Last weekend, I took a work/play combo-trip to Bogota, Colombia, during which I was not-so-gently reminded how painfully awkward it can be to navigate a new place. Albeit I was somewhat arrogant when I boarded the plane in Santiago, assuming that any other Spanish-speaking city in South America wouldn't be that big of a deal since I'd been living in one full time for over two years. I didn't have on running shoes. I wasn't carrying a backpack. And most importantly of all, I didn't have running shoes dangling from my backpack by their knotted laces. (I've seen this in airports more times than I care to count and have often thought about snatching the gringos' shoes myself, if for nothing more than to teach them a lesson. I digress)
Well, as per usual with 99.9% of my assumptions over the past 26 months, I was wrong. Naturally. First was the airport. I was thrown off not only by the stray dog that rode the escalator with me to baggage claim but also by the number of uninterested security guards taking their smoke breaks inside the building. That, and when I couldn't find an ATM without having to ask for directions, I started to feel that familiar bubble of distinct panic, one that stems oh so specifically from Feeling Like A Foreigner. "Everyone knows I'm different!" I shrieked internally as I hurried red-faced towards the authorized taxis. "They're all looking at me!" And of course, as I crouched down in the back of a cab, praying the driver wouldn't rip me off, "I want to go home."
It's incredible, really, the number of stereotypes about a particular world region or people that can rush in and overtake an otherwise rational and unbiased thought process during moments of uncertainty. Left to my own devices for a few hours, I uncomfortably wandered the downtown streets in broad daylight, feeling with absolutely certainty I was going to get robbed or kidnapped. I didn't. I also didn't see much worth reporting that day apart from the plate of chicken and rice I ordered and stared intently into so as to avoid the looks of everyone. You'd think I was wearing an I Love New York t-shirt for how poorly I perceived myself to blend in. Don't get me wrong. We gringos stick out. Especially while traveling. But for all the nervous fluster I was putting forth, my 2 years of learning to adapt sailed right out the window.
The friend I was meeting arrived a few hours later and immediately prompted me to put my jittery antics aside. Something about interacting with another human made me feel foolish for having been reluctant to run across the street and purchase a bottle of water alone. (I mean, really, Caira?) Funny to think that sort of discomfort once applied to Santiago and things like purchasing a metro card without a native speaker around. At the end of the trip, which, I might add, was completely safe and incident free, I realized I still wanted to go "home." To Chile- where, despite all initial adverse reactions, has morphed into somewhere I associate with comfort and, as my friend so wisely put it, "where I mostly understand what's going on."