Here are a few observations that I have made during my years of travelling and occasional living in Latin America.
Family and Relationships
As discussed here, you may at some stage enter into a relationship with someone from one of these wonderful countries that are full of some of the kindest and most beautiful people. From my own personal experience, this was one of the best things to ever happen to me but, as with anywhere in the world really, it could be the worst experience.
For now let’s leave the emotional aspect out of it and just deal with some of the realities I, or some of my close friends, have gone through.
Getting to know the family
Have A Chat
You will in all probability be made to feel like one of the family immediately. If you don’t speak Spanish you will be at a bit of a disadvantage because they will all talk at 100 miles per hour, you will not understand anything they say and you are left to simply nod your head and occasionally let out a laugh. You may, unknowingly, be laughing at yourself but ignorance is bliss.
Let’s Have A Drink
If a case of beer arrives or if someone suggests getting a case (or two), you will probably find someone standing in front of you – yes, you will be expected to pay. Just do it and get on with it. If it becomes a pattern, then tell your significant other and he or she will put a stop to it. This happened to me when I started dating a lady and this is the order of events:
- I arrived.
- The family, one by one make their appearance and greeted me.
- Someone from the local corner store arrived with a case of beer.
- I paid for the beer.
- Gradually the room filled with extended family members, friends and neighbors who consumed the aforementioned beer.
- After I had consumed one solitary beer, I discovered that the case, and we’re talking about a case of 24 here, was done for.
- Another case arrived.
- I paid again.
- Grabbed a couple of the beers, made my excuses and left. If I hadn’t, I suspect steps 1 – 8 would have been repeated!
It is not fair to paint all families this way but what I described above does happen quite a lot, especially with the people in the poorer areas. It is nothing personal on their part and I don’t have a great issue with it – let’s face it, $20 – $30 is not a great deal for most of us but to many of them it is significant. Can it be seen as taking advantage? Possibly, yes, but this doesn’t only happen in this part of the world.
Also, remember that if your budding relationship or friendship starts to blossom, these same people will protect you to the ends of the earth.
In spite of what I describe above, I did not have anyone asking me for money and the vast majority of people in the region would share their last crust with you. Family is pretty well everything here so if you are welcomed into one, treasure it.
A Kid’s Birthday Party Can Be An Event
I was in The Dominican Republic when my lady friend mentioned that it was her nephew’s third birthday. They lived “en el campo” (in the countryside) and we bought a couple of presents, along with a few refreshments as there were a few of her nephew’s friends “dropping by”.
I innocently tagged along expecting it to be kind of like in North America, where a few play buddies show up, a few presents are opened, they eat a cake, they play and go home.
In Latin America, you don’t just invite a few, or maybe you do but, invited or not, if a kid has a birthday party, they all seem to come. We arrived with the goodies and waited.
The music started, ear-splittingly loud as usual (3rd birthday or 23rd, it’s a great excuse for them), the first case of beer magically arrived, I magically paid for it. You would think that not much of this had anything to do with a kid’s 3rd birthday, but I didn’t care about that because I couldn’t stop smiling. Within about 15 minutes the first kids started arriving, usually with their mothers. After 30 minutes it was standing room only.
Soon, music or no music, the noise was deafening with the sounds of the children laughing, singing and yelling. When the piñata was broken open, all hell let loose with a mad scramble to pick up the candies, etc. that were on the floor. After this, then everyone stayed to dance and play until all the food and pop was gone.
It was all a joy to behold and a reminder to me why I love these people so much.
Do I Have To Look After Everyone?
You will generally be expected to look after your significant other but not everyone else in her family.
This, however can be a tricky one. There are millions of people from Central and South America who have emigrated to North America and Europe in search of better economic opportunities. It is accepted that they will send money back to their families at home to help support them. You should accept that your better half will be expected from time to time to help out the family – you will not be asked directly by the family. This is part of the deal – remember that in many Latin countries, such things as social security and assistance are almost non-existent. A little compassion on your part will only help and don’t forget, they are now your family also.
When in their country they will do anything for you, protect and guide you, fuss over you when you’re sick. If you’re not prepared to become part of the family and are only interested in catching yourself a hot wife or husband, then you’re in the wrong part of the world. Any attempt to whisk them away and interfere with the relationship with their folks back home will not work and shame on anyone who would try to do so.
On the other hand, if very early in a relationship, you do start getting asked for money to help out the family, it may be best to run.
Another great thing here due to the plentiful supply of relatives and close friends is that if your new companion has children, and you want to get away for a romantic few days or weeks, there are probably about 30 babysitters available to you at a minute’s notice. Just drop ’em off and go – no need to call ahead! The kids may be a little pissed off at you but they’ll get over it in about 30 seconds.
Flying In From Abroad – Bring It
Should you be living in “gringo land”, when travelling to visit everyone you will probably be asked to bring a shopping list of items with you. This is quite normal and very understandable. These requests come from not only family and friends, but you may want to bring something for business colleagues and customers.
Many things are everyday items such as shampoo, toothpaste, over the counter medicines, etc. Most of the goods are available in these countries but the brand names are often expensive as they must be imported and local taxes are often very high. In the case of Cuba, there is a genuine shortage of many items and lack of money is not necessarily the problem. Often, unfortunately, the “elite” and “connected” seem to miraculously obtain the goods before the regular working folk get a chance.
As you get deeper into a relationship, you will possibly notice the requests becoming more elaborate. When you think about it, it is not unusual – you will often find the same pattern in your own country. Also, I can almost guarantee that you will be asked to bring a mobile phone at some point. A word of caution here – don’t bring a $30 cheapo phone and pretend it’s top of the line because they know their phones! Just know when to draw the line.
When we go on vacation, we often pack an extra duffel bag or leave room in a suitcase for goods we will buy and bring back – now, you will (as I did) be doing the exact opposite. I’ve probably left 20 or 30 cheap suitcases, sports bags or duffel-bags with family, friends and business associates.
Buy A House? Buyer Beware
There may well come a time when your significant other suggests buying a house.
This will be detailed in a future article but, in a nutshell, unless you yourself are going to be living there permanently, don’t buy a house – period.
Sadly, relationships go wrong, unscrupulous lawyers and government officials are plentiful and you being a foreigner will end up with nothing but memories while your now “ex” or maybe your own lawyer is living in the house all paid for by you. A very unfortunate friend of a friend ended up with both his “ex” and his lawyer living together – when life sucks, it really sucks.
Possibly the relationship doesn’t even go wrong but there are still lots of crooked lawyers and officials who can create false land titles, transfer documents and cause enormous problems for you. In these cases, you can end up losing your property or paying out a fortune in fees and even joining in the illegal process of paying bribes.
As I said, this is something to be covered in another article as it deserves a lot of attention.
For now, three quick pieces of advice. At a minimum, any property you buy must qualify for title insurance -nothing less. Secondly if possible, unless you have extensive local knowledge about the real estate scene, laws and regulations, use a law firm that has an office not only locally but also in your home country, or at least in the USA if you live elsewhere. These lawyers will not be cheap but you will have peace of mind.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many fine lawyers in Latin America and their fees are very reasonable compared to the ridiculous amount we get charged in many parts of the western world, but as I said, until you know your way around the real estate system, stick with the familiar.
Never, and I mean never, let yourself be pressured into buying property in the region, particularly if you are away most of the time. If the issue becomes a make or break issue for the relationship, then break it. I don’t know of any instance when it turned out well for the foreigner
In spite of the pitfalls outlined here, Latin America is a wonderful part of the world where the people have a passion for life, a love of family , community and life itself has that little bit of unpredictability. I love hearing music in the streets, seeing the smiles on people’s faces and the way that even the simplest of tasks can take a lifetime to carry out – no rushing here! It’s my favorite part of the world, and all going well, I will be living there permanently in a few short years. That is my dream and my plan.
Much more “stuff” to come – another episode on dating and relationships, buying property and much, much more!
In the meantime, check out try and learn more about the region and learning this language.