January 7, 2015

By: Gordon Haave, Director at Agora Trust

(Originally published on January 3rd, 2015 at WorldandBeyond.com.)

when in romeSince I traveled a lot and have been to a lot of unusual places, it is fairly routine that I get emails from people saying “My cousin, sister, son, etc. is traveling to country X.  Do you have any advice?”.

My first piece of advice for traveling to any country is always as follows:

Find out the yahoo message board or subreddit on Reddit where Americans in that country congregate.  Write a post that says “I’m an American traveling to your country.  What is a good part of town to live in?  Are they any good cafe’s or bars where Americans hang out?”

You now have a list of places to avoid.

I don’t hate my country or countrymen, but the fact remains that Americans overseas are without a doubt the most obnoxious group of people you will every encounter on your travels.

The general behavior of American expats is as follows:

1.  Separate yourself from the local culture.

2. Do nothing to learn the language or customs.

3.  Hang out at all the same cafes or bars.

4.  Bitch and moan endlessly about why this country is not as good as America

5.  Condescendingly tell the locals why they should do things more like Americans do.

This is particularly true in Panama, where Americans believe that Panama owes America an eternal debt for building the Canal.

I was prompted to write this blog post because of an exchange that happened yesterday on the “Americans in Panama” Yahoo message board.  I am a subscriber to the board (although I have never posted) because sometimes there are some good posts about how to accomplish one or another task when dealing with the Panamanian government or where/how to buy something that is difficult to find.  90% of the posts are mostly people just complaining about how living in Panama is not as good as living in the U.S.  I typically don’t read them because when I do my blood pressure increases and i get the intense urge to respond “SO FUCKING GO HOME ALREADY”, but so far I have managed to keep my cool.

Yesterday a Panamanian wrote a post titled “Rude Gringo”.  It was about a bad experience she had in a traffic jam with a Gringo trying to cut her off.  One single reply to this post perfectly encapsulates everything that is wrong with Gringos and their mentality.  The post is as follows:


1. Panama was a Province of Columbia
2. Theodor Roosevelt paid $10,000 to Columbia upon request of Panamanian separatists in order to have an independent country. Without US payment, no Independent state of Panama.
3. US engineering and medical know-how helped to eradicate: malaria, yellow and dengue favor in order to built the canal.
4. I fail to noticed that without the “ugly gringos” that would happen.
5. US liberated you and other Panamenos of the cruelty of Noriega
6. Pres. Carter’s stupidity to give you the Canal “gratis” even though it cost a lot of money for US people to build.

Even though , I am not Panamena, however, I have manner, graces and very high level of education which enables me to tolerate even your “ugliness”. Moreover, without my money and other “ugly gringos” money being invested in your country, some of progress what you are experiencing would not occur, just because you are Panameno.

In other words:  You owe us.

This person also just had to write about her “manner, graces, and very high level of education”.  That is:  We are better than you.

The sad thing is that the poster doesn’t even realize just how rude and condescending she was being – but that is the very nature of Americans overseas.  They really have no idea.

Assuming for a second that her post is accurate (I have some quibbles about it), she is missing the larger point about dignity.  Without dignity, a man has nothing.  You can take away a man’s land and his riches, but when you take away his dignity he has nothing left and he will hate you and want to kill you.

An entire world war was fought over dignity.  After the Archduke Franz Ferdinand received a well deserved bullet to the chest the Austro-Hungarian Empire made a list of 10 demands upon the Kingdom of Serbia.  These demands were written precisely so that Serbia had no choice but to reject them and therefore provide Austria-Hungary a Casus Belli for war.  Serbia, desperate to avoid war for a change actually accepted 9 of these ridiculous demands.  The only demand rejected was giving Austrian police the right to operate in Serbia.  This is an indignity no sovereign people can endure.  War was chosen over indignity.

The Serbs, a people fighting for everything, ultimately suffered total military and civilian losses of 1.1 million people, including 60% of the entire male population of Serbia.

If you treat people with a lack of dignity and tell them that they owe you for everything good in their life they are going to hate you, whether there is any truth to the matter or not.

You have no idea how many times I have heard expats in Panama explain how we are the only reason this country isn’t a total shithole and that we deserve to be treated better.  Whether or not it is true or not doesn’t matter.  This attitude isn’t going to win you any friends.  And, of course, the person saying it most likely had no role whatsoever in anything good happening in Panama and still isn’t adding anything positive to the society.

In any event, hanging around with expat Americans gets old pretty quickly which is why I don’t live near them nor hang out in the places that they frequent.

Americans overseas also mistakenly believe that segregating themselves off makes them safe.  In reality it makes them a target.

When I lived in Kenya I lived on Ralph Bunch road.  It is a nice quiet street near the Presidential compound, the Ministry of Defense, and the Russian Embassy which amusingly is on a hill above the Ministry of Defense looking down on to it.  Pretty much every American in Kenya however lived on the other side of town in Westlands.  Why?  That’s just what you do as an American.  If you ask an American where to live they will all say “Westlands”.

Whereas I never had any security issues where I lived people were constantly  getting robbed or carjacked in Westlands.  Of course they were.  If you were a criminal and you were looking for a target where would you go?  To Westlands.  Plus, traffic in Westlands was terrible and everything was more expensive as well.

westgate mall

When the Westgate mall attack occurred in Nairobi I was surprised that there were no Americans killed as Westgate Mall is where Americans all hung out and did their shopping.

A few years prior when there were attacks in Uganda one of the targets was a  restaurant frequented by Americans.

 “Uganda Police Force Inspector General Kale Kayihura stated, “The information we have indicates the people who have attacked the Ethiopian Village were probably targeting expatriates.”

Here in Panama, I won’t live anywhere near Clayton where the Americans will tell you to live. I also don’t go to Allbrook mall nor drink 5 dollar beers where the Americans hang out.  I live in a low-key building where I am the only American and it’s walking distance not only to my own restaurant but also to restaurants and bars where I am likely to be the only Gringo there.  It is a much better way of living.