Be a Mindful Expat

This article is inspired by the following Amazon review left on Lima Travel Guide:

Almost useless. Only superficial information, vague at best. Not enough information about quirks of public transport which ended up costing us more money. Seems to only highlight tourist traps. Keeps suggesting the reader ask their hotel for information. We rent furnished apartments and never stay at hotels. I don’t know why you sell a Kindle version. I have an 8.9″ Kindle. The maps are too small to read and can’t be enlarged. I don’t have access to a printer so info on walking tours is useless. Several of the top 10 sites from another web forum don’t even get a mention. Also, we rode busses both large and small several times every day for a month and never had any problems. These writers suggest always taking a taxi. I don’t think a whole chapter devoted to restaurants is necessary. Peruvian food is rated as one of the best cuisines in the world by food critics, the result of 500 years of fusion cooking. In 4 weeks of eating out 3 times a day we never had a bad meal and rarely paid more than $4 – $5 for a 2 course meal with drink. If the writers truly live in Lima, either they lead very sheltered lives or they don’t know how to write a travel guide. Save your money.

Having sold on Amazon for years, I am well past the point of sweating a negative review. This one, however, got under my skin for its gross inaccuracy.

Dear Guy, in recommending you pull your head out of your ass, I address your critique.

Not enough information about quirks of public transport.

The guide includes pricing for the combi private buses and explanations how to take them as well as pricing and explanations for the Metropolitano bus rapid transit system and Metro light rail system. The only public transport option that did not include pricing and explanation were the mototaxis, which are only found in lower-class areas where Guy certainly did not rent his furnished apartment.

Seems to only highlight tourist traps.

The guide’s Things to Do in Lima would be criticized by most Peruvians and gringos in the tourist biz precisely because they are too far off the tourist trap beat. Specifically Gamarra, Callao, and a long bike tour into the city center without a guide. If Guy did all three of those things, I’ll give him this point. But he and I know he did not. La Punta de Callao could be considered touristic, but definitely not a “tourist trap.” And to call Gamarra a tourist trap betrays a fundamental lack of understanding not only of Lima, but all of Latin America.

The maps are too small to read and can’t be enlarged. I don’t have access to a printer so info on walking tours is useless.

Here Guy betrays his age and computer illiteracy. The maps he refers to are Google Maps. See the four maps for the tours featured in Lima Travel Guide:

Because Google Maps can be enlarged on any device, Guy’s review actually helps the book on Amazon because it’s clear he is an idiot. Or at least ignorant. Reading our guide would have helped Guy because since the vast majority of Peruvians don’t own printers, he would have learned that there are internet cafes in every neighborhood (even Miraflores and Barranco) which offer printing services on the cheap which are useful not only for gringos who only rent furnished apartments so they can nickel and dime their way through public transportation and set-menu lunches but also guys who don’t know how to enlarge Google Maps on their mobile devices. In fact the internet cafes described in the guide are useful to anybody who happens to need a printed document.

Several of the top 10 sites from another web forum don’t even get a mention.

Let me guess – Casa Aliaga, Brisas del Titicaca, the artesanal markets of Miraflores? Without naming them, Guy can’t legitimately claim they’re not mentioned. And if his unnamed sites which don’t get a mention are what I think they are, they are in fact “tourist traps.”

These writers suggest always taking a taxi.

No, they don’t. Hence the information on how to take combis, the Metropolitano bus rapid transit system, and the Metro light rail.

I don’t think a whole chapter devoted to restaurants is necessary.

Guy has just given himself away as not being a “foodie.” This also helps our book with any Amazon customers who are a part of the growing “gastro-tourist” segment — those looking to visit a city or country to enjoy the food — for whom Lima is the top destination in Latin America. (See Peruvian Food: Best in Latin America)

Long story short, if you’re a backpacker doing the continent on a shoestring you may not have a choice but to eat in the menus. Doing so is not bad at all, rather enjoyable actually. But if Guy spent his time in Peru only eating in menus, he has no idea how truly ridiculous the flavors are at even the middle-class restaurants. But you have to drop $10 on a plate to get the idea.

Peruvian food is rated as one of the best cuisines in the world by food critics, the result of 500 years of fusion cooking.

This is another betrayal of Guy’s lack of knowledge about Peru. A more seasoned expat would attribute Peruvian food’s success to 500 years of slavery cooking — if you were wedded to using “500 years.” If wedded to the “fusion cooking” buzzword popular today, the seasoned expat would not quote more than 150 years. While the contributions of Asian and Italian immigration contributed greatly to Peruvian cuisine, it has far less than 500 years put together. It would be difficult to make the case that African slaves were “fusing” anything and the Indian contributions largely stop at guinea pig and pachamanca. The biodiversity of the land could have warranted a mention, but not as important as slaves and an idle upper class (similar to the southern United States).

In 4 weeks of eating out 3 times a day we never had a bad meal and rarely paid more than $4 – $5 for a 2 course meal with drink. If the writers truly live in Lima, either they lead very sheltered lives or they don’t know how to write a travel guide.

Here Guy unknowingly betrays that his furnished rental apartment – the vast majority of which are located in sheltered living districts – was in fact located in a sheltered living district. While no expat in Latin America would refer to the set-lunch restaurants (known as “menús” in Peru) as “a 2 course meal with a drink,” what gives Guy away is the price. In my middle-class Lima neighborhood, which some gringos may consider “sheltered” given there are no mototaxis buzzing around, you cannot find a menu for $4 or $5. The most expensive would come in under $4. The cheapest comes in under $2. So given Guy considers himself a man braving the mean streets of Lima in a totally off-the-beaten-path kind of way and has shown off his cheapskate bona fides at every opportunity, anybody who knows Lima knows that based on those menu prices the neighborhood of his furnished apartment rental (albeit without printer) was probably Miraflores – the most sheltered living district in all of Peru.

Learning how to take the bus and eat at the menus is the one-month level of the expat game (like saying “fusion cooking”). It’s great you’ve made it this far, Guy. But don’t forget you’re not even through your rookie year. Behave accordingly.

What’s my point if I claim that Amazon reviews don’t bug me?

I have never seen an Amazon review or blog comment with such a high inaccuracy-per-word ratio. But to the tell the truth, I’m writing this article because Guy reminded me a little of myself in my first years in Latin America. I never had my head up my ass as much as him, but I have certainly said some incredibly uninformed things about Peru and Colombia – especially in my first years on the continent. Every couple years I review and edit all my blog posts. I don’t know how many times I have cringed at things I have written, and I don’t mind admitting that.

But what makes the inaccuracies worse is the attitude I wrote them with. Again, not as egregious as Guy, but there was a sense in my earlier writing that I’m BLAZING A TRAIL in Peru and Colombia. Going where no gringo has gone before, places nobody else knows about …

Nobody’s blazing a trail anywhere. Gringos have been in [your Latin American country/city] long before you. Before you were a sparkle in your mother’s eye or a swimmer in your dad’s sac. You are entering the game at a late stage when cultures have never been more similar. Getting by has never been easier.

And the more you learn about the history of [your Latin American country], the more you will learn exactly how many gringos proceeded you with the idea of getting wealthy and achieving a better life in that backwards land of promise. You will meet children of Gringo-Latin couples who are older than you and dealt with the issues you’re currently questioning, but as a child decades ago.

For Christopher Kavanagh (The Mick) of Mad Outta Me Head, there were no English-language television or newspapers (obviously no Google or YouTube). He has never returned to Ireland even to visit. But even Christopher wasn’t blazing a fucking trail. The banana gringos had come and gone and come again. Kendall had already been locked up in Cali and escaped (twice). There was already an established expat community in Bogota. Institutes, embassies, and multinationals galore. The Colombian beer monopoly was founded by a German. Sir Francis Drake captured Cartagena. An American discovered Machu Picchu. A Canadian wrote the authoritative text on the conquest of the Incas. A British family invented Inca Kola.

The more you learn about your country, the more you will understand how small of a part you are in the age-old game of gringo treasure hunting. Even if you’re in a neighborhood with mototaxis buzzing by and no refrigerated beer around for a mile, you’re still living a sheltered life compared to Pizarro and Cortes, Guy.

For those looking to be a mindful expat, I recommend reading at least two authoritative books on the history of [your Latin American country]. Preferably three or four. Optimally ALL in the list below and then some more, and email me what the best one was. Doing this would have saved so many head-up-my-ass moments (Guy) which I didn’t realize at the time, but maybe others did.

Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson

Actually, this pick is in addition to two country-specific texts. Penguin History is the best book I’ve found to understand why Latin America is different than the gringo countries. Catholic monarchy, stratified society, controlled economy, no organic independence movement, external circumstances, Spanish and Portuguese history and culture. This book explains everything you scratch your head about in Latin America.


The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics

The Latin American Studies department at Duke publishes the Latin American Reader series for (almost) each country in the region. They select book passages, news articles, and speeches from all the eras that cover all the issues. Good: mostly Peruvian writers translated to English. Bad: no one topic is delved into in-depth. However, if you’re only going to read one book on [your Latin American country] I recommend the Latin American Reader series.

Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming

In pretty short order you will see that almost every problem in Peru comes down to the palpable divide between the indigenous highlands, the Creole coast, and the giant mestizo majority that is a mix of the two with identity issues. Captivating from beginning to end, from the absolute domination of a tiny band of Spaniards against masses of Incas to the factional Spanish warfare over who would reap the benefits of enslaving them.

Royal Commentaries by Garcilaso de la Vega was a classic for its time. And it’s good, but much of it has been called into question and you’d stand to save time by only reading Conquest of the Incas. John Hemming was awarded Peru’s Order of the Sun, the highest cultural distinction in Peru.

Conversation in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa

While it seems to have found firm ground in the last 15 years, Peru may have Latin America’s most fragile democracy historically. This book offers a great look at one dictatorship in particular and a great sense of Lima in the 1950s. Vargas Llosa can be difficult in how he jumps around between eras and characters, but stick with it. Peruvian culture at its best.

How Difficult it is to be God by Carlos Ivan Degregori

This is the definitive text on the Shining Path guerrilla insurgency. I would caution that I only recommend this for the most dedicated student of the Shining Path. Very scatterbrain and difficult to get through. I highly recommend an overhaul from the editors, but the book is full of gems if you can stick with it.

Peruvian Traditions by Ricardo Palma

Written by the Mark Twain of Peru, Peruvian Traditions was published in the 19th century as a way to promote Peru and the South American way to the Spanish public. Some parts are difficult to get through but the anecdotal artifacts make it worth it, especially at a time when not much was being written down in Latin America.

However, I would recommend this only for someone who has already digested Conquest of the Incas. Maybe The Peru Reader too.

Historia del Perú contemporáneo by Carlos Contreras and Marcos Cueto

No, this is no me trying to be cool by showing off the Spanish bona fides. This is me making the point that you’ll have little success in finding comprehensive histories in English. If trying to go comprehensive, you have to go Spanish.


100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A fictionalized account of Colombian history. Infinitely readable, although the names can be confusing but they make a literary point, and a fave on the book lists of notables from Bill Clinton to Oprah.

Law of the Jungle by John Otis

Best look at the FARC insurgency I’ve read. Period.

Oblivion by Hector Abad

While Law of the Jungle covered the guerrillas, Oblivion is the best read I’ve seen on right-wing paramilitary terror, which some have suggested has killed more than leftist rebels. Great nuggets of paisa culture in Medellin. Plus, beating out Conversation in the Cathedral, Oblivion had the most compelling personal/human story in addition to Colombian history. See my review.

Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden

Colombians are trying to move past the narcotrafficking image their country inspires, but the cocaine cartels have played a huge role in shaping the political and economic landscape since the 1970s. This is the best book to illustrate just how big the influence was. See my review.

Smuggler’s Diary: Cocaine Karma by Kendall

This and my own book offer the best on-the-ground look at Colombia’s underworld.

The Colombia Reader

This book does not exist. While Duke University Press has published a text for most Latin American countries in its Reader series (Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Costa Rica, EcuadorCuba, ParaguayGuatemala, Dominican Republic), there is no Colombia Reader yet. But I trust that as soon as there is, it will earn the first place on this list.


One comment

  1. Colin, nice reply. I’ve been dealing with head up their ass gringo self proclaimed “in country authorities” on Costa Rica since 1991. Sure, I was a bit of a blowhard myself at the beginning, talking the talk as we all tend to do. After the first 5 years, I had to reassess all that I thought I knew and it took the next 5 to relearn everything that I had gotten wrong. I spent the next 10 years walking the walk. I sympathize with your frustration at Guy’s ignorance but even a bad review is good publicity. Keep up the good work. You are showing your readers that you are infact “Anti-Fragile”, and I suggest to everyone that if you have not already read Anti-Fragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb , get it. Colin, I expect that you have.


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