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, 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.

Central America, Costa Rica, Travel

Pura Vida, Costa Rica!

Falling to sleep, and waking up to the sounds of the rainforest; birds, frogs, insects, all cooing to each other, while rain pattered down on the roof on my treehouse, is the most soothing feeling I have ever experienced. I would slowly rise, have a hot shower, (the shower having an arm of the tree running through it), while I looked out over the open rainforest canopy below, and then dance myself dry on the open balcony because there was literally no one else around. I spent hours every day, especially when the rains came down in the afternoons, just swinging gently in a hammock and watching the forest around me; the river rushing by, the birds in the trees, the bright blue  butterflies, and a peculiar kind of Costa Rican squirrel.

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For as long as I have wanted to travel, I have wanted to go to Costa Rica. And for almost as long as I have wanted to go to Costa Rica I have wanted to go to Finca Bellavista: a treehouse community in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest. So when I planned to travel for several months in Latin America, my entire trip branched out from there, and I made sure that the rainforest was where I would wake up on my 26th birthday.

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It did not disappoint: as cheesy as it sounds, here I really felt like I went back to nature, and I felt an incredible sense of wellbeing from being far from the stress of modern life, traffic, noise, and other people. I spent my birthday ziplining in the forest canopy. I hiked to a waterfall with a volunteer and we swam and then sat under the force of it coming down. We ate mammon chinos, a fruit that grew from the trees all around us, and in the evening they even brought me a birthday cake. (The surprise was somewhat spoiled when a gecko, munching his own dinner on the ceiling, dropped a grasshopper, which hit my fork and decapitated him- the head landing in the middle of my piece. I guess some things will only happen on travel birthdays).

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Trying to stay with nature, from here I went to Manuel Antonio National Park. Leaving at the crack of dawn, a group of friends and I arrived before the hordes of tourists came, and were rewarded with totally empty, perfect tropical beaches. We swam in paradise and then hiked the sweaty trails in search of what we came for: monkeys! We heard them before we saw them: howler monkeys, as much as am in awe of them, slightly scare me with their haunting groans and big teeth. We were also extremely lucky to see a snoozing sloth, seemingly smiling in his sleep while he dreamed.

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When we got back down to the beaches three hours later they were rammed- but the people had also drawn out the capuchin monkeys (blanco carro) which were everywhere- and completely tame! In search of snacks to steal from tourists, the distraction gave a good chance to get some close up photos- but if you are going to swim at this time, leave a bag with a friend or tie it to a tree because the monkeys have been known to run off with them.

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In the moonlight on a dark, deserted beach, a mother turtle has just lain her eggs in a pit she has dug herself into. While we peer, trying to not be too intrusive, she uses her flippers to kick sand back into the hole, covering her babies to protect them from prey while they develop. She is vast: this species is a green turtle, and this one must have been four foot long. When she has finished, she heaves herself out of the hole and makes her slow progress back across the sand to the water. Watching as she tips herself into the waves, and was going- going- gone- was strangely moving. Animals never cease to amaze me, and the fact that turtles navigate whole oceans while somehow always being able to return to the same beach to lay blows my mind. This was Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica’s prime turtle laying spot, with visits from four different species throughout the year.

If you have ever taken a night-time boat trip in the pitch dark through a river infested with crocodiles, you will know how much my sense of peace was disturbed on our glide back to the mainland after this magical experience. What I didn’t know was the crocodiles were not what I needed to worry about: my wallet was stolen from my room that night while I slept.

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I comforted myself from this slight wound to my confidence as a traveller in the thermal springs of the Arenal Volcano. I splashed out a bit on visiting the incredible Baldi Hot Springs which was exactly what I needed for my mind and body. They have 25 pools of varying degrees of HOT, a giant Jacuzzi, a natural cave sauna, an up-market buffet lunch or dinner included in your day pass (as a traveller on a daily  budget I’d decidedly blown,  I ate until I could only waddle back and crash into the nearest pool to recover). They even had three giant sliders into the biggest of the pools, for those of us who liked this kind of thing but also weren’t quite grown up enough for it. Needless to say I queued up multiple times amongst the children.

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I spent the last week in Costa Rica on a tour of hippie beach towns in beautiful Guanacaste. Montezuma may be my spiritual haven (if I believed in spirits); it has a beautiful, easy-going, accepting and hippie vibe, a beautiful beach, good music, and I stayed at the incredible Luna Llena hostel, which was an oasis and my favourite in this whole trip. I also stopped by Santa Teresa and Tamarindo, which again had the most stunning, scorching-hot beaches, were full of surfers and cool skinny girls covered in tattoos, and had a general air composition of around 80% weed.

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The things I loved about Costa Rica were first and foremost some of the most spectacular nature on the planet. It is an incredibly diverse country; they have 6% of the world’s biodiversity, even though it takes up only 0.03% of the world’s surface. They are also generally more progressive than their neighbours; they have no army, and last year 100% of their energy came from renewable sources. They are a veggie/vegan haven. Everything is chill, or pura vida, as the locals say to just about anything. The only thing I did not enjoy was the cost to get in to see the nature; come to Costa Rica to get back to your roots, but only if you have a pocket full of dollars to bleed away with at least $50 per activity. I had the most incredible experiences, but I landed in Nicaragua with no wallet and a lot less in the bank than I intended, too. Just as well I still loved it.

South America, Travel

Wild Ecuador:  you’d be mad to skip it.

You’d be mad to miss out Ecuador on a long term travel trip through South America. Yet nearly everyone I met travelling early in my trip did- hopping over it to get to the up-and-coming, cooler travel destination, Colombia.  Now I’ve been to Colombia as well I can see why they’re so excited. But skipping Ecuador means missing out on so much incredible wildlife, I can’t understand why anyone would do it. And I couldn’t even afford the Galapagos….

Sure, culturally, it’s a dud compared to Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. Whereas Bolivia and Peru retain their cultural heritage in every corner you look, and Colombian people ooze a positive energy and vibe unique to them, Ecuadorean culture seems a bit… bland. By which I mean Americanised. I was gutted when I arrived and the first thing I saw was a Dunkin’ Donuts. This was not what I travelled thousands of miles for…

So. Skip Guayaquil. Most people’s entrance into the country as the largest city, but also the ugliest place I’ve ever set eyes on. Get out into the wild. There I saw things I’ve never seen in my life.

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My first stop was in Montanita, a surf/party  beach town on the southwest coast. I’d been gagging for some hot weather after the freezing climates of Bolivia and Peru, but sadly was disappointed as for several days it just…rained, and rained, and rained…  the party was kind of fun still in spite of this (apart from the more hippie vibe it felt like you were in Malaga or one of those dreadful places) but we didn’t see the famed hardcore drug culture and it wasn’t as wild in that way as we expected. BUT we saw whales. And that made up for everything.

Taking a tiny boat smashing (literally) out into the ocean, my friends and I tried not to hurl for over an hour before we gave up hope, and then- there they were. And it sounds stupid to say, but. Wow. Whales are big. I mean really, really, really, really, really big.

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To start we just saw the spurts of the blowhole shooting out of the water a few hundred feet away. And then we were among them. You don’t even get to see them whole, but the peaks of their fins rising out of the sea, higher than the length my armspan and so close I was worried they were going to come under the boat and flip us. Their skin was rough and barnacled.  In one moment they seemed to obscure the skyline entirely- and then- they flipped upside down and we were given a wave of the famous tale on the way down. I’ve never been so in awe at the size and strength of an animal.

From Montanita I went to Banos,  (a town not a bathroom) famed for its natural hot springs and extreme sports.  The bus ride there was the most beautiful I’ve ever taken in my life, like travelling through a fantasy wilderness from Lord of the Rings. The town is set amongst mountains with waterfalls cascading down at all sides. Here, if you can think of a death-defying activity, you can do it.

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I did paragliding. I’ve always wanted to and it’s one of the few extreme sports I hadn’t checked off my list yet. And actually, it was beautiful- like the best bit of skydiving where you’re drifting through the air looking at the incredible view below, without the terrifying falling through the sky part. And the view…

My friends Sophie and Jim and I attempted a bike ride in the pouring rain the next day… and we don’t speak about that now. But we did get the worst ever picture at the Casa de Arbol, (‘swing at the end of the world’).

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Next (when we eventually were taken back to civilisation by a kindly local) the immensely powerful  Pailon del Diabalo (devil’s cauldron, see first photo in this blog), and going ziplining over waterfalls. Sophie did not enjoy ziplining.

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After Banos I spent one of the weirdest weeks of my life at a Hare Krishna eco-community in the Amazon rainforest… but that entailed so many new experiences it merited another blog.

I finally returned to civilisation in Quito, and as much as I hated to admit it, was far too excited to get back all the comforts of the modern capitalist world. I was surprised by how much I liked Quito since I usually loathe capital cities. It’s modern (if expensive) but the historical centre has loads to look at, particularly if you love really blingy churches. I’ve never seen anything like them, and Latin America generally is a bit nuts for OTT churches. Iglesia de la Compania is apparently made from over 70 tonnes of gold!

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Quilotoa has to be my highlight of Ecuador. The Quilotoa loop is a famous four day hike through Andean villages, ending up at the phenomenally beautiful Lago Quilotoa- a collapsed volcano that has become a lake- of the most dazzlingly blue shade you can imagine. Having run out of time, I took the lazy option of the day hike- and it was so worth it. I met a friend there and we just sat looking at it for two hours in the perfect Andean sun.

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My last stop was the Mindo cloudforest, a place rich in natural beauty and positive vibes. Here I got up at the crack of dawn to go bird-watching, and although I was disappointed to not see a toucan, did get to see this fellow- a ‘cock of the rock’ and various other brightly coloured flying things.

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I visited the Mariposario, a butterly house where you can sit transfixed for hours as butterflies of all shades flutter past you.

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And I spent a magical day hiking the trail through the cloudforest  that passes through seven waterfalls, cooling off in the last one for a swim, totally alone in paradise. I was splashing around like a happy duck and whooping when the peace was disturbed by a girl laughing at me. Not so alone then. But she did insist on taking this picture, while I tried to feel less like a dick…

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So Ecuador. If you like nature, you’d be a fool to skip it.