South America Living

How NOT to be an Ambassador Abroad While Traveling

by Molly McHugh, Former Editor/Publisher of South America Living.     About the Author

I doubt anyone who has traveled for any extended length of time has not experienced this at one point or another i.e. getting asked about your home country as if you are an expert in all things local, national and International… for all areas of the country.

Graffiti on a Subway Car in Buenos Aires

Recently, when traveling through Buenos Aires, Argentina I spent a day riding the Subte and walking different beats to get current information on the city and take photographs. While shooting graffiti plastered on the walls of an underground hub at one destination a man approached me and pointed at my camera. I quickly put it to my side thinking I was doing something illegal and about to get a verbal ‘talking to’. “No puedes tomar photos?” I asked innocently. My very poor Spanish was meant to say in English: “You can’t take photos?”

A friendly smile was returned as well as a shrug and start of conversation… what the professionally-dressed Argentine was after in the first place, not my camera. “Where are you from?” quickly progressed into a discussion of whether we in the United States allowed graffiti on our underground subway systems and whether it was legal or not. I answered as best as I could… saying that it wasn’t allowed on the actual cars itself (as it is in Buenos Aires, seemingly considered a form of art) – that the area on the side of cars usually has advertising for local businesses if anything… the same for walls surrounding the tracks. “Most think of it as deliquent behavior,” I explained “But in some areas there are walls of buildings, etc. that are set aside for graffiti art, mostly to keep it from denigrating other buildings…”

At this point I was starting to get a little uncomfortable, as my mind was recounting back 15-plus years to Seattle, Wa when an area south of downtown was repeatedly vandalized with graffiti. The situation was resolved after one perceptive business owner set up an area for the ‘little artists’ to paint-up as they liked, giving them a bit of the acclaim they were searching for as well as a contained, approved area to express their art.

“I am only familiar with Seattle, it may be different in New York or other areas of the U.S.,” I quickly ammended to my ‘off the top of my head’ information-giving initial response. My mind was scanning all things graffiti-based in the states and I was coming up with all kinds of scattered thoughts… school programs that make murals on public areas, spray paint creations acknowledged as an art form and sold commecially on album covers, T-shirts, etc.

Just because I happen to be American, does not mean that I am an expert in all things going on in the United States – in this case, all things graffiti-related in the U.S.. Clarifying that your experience and knowledge is limited when prompted for information beyond what you know to be true is one way to NOT be an Ambassador Abroad.

Sidenote: One of the hardest things to write about after our visit was the increasing level of crime in Buenos Aires – against locals and tourists alike. No one wants to write about a beloved travel destination being overrun with criminal activity, including increasing violent offenses… but that is exactly what I had to do. Read our Crime & Safety in Buenos Aires page for updated information.

Photograph by Molly McHugh, all rights reserved.

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