This essay was originally published in 2006 at the now-defunct InverseOnline, a website dedicated to all things South American.
“Where you from?” the driver asks in Spanish after a few minutes in the air-conditioned cab. He had picked me up on the corner near my apartment, sweating under the morning sun in my khakis and button-down dress shirt with the sleeves rolled-up to the elbow. He was running me to the university, but it wasn’t that fact, or even my appearance that tipped him off to my foreignness. In fact, it’s never my appearance.
“Take a guess,” I say, playing this game for the zillionth time.
“I don’t know. Aruba, maybe? Curaçao?” The nearby Dutch Caribbean has been the most common guess since I moved here to Barranquilla, trumping even perennial favorite, Brazil.
“I don’t know then,” he concedes.
“San Andrés,” I lie.
“Ah, okay.” And this satisfies him.
San Andrés is one of two small islands off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, but officially belonging to Colombia. It has a history typical of the area—strategically located during colonization and therefore christened repeatedly under shifting European banners, including Spain, England, and the Netherlands. The English maintained dominance for a while in the early 1600s and the language stuck among the few colonists and their many African slaves. Spain regained control and later, the islands became an administrative department of Colombia.
Everyone here knows that though sanandresanos are Colombian citizens, most speak English and a West Indian patois spiced with Anglicized Spanishisms, which explains my trouble with masculine and feminine articles and other lapses in grammar. It also keeps the cab fare from increasing, since I’m still considered a “poor” Colombian and, thus, not a “rich” gringo.
“So do you study at the university?”
“Yes,” I lie again. “Business administration.”
“Nice,” he says.
That explains my khakis and button-down. It also keeps the cab fare from increasing, since I’m still considered a “struggling” student and, thus, not a “well-heeled” professor. English professor, to be exact.
To be honest about my job or my nationality would have been an invitation for an endless slew of questions: How do you like Colombia? How about the women? How about the weather? How about President Bush? How’d you end up in Colombia? But the women, they’re hot, right?
He says something else that I can’t make out exactly, but by the tone and his face, it sounds like a joke, so I nod and smile. I hope he just turns up the radio and quits talking, as I’m not in the mood for further interrogation. He does and the recycled salsa saves me for a while. I’m only functional, not fluent in Spanish, and my listening ability is much worse than my ability to construct sentences and articulate myself—it comes and goes in waves.* Half the time, I can ask a question with complete accuracy and not understand a word of the response. It doesn’t help that I’m a good mimic with a great accent. It also doesn’t help that, thanks to my own ethnic hybridity, I happen to look Colombian. Or Brazilian. Or Aruban.
Or maybe it does.
My white co-workers at the university often get quoted higher everything. Higher cab fares. Higher prices for that hammock or hat. It pisses off my friend and colleague, Kelly, from rural Ohio. “We’re not all rich,” she often says. Sometimes, after pizza and a movie at my apartment, she gets me to hail her a cab so I can negotiate the cheapest fare. With short sentences in a commanding voice, I can be as native as anyone else, and I still have to laugh at the idea of me hailing a white woman a cab. In New York, it had usually been the reverse.
I don’t often hang out with my co-workers, not least of which because I really don’t drink and, despite having a population of almost two million, there isn’t much more to do when you’re living in Barranquilla. But it’s also the idea of being singled out as one of “them.” One of the gringos. One of those norteamericanos who comes down to the tropics to drop large quantities of dollars indulging in large quantities of alcohol and sex. A perpetual spring breaker in a Hawaiian shirt with sunburned skin and rhythm-less hips. Not that my co-workers are like that, but it is the prevailing perception, and not without good reason. I get to overhear people talking about “those gringos” when they don’t know I came with “those gringos.” Then there are the looks I get from Colombian women when they see me walking innocently with Kelly. Or from Colombian men when they see me speaking fluent English. It’s humorous and sad at the same time, that I’m seen as a social climber. A gringo-lover. Sometimes, on road trips, the police look suspiciously at my foreign resident ID. Much more suspiciously than they inspect Kelly’s.
On occasion, I hang out with my friend René, a Canadian who teaches at a local bilingual high school. His father is originally from the Congo, and René tells me in his French-accented English how in certain restaurants and nightclubs, employees come up and ask him to leave. That is, until they hear his French-accented Spanish and realize he’s foreign and therefore obviously loaded. We understand each other because, while in Colombia we occupy two different places on the Latin American racial spectrum and are therefore treated differently, we’re both from North America and subsequently both subject to the same “random” searches at Customs and Immigration once back at “home.”
I think of calling René about a doing a trip somewhere off-limits to foreigners in the interior of the country when the driver asks me at which entrance gate I want to be dropped-off. I tell him the back gate, partly because it minimizes the walk to my office, but also because it’s where a couple of the security guards I’m friendly with are posted. I’m actually friendly with all the guards, hard workers from the south side of the city who are doing good to have landed this particular gig. They’re a mixture of young and old, all but one are men. And all, given a different set of historical circumstances, could have been me, guarding an ivory tower of academia that they’ll never be a part of. Maybe that’s why they greet me with firm handshakes and smiles and shoulder pats, the more familiar—Eric and Rubén at the back gate—playfully saluting me with great flourish: “Oh, Professor Ernst Koeningsburg.”
I’ve exchanged cell numbers with a couple of them, the ones around my age who always invite me down south to eat at their house some lazy Sunday afternoon. At the time, I have every intention of calling them. But a tiresome schedule and my own laziness usually trump those planned encounters; visiting a place and working there are two completely different animals. Yet when I see them on campus, we have our brief conversations like a couple of neighbors, or cousins, maybe. And I think that, in some respect, they’re proud of me. They see a little bit of themselves, as if given a different set of historical circumstances, they could have been me, a college professor, teaching my native language in a foreign land.
And so I pull up to the back gate at a private university with only a handful of students darker than I, giving the driver a blue five-thousand peso note, knowing I could have argued the price down a thousand, but not wanting to haggle over the equivalent of not even fifty cents.
“Okay, thanks friend,” he says as I exit. “Good luck!”
“Thanks. You too,” I say and close the door, smiling in anticipation of this morning’s non-Spanish-sounding baptism.
“¿Qué tal, Eric?”
*My Spanish is actually much better now.