance. He had me believing that he was a real Dominican.

African-American actor Jeffrey Wright (R) did a tremendous job playing the role of an immigrant from the Dominican Republic as he was confronted by “Shaft,” played by Samuel L Jackson.

There was some talk about the film in the making where Whoopi Goldberg will play the late singer Celia Cruz and Samuel L. Jackson will play Celia's husband and manager, Pedro Knight Caraballo. What's the matter, no one thinks that Afro-Cuban actors are good enough to play those roles?

The argument I hear for non-Latino movie stars taking on roles of Latinos in films is that they are a bigger box-office draw. My argument for Latinos taking on Latino roles is that no one knows what it is like being Latino except for a Latino. Many new stars are born when given the opportunity.

I don't care how much I travel to Spanish-speaking countries, or how much of the Spanish-language I learn. I don't care how much reading I do about being Latino, I will never know what being Latino is like the way a naturally born and raised Latino does. This is why when I watch a film or play about Latinos, I want to see Latino performers keeping it real.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

He Wants to Live in Perú

Parque Kennedy (Kennedy Park) in Lima, Perú

I get e-mails from my blog readers with compliments, rebuttals, and requests for advice. Today, I received an e-mail from a gentleman who wants to live in Perú for one year and wanted to know how he will be treated as a black person. He also asked about job opportunities and cost of living. Here was my response, and it's based solely on my personal experience and observations:

I assume you speak Spanish. I met very few people who speak any English at all, but then again, I've always made it a point to stay away from tourist traps, English speakers, and other gringos for the purpose of being totally immersed in the language and the culture.

Overall, the people are pleasant. You will most likely be treated better because you are a gringo, i.e., perceived as having a pocket full of money. I remember walking into an expensive clothing store in Southern Perú. The store clerks, assuming that I'm Afro-Peruvian, did not pay much attention to me. The owner was intelligent enough to notice my foreign accent, my Muhammad Ali sweatshirt, and realized that I'm American. His attitude changed as his wife looked at me seemly astonished that a black American was in the house.

In terms of getting a job, please realize that it is hard enough for native Peruvians to find work, and if you are black, your work opportunities are even more restricted. The fact that you speak both English and Spanish can open some doors, especially if you are applying for a position that is hard to fill locally. You might want to consider teaching English—many lucrative opportunities there; even more lucrative if you have a degree or, at least, a certification to teach English as a foreign language.

Perú has a very low cost of living. The minimum wage in Perú, as of June 2014, is equal to roughly $571 per month. A retired US citizen can live very comfortably on social security alone. Their produce is organic and cheaper than the non-organic foods here in the US. I have a friend who moved to Perú with his Afro-Peruvian wife. He not only lost weight, but felt much more healthy, alive, and vibrant. Medical and dental expenses are dirt cheap. I was in Peru's best hospital for six days and the bill came out too $4000, which my insurance paid.

If you are serious about moving to Peru, I would suggest that you buy Moon's, Rough's, and Lonely Planet guides to Peru. Those books are around $18 each. They are filled with wisdom and will save you thousands of dollars during the course of a year, and equally important, keep you out of trouble. It's also a good idea to log on to Expat Perú where you can network with others who are already living or plan to live in Perú. Let me know if you have any more questions.