Latin America is an astoundingly diverse, beautiful and dynamic region. It is packed full of stunning landscapes and vibrant cultures. It can be a wonderful area to base yourself in, but it is important to be aware that when moving to Latin America it is very different from Australia in a number of ways.
It is of course impossible to lump together such a huge and varied region and I would not try to do so. However, I have noticed some things to be generally true in most of the countries I have been to and think these observations could be useful for Australians moving to Latin America. I have spent extended periods in Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Argentina and Brazil, so while I have far from been everywhere, I have been to quite a mix of different places. Here are some of the things I’ve found most surprising and different to Australia from moving to in Latin America.
1. It is essential to have a reasonable grasp of the local language
There are parts of Asia and Europe where one could probably get by only speaking English (although of course I would not recommend doing that). This is not so in most parts of Latin America. English is simply not as widely spoken here. If you do not speak the local language (typically Spanish, with the most notable but not only exception being Portuguese-speaking Brazil), you will have a lot of trouble connecting with local people and getting anything organised. Depending on what kind of work you will be doing, arriving with the basics should be enough, and you can then work on improving once you’re settled in. In bigger cities language schools are usually plentiful and reasonably priced.
2. WhatsApp will be your new best friend
Nobody in Latin America uses the actual call and message functions on their phones. Nobody! OK, slight exaggeration, but it is quite uncommon. iPhones are rare so iMessage is also out of the question. Almost everything is done through WhatsApp. If someone asks for your number, they mean your WhatsApp number.
3. Many cities are more modern, comfortable and safe than you might expect
Many Australians seem to have a misguided perception that every single part of Latin America is poverty-stricken and crime-riddled. While of course poverty and crime are still serious problems in many parts of this region, I think many Australians would be surprised at the modern and comfortable lifestyle in some cities. In Medellín, Colombia, for example, the public transport system is incredibly sleek, effective and clean and there are sophisticated, international-standard dining, shopping and cultural events. The biggest safety concern I have on a day to day basis is the possibility of being pick-pocketed, which is usually pretty easy to prevent by taking a few commonsense precautions. However, it is very noticeable that people here worry much more about security than in Australia. In many Latin American cities it is normal for houses to have iron bars on the windows, security doors and razor wire on top of external walls. While this can seem a little confronting at first, you will most likely find that the neighbours behind all the security are friendly and welcoming.
4. If you walk briskly on the footpath you will stick out like a sore thumb
Even in crowded cities, the default gait of many local people can be best described as ‘wandering’. As someone who likes to keep up a brisk pace when I have somewhere to go, this can lead to a serious case of footpath rage. Just be aware that your cracking pace will likely mark you very clearly as a gringo, and possibly a bit of a laughing stock.
5. The work day often starts very early
In many parts of Latin America office workers start their days at 6 AM or 7 AM. When I lived in Mexico City I often started work at 7 AM and my commute could be up to 2 hours due to the vast distances within the city and horrendous traffic, which meant I had to get up at 4 AM and leave home in the dark. Where I currently work at a school in Medellín, I start between 6 AM and 8 AM, but almost all of my colleagues start at 6 AM and that is completely normal to them. You might think that this means people finish work earlier but that is often not the case. It makes Australia’s typical 9 AM – 5 PM schedule seem positively luxurious. So, this is something to give some serious thought to if you are planning to work for a Latin American company.
6. Most people have a very relaxed sense of time, but that doesn’t always mean that you can
Latin cultures are notorious for their disregard for punctuality, and this is typically something that Westerners have difficulty adjusting to. I would be willing to bet that pretty much every Western expat living in a Latin country has some kind of story about the first time they realised just how laid back people are about time, and it usually involves arriving to a party ‘on time’ only to realise that the other guests will start to arrive an hour and a half later. In my experience working as an English teacher in Latin American countries, my students (both adults and teenagers) and co-workers have regularly turned up for class woefully late or just not come at all, and an explanation is rarely offered. It’s often just not really seen as necessary, even in a business context, although this can vary. I now feel almost accustomed to the way starting times are seen as a loose suggestion, but the thing I still find challenging is that it’s not OK for me to behave the same way. My jobs have always required me to arrive right on time regardless of when the students or my colleagues usually get there, which can get frustrating when you’ve woken up several hours earlier than you would like to and end up just sitting in a room alone waiting for other people to turn up.
7. It is cheap and quite normal to have a housekeeper
It is very common for middle and upper class Latin Americans to have a housekeeper who visits once a week or so to give the whole house a thorough clean. Most of the rooms and apartments I have rented in Latin American countries have had a weekly cleaning service included. But if you’re organising it independently the service is typically quite cheap.
8. Most people will go to great lengths to avoid the slightest ‘confrontation’
Generally speaking, Latin American people do not like confrontation. I don’t mean actual arguments or anything close, I mean things as simple as saying ‘actually, I can’t make it tomorrow, sorry,’ or ‘I would prefer to do that a different way’. This often results in people bending the truth a little to avoid what they perceive to be uncomfortable situations that arise from telling someone something they don’t want to hear. For example, if I ask one of my students to send me homework by email by Wednesday night, they will invariably promise to do so even if they know full well that they are highly unlikely to get around to doing it until Friday, if at all. This is another cultural difference which can be difficult to handle, as to me it feels so much more polite to just be honest and upfront, but I’ve had to realise that many Latin American people see things very differently.
9. You will need to significantly loosen your concept of personal space and privacy
Another part of Latin American culture that can be difficult for Westerners to adjust to is the regular invasions of their personal space and privacy. In most Latin American cultures people touch each other much more than Australians do. Colleagues greet each other with hugs and kisses each day. My students grab me by the arm to get my attention. I have even had shop assistants burst into the fitting room while I was in the process of trying on clothes. These lessened personal barriers extend to conversation too. Even between casual acquaintances, topics that would seem quite personal to most Australians, such as your love life, how much money you make and your religious beliefs, can all be seen as fair game for small talk. However, I have found that people are usually quite understanding when I politely explain that these types of things make me feel a little uncomfortable because I am from a less open culture.
10. Religion is generally very prominent and important
The dominant religion in Latin America is Catholicism and it is a very significant and visible part of the culture. You will see images of Jesus/the Virgin of Guadalupe/other religious figures wherever you go. When you ask people in Spanish-speaking countries how they are, they will often reply with ‘bien, gracias a Dios,’ (‘good, thanks to God’). It is not uncommon to see people making the sign of the cross on their chests in the street or on public transport. In many countries abortion is illegal except in extremely limited circumstances and the LGBT community can be very marginalised. All of this can feel a bit challenging when you are used to living in a secular society like Australia.
There are many facets of life and culture in Latin America that are wildly different from Australia and can be difficult to adjust to. However, I have found that overcoming these challenges is extremely rewarding. Latin America is a wonderful, fascinating region with so much to discover. There are many areas where it is possible to live well on quite a limited budget. The cultures are rich, diverse and generally very welcoming. If you are willing to be flexible and adapt to some significant cultural differences, and you have a bit of a spirit for adventure, Latin America could be a great place for you.
This article is written by Bonnie Gillies. Bonnie is an Australian English teacher and freelance writer. She is currently based in Medellín, Colombia.