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, Travel

Swimming with starfish: Panama is paradise

Imagine the perfect paradise island: soft white beaches shaded by palm trees, cool, crystal clear water lapping the shore, starfish bejewelling the ocean floor, and literally no one for miles around…. except the Panamanian ‘pirate’ that has just cracked open a fresh coconut with his machete for you to pour your rum into.

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You spend your days lying in the sand, drinking, chatting, reading, taking dips in the sea to cool off. You scuba-dive for an hour or two and see what the ocean is hiding: a beautiful array of corral, and millions of brightly coloured fish. In the evenings you share food and cold beers with people from around the world, and spend your nights sleeping in hammocks. This is how I spent four days meandering by boat from Colombia to Panama with San Blas Adventures.

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Panama was another surprise for me. I nearly didn’t even bother going, because I’d heard how the culture was totally Amercicanised, how expensive it was, and how uninteresting Panama City is (except the canal).

However, I needed to get from Colombia to Central America somehow. I didn’t want to fly, and it’s impossible to take a bus because the Darién Gap is too dangerous: if the gangsters and drug traffickers don’t get you, you’ll probably just get killed by something in the vast jungle.

It was way out of my budget, but I have no regrets, because sailing through the San Blas Islands was my second-favourite experience travelling in Latin America, honestly just because it was another chance to be completely secluded from civilisation and be absorbed in totally natural beauty without distractions.

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It wasn’t all idyllic: being that remote, there’s obviously no plumbing, and so it was several days of latrines over the sea. The first island wasn’t too bad, I just felt sorry for the fish you could see darting about below the drop hole, and wondered what they must think of the impending shit bombs crashing into their tranquil homes out of nowhere. Later days were worse: when the wind was strong, sometimes the sea water washed people’s…  deposits back up at you when you perched on the edge of the seat. Mmm. We also had bucket showers, which I find actually kind of refreshing in the heat, but nevertheless after four days of island life there was a part of me that was glad to return to a proper bed and a decent shower in Panama City. I also never wanted to drink rum again in my life. If you’ve ever been horrifically hungover on a speedboat in tropical heat you’ll know what I mean.

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In Panama City, the canal museum is far too expensive to visit (at least for me) but if you get a free ticket for the restaurant (also absurdly expensive) you can just buy a drink and watch the boats come through. It’s worth doing but not life-changing. But after one day of recovery from island life I was desperate to get back to it, and so took the worst night bus of my life to get to Bocas del Toro.

It was worth it. Bocas Del Toro is an archipalego of the most stunning Caribbean islands on the north-east coast of Panama. The vibe is muy tranquilo and the islands, which you can visit by water taxi from Bocas town on Isla Colon, are further secluded little paradises tucked away from reality. Opportunities for scuba diving and snorkelling are abundant, and there is even a ‘sloth island’. Red Frog beach would have been the most perfect beach I’ve experienced, had I not just experienced a week living in paradise.

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So, on Panama: don’t miss it. Skip the cities and get down with island life. It doe s mean adapting to ‘island time’ where anything can occur within a couple of hours of when it’s supposed to, and if you order lunch prepare to waste your whole afternoon waiting for it to show up: but a slower pace of life was exactly what I needed to recover as I was just over the halfway point of my travel, and it prepared me for the culture of pura vida when I crossed over the border to my next highly anticipated destination: Costa Rica!

 

 

Travel, Uncategorized

New beginnings

This winter I finally did the thing I had thought about for so long: I handed in my notice at work, told my housemates to put a vacancy ad up for my room, and bought a one-way ticket to Bolivia. In May I will be embarking on a solo adventure through South and Central America with just my plane ticket and my backpack, and vague intentions to be back by Christmas, but really, who knows? I have a map of the region and a vague route planned through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, but I am open, and for once have the flexibility, to just see what happens.

I have always wanted to get out into the world and travel long term, but at the usual gap year age of 18 I was far too shy and anxious (and too poor), and like everyone else, as soon as I got into work (finally) after university I had debts and needed financial security and the stability for a while, and to gain experience. I was never able to travel with work but I did always make a personal commitment to saving a large chunk of my income each month and managed a couple of longer holidays; one in India, and a safari tour through Southern Africa, but it was never long enough and I never felt able to really get to know other countries, people, and cultures properly.

This time it will not be rushed. If possible I will spend a month in each country, learn Spanish, and integrate with locals as much as possible. At the end of my trip I hope to spend a few months in my final destination, Nicaragua, rent a room and find a volunteer position within a women’s/human rights organisation, and maybe teach a bit of English or do freelance work to keep my savings from dwindling too low.

This was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve had to make heart-breaking sacrifices in my personal life, give up the job that I had always wanted (working in publishing within a charity), the home I shared with friends, the town I’d become settled in, and to sell or give away a lot of my possessions, including my beloved car, Poo-Jo. It’s the first time in my life I feel completely uncertain about what the future holds.

As scary as this seems to me, though, the opportunity to travel in this way is, I am very aware, a privilege, and one that I am extremely fortunate to be in the position to be able to choose to take. While more people are moving around the world now than ever before, most do not have the luxury of being able to leave their home by choice. War, terrorism, political instability, discrimination, and climate change have forced seemingly more people than ever to flee their home countries and there are now an estimated 20 million refugees worldwide. It is a matter of shame and outrage to me that my own country, ‘Great’ Britain, has utterly failed to meet its human rights obligations to provide adequate shelter and protection to people desperately seeking refuge, particularly unaccompanied minors. So before I fly to Bolivia, I’ll spend a month volunteering at the Women’s Refugee Centre at the Dunkirk Refugee Camp in France to try to offer whatever help I can give.

I have thought about this a lot, and in many ways I have wondered if it is a failure on my part, and selfish, to be moved by this and yet to  still offer only a month, relative to the time I will spend travelling for personal enjoyment and development, and realistically it probably is. I have justified it to myself on the basis that I have worked and saved hard to be in the position to do this. Not being particularly well paid working in the publishing/charity sector, I have often had to skip social activities I really wanted to do with friends, mostly live off cheap food like rice and beans, avoided ever buying new clothes etc. and have lived in a small shared house that is falling apart in order to save money for a long time, because travel is the thing that has always meant more to me than all of that. I hope that, by travelling with good intentions, favouring eco-tourism and local companies, and offering whatever volunteer help I can to small local organisations working on issues I care about along the way, I will at least be making a fair attempt to enjoy this privilege with as much responsibility and care for the places and people I will meet as possible. Apart from the travel experiences, my end goal with this trip is to gain volunteering experience in human rights work, before doing whatever else I have to do to be able to nudge my career over in this area. This is not because of a (potentially patronising and self important) desire to fight on behalf of others, but simply to be able to offer whatever support is needed to people that have been discriminated against in their own fights for justice, and for the same freedoms we should all be able to enjoy as equal citizens of the world. Idealistic? For sure. But well intentioned, and better than doing sweet f/a? I certainly hope so.

As I travel I will be writing about my adventures, the people, the wildlife, the landscapes, as well as political issues I care/am learning about (particularly in the areas of human/women’s rights, LGBT issues, refugees, labour rights, the environment, and sustainable international development), inspiring work I have seen, maybe some veggie/vegan food recommendations for other travellers, and anything else.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading my blog and get in touch if you have any ideas, thoughts, recommendations, or if you happen across this and are also travelling in this region in 2017 and want to meet up, please do send a message! I am not sure what the next year will bring, but I am very excited for the adventure that is ahead.

Peace and love,

Helen