This entry was written eight months into our 2013/2014 South-America trip. We were in Bolivia and had spent 6 months in Peru before that. My opinion of Argentina and Chile are wildly different. These are very pleasant countries. So please read this post with this in mind: it is about Peru, Bolivia and the Latin-American countries north of there.
30 October – San Jose de Chiquitos (Bolivia)
Be Like Them
I am withdrawing from this culture. No more pleasure do I derive from the people present around me, but for the occasional traveler staying long enough at the same hostel to create a proper connection.
When we came to Peru in the beginning of last year (2013) I was excited to dig into the Latin-American way of life. I wanted to get to know her thoroughly and make it my own as much I could.
I wanted to dance like them, shop in the markets like them, try to dress appropriately to their customs, and desired to do so in order to fit in. Our dream was to finish this journey to the most southern tip of the world and turn back to start a small business in Latin-America.
A hostel perhaps, or a small cafe in a town found along the way. A charming place where we could enjoy peace, nature and the many freedoms these countries have to offer.
Unfortunately, losing ourselves in the back-country I was drowning in the markets, stumbling around the streets and became apprehensive about talking to the locals.
I am not frightened by their manners or open character. They boldly ask all about your personal details and then they laugh among themselves when you are not quite sure what´s funny.
The culture is open and rules are there to be broken. Laws are not adhered to: only the local police force makes up who gets into trouble and who slips through.
A Different Culture
We eat in the cheapest of places, we stay in the simplest hotels. We make an effort of blending in and making contact by presenting ourselves in the streets where they go. For months we didn’t see a white face, nor spoke English other that to each other.
We were successfully smothering ourselves in Latin-America.
Now we have both began to recoil. We are ‘jonesing‘ for familiarity, western culture, intelligent talk, considerate behavior…
Latin-Americans find pride in being as loud as they can be. Music systems are turned up as far as they go, even in wonderful nature settings. There is no escaping it when hoping for a calming afternoon walk or reading a book in your hammock. Hotels are notoriously noisy, especially when equipped with cable-TV.
It’s just their culture.
And we start to understand that some of their ways don’t meet our needs.
Food and Hygiene
Eating for under two dollars is a treat and can be tremendously fun to explore. What you get for so little is baffling in the beginning. You can keep chatting for months, eyes bewildered, how “This would cost like fifteen bucks at home! And they wouldn’t even get the chicken right, like here.”
By now, all I wish for is to be served my food relatively warm and on a plate made of pottery, not plastic. By now, we cheerfully comment on clean tables and how “Man, this rice is actually hot.”
I myself feel particularly grateful not to come down with violent diarrhea the day after.
Hygiene is also of no concern to the Latin-American and shared spaces are too filthy to describe. You become immune to it after a while but then before too long, it becomes another hardship. You long for an all-white bathroom with shiny taps and spotless tiles, where paper can be tossed into the bog and not in an open basket holding every-bodies’ waste. And most importantly: you want to sit on a toilet seat again instead of needing to hover over the bowl, straining your thighs, while doing your business.
Our To Do List
So, more social interactions were at the top of our ‘to do’ list of this year. And we have. We camped on farm fields, shopped the Municipal Markets until exhausted, gave rides to women and children and got our Spanish (Castellano) skills up, to chat more with the locals.
There is always lots of laughter when socializing with a Latin-American. They don’t feel upheld by embarrassment or shyness. Little girls park themselves in front of me and inquire as to why the hell I am so tall (I answer my father is a famous basketball player). Men walk up and ask where I am from. Women want to know about my family-status. What do you mean you have no children?
Then you could be invited for a drink or pressed to buy what they sell. You don’t decline these invitations. They gave you something you want (a chat, but more importantly- a friend in town in case you need anything), and you return the favor.
It’s fun but exhausting.
I’ve had my fill, for sure. The chat is always the same and ends abruptly when there is nothing more to talk about. The standard interrogation of the gringo seems to be written up somewhere and distributed among all the continent’s inhabitants. I’m not making it up; it’s the same every time and lasts about four minutes.
In the end all you do is give info, not receiving much of any back. Learning about their lives remains a challenge.
Over the last half year there have been less than a hand full of notable conversations with locals.
Being open to it though, is what makes it happen. But as an approachable white person you are no more than sitting prey. Beggars try, drunks insist, old ladies lay their story of poverty on you. You either give (money), or walk off. We walk off quite often nowadays. Abort mission of a nice rest in the park.
They don’t always want cash, some merely think of upgrading their status within the community by being seen hanging out with the white guys. Conversation like this can be very rewarding. But then he/she calls all of his/her friends over and they may not be as kindly minded. Some stare at you in jealousy and hostility. Or for the remainder of your stay, this person will force himself upon you. When you sit down to eat, enjoy the sights, go for a walk… You are stuck with a stalker until you leave town.
Conversation comes easy here, but rarely feels rewarding. This is what it comes down to. When I am with David, men approach us more respectfully and the women are more kind.
Men and Women
David easily strikes up conversation with men but he feels confined to the ‘four-minute play‘. Women keep a respectful distance from a strange man, young girls give him challenging looks and giggle.
By myself the older women ask me lots of questions and make me feel safe, though the young ones laugh after I passed by or just stare at me. You can argue it’s curiosity, but it makes me very uncomfortable to be scrutinized like that.
Should I even approach the subject of men? They look at me anywhere but in the face and as soon as intelligent words come out of my mouth, their jaws drop and their ears seem to go out of working order. They whistle, tss-tss, call out (hey lovely/where are you going/come here/look at that pretty thing) and obnoxiously walk up or pull over to push their carnal interest in my face.
It gets boring after a while.
I still want to try because of the few times I can remember as very pleasant chats with men. It must be confusing for them as well, with a lone woman talking to them. If I wasn’t interested in some fun or at least a drink or a phone number, why do I bother to make contact? It doesn’t make much sense to them.
Also it is hard to wave away the men approaching, insistent on getting your attention. They never really physically threaten women in the street (except once I was grabbed by my arm and bid to stay. Another time, even more inappropriately, groped in the ass), and so it is easier to have a brief chat than attempting to swat them off like annoying flies.
Still the lecherous looks and unwanted kiss and hug they press upon me make me feel disgusted. Especially when they are drunk or smell really bad (who knows why).
“Oh,” some men say “it’s only a bit of fun, you just gotta have a laugh with all that.”
You try when you can’t even walk three blocks to get groceries without feeling harassed. One man patiently explained to me that it was my own fault, that I ought to be holding hand with my man at all times if I wanted to remain unmolested.
David asked me why traveling women always look so grumpy. After understanding this and seeing it up close, he now understands.
Currently, I ask him to accompany me almost everywhere. When I travel alone, or he is away running errands, going into the street is appallingly unattractive to me. So I stay inside. Fun way to see the country.
A Stranger Everywhere
Fortunately there is always someone to talk to about these feelings. Traveling with a partner is pleasant in this way. We have come to the decision that a nomad’s hardest challenge is arriving in a new place every few days. You don’t know what the customs are, where to buy groceries, how to dress or behave, what the people thing of gringo’s visiting.
As David puts it: “You have to re-invent the wheel every time.” And it’s confusing and tiring. By now we have gotten so starved of a place to call home, that we find ourselves hungry for anything familiar.
This is the magic word.
Familiarity means finding something you know. A friend, family member, shop or most importantly: your own private space, with your things to reach and get to any time you want without having to open locks or hear that ever-present noise of plastic grocery bags that everything is kept in.
We are ready to stop traveling.