Rachel Anderson, VIVA Travel Guides
I’ve been living in Ecuador for almost a year now, and trust me, I’m not stupid: I know with my porcelain skin, Barbie-blond hair and bright blue eyes that I blend in about as much as a bikini in a blizzard. Yet, somehow during my stay in Latin America I’ve been mistaken for a coastal Ecuadorian twice and a Colombian model once (Shakira! Shakira!). After ruling out the possibilities that my Latin companions were either legally blind or hopped up on hallucenogenics, I’ve concluded that I must have finally learned the art of blending in.
Living in the Land of Darwin, I’ve evolved to adapt to my surroundings as best I can — and you can, too. Maybe you can’t change your skin color, but you can change out of that heinous Hawaiian print (and set it on fire, perhaps). With a little confidence, a little smarts and a lot of common sense, you can bring your boiling-hot red flag screaming “Fledgling Foreigner!” to a simmering salmon.
1. Crack the Dress Code
Every country, every region, and every city you visit has its own culture and energy, and within that culture lies its dress code. Your goal is to study it, learn it, and apply it to your wardrobe. What colors, fabrics and styles do they wear? Do certain age groups dress differently? Study it before you visit so you can pack accordingly. Once you’re there, watch your demographic, observe their style, and incorporate it into your closet. Of course, there’s no need to take this to extremes, as a foreigner in head-to-toe native wear will look just as ridiculous (and potentially offensive). Moderation is the name of the game here. For example, Ecuadorian women love to wear lots of colorful jewelry and makeup. With some spondylus earrings, a coral bracelet and a touch of turquoise eye shadow, I can apply the style without going overboard (they can keep their skintight leggings with knee-high leather boots).
While each culture varies, there are some clothing items that should forever be retired into the Tourist Hall of Shame (did you burn that Haiwaiian print yet?). Unless you actually enjoy looking like a grade-A gringo, please remove the following items from your wardrobe ASAP:
- Panama hats
- baggy/bright rain jackets
- walking canes (unless you actually need it)
- hiking pants or khaki capris
- white sneakers
- white socks
- sweatshirts that say OHIO STATE or SYRACUSE (or any item proudly plastering your home turf)
- sunburn (nothing screams tourist like a lobster in a bright polo)
Also, it’s probably a good idea to wait until home to show off your souvenir T-shirts from the hotel gift shop or local artisan market. It’s kind of hard to earn local “street cred” while donning a Galapagos-inspired “I Heart Boobies” shirt.
2. Walk Tall (And Carry a Big Smile)
Your body language can be just as important as your body itself when it comes to blending in. Anyone looking lost, looking down or looking nervous is sure to send off “foreigner flares”. Worse, it makes you appear vulnerable and an easy victim to prey on.
Try to adopt a little something I call “casual alertness”: Walk with confidence, keep your head up, and look straight ahead. Yet, at the same time, try to appear laid-back and comfortable. Introduce a smidgen of swagger into your walk; look like you know the area and have things to do and people to see. Take a wrong turn? Keep going. Turn around at the next corner. Try to never appear lost or confused. If you absolutely need to look at a map to get your bearings, dodge inside a building and figure it out in the solitary confines of a bathroom stall (or the lobby, at the very least).
Now that you can walk the walk, you now must talk the talk. Brush up on the language, and practice it. A lot. Learn the local slang. If you have at least an upper-beginner level of the language, then push yourself to talk. But it’s not just about talking: it’s about your style and tone. Do they speak softly or boldly? Are they serious or more jovial when they talk? If you speak with confidence and without hesitation, people won’t care about the mistakes. After all, even native speakers don’t speak in precisely grammatical terms. When I was mistaken for a Guayaquil gal, it was after I chatted up the store clerk in my broken (but unapologetic) Spanish. I quipped. I smiled. I succeeded. 🙂
3. Shake Your Assets (But Watch Yourself)
Take inventory of yourself. What are your cultural strengths? What makes you most blend in? Maybe you have Carrot Top hair but your Spanish is flawless. Great! Then chat, chat, chat your way into the local scene. Don’t speak the language but share the same hair color/skin tone? Then keep your little mouth shut and let your body do the talking. It’s all about using what you’ve got and downplaying what you don’t.
For example, I may be blond and blue-eyed, but I’m also barely five feet tall. On a good day. It’s precisely this lack of height that helps me blend in better in Ecuador. Locals assume most Americans and Europeans are tall; therefore, my short stature must mean I have some “Latin” blood in me (and if anyone asks, I do). To accentuate my lack of height, I have ditched my heels and instead wear stylish ballerina flats.
4. Don’t Flash (your Red Flags) in Public
No matter who you are or where you are, there are four items that, when displayed, are like fog horns blaring “foreigner! fresh meat!”:
– Map (particularly the fold-out variety)
You may never actually end up succeeding in looking like a local, but you can at least look like you’ve been there awhile, that you know what’s up. And nothing shouts “I’m new here!” like a big fat travel guide with an indigenous person plastered on the cover or a bulky Nikon with its own matching neck strap.
You hide these personal items as if they were your own incestual child. Cover them in your bag, or ditch them altogether. If you absolutely must carry a guidebook, rip out the pages you need or recover the jacket to make it look like a novel. Keep maps folded and hidden (see Step 2 about when/where to use a map). Resist the urge to be snap-happy on the street, as each shutter release on your camera is also a release of any hope of appearing local. Backpackers will find the last item unavoidable; in this case, stick to the other steps and at least try to pass as a veteran vagabond.
At the end of the day, the simple fact is this: you’re gonna stand out. A lot. People will notice, and people will stare. However, using these tips should help weaken your blip on their radar. So go on now…get lost! (in the crowd, that is) 🙂
Photos courtesy of “Alaskan Dude” from Creative Commons