human rights, Politics, Women's Rights

Unsafe abortions cost lives: understanding abortion as a human right and maternal health pandemic

Every day across the world, women are arrested, harassed, and prosecuted for having abortions. Whatever your position on the pro-choice/pro-life debate, we need to raise awareness of how aggressive and inhumane the punishments on women can be, when they reach the point where they feel that abortion is their only option.

In most of the ‘developed’ world, abortion is legalised, which means that though there are often social and financial barriers which remain set against women, they should still be able to receive a medically controlled abortion that is safe, and responsible post-abortion care, without fear of imprisonment or persecution. However, in the majority of the world, abortion is almost totally illegal. Exceptions are made in some countries in the case of rape, or if the life of the mother is at risk, however in parts of Latin America there is a total ban in all circumstances. This leads to tragic consequences for women, such as the case below.[1]

…A 28-year-old woman in the city of Santa Cruz became pregnant as the result of rape. She attempted to self-induce an abortion and ended up in the hospital with severe complications. While in the hospital, she was reported to the police authorities by her doctor, was apprehended and handcuffed on charges of illegal abortion. She spent her 10-day hospital stay under police custody and was then transferred to a prison where she subsequently spent eight months in preventive detention (IPAS, 2015).

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This map shows the status of abortion laws worldwide. (Source: WHO, 2008)

Whatever their reasons, those who actively enforce policies to criminalise abortion do so in the hope that it will discourage women from seeking them, for fear of arrest or imprisonment. These laws operate in major contradiction to global human rights laws. They also intimidate trained medical professionals to not only deny women access to the decent medical services that is their human right, but incite them to turn these women in: branding patients as criminals. By doing so, vulnerable women are forced to seek expensive and dangerous illegal abortions, either through backstreet surgeons who may be untrained, or through medications that come from unregulated sources. By forcing them to behave like criminals, the upholders of laws against abortion put women in serious, even life threatening danger- every single day. The numbers of women who have to go through this are staggering- millions suffer major health complications, and it is estimated that 47,000 die every year as a consequence (IPAS, 2014). This is the ironic, and tragic result of a worldwide campaign that is allegedly ‘pro life’.

Another inevitable tragedy of this situation is the fact that it disproportionately discriminates against those who are already in a vulnerable social position: often very young, very poor, and likely uneducated women. Though it is by no means easy for middle class women, for them there are financial means to travel to somewhere where abortions can be done legally, and to see a better private surgeon or doctor- though of course, they are still subject to blackmail, abuse, and the emotional and physical trauma of the procedure itself.

For the very poorest, however, it may be impossible to scrape together money for the procedure. The options available to them are likely to be crude, brutal, and they are unlikely to receive advice or support either pre or post-abortion. They may have to borrow, and get themselves in debt, through unregulated lending- to prevent further poverty in the longer term. Many are coerced to have sexual relations with the provider in exchange for the procedure- an outrage against human decency, but sadly widely reported (Casas and Vivaldi, 2014).

Those who identify as ‘pro life’ on the grounds of their own convictions, be they based in religious, cultural, or personal moral feeling, are perfectly within their rights to hold these views. However, whatever viewpoint you might take, there is one key consideration to bear in mind when trying to justify the escalation these personal feelings to the establishment of a global political regime in which denial of abortions is part of an enforced legal framework: the criminalisation of abortion is not shown to be effective whatsoever in reducing the rates of abortion procedures taking place each year. Statistics from the World Health Organisation demonstrate this:  ‘The abortion rate is 29 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America—regions in which abortion is illegal under most circumstances in the majority of countries. The rate is 12 per 1,000 in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds. (WHO, 2012)’ [2]

Inevitably, there are other factors associated with this that might skew the results (i.e. more widespread access to reliable contraceptives in ‘developed’ countries). However, all of these issues are relational, and a hard line conservative stance cannot be shown to have any benefit where, firstly, abortion rates will stay the same regardless of what the law dictates but secondly, because by enforcing an aggressively anti-abortion stance, ‘legal’ authorities actually put human lives at risk.  In 2003, and again in 2008, WHO undertook studies which found that, in both years, ‘complications from unsafe abortion accounted for an estimated 13% of all maternal deaths worldwide’. The criminalisation of abortions therefore inherently cannot be considered pro life, when evidence proves that it necessarily endangers life.

While laws preventing abortions may have been created with the intention of preserving life, there is no compassion in forcing a woman to carry and deliver an unwanted baby- for her, or for the child. It is for this reason that, for example, Brazil has such a problem with huge numbers of homeless street children; whose chances of a decent life are stacked against them from the start. There is no compassion in forcing a woman to go through with a pregnancy when she has suffered from rape, and will never be given the chance to recover from the trauma. There is no compassion in forcing an underage girl to carry a baby she is not physically capable of delivering safely, or without extreme damage to herself or threat to her life.

On the wider scale, it is because women are forced to have unwanted children and remain trapped in an ideology of ‘natural’ womanhood that is part of a gender binary that is damaging to both sexes, that they are restricted from securing intellectual, economic, and sexual equality with men. This inequality has a very real human cost:  because women are denied the right to make decisions over their own bodies and futures, too many die each day in inhumane, poverty struck circumstances- circumstances that could have been avoided had they had access to adequate healthcare and the freedom to make informed decisions.

It is for this reason that one of the key focuses in world health in our time must be to address inhumane denial of adequate reproductive health to women.  Because 47,000 deaths of women a year equates to 129 women dying every day- and around one woman dying every ten minutes.  Probably the time that it took you to read this blog.

 

 

There are various ways to get involved and understand more about the campaign for global abortion rights. See the list of relevant organisations below for further information.

[1] http://www.ipas.org/en/Resources/Ipas%20Publications/When-Abortion-is-a-Crime-The-threat-to-vulnerable-women-in-Latin-America.aspx

[2] WHO (2012) Facts on Induced Abortion Worldwide

List of organisations to support, and to find more information:

Abortion Rights http://www.abortionrights.org.uk/

Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalizacióndel Aborto Terapéutico, Ético y Eugenésico
(ACDATEE – The Citizens Coalitionfor the Decriminalisation of Therapeutic, Ethical and Eugenic Abortion) http://agrupacionciudadana.org/en/

Center for Reproductive Rights http://www.reproductiverights.org/

IPAS http://www.ipas.org/

Marie Stopes International https://mariestopes.org/

Planned Parenthood https://www.plannedparenthood.org/ 

Women on Waves http://www.womenonwaves.org/

I’d like to keep adding to this list so if you support, work for, or know of more pro-choice organisations please let me know and I will include them.

 

Central America, South America, Travel

Daily struggles for the mid-late twenties traveller

The mid to late twenties is a weird and frankly terrifying time in life. You’re young enough that you still feel like you don’t really know what you’re doing, yet old enough that everyone assumes you do, and everyone around you also seems to have everything sorted. Everyone I know seems to be flying in their careers, buying houses, and getting sodding well engaged. Fucking happy arseholes.

I’m so not ready for any of that. It’s part of why, when I had a steady job, a lovely boyfriend, and was living in a nice, comfortable town, I freaked out and buggered off to Latin America. I want to overhaul my career. I want to see the world. I’m too scared to settle in case I miss the chance to do all the things I do in my head when I can’t sleep at night.

I feel like this is the case for a lot of people who travel in their mid to late twenties. It’s an awesome time to go in many ways- you’re still young enough to have the freedom to travel solo, but old enough that you have probably worked for a few years and have a bit more money, and frankly, are  more savvy and less of an idiot than you were at 18. I wanted to travel at 18 and I now thank God that I didn’t because I know I would have got lost or scammed on day one.

But travelling in your mid to late twenties also puts you in an odd position as a backpacker, between the two extremes of traveller you seem to meet everywhere. One are the super-young, just-left-college 18 year old gap-yah-ers. The other are the older, unbearably lovely and civilised and yet slightly dull couples*. The former seem to want to get trashed all the time, the latter just can’t wait to check out that incredible exhibit in the museum they read about in Lonely Planet, or that ruin, or castle.

I want to do a bit of both. And I feel a bit out of place in both worlds.  Here are some conflicts I’ve experienced s as a traveller in the over 25 bracket:

  1. You want to look great in your group facebook photos, but all your clothes are from Millets.

How are all the young girls bopping around in hot pants? South America is actually not that warm. Sensible layers, people. Zip-offs. Quick dry. Oh god, I look like my mother.

  1. I want to get drunk but I also want to visit the museum tomorrow.

I would smash back the cuba libres, but there’s that really interesting inka exhibition which I will never see again otherwise…. Priorities.

  1. The couples judge you like you’re some sad spinster Bridget Jones character for having more than one drink with dinner, but you can’t drink a litre of vodka with the kids in the hostel either.

Everyone else seems to bounce out of bed after being back from the club for two hours and throw themselves straight into rock climbing. Now after a night out I need at least two days of moaning in bed with my hands over my eyes to recover.

  1. Your need to B/S knowledge out of your own experience is off the radar.

In the morning with your old friends, you have to pretend to know about ancient Amyran civilisations. By night with the youngsters, you have to pretend to know what ‘taking a key’ means. Yeahhh. Totally. My favourite to both.

  1. You are intrigued to experiment with er… keys… but you also really miss fresh organic vegetables.

It doesn’t harm you long term if you eat plenty of kale, right? God I miss healthy eating.

  1. On that note, you thought you were too good for instant noodles now, but your budget says otherwise.

I really thought I’d never eat these things again. Now they make up 40% of my diet.

7. When you get flirted with by a totally hot hombre and then find out he’s only 20. Yuk!
That’s younger than my brother.

8. You’re so perpetually exhausted anyway that you’re more interested in forming a relationship with the hostel cat than having to deal with anyone trying to fiddle with your stuff.

(And at least he cuddles you after).

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Part of me wishes I could admit my impending old-hood and just kick back and settle into it. But given my teetering career trajectory and perpetual broke-ness I guess I’ll be clinging on to the hostel life a little longer…

*Sophie and Jim this does not apply to you! ❤

Central America, Travel

Volcanoes! Turtles! Revolution!…. further adventures in Nicaragua         

The monster is alive, a molten red beast of fire that spurts and belches out of the deep, its searing redorangeyellowredlight turning, twisting, and changing in front of us, mesmerising in the total darkness. Bats swoop into the belly of the beast, daring each other to get closer, before swishing back into the night, laughing, chirruping to each other. I am standing on the edge of a live volcano.

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It was one of those moments where you realise just how small, just how utterly insignificant you are, in the history and vastness and power of the earth. Where you feel high on just looking at the power of nature, sucked in by it, at war and at one at the same time.

Nicaragua is born out of its geography and has been blessed and devastated by it in equal measure. It is home to nineteen active volcanoes, which could erupt at any moment, and its people have suffered from earthquakes and tsunamis in very recent history. It is also home to lush jungle, wild sloths and monkeys, rare turtles, and the most mind-blowing sunsets you will ever see.

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Living in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua was not fun in the way that a lot of my time travelling in Latin America was. I would honestly admit that at times it was a bit of a challenge. It is very sketchy in places, with taxi drivers casually dropping into conversation about the time that police commander was shot in the head at those traffic lights, robbery on busses widespread, and sexual harassment and abuse of women at an all-time high. In the otherwise lovely little house I shared in a local barrio, there was no water for most of the day, the washing machine was a drum outside you filled with a hose, and there was an infestation of cockroaches.  I volunteered during the week with the fantastic organisation CANTERA, a Nicaraguan NGO which works in empowering communities through loads of amazing programs: workshops on gender-based violence, sustainable agriculture, supporting the education and development of children and youth, and so much more, and met some amazing, interesting, and lovely people. But at the weekend, I was very keen to escape the chaos, the smell, the filth, and the sardine-tin busses, and explore the rest of the country.

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The Laguna Apoyo is a bus ride out of the city, a vast lake where you can cool off from the searing heat with a swim, a paddle, or just enjoying  a cold beer or fresh mojito in a hammock on a perfect lazy weekend. Go a bit further and you get to the tourist hot-spot of Granada. Sure, this is gringo-ville, but it’s popular for a reason- attractive in every way Managua is not; the iconic, butter yellow church, the colourful houses on pebbled streets, the horse and carts, the volcano omnipresent on the horizon. If you rent kayaks on Laguna Nicaragua you can glide through las isletas and the isla de los monos- monkey island in particular- which lives up to its name- as you paddle up, the monkeys descend slowly by their tails to greet you, hoping for food. In the Reserva Mombacho we also spotted a sloth momma and baby hanging lazily from the branches of a tree.

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If you make it out to Isla Ometepe  you can hike volcanoes, swim in natural mineral pools, kayak with crocodiles, or just watch the most fantastic sunset over the lake and the undulating landscape. You can either get the ferry over, which was easy, fun, and not that slow, or you can get a tiny plane onto the most precarious looking airport I’ve ever seen- a slim strip of concrete between the sea and a volcano. Your pick.

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Though you should come to Nicaragua primarily for the nature, the cities are pretty interesting too- particularly Leon, la ciudad de la revolucion, where you can learn about Nicaragua’s history of oppressive dictatorships, war, revolution, and the huge death toll suffered by the people in the name of freedom. In the museum, the guides are survivors who will tell you how they were personally affected- about their mothers, brothers, friends, and lovers, who were all killed. The  current political party situation seems to an outsider to resemble a so called ‘benevolent’ dictatorship; somehow seemingly less threatening because of the party-sponsored rainbow coloured playgrounds and benches, and yet undeniably corrupt and worryingly, increasingly censorious. However, when you look at the past, you can understand better the loyalty of the people to the Sandinista party, or FSLN, given the brutality of the Somoza regime, and appreciate the progress it did make possible in the early days for improving the lives of the people through universal literacy programmes and healthcare.

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You can also ramble over the rooftops of the iconic white cathedral, the building materials of which bizarrely include eggs and milk (unless I BADLY misunderstood the guide). You will also see las gigantonas – giant parody puppets of Spanish women from colonial times- lurching around the city at up to thirty feet high- pretty scary to bump into on the way back to your hostel.

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From Leon you can catch one of the crazy ‘chicken busses’ to Las Penitas, a very tranquilo beachside town which is approximately a thousand degrees, but popular because these beaches are home to some very rare breeds of turtle, including, as I was lucky enough to see, leatherbacks. People in Nicaragua have historically eaten turtle eggs, so in order to protect them, when the mother has laid they are collected and kept secure until hatching time, when they are released into the sea. In comparison to how respectful of nature turtle guides were in Costa Rica, I was kind of shocked that they encouraged us to pick up and hold the babies and to release them ourselves into the sea. I felt uncomfortable about this but since they were all being roughly manhandled by others anyway, thought it would be better to let some of them go free gently, but as much as it was amazing to see them so close, in retrospect I wish we hadn’t touched them. It can’t do them any good. Watching them scramble towards the lapping waves and finally being washed away while the sun beat pink down across the water, though, was a very special moment.

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To escape the heat, Matagalpa is an otherwise average-looking city that is surrounded on all sides by a phenomenal landscape of green mountains, and is blissfully, wonderfully, cool. You can hike up to the mirador, explore the reserve, or catch a bus down to the waterfalls. It’s also far less touristy- we saw only two other chelas during our time there.

In the north of the country is the  Somoto Canyon, where, between two chasms of rock, you can scramble, swim, and jump into the depths of the water at the bottom. This was my last weekend, and the most fun.  Being carried on my back, like a human pooh-stick, with Nicaragua on one side of the rock face, and El Salvador on the other, and watching the world rush by, I couldn’t help reflecting happily on how many amazing things I had seen in the last few months, and couldn’t imagine returning to grey and cold London the next week.

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I learned so much from my three months in Nicaragua, meeting people and having experiences I will never forget. At times I found it frustrating and sad; life is difficult and many people live in severe poverty. Nothing runs properly, everything is broken, everything is late, or doesn’t exist at all. But it is also a country has also achieved so much in the face of all of the things it has overcome, when it could rightfully have been wrecked by the natural disasters, dictators, and war. The people are positive and loving, and with more than half the population being youth, there is a lot of potential for positive growth the future, in spite of the challenges that lie ahead. I will remember it with fondness forever. Hasta luego Nicaragua, and Latin America. Until next time.

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Central America, vegan, vegetarian

Surviving Nicaragua on a plant-based diet

Nicaragua is undoubtedly the hardest place on my Latin American adventure to be a vegetarian or vegan- the former is a barely grasped concept, and veganism really barely exists. That said, there have been some fantastic spots I’ve been while roaming the country with delicious, healthy food. Unfortunately because it is mostly gringos that go there, the prices are a lot higher than the average food in a local comedor, and I’ve mostly eaten in.

Being gringoville, Granada is an easy place to find vegan food. Although there aren’t any specialist places, most of the cafes and restaurants offer something. The Garden Café is a haven with a vegan salad comprising of cucumber, tomato, onion, leaves, hummus, chickpeas, grains, flaked almonds and pitta. They also do a chunky hummus and avo sandwich. Pita, pita also does a hummus falafel salad plate, though at great expense.

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In Managua, the amazing Ola Verde has a huge range of delicious options including this lentil moussaka with an amazing cashew cheese topping. Portions are a bit small for the price, but they also have a deli counter selling the sexiest tomato hummus, natural peanut butter, tofu, and pots of pre-made couscous salads, marinaded tofu, proper dark chocolate etc. For other staples head to whole food shop La Naturaleza, which is basically the only place you will find a good range of soy based burgers, smoked tofu, and other healthy things.  The bookshop Hispamer has a gorgeous café which is a haven in the city which serves the best smoothies ever and an amazing quinoa salad, which you can ask for sin queso. A bit out of town but near to my house was the Restaurante Andana, worth a cheap taxi ride for a low-cost, local style vegetarian buffet meal, which when I went included the usual gallo pinto, plantains, salad, and a veggie burger. They also do a big range of salads and smoothies.

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If you are thinking of doing Spanish lessons, the beautiful La Mariposa eco hotel and Spanish school is set less than an hour out of the city in the small town of La Concha and includes vegetarian, organic, home-grown food as part of the bundled price.

In Leon head to the beautiful Casa Abierta, the most peaceful eco-hostel with a lovely relaxing vibe. Or if you’re just there for the day, still drop into their restaurant which has an all vegetarian, and largely vegan menu including salads, burritos, pastas, and really unusual smoothies. I had the falafel salad with the best vegan mayo- or if you are a veggie, my friend had the goat’s cheese topped with cashews which was also delicious, especially paired with a colibri smoothie of fresh orange, passionfruit, and basil.

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24172567_10214344485781930_501166124_nThough I generally prefer independent places to chains, Casa Del Café, which is omnipotent in Managua, does an exceptionally affordable lunch menu where you can get a salad, soup, and drink for just $5 which is great when you’re on the run or need an easy, cheap place to go. Their chia pudding is also creamy and immensely satisfying. It’s also worth knowing the supermarket La Colonia does a breakfast for just 45 cordobas (just over $1) which includes gallo pinto and a tortilla (which is vegan) or if you are a veggie, also a fried egg, and a slab of Nica cheese, with a coffee.

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On the whole it’s not easy- I tried to explain in multiple ways not eating meat and still got served ham- but if you can find the right places, there’s lots to choose from in Nicaragua and supporting those business supports a better, healthier, and more sustainable lifestyle- so go for it!

Central America, South America, Travel

Weird and wonderful things you will see or will happen to you in Latin America

When you travel on another continent long term, you have to expect cultural differences. Apart from the major things- like the Inca ruins, phenomenal mountains, exotic plants, foods etc., here are some of the more random different things you will find when you travel in Latin America.

You will fall down all the time

Health and safety is just not a thing. For once I’ve had to start paying attention to where I’m walking after falling over basically every day for the first two months. The pavement (if there is one) will not just be uneven, it can have random bits of metal sticking out of it, holes, or sometimes be missing completely (I was once texting while walking and fell into a nearly waist-deep hole in the pavement in Bolivia). If people are doing building work above you, you may also get hit in the head with flying sparks. A lot.

People sell random shit in the street

Sure, people sell stuff on the street at home. But usually it’s part of some kind of market place, or there’s some kind of plan to it. Here, people just sell what they can to get by: I’ve met people randomly wondering around selling only teaspoons, selling kitchen scissors, selling women’s bras (who buys these out in the street?! It’s not like you can try them on), llama foetuses (offerings to PachaMama, or Mother Earth,) and once even a man pushing a wheel barrow with a self-pumping shower head attached to a tank to demonstrate his wares worked). In Peru they even sell ayahuasca, an incredibly powerful hallucinogenic drink usually prepared by spiritual shamans in strictly controlled religious ceremonies- just in re-used coke bottles on the side of the road. I would not recommend taking your chances on something that dodgy and mind-altering for less than a dollar…

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Terrifying mannequins

I guess people have to buy these second hand but my god, in Bolivia I was starting to have nightmares about mannequins coming to life like terrifying zombies, Doctor Who style, after seeing these menaces meant to entice you to buy clothes.

Drinks come in bags

Have you ever tried a drink out of a plastic bag with a straw? It’s really common in all the countries I went to. Apparently it’s because the owners of the little pulperias (corner shops) can’t necessarily afford the bottled versions, so it’s cheaper to buy a vat of coke and sell it on like that. Just don’t expect to be able to store it in your backpack for later…

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Corner shops are behind bars

Speaking of puplerias, for some reason they are often behind bars- like a corner shop prison- and you have to peer through (into what is usually the front room of someone’s house) and ask for what you want at the little window (assuming someone is actually there).

Everyone has hearing problems 

  1. At least, that’s the only explanation I can come up with for why the music is blasting out SO BRAIN-INCINERATINGLY LOUD, for no reason, ALL THE TIME!

No one knows how to queue

When you can go into shops, no one knows how to queue, which is a nightmare if you’re British (or also just appreciate good manners). The number of times I’ve stood a respectful distance behind the person in front of me, only to have someone else dive in front is incredible. Or even when you’ve already reached the counter- someone will just butt in front- and the shop keepers never say ‘sorry I’m already serving someone.’ It blows my mind.

Crazy busses

These could merit a whole blog post in themselves. Having travelled the best part of 4000km from Bolivia to Nicaragua by bus, I’ve tried every kind of these. They vary hugely, but all of some things in common.  Jesus is everywhere, sometimes Mary too, with some kind of slogan about mi fiel amigo (faithful friend) or rey de reyes (king of kings). They will be pumping some kind of latino music, full blast, all the way. If you’re on a long distance bus (actually usually surprisingly comfortable) they will instead be blasting badly dubbed versions of old American movies. Don’t count on getting any sleep. The local busses are usually worst- often second/third/fourth hand American schoolbusses, and falling apart doesn’t cover it- I once heard something fall out of the bottom of one in Costa Rica, and then whatever part it was dragged along the road for the next 19 miles. No one seemed fazed by the noise or the smell of burning. They will somehow fit 100 people in a space designed for 40.  And if I told you that the inter-urban mini busses in Nicaragua are locally called intermortales (loosely translated, between-deaths, or as I called it, the death bus) that will tell you all you need to know about them. I usually closed my eyes as we overtook on a mountain bend, and were on the wrong side of the road as several lorries sped in our direction, and tried to pretend I was somewhere else.

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Addresses

In a lot of places, street names or house numbers are not a thing. Nicaragua is the worst offender for this, making it impossible to find anywhere as a non-local because there’s no such thing as a conventional address as we know it. Instead, addresses are descriptions of where things are- mine is ‘from the statue of Monsenor Leszcano, two blocks north and two and a half blocks down, with a green gate’ (not to mention there are several houses with green gates on my street). The worst is when they make references to seemingly random- or actually non-existent things- e.g. I was given the direction ‘from where the tree was  two blocks north… etc. etc.’ Which tree? I asked- it’s a huge city, there’s more than one tree- it turns out ‘where the tree was’ refers to a tree which was destroyed in an earthquake. In 1972. How I’m meant to find out where a tree was twenty years before I was born…?

Directions

So then you ask for directions from people who do know where the tree was. The problem is, people will give you directions even if they have no idea where the place you’re looking for is, so as to save face. This has happened so many times to me I now have a policy of asking three people before going anywhere if two of the directions match.

Men have willies

Like me, you might have taken this as a given, but more than a few (no, not all men)  seem weirdly proud of it, like children at a birthday party, and pop them out in the street to show them off when you walk by. I’ve never been flashed before this trip but it has happened  A LOT. Just ignore them or give them a sarcastic slow clap. They don’t deserve the attention they’re looking for.

Clowns and zebras

It’s not uncommon in Nicaragua to see a clown waiting for a bus, sitting in the back of a cart, or just getting groceries. They come and perform on the busses for spare change, but I love seeing them just chilling in normal situations. In La Paz, Bolivia, the traffic is also directed exclusively by zebras. I’m not quite sure why.

People tell it as it is

You will get called chela or chele  (white woman or man) ALL  the time. It’s not meant to be offensive, people are just literal in their descriptions. If you are a bit fat you might get called el gordo or a bit thin, el flako, and apparently no one gets upset about this.

Humidity

Which doesn’t help when your hair is very affected by humidity and you generally look ridiculous. For the last several months I’ve had to scrape my hair back into a plait every day because naturally it has basically looked like this.

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The sense of community is real

In my barrio, families and neighbours sit out on the street together in rocking chairs, chatting and watching the world go by. They are close in a way that is rarely the case in Britain anymore. Every morning when I walk to the bus stop they call out ‘hello, my friend!’ ‘Buen Dia! ‘Adios!’.

It is this warmth of people that I’m going to miss the most. Although the crazy stuff is sometimes hilarious, sometimes frustrating, and I can’t deny I’m looking forward to life being easier for a while when I go home, I’m sure it’s going to wear off quickly and I will miss the surprise and adventure of discovering new things through travel. Let’s hope the next journey is just around the corner…

Central America, Travel

Nicaragua diaries: trying to adapt to life the Nica way

On my first day in Nicaragua, the door of my taxi fell off while we were driving. The driver, seeming irritable, got out, forcefully kind-of reattached it, then said grumpily to me ‘you need to hold it’.

Obviously.

Welcome to Nicaragua.

No doubt about it, Nicaragua is the most chaotic country I’ve been to on this trip. Every day seems to have brought new and unexpected challenges, perhaps more so in reality because this time I wasn’t just here as a tourist, I came to stay for three or four months and volunteer, live in a local barrio and try to understand the culture better. It’s a country which has made me feel inspired, bemused, and sometimes just frustrated in turns, as I’ve tried  to adjust to living in a very different culture, and always standing out as an extranjero, or as the locals call white girls, a chela.

I started living in the small town of Ticuantepe, which is on the outskirts of Managua. I was lucky to have been given a home for the first few weeks with a lady who has now become a close friend, and her four cats. I spent three weeks trying to improve my Spanish at the fantastic La Mariposa school in La Concha, a very tiny pueblo which seemed worlds apart from the capital city of Managua I now call home. Every day I caught the local interlocale microbus for the 20 minute terrifying break-neck journey up through the green hills and valleys to get to La Concha on narrow, winding roads. Locally, the busses are referred to intermortales- literally, ‘between deaths’, or as I came to think of it, ‘the death bus’. You hailed it down wherever you were, and it would barely slow to a stop as you launched yourself through the doors, desperately trying to reach a seat before falling into your neighbours lap, and if not, trying to stand up with nothing to hold onto in a bus so small even I, at the height of 5ft5, had to crouch. Sometimes people would have whole vats of produce, mechanic tools, live animals with them- you name it. (In a later adventure with a friend, we brought her two cats on the microbus-  and tuk-tuk- and regretted it.) What was nice was the way people would help each other- they would hold my bag for me if they got a seat and I didn’t- or even hold each other’s babies or children, and pass them forward when it was time to get off. That would never happen at home. When it was my stop, you had to yell out bajar aqui or grab the attention of the guy hanging out of the window, who took the money, to get it to stop, before being somewhat bodily thrown out again.

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Bringing a cat on a tuk-tuk- NOT recommended.

The school was fantastic; sustainable tourism at its best. It was also an eco-hostel, built sustainably into the green tropical valleys, but which uses its proceeds to fund a huge array of community development projects: an animal rescue shelter (these things don’t generally exist in Nicaragua), a school for disabled children, a kids ‘breakfast club’ to help make sure children received adequate nourishment, extracurricular activities for children, solar power initiatives, clean cookstoves for people who lacked adequate technology for cooking,  reforestation, and were also building a medical centre in a very rural region which lacked one.  Apart from that, they had an impressive cultural and political program through which I got to go on trips to get to know the surrounding area, and got a thorough history of Nicaraguan politics. Phew.

solar

Most importantly, I learned to understand better  the reality of people’s lives in developing countries. I’m not going to go all patronising/ Barbie Saviour on you, but even though I’ve seen some of this before through travelling, actually living somewhere which lacks those amenities I take for granted at home has given me a whole new appreciation of privilege, and what a lack of it means. According to one of my teachers, most of the people in La Concha did not have access to running water. Instead they collected water from a municipal source for ‘bucket showers’, and used a latrine-style toilet where waste was collected from underneath (rather than a plumbed system where you can simply flush your- er- deposits- away).  Even now where I live in the centre of the capital city, we only have proper running water in the evenings- in the morning it’s just a dribble, and during the day nothing at all. That’s what a lack of infrastructure means in reality- and my experience is relatively plush compared to others. Power cuts were frequent, sometimes lasting twelve hours at a time. Sometimes the water goes completely: you always have to have some stored in case. Cars are too expensive for a lot of people, and it’s not uncommon to see people using horse and carts as a main method of transport.

One day, relatively early on in my time here, I was sitting in the living room doing my homework when I glanced up and nearly jumped out of my skin. There was a chicken on the coffee table. A real, live chicken, looking right at me.

Where have you come from?  I implored her. As I slowly got up, the cats awoke from their slumber and clocked her. Oh boy.

Then began a frantic chase to see who would get the chicken first- as I and the cats literally ran in circles, cartoon style, around the poor bird while it hopped back and forth out of our way, until I was eventually able to cover it in a bucket (to the utter confusion and uproar of the cats), scoop it up, and deposit her somewhat unceremoniously outside, where I assumed she had wondered in from one of the neighbour’s back yards.

Another time, not thinking about the fact a second-hand clothes pop-up in Nicaragua might be less substantially built than a regular clothing shop at home, in the changing room I leaned against the wall for balance while trying to wriggle out of my trousers, only to discover the walls are made of cardboard when I crashed sideways through three stalls, ending up a sweaty beetroot mess, half undressed on the floor with my ankles still tangled while a gaggle of Nica women pissed themselves laughing and pointing at me. I laughed with them as they helped me up, trying to act as though I wasn’t dying inside from humiliation as well as from the pain.

The pace of life in Ticuantepe seemed very tranquilo and for that reason I felt very safe there, but perhaps this was naive and I was still far removed, because  I was completely shocked when an incident occurred which I only found out the true nature of later.  Coming  back from eating out one night, my friend Judy and I encountered a police blockade in the road.  It was unusual to see police at all.  There was a woman crying, with blood on her face, and two legs sticking out from a motito (tuk-tuk). We didn’t know what was going on so got out of the way.  I’ve since learned that we had stumbled into a murder scene. After a minor collision, an argument had spiralled out of control, and another very young motito driver, who was not even involved, was shot and killed by a drug-dealer. The legs I had seen poking out were the legs of a young man who had been murdered during the time we’d been eating dinner.

In this way, the first few weeks were a good introduction to life in Nicaragua; a place which is full of warmth and fun, but also one in which people’s lives are shaped by the harsh realities of a country which has come out of revolution, civil war, natural disasters, and for many, poverty.

After living in Ticuantepe, I moved to the capital city of Managua, to volunteer with a fantastic local organisation called CANTERA and continue to learn more about Nicaraguan life.

With thanks to everyone who made me feel happy and welcome when I first arrived here.

 

Central America, Politics, South America

Sexual harassment as a solo female traveller: my experiences in Latin America

Many people warned me that sexual harassment would be bad while travelling as a single girl in Latin America. Pffft, I said. They can’t be worse than the average bloke out on a Saturday night in the UK.

I was wrong. I want to say at the outset of this post that nothing that has happened to me while travelling in Latin America in the last few months is something that has never happened in the UK. However, it is the sheer frequency and ubiquitousness of sexual harassment on this continent that makes it hard to deal with, even if you’re pretty down to earth and used to dealing with shit.

If you’re another solo female traveller you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you are another woman thinking about travelling solo in Latin America, you absolutely should do it and not be put off by this. The fact that you are considering travelling alone means I know you are tough enough to deal with it. However, here is some of the stuff I have experienced while travelling in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama,  Costa Rica, and Nicaragua:

  • Constant catcalling. This is worse where I am living at the moment in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, than it has been anywhere else on my trip. I have not once left the house without being catcalled. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is- it’s happened on the way to work (at 8am), going to buy groceries at 11am, at lunch time, afternoon, early evening- and to be honest I just don’t go out at night alone here. It can happen up to thirty times a day. One time in Colombia, as I mentioned in my blog about that otherwise wonderful country, in one walk to the supermarket in the early evening (ten minutes each way) I was catcalled no less than THIRTY SIX times. It makes no difference what you’re wearing, either- whether it’s a dress, or jeans and a long shirt, it will happen. Usually I tune out and try to ignore it, occasionally I flip out and yell at them to fuck off, but it’s not advisable because they can get aggressive. During a city tour I saw one girl break down when a group of guys started on us and started screaming and swearing and crying at them to leave us the fuck alone. I can’t say I blame her. All the girls in that group had had the same experiences.
  • Following. This one is a bit more sketchy and one to be weary of. As much as, in theory, the idea of being apparently so irresistible (even while wearing a dress covered in three-day-old food stains, and being very hungover), that men feel the need to chase you down the street shouting mi Reina, mi Reina! (my queen) is pretty flattering, in reality it is pretty frightening. Men have followed me on foot, on bicycles, motorbikes, and in cars. Always be aware of your surroundings, and don’t walk around wearing headphones (though it can be tempting to drown out the catcalling).
  • Touching. This thankfully happens less frequently but it does happen, especially if you go out at night (though this is kind of the same as in the UK to be honest). Men, just because a girl likes to party does not mean she wants, or deserves, to be grabbed at. She does not necessarily want you just because she also happens to be there and you find her attractive.
  • Hair pulling. This is a weird new one that actually hasn’t happened at home but has happened a couple of times here. Apparently it’s part of the fascination with blondes. I’ve also had hair sniffing a couple of times. They’re really obsessed with blondes. I think the fact that the only images of white women- and especially blonde women- that you see here tend to be pornographic really doesn’t help.
  • Flashing. Men are so very proud to have willies. God, it’s pathetic, and when you’re with friends, it’s laughable, but when you’re on your own it can be a bit scary- I usually pretend I hadn’t noticed, and have noticed something in a window across the street and walk in the other direction.
  • The police will not help you. I once crossed a street to get away from some blokes that were harassing me, thinking that the police on the other side would keep things a bit safer. More fool me, they yelled out the same comment. Border officials are another one- I have yet to have my passport checked without the guy (it’s always a guy) making some unnecessary comment about by appearance.
  • Taxi drivers. People always advise solo women to take taxis rather than the bus, especially at night or in big cities. They’re usually right. But the taxi driver will very often hit on you too. Sit in the backseat if you can (otherwise they’ve tried to put an arm around me or a hand on my leg). If you’re in a ‘collective’ style taxi (that picks up other people) try to pick one with at least one other woman in it- a girl I know recently had to escape an attempted mugging/assault with three other men in the car she was in.
  • They don’t take no for an answer. To start, I was honest about my single status when asked. I didn’t see why I should have to pretend to be ‘taken’ by another man to be safe. With time it just became easier to pretend I had a boyfriend/husband to put them off, or they’d assume you were up for it. Sometimes, though, they just see it as a further challenge ‘but you know men in Peru/Colombia/Nicaragua have bigger dicks right? Yeah, right.

These are the more typical things. There have been other incidents that have been more frightening- a bus conductor who trapped me in the toilet on a night bus and tried it on until I was forced to fight past him and escape (and didn’t dare go to sleep for the rest of the night). An Ecuadorean guy who I thought was my friend, but when adding me on Facebook stole all my photos and fabricated a relationship between us.

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A guy on a bus just today asked why my husband hadn’t ‘beaten my ass’ for travelling on my own (he was not joking), said that travel and working in other countries was ‘not for the woman to do’ and when I said I wasn’t interested in husbands or anyone telling me what I could and couldn’t do, said ‘oh, so you’re easy then’, told me girls wouldn’t travel alone unless they were up for it, etc., etc…

It wears you down. You deal with it and you cope, because that’s what women have always done. Some days you laugh. Some days you flip out. Some days you cry.  It’s not just Latino men- like I’ve said, everything (except the toilet and weird facebook stalking thing) is something that has happened at home, too. But at home, although it’s not infrequent, it’s unusual to be harassed more than once in a day, and it’d be something I’d actually remark upon. In Latin America, if I had a pound for every time I was harassed, I’d be able to come home and buy a nice sized house outright in central London. And I wish I was exaggerating but I’m not.

Women the world over have a very long fight ahead of us to get to a point where we’re actually treated as equals, and as human beings, as a given.  That is all the feminist movement is asking for: to be able to exist as a person, and not be harassed, assaulted, and in extreme cases, killed, because you happened to be born female. Women in Latin America, where sexism is insipid thanks to the extremely machista, patriarchal culture, have a considerably more difficult time than we do in Europe. I will always stand in solidarity with them: it is why I came to this continent, to volunteer with an organisation which works on violence against women. However, we also need to work with men. To talk about masculinity and what it means, and what it has the potential to mean. So that men don’t think they need to assert their dominance over women to prove their sexual prowess; their worth as a man. So that the men who know already that it is not okay to assume you have ownership over, harass, or threaten women, actually will stand up and support us when they see things happening, rather than staying silent and staying part of the problem. So that men who don’t realise their behaviour is harassment understand how it feels to be treated in that way. How it makes you feel like you’re not even a person.

Women are tough. Female travellers in particular have to be badasses. But it’s not easy. So to my fellow travelling ladies- keep doing what you do. You rock. But we all know we can’t take our safety for granted, and that travelling as a solo girl is very different from travelling as a solo guy. So let’s all just be wary,  while living life to the full. Let’s support each other. Let us change what it means to be a woman in the world. Let us also help men challenge what it means to be men- for the better.