A Little Spectacle…Yes, Gringos Grow That Tall

Guatemalan Park SceneAs I glanced up from my task of delicately descending the roughly cobbled steps I noticed a group of six Guatemalan teenagers below thrusting small cameras and cell phones in my direction. Giggles and huge smiles on their faces, this group was clearly excited over something far bigger than just the presence of this sweaty gringa navigating down the steps of an old church in Antigua’s bustling Parque Central.

I darted a quick look around me and my gaze landed on something, quite literally, far bigger than me…about a full foot bigger to be exact.

The pale Westerner ascending the steps was, without a doubt, around seven feet tall – tall enough that he even would cause a stir on the streets of the US, but here it’s particularly noticeable. The Guatemalans aren’t a tall lot on the whole, in fact, I’m just going to say it, they’re short. Yes there are exceptions, but when you factor in the particularly short stature of the indigenous Mayans a vast majority of the women here barely come up to my chest level.

So this man stuck out. And he created quite a bit of a spectacle as he strolled through the Parque Central; it was fascinating to watch the expressions of awe and excitement wash across the faces of the Guatemalans. Even the child vendors paused their persistent hawking of goods to turn and drop a jaw at the sight of such a tall human being. It was fully clear that many had never seen a seven foot tall person in their lives.

This incident made it really crystal clear that there is a cross-sharing of cultures and information when I travel abroad. I’ve already fully recognized that I am an ambassador for the US, and that other travelers and even the locals are quite willing to make sweeping judgments about an entire country just based on a single encounter.Antigua (11)

Funny though, us Westerners so often do the same. It’s so easy to slip into the observation mode – see it all, photograph it, soak it in, process, more photos, think, chew on it, ponder, and then come out with an opinion. But where is the the interaction in this? It’s this very behavior that I think can really cause that cultural spectacle that is hotly debated in travel circles.

Instead, I wonder does this incredibly tall man go on tour buses and snap away photos of local “indeginous communities at work” or has he, more so than most other people, really understood the spectacle aspect that it can take on? Traveling through India I got a dose of the invasive nature of photography – locals literally doggedly followed me around Gandhi’s ashram silently snapping photos of me – and it bothered me. So why do we do it to other people?

I don’t know. A quandary of travel perhaps. I do know though that the world is a smaller place because of travelers. Westerners travel to developing countries to learn about those things so foreign and distance from our own lives, but we bring our lives with us and share it right back.

I look at the faces of these Guatemalans around me and I realize that they can get just as big a kick out of having us in their country. All of the weighty travel debates aside, it’s just fun to share that “Yes,” as I passingly commented to the gawking and giggling Guatemalans, “gringos can grow that tall.”

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22 Responses to A Little Spectacle…Yes, Gringos Grow That Tall

  1. Dina VagabondQuest June 8, 2010 at 1:02 am #

    7 feet, whew! So tall! Ryan (hubby) is already 6'2″ (a foot taller than me), and when we are in Indonesia/japan, people are already looking at him. It was very handy to find him if we go to crowded places :)

    • ShannonOD June 9, 2010 at 3:51 am #

      The height really must help so much in the short statured countries! I love
      that you have a system worked out :-)

  2. Emily @ Maiden Voyage May 29, 2010 at 10:23 pm #

    Very interesting! That poor guy….I feel bad for someone who sticks out that sorely–it's impossible to blend in. I feel lucky that my looks are ambiguous….in Italy, people thought I was Italian; in Turkey, people thought I was Spanish; in Greece, people thought I was Greek, etc. I still stick out sometimes — my skin is somewhat pale, so I get lots of looks in Mexico — but everyone sticks out somewhere. For some, it's just easier than others. But I like being able to blend in sometimes, as you're right, it's easier to observe a culture if you can avoid serving as a distraction.

    • ShannonOD June 1, 2010 at 5:36 am #

      Wow! You are really lucky that you blend in like that – I am pretty tall for a female with light skin and eyes so outside of the Western countries I dont blend in, but as you said, even so, I cannot imagine being so abnormally tall that I never ever was just average! I wonder how his height alters his experience?

  3. Cris Campos May 29, 2010 at 9:39 pm #

    Hi Shannon,
    I can't believe I took so long to find your blog. I'm loving it, congrats!

    Good thing about local people wanting to photograph you is that you have the opportunity of photographing them too, and you do even have to ask!
    Singapore was the place where I totally felt like coming from another planet, even more than India, people would stare at me everywhere.. I still don't know exactly why, I'm not tall at all!! :)

    • ShannonOD June 1, 2010 at 5:39 am #

      Thank you so much Cris! I agree, I don't know where your site has been?! India is tough I think no matter what you look like – if you don't look Indian they stare :-) Looking forward to following your site now!

  4. Erica Kuschel May 29, 2010 at 8:38 pm #

    LOL! I was trying to explain to my friends that as a Hispanic woman, being 5'4″, I was the tallest person (male and female) in my family. When I lived in El Paso, I was put on the top row for all the school pictures because I was “tall”. Needless to say when I moved away it was a bit of a shock to find out that I was short. <3

    All I have to say that is in Japan, it is nice to have everything “me” sized. :D

    • ShannonOD May 29, 2010 at 10:05 pm #

      That is absolutely hilarious that you were in the back row at 5'4″!! You're right though, you do have an advantage outside of the Western culture – I always wish that I was shorter because nothing is made my size – bus set headrests hit my shoulders, I've banged my head countless times in low doorways – you do have it made in some places! :-)

    • ShannonOD June 4, 2010 at 8:44 pm #

      That is absolutely hilarious that you were in the back row at 5'4″!! You're
      right though, you do have an advantage outside of the Western culture – I
      always wish that I was shorter because nothing is made my size – bus set
      headrests hit my shoulders, I've banged my head countless times in low
      doorways – you do have it made in some places! :-)

  5. Johanna May 28, 2010 at 6:27 am #

    My boyfriend is 6ft 4 inches and he wears Five Finger Shoes (They look like toe socks, but are shoes.) Needless to say he attracts MUCH attention when we walk thru the streets of Asia or South America. I am usually meandering behind him and the stares and faces of others are super entertaining!

    The upside is that it's quite easy to find him in a crowd! If we get lost that's my responsibility. He's not allowed to sit down during that time :)

    Johanna
    http://www.vossdufourworldtour.com

    • ShannonOD May 29, 2010 at 10:11 pm #

      Oh man, I bet he does attract attention at that height and in those shoes! That's hilarious :-) I love your solution to getting lost though..it makes so much sense and must be really handy on your travels because so many other cultures are pretty short statured!

    • ShannonOD June 4, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

      Oh man, I bet he does attract attention at that height and in those shoes!
      That's hilarious :-) I love your solution to getting lost though..it makes
      so much sense and must be really handy on your travels because so many other
      cultures are pretty short statured!

  6. AdventureRob May 28, 2010 at 6:13 am #

    I've always wondered what it would be like to be much taller than average, and go to a country where the general population is short.

    I got referred to as big in a few Asian countries, yet am probably in the lower part of the average height scale in where I'm from. I think it's better to blend in a bit though under 6 foot, rather than stand out (no pun intended) as a 7 footer

    • ShannonOD May 29, 2010 at 10:11 pm #

      It's really interesting how height can change your perception of how things happen…my best friend is 4'11″ and I am nearly a foot taller than her – we've both discussed how differently she interprets the same experiences as me just by seeing the world from so low! I often wonder what it would be like to be such a short adult ;-)

    • ShannonOD June 4, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

      It's really interesting how height can change your perception of how things
      happen…my best friend is 4'11″ and I am nearly a foot taller than her –
      we've both discussed how differently she interprets the same experiences as
      me just by seeing the world from so low! I often wonder what it would be
      like to be such a short adult ;-)

  7. Audrey May 27, 2010 at 2:31 pm #

    There are times on the road when I just need to leave my camera behind and just enjoy being a fellow human with others instead of a traveler/blogger/writer/photographer. Afterwards, I occasionally wish I did have a photo of that person I chatted with or that meal to help job my memory. But, it's the experience that I remember most.

    • ShannonOD May 29, 2010 at 10:11 pm #

      I have the exact same conundrum Audrey! Sometimes I tell myself I just need to leave it behind for a bit…and then I find myself really wishing I had a record of that memory or experience that I just didn't expect to happen! Ah the quandary :-)

    • ShannonOD June 4, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

      I have the exact same conundrum Audrey! Sometimes I tell myself I just need
      to leave it behind for a bit…and then I find myself really wishing I had a
      record of that memory or experience that I just didn't expect to happen! Ah
      the quandary :-)

  8. Earl May 27, 2010 at 2:28 pm #

    Hola Shannon!

    It has always seemed to me that foreigners are much more of a spectacle in most countries. Once we begin to travel extensively, we become used to the idea that every culture will have their own unique, and often strange (to us), aspects and so the surprise factor lessens with time. But to locals who may not encounter foreigners too often, we can really appear as bizarre creatures.

    And since you mentioned India, I remember speaking with many Indians over the years about their thoughts on travelers to their country. Basically, they just don't understand why someone would wear wrinkled and unimpressive clothes, stay in the cheapest hotels, eat at the cheapest food stands and take the cheapest, most difficult forms of transportation…while on their 'vacation'! And so every time they see a foreigner, they are shocked and can't comprehend what they are seeing.

    • ShannonOD May 29, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

      That's so interesting about India… I guess they don't quite get the backpacker philosophy that emphasizes cheap above all else (not always a good thing) :-) Very true on the fact that locals encounter the culture shock perhaps less often than travelers – I am so accustomed to the constant differences, but for them it's totally new! It was a lot of fun to see the Guatemalans drop their jaws at the tall man…I haven't had that sort of reaction in a good long while (might have been some of the things I saw in India was the last time!).

    • ShannonOD June 4, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

      That's so interesting about India… I guess they don't quite get the
      backpacker philosophy that emphasizes cheap above all else (not always a
      good thing) :-) Very true on the fact that locals encounter the culture
      shock perhaps less often than travelers – I am so accustomed to the constant
      differences, but for them it's totally new! It was a lot of fun to see the
      Guatemalans drop their jaws at the tall man…I haven't had that sort of
      reaction in a good long while (might have been some of the things I saw in
      India was the last time!).

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