Being an American Abroad in 2017

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On the shores of Laguna Catemaco, across from the coffee shop we stayed the night in.

I woke up New Year’s Eve day in a small guest room off of a coffee shop on the lakeshore of Catemaco, Veracruz (Mexico) to a large flock of birds chirping incessantly.

I decided to take advantage of my early rising and unusual lodging arrangement by sitting on the porch of the coffee shop and enjoying a cup of tea and the lake view (pity I don’t drink coffee because Veracruz is famous for delicious beans).  At the next table, a pair of men – also enjoying the porch – were switching their conversation between English and Spanish.  My German travel companion and I played the typical game of “guess the home country of the ex-pats/tourists without directly asking them.”  We thought they were German, as the owner of the coffee shop was a German ex-pat.

Eventually, my friend got up to use the restroom, at which point one of the men decided to introduce himself while his buddy was packing.  He was an organic pesticide salesman traveling for business, and taking a holiday break to visit the famous butterflies and this beautiful lake in Veracruz.  He was the sort of man who used a bad word every three sentences, but it didn’t bother me because someone once told me people who swear are more honest.  Which was ironic, considering our next topic of conversation, where the inevitable question arose:

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“El Centro, California,” I responded.  “You?”

“I’m Canadian!” he belted, his voice rising above the hundreds of chirping birds across the street.

Now, I’m no expert.  But this accent was not the accent of a Canadian.  Or rather, since I don’t know Canadian accents well but can certainly recognize an American accent, that was the sound of an American if I’d ever heard one.  Our conversation continued on into past experiences he had “visiting” Seattle, and how much his Mexican farmer clients supposedly “hated” Americans because of Trump.  Which was a bit of an “ah-ha” moment for me in deciphering the mystery of this man.  I had never experienced any animosity as an American abroad, but I was open to hearing his opinions.

We said a pleasant goodbye and my friend and I headed out to a jungle sanctuary for the afternoon, followed by a rambunctious New Year’s Eve celebration in Santiago Tuxtla, and finally, back to Mexico City.  God, I love that city.  I had such a great time in Mexico City (posts to come!), and truly enjoyed the Mexican people, above all else.  Often I felt safer as a solo female traveler than I do in big cities in Europe, as I was frequently surrounded by families, and felt a much more relaxed, considerate vibe.  That is, with one major exception.

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The famous fountain in the Anthropology Museum’s courtyard known as “el paraguas”, Spanish for “the umbrella”.

On my second-to-last day in Mexico, I found myself enjoying the Teotihuacan pyramids followed by an afternoon at the National Museum of Anthropology, one of the more respected museums in Mexico.  I was taking a rest at the museum’s restaurant, as I love myself a good museum café, when a bit of a ruckus fired up near me.  I don’t like to make assumptions, but what seemed to be a fairly affluent American family sitting at the next table was complaining about everything, and the restaurant management was making rounds to appease their barrage of complaints.  I was embarrassed, as I feel inherently linked to other Americans while abroad in a way I don’t when I’m in the United States.

Everyone sitting on the beautiful patio trying to enjoy their lunch heard the ruckus, and an English-speaking Mexican randomly spoke up: “Be careful,” she said.  “Stay in the museum.  There are riots, and they are after Americans.”

I heard her words, and I immediately went from trying to tune the scene out, to hanging on their every word. “My husband called me and warned me,” she went on.  “They are angry about the oil prices, and they are blaming Trump.  They are going after the Wal-Marts in the city, looting, because the store is American.”

As I quietly freaked out by slumping in my chair and frantically texting my German friend who works at the Goethe-Institut and is very connected to city happenings, the American family didn’t make any effort to hide their concern.  They went from table to table, asking for more information from anyone that would respond.  Nice Samaritans began googling local news sites, and a young man tried to calm them, “The United States Embassy is next door.  You couldn’t be in a safer place.  And if you want, you can call them, but you really don’t need to.”  The family spent the next half-hour on their cell phones, calling various people at the embassy.

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Hiding away in the Anthropology Museum, and watching other visitors take it all in.

Meanwhile, my German friend started getting answers.  The Mexican woman was right.  There was looting going on, and they were targeting Americans.  His local friends that knew he was hosting me had started to text him, worried about me and urging me to stay inside.  I spent a surreal few hours in the starkly quiet museum surrounded by ancient treasures, trying not to think about the potential chaos outside.  They finally closed and ushered us out, and I called an Uber to take me directly to meet my friend.  As we drove along, there were guards armed with semi-automatic weapons outside all of the stores we passed.

The night ended without incident, and I was even able to enjoy the historic center the next morning, despite the warnings of a few friends in the city.  I returned home to San Diego unscathed, but with a lot on my mind.

This was my first trip outside the United States where my president – or rather, the president on everyone’s minds – was not Obama, a president that I have never heard a negative word about in all my travels.  Admittedly, I have a limited perspective, as I didn’t travel much before the Obama administration.  Hiding away in the Anthropology museum that afternoon in Mexico City was the first time I’ve felt vulnerable due to my nationality and the international politics of my president.  And technically, Trump hadn’t even been inaugurated yet.  The words of the “Canadian” organic pesticide salesman began to resonate.

Whether we like it or not, however long or short our travels are, we are mini-ambassadors to the United States in every interaction we have.  Interactions that are now under the shadow of the Trump administration, an administration that has sent a clear message to the rest of the world that they are putting “America first.”  Whatever that really means – I don’t mean this to be a partisan issue – it is left to the interpretation of the receiver of that information, which we can’t control.  And in the case of the Mexicans, understandably angry about the rise in oil prices, the Trump administration was an easy bad-guy, a scapegoat for their woes.  But here I am, in their country, face-to-face with these angry people, and Trump is safely in the Whitehouse with men with semi-automatic weapons standing on his roof, protecting him.

I’m considering being “Canadian” as well in order to safely live my ex-pat life, the life that I’ve become so accustomed to over the last five years, a life I’m not ready to give up yet, but a life that has drastically changed shape within this new international political landscape.

I’m curious if any of you have had similar experiences abroad in the last few days, weeks, and months.  I would love to hear your thoughts, insights, and concerns.

Thanks for reading.

 

16 responses to “Being an American Abroad in 2017

  1. While I haven’t travelled, I have several int’l blogger friends. Their mood seems worried about how Trump’s policies will affect them, but most realize that Trump is not widely popular here, either. It is a wait and see game, one none of us feel comfortable playing. I hope Italy will remain safe for you. Blessings.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Eliza, it means a lot. 🙂 I hope it is true that people recognize that we are all affected by his policies and we aren’t necessarily in favor of what he’s doing…You’re totally right, it is just a waiting game now.

  2. I’m so sorry to read about your scary experience in Mexico, and am glad you got away physically unharmed! But the psychological questions are a bit tougher to address, aren’t they? I think you’ve summed it up beautifully in stating that each and every one of us is a mini-ambassador for the U.S., though. WE THE PEOPLE make up our country. So in my own international travels I will continue to say I’m American (as I always have) and will continue to interact with the locals and try to make as positive an impression of Americans as possible. Still … the scenes you describe are very worrying. We can only hope that our allies’ and neighbors’ sentiments toward the U.S. won’t further deteriorate.

    • Thank you so much for this comment. 🙂 I appreciate your optimism and hope I can stand strong as an American as well. And thanks for the reminder that the US is really “We the people.” That might be a good way to relate to foreigners too, that despite what our president is doing, we the people don’t represent this negativity…thanks again, and enjoy your Saturday! 🙂

  3. I am fairly quick to identify myself as an Australian when travelling. Nobody seems there know much about us except koalas, kangaroos and sharks, so we can quietly fly under the radar. I try to be polite and be a good ambassador for my country.

    • Thanks for the comment, Debra. I’ve started working with Australian university students on tour in Italy on occasion, and have really enjoyed getting to know more about the culture through them. You’re right, people don’t seem to know much about you guys. We have a lot in common I think, in some ways, Australians and Americans. I have a lot of fun with Australians, that’s for sure.

  4. I completely agree Peggy. We are definitely mini-ambassadors for our country. We need to work even harder now than ever to promote ourselves as sane, nice people! 🙂

    • Thanks for reading, Stacy, and your thoughtful comment. Yes, it was an unexpectedly dicey situation at the end of a great trip. I’m definitely a bit worried about future trips, but I suppose I need to just let it go. Blessings to you too…thanks for your kind words.

  5. Having travelled abroad over Christmas and New Years in Germany (same timing as you) we experienced very similar sentiments. However, on our taxi ride to the airport on the last day of our trip, we had quite a unique encounter. Our taxi driver asked us where we were from, and we replied that we were American (although I was tempted to say Canadian!). He then said ” I love Trump! I am so happy for you Americans.” This caught us off guard, to say the least. Then he followed up, and I quote, “We cannot have another woman leader! Look what has happened to Germany! She has ruined us! Women think with their hearts, and cannot think with their heads!” This is obviously not representative of how most Germans feel about women, so I was shocked. I had to do everything I could to bite my lip, but I think my stare-down did enough. And even if this was true, what a horrible thing it would be, if the leaders of our world could think using their hearts…I think I share William Golding’s sentiments about why he didn’t write his book Lord of the Flies about little girls stranded on an island, and instead wrote it about little boys. He reasoned the degradation of the civilized island would not have happened with little girls because, “I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior and always have been.” Sorry boys 🙂

    • Ah, I apologize for me delay here! I really appreciate your thoughtful comment. I totally agree…let’s open ourselves up to a little change and see what a leader would be like that did think with their hearts. And how many countries around the world have had female leaders? We are already behind the times and that in itself is a bit embarrassing. How funny you had this conversation with a taxi driver, as I had the same experience and I didn’t even write about that! When I was in Europe in the fall, the majority of my political conversations were with taxi drivers! They would always ask me who I was going to vote for, and I would respond that it wasn’t a valid question because there was only one candidate. And it would make my blood boil, because they would tell me the male, American business travelers (that they see a lot more of, obviously, than the female business travelers like me), would say the same thing, but for the opposite candidate (Trump!). That was my first clue that trouble was on the horizon…

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by and your thoughtful comment. I really appreciate it! We must stick together and #resist. 🙂

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