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.

South America, Travel

Cool as Colombia: a country in rebirth

What do most people think of when they think of Colombia? Cocaine, Pablo Escobar, gangs, civil war, fiery women with boob jobs…. Most likely. Throw away all your stereotypes and misconceptions about Colombia (well actually the last one is partially true)- but Colombia really has undergone a remarkable change in the last years and, particularly since the signing of the peace agreement has become THE up and coming place to travel- so you’d better get there while enough people are still scared of it before it becomes the next over-sold tourist trap. While my family at home worried about Colombia, everyone I met travelling since I arrived in Bolivia had done nothing but rave about it- so what is it about Colombia?

Colombia has an insane, irresistible and infectious energy. It emanates from the people, who are, without a doubt, the warmest, most excitable, passionate and positive people I have ever met in my life. I don’t believe there is a single shy Colombian. Considering everything the country has gone through in the last decades, they are just so positive minded, and excited to see you, and welcome you, as a gringo, because as more than one of them told me, our presence there is a real mark of how much the safety situation has changed for the better since the dark years in the past.It is also incredibly beautiful, has several waves of fascinating history to unearth, phenomenal landscapes and very cool, modern and metropolitan cities.

4I arrived in Cali, the city of salsa! To be honest, there isn’t much to do here except go out and dance salsa, which the locals seem to do every night of the week until five in the morning. Colombian men seem to be constitutionally incapable of seeing a woman not dancing for more than about four seconds before addressing the outrage and hauling you to the floor, however much your stiff and awkward British limbs protest. I am convinced that Colombians must just have more joints than we do because with however much enthusiasm I try I cannot for the love of God imitate their swirling, shimmying grace- or keep up with the tempo!DSCN8900.JPG

 

From Cali I went to Salento, which may be my favourite place in Colombia, it is so breathtakingly beautiful. People come here for two things: hiking and coffee. The mystical ‘Valle de Cocoras’ is a cloud forest with deep,  beautiful sloping landscapes shadowed by wax palm trees. These are not any old palm trees, but skyscrapers reaching between 45 and 60m high. I’ve never seen a view like it. To get there from the town you hitch a lift on a car called a ‘Willy’ (yes, seriously, queue a day of willy-based jokes) which they cram with more people than you think should physically fit in one vehicle- we ended up standing on a small ledge on the back of the truck, desperately clinging on to the roof bars as we were flung around corners and went flying over bumps on the off-road track. The other thing here to do is visit the coffee plantations and see how it’s grown- which I didn’t have time for- but I can verify that, as a Brit that generally prefers tea, the coffee here is delicious.

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Medellin. I liked it so much I seriously looked into the feasibilities of living there. Everything here is brilliant. The vibe is bursting with friendliness and warmth. The climate is perfect- hot but not too hot, and cool at night. It’s seriously modern- you can easily live here with all the luxuries of a developed country. There is street art everywhere, music pumping from every corner at all hours of the day and night, loads of veggie and hipstery restaurants, cafes, and bars, and, if you’re going to be the tourist, the best walking tours I have ever done. They also have a wicked nightlife.

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If you like street art, definitely visit Communa 13- a formerly notorious and dangerous barrio which, like the rest of the city, has undergone a drastic transformation in the last few years. Modern escalators carry you up the sheer hill where you can wonder around the colourful narrow winding streets in which every surface is covered in street art. Every piece tells a story.

It’s hard to choose favourites, but I particularly liked this one- which the artist told us represents the diversity of the Colombian people, and the regenerative energy of a city in transition.

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This one represents the sadness of the community’s past on the gloomy and grey right, the throwing of dice the actions of the government that gamble with the people’s lives, and the left, the colour and life that has flourished since Medellin has come into its own and become a safe and flourishing city.

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Cartagena is a city of contrasts between old and new: the historic old town is like walking back into the colonial past, with it’s colourful winding streets, little houses with pretty verandas, and looked over by the castle which has a fascinating history of battles, sieges, leprosy, and pirates.

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But from here you can look over the modern metropolis that has replaced the Cartagena of the past: skyscrapers dominate the landscape, along with modern shopping malls.

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The only thing I didn’t really like about Colombia was the men. It’s a shame but their attitude kind of spoilt the overall amazing atmosphere. When you are travelling alone as a solo blonde chica in Latin America you tend to attract a bit of unwarranted attention, and though harassment in general has pretty bad in most of the countries I’ve been through, it was nothing on Colombia. I’ve never been pestered, catcalled, followed, sniffed (!) or made to feel as uncomfortable anywhere in all my exploring (even in India). I didn’t feel safe walking alone at night- and in one walk to the supermarket in the early evening (ten minutes each way) I was catcalled no less than THIRTY SIX times (I started counting when I became seriously fucked off after about three minutes of this happening). Usually I overlook this kind of thing but there is a turning point where it goes from being pathetic and contemptible to- as much as I hate to admit it- actually a bit intimidating just existing and walking around as a woman. And that isn’t cool.

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On the whole though, Colombia felt safe, full of life, and is amazingly cheap to travel in, and I would go back to it and recommend it in a heartbeat. No doubt there are still remnants of the past around (if you get a long distance public bus expect it to be stopped while police search everyone’s belongings at least once). A lot of people are happy about the peace agreement, a lot of people still believe there should have been harsher punishment of those who were responsible for so much death (depending where in the country you are and the extent to which people were personally terrorised  by it). However, on the whole, even those who disagreed with it said how much safer- and happier- they feel now compared to ten years ago, and are looking forward at last to a flourishing Colombia. And everywhere I went they had the same message- tell your friends to come and visit us too! So what are you waiting for?