I’ve been living between Bogota and Panama City for the last three years, and for the most part, it’s been a fantastic experience — so fantastic, in fact, that I’ve only been back to the States a couple times in the last few years. But there are times when I get nostalgic for the motherland and can’t help thinking to myself, “This would never happen in America!” Yes, these moments of desperation are few and far between, but they do exist. So here it is, my list of the top ten negatives of living in Latin America, in no particular order:
1.) Unsolicited advice and nosiness. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left the house feeling great only to be greeted by people — often people I barely know — telling me about some great weight loss pill or program I could really benefit from. Or that I’d really look better as a blond, that I’m wearing the wrong kind of jeans and that my career choice is all wrong. In Latin America, you can expect unsolicited advice on a relatively frequent basis. And you may find your neighbors are a little more involved than they are back home. Some call it human warmth, others call it nosiness, but whatever you want to call it, accept the fact that people, whether they know you or not, often have no qualms about asking you how much you make, why you’re dating the guy you’re dating, how much your purse cost, et cetera. Often, refusing to answers means getting labeled as cold and rude. Or in the best case scenario, a weird foreigner.
2.) Children living at home until they’re 40. This might not bother you if you’re a retiree living abroad — and it does go to show that families in Latin America tend to be close — but as a 25 year-old single woman living in Bogota, it’s never been my romantic fantasy to date a 30-year old guy living still living at home and with no imminent plans of moving out any time soon. I completely understand that wages are lower in Latin America and cultural differences mean it’s normal for kids to stay home until they get married, but being American, I have a hard time getting excited about a guy who goes home to mom’s everyday for lunch.
3.) Inefficiency. Anyone who’s ever tried applying for a business visa or gone through any other legal or immigration process in Latin America knows what I’m talking about. Person A sends you to person B who sends you back to person A who then sends you off to some remote office to talk to person C who then tells you your papers are all wrong and you’ll have to start the process all over. It can be exasperating, so mentally prepare yourself for a long and arduous paperwork journey.
4.) Men thinking catcalls involving the word “gordita” are somehow flattering. Imagine walking down the street in the United States and a construction worker yelling out “Hey fatty, looking good today!” And said construction worker grinning like he’s just given you the best compliment ever. Now imagine that happening every day. I have to admit these catcalls have grown on me a little, as some are particularly creative and inspired, but overall, being compared to one of Botero’s paintings on a frequent basis does not bode well for one’s self esteem.
5.) Deadly fear of the common cold. In the U.S., I usually caught at least one or two colds every winter. However, during my time in Latin America, I’ve realized that people seem to fear the common cold like people in the United States might fear Ebola or Mad Cow Disease. In Bogota, a cold often involves multiple doctor visits, exaggerated scarf usage and serious pneumonia fears. My grandmother (who is Colombian) cannot comprehend that I would go outside in a short sleeve shirt without a jacket or scarf, never mind that it’s a balmy 75 degrees outside.
6.) Pollution. Unless you decide to live in the countryside, pollution will become a part of your daily life. I’ve gotten used to stepping outside and a potent aroma of diesel, fried goodness, perfume and cigarette smoke filling my lungs. In fact, this smell has become so associated with Latin America in my mind that whenever I go back home and happen to catch a momentary whiff, I’m filled with a sense of nostalgic longing and am instantly transported back to Panama City or Bogota. But as a former suburbanite used to crisp, fresh air, it took me a while to get accustomed to the smog. And get used to people honking their horns for sport.
7.) The cult of beauty. So this might not be a negative if you’re a guy, but as a girl, it can get tiring. My grandmother often says she doesn’t understand how women in the United States go out in sweatpants and disheveled ponytails. She thinks everyone in the U.S. walks around looking a mess. As a woman who used to thoroughly enjoy sweatpants and disheveled ponytails, I’ve had to change my ways. Here, it seems that women are expected to get their hair and nails done at least once a week, hit the gym to fix any slight problem areas (or head to the plastic surgeon if the gym doesn’t do it), and rarely go out looking anything less than perfect. For example, take the gym: While I’m sweating profusely and looking definitively unsexy in my baggy sweats and t-shirt, the woman next to me is looking great in form-fitting spandex and casually running 6.5 miles an hour, not a hair out of place. I can’t compete with that kind of perfection. Now, I’m not saying all women strive to look perfect ALL the time, but beauty is definitely a bigger priority, at least in Colombia, than back home. And foreign guys will have to abandon the shorts and flip-flops unless they want to be the perpetual gringo.
8.) A serious aversion to the word “No.” Latin Americans are nice. So nice, in fact, that they hate saying no. Or telling you they don’t know. Maybe you’ve asked directions and have been confidently pointed in a particular direction, only to realize, 20 minute later, you’re going the wrong way. Or maybe you meet some friendly people and promise to get together soon but it never materializes. Just keep in mind that a “yes” in Latin America doesn’t carry the same weight as a yes in North America. Otherwise, you’re bound to be perpetually disappointed. And stood-up.
9.) Cities aren’t quite as “pretty” as back home. The roads have massive craters; the sidewalks are falling apart and uninspired concrete grey buildings from the ‘70s stand next to dilapidated colonial-era structures. Sure, there are perfectly attractive neighborhoods and districts, but for the most part, Latin American cities can be overwhelming and unorganized. It takes a while to be able to see the beauty beyond the chaotic façade, but if you look hard enough, you’re bound to see it.
10.) Social inequality and poverty. One of the hardest things about living in Latin America is having to deal with poverty on a daily basis. Economic contrasts are a much bigger part of daily life here than in the United States or Europe. While some CEOs take home six figure incomes, live in posh penthouses and go to Paris and Miami just for the shopping, maids and security guards often have to get by on $10 or $12 a day. In Colombia, 60% of the population lives below the poverty line and a strict, traditional social system means things are changing at a painfully slow pace. Frankly, the unfairness and difficulty of daily life for many of Latin America’s inhabitants can be downright depressing. But maybe one of the good things about the influx of expats moving down south is the spreading of more egalitarian social notions.
Keep in mind this list is written from the point of view of an expat woman living in Colombia. If you have a different opinion, something to add or think I’m completely wrong , I invite you to be a guest contributor and let LatinWorld know what you think.