I flew into San Salvador late one night, on the brink of the 1997 legislative and municipal elections. Even though I had prepared my visit to a customer for the next morning, the elections caught me totally by surprise. As it turned out, the hotel was the strategic headquarters of one of the two major political parties in the country at that time.
I entered the hotel through a metal detector, amid bomb sniffing dogs and what looked like the Salvadoran army of Rambos. The pit in my stomach was growing by the minute, my tongue felt like sandpaper. There were men coming and going, talking in groups, some in the bar. As I cautiously walked to the reception desk, I got a couple of cheesy, hot remarks that made me roll my eyes and forget a bit all the commotion that was going on.
Recovering from the initial shock, I went up to my room and as elevator door opened, a second wave hit me. There were four soldiers planted throughout the hallway with their assault rifles and their dense silence; one of them very near to my room. The hotel Manager assured me it was a precautionary measure due to the elections, but I couldn’t quite know if I should feel safe or threatened. It would be a long, sleepless night for me, but it was in those situations that I gathered some awesome memories and lessons as a woman travelling solo through Latin America:
1. There will be scary moments, but not always.
Be careful! I know, I may sound like my mother, but I mean, isn’t precaution and common sense just like you would have anywhere that you do not know? Needless to say: keep your important documents in the hotel room’s safety deposit box. Using flashy jewelry is just a mugging screaming to happen. And on and on…There are tons of tips on the Internet about the measures you can control.
However, some situations will not be under your control, like social unrest or a general strike; when in that spot you just have to listen to your instincts. On another trip, I got picked up at the airport in Cali by my customer's chauffeur. It all went well until it dawned on me that I was in a bulletproof car. I kept looking over my shoulder praying that the two bodyguards on motorcycles would know how to handle any “sicarios” or hit men. Even though I felt like in a spy movie, I looked at the driver and he seemed at ease, so I chilled. Just a bit.
By the way, it is always a good idea to hire a dedicated driver for the duration of your stay. Hotel services can do that for you. Bond-like movie scenes are quite rare and mostly it will be business as usual, but it is important to be conscious of your surroundings at all times.
2. Machos and business catcalling
There is a Latin men stereotype: Don Juan with hairy chest, heavy gold neck chain, a rose between his teeth, dancing tango or bachata. Even though there are many machos out there, fortunately true and educated gentlemen far outnumber the womanizers.
You will find some comments to be sexist, for North American standards. I used to get asked if I was not afraid to travel by myself, what did my husband think of me travelling, or what was a beautiful woman like me doing in a place like Guayaquil or Barranquilla. The best way to answer is to return a question for advice on places to go (or not), and politely move on.
Also, Latin men tend to be protective of women. They will open the door for you, pull a chair for you and light your cigarette. Don’t hide behind a feminist shield and fight for your freedoms, strengths and place in the world, in the middle of a business meeting. In Latin America not all compliments on looks have a sexual innuendo; they actually mean it, so take praise with grace and elegance. Enjoy being taken care of and being in the limelight.
3. Pack light: suitcases and mind.
There are a lot of tips on how to pack your business suitcase. I used a carry on suitcase, with basic pieces of clothing, shoes and accessories that I could mix and match and always have a fresh, polished look. Latin Americans are all about fashion, so please don’t show up in jeans and sneakers unless you are going to a plant trial.
Be open to learning the Latin ways; be flexible to changes in agendas and time. Speaking of which, don’t over pack you agenda either. Leave room for socializing which is a huge part of conducting business there. Oh! A word of caution on alcohol, ladies: You will be invited to lunches and dinners where work conversations will seem secondary, but actually they are very important. You will be tested ad measured on business and drinks. The last thing you need is getting drunk on your first meeting with a customer in Lima with Pisco Sour.
4. Be clear and firm when talking business.
Be firm when you present the facts and benefits of your product or service; they will expect a lot from you. Show them you have control and a plan. Be professional. Always. When negotiating, be assertive but not pushy. Use you femininity to your benefit, because gentleness and vulnerability are actually strengths when doing business as a woman.
Next time you are somewhere in Latin America feeling a bit out of your comfort zone, nervous or confused, just remember that women who travel and conduct business in other countries are courageous heroines, and with a high dose of gracefulness, capacity to connect, strength and flexibility, will open many doors and achieve amazing results.
Do you have a travel story to share?
I would love to hear from you!