“England, huh? So what language do they speak there?”
It sounds like the punchline to a rubbish joke, but this was a question I was once asked, in all honesty – and in Spanish, to be fair – by a Panamanian boat driver. As we cruised between tiny Caribbean islets over the greenest, sparkliest water I’ve ever seen, with parrots and pelicans above and sheets of manta ray below, I wasn’t exactly feeling close to home, but the botero‘s question reminded me just how far away I really was.
Due to history and proximity, Panama receives an awful lot of US tourists – but much fewer from Britain. I was classed as a “gringa” despite my protests to the contrary, and on this occasion, revealing my home country only seemed to generate more confusion. I politely explained that “inglés” people speak “inglés“, though the botero still didn’t quite seem to get it. English is American, right?
But strangely, I found it rather comforting – a kind of anonymity on the road. Being from what I had naively assumed was a “big” country (in world influence, rather than size), with a colonial and imperial past, whose language dominates, whose sports teams and World Service reach even the remotest households – being English usually comes with a level of expectation. Some people love England, others despise it; some ridicule the food or the climate, others adore the football or the music. Living in Spain came with the heavy baggage of “representing” a country of lobster-coloured people who binge drink, vomit and sleep around. But I had assumed it was difficult to travel somewhere without an expectation about Brits.
A recent trip to Colombia proved me wrong. Their colonial ties are with Spain, their tourism is from the US, encountering English tourists is pleasingly rare. Despite my sense of being from a globally “important” nation, I was a bit of a nobody in Colombia. Was England near Great Britain, I was asked? England is in Great Britain, I replied. People were baffled. I wondered if we were really that great…
I almost got overcharged for stamps, as saying I wanted to send postcards to “England” meant I got charged as “rest of world” – luckily, I spotted that the stamps to the United Kingdom were cheaper. The vendor had no idea they were the same place. An Austrian in my hostel fared far worse. Everyone just thought he was Australian. He told me this shortly before we headed out for a streetside beer – where we were promptly stopped by two young Colombian street performers who asked him where he was from.
“Wait – what? Australia?”
We fell about laughing, and the Colombians, vaguely embarrassed though not quite sure what they had said wrong, joined in with the giggles.
But what if you are from the country which really is considered by many to be at the political, cultural and commercial centre of the world? The one country everyone knows, even if they don’t know where its language comes from?
Well, gringos, you’re in for a shock too. America is the centre of the world for many outside of the USA – but not in quite the way you would expect. The guys to the south of you have got it sussed – they live in America too. All over Colombia, the word ‘America’ is used to describe everywhere in South, Central and North America, without discrimination. The Latinos have taken back ownership of the world – or maybe they never lost it? They are Americans. And those specifically from the US? Estadounidenses – “United Statesians.”
Every country is in the centre of its own world, and travelling truly makes you realise you are at the centre of no one’s else’s world but your own. It’s an important lesson to learn, and it’s humbling and refreshing. It’s not all about you. It never was.