Years ago, at the Aventura Mall near Miami, a retail store manager greeted me in Spanish, “Hola. ¿Cómo está señor?” “Why do you assume I speak Spanish?” I asked her. She responded, “You look like un Colombiano!”
In 2003, in Hanoi, when I traveled with Sushma and Paawan from Mumbai, they admitted to me later that at first they guessed I was from India.
Last December, when I was in Cairo, the hotel staff addressed me in Arabic.
Recently, in a retail shop in Miami, once again, the sales lady spoke to me in Spanish. This is just the latest example of a common occurrence.
What’s going on? Do I present “international” facial features? Some “trans-national” coloring? A “global” carriage? Posture? Bearing?
What’s in my blood?
Am I one of the very small but significant percentage of the population of European background who carries a Mongol genetic marker? My Hebrew name is Moshe ben Chaim ha Levi. I am a descendant of the ancient Israeli Tribe of Levi. Do I carry the genes from the Levant?
Or is there something else, something beyond my physical appearance?
I am a white guy who grew up in a white neighborhood in New York City. Yet, from my early years as a counselor at Boy Scout camp where I lived and worked with Black kids, and later, in my college years when I worked as a waiter with Black and Latino men, I have always been comfortable with people of color. And I believe they have been comfortable with me.
For the last six years I have lived in Thailand and I have traveled extensively in Asia. In my neighborhood in Bangkok I live amongst women and men from every region of the world. And I feel at home now, surrounded by people of color.
Perhaps this explains my delight as I wandered among the boys and girls and men and women of Salta.
May 18, 2012
What a lucky day!
Today is “Kindergarten Day” in Salta. The main Plaza is swarming with cute little kids, many of them dressed in traditional costume.
Since it’s Friday, the Plaza is also filled with big kids just phoning, texting and hanging around with their friends after school.
After almost three weeks in Uruguay and Argentina I finally feel like I am in a foreign country. Until now, the faces were white European. While much of the Salta architecture and most of the cuisine is decidedly Spanish in origin, many of the faces here are indigenous. Here in Salta I am not far from the border with Bolivia. Here in Salta - “El Norte” – the population is a mixture of white and color.
And for me, what a delight! My camera is out as I approach group after group of the high school kids. The boys are enthusiastic. The girls are shy at first. Is it my winning international smile that finally wins them over?
And the kindergarten kids? What a treasure!
I am at home here in Salta.
The Plaza is swarming with people…parents, teenagers, small children. Swarming. And orderly.
There are long lines, really long lines at the entrances to the museums. The entrance fees are waived on Sundays. Parents and children wait patiently.
Here in Salta, as, I suppose in much of the Hispanic world, Sunday is Family Day. All external activity stops. Today is the day for family, and only family.
Parents push baby carriages around the Plaza. Men and women and their young children wait in the queue at the museum or gather in a group in the Plaza.
It is an emotional sight for me. No one is talking or texting on a mobile telephone. The family is together and enjoying each other’s company for the day. I can’t imagine that anyone is at home alone watching a ball game or chatting on a computer. The whole city seems to be here at the Plaza.
My camera is stowed. I dare not intrude on the family.
Instead, as I am a family of one, I find a sunny restaurant table at the edge of the Plaza and enjoy my family dinner of soup, salad and grilled trout.
What a delight!