My (male) friend sent me a text today; a girl who was harassing him a few years ago posted #MeToo, the viral sexual harassment awareness …
Spoiler: Nothing horrible happens to me at the end of this post.
Sunday morning—Palomino, Colombia. Population: 3,900 people.
Palomino consists of a few dirt roads leading to the beach off the main road from Santa Marta. There’s a gas station and a number of hostels; one would not call it a “happening” spot. Besides the beach, there is not much to Palomino. Its allure is in its simplicity. The peaks of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada peak up from the dirt roads and black-sand beaches.
My last full day in Palomino I began preparing for my return to Medellin. The following morning, I would need to catch the first bus from Palomino to Santa Marta, about one and a half hours away, grab the rest of my luggage sitting idly in the storage room of a different hostel, and get to the airport for my flight. I felt confident I could do this but I had one obstacle: I needed 9,000COP ($3.50) for my bus.
In Medellin, almost everywhere takes card and ATMs are located on every corner. Santa Marta had been no different. For Palomino I brought lots of cash but an unplanned trip to the national park ate up a hefty chunk of it in entrance fees. Luckily, my hostel accepted card. The bus, however, did not. I asked the hostel where the nearest ATM could be found. They told me I had to go to Santa Marta or take a mototaxi to the next town, a 30-minute ride for 20,000COP ($8).
I turned my wallet inside out and literally counted every little Colombian coin I had tossed casually in my suitcase or pockets. I found just over 8,000COP. A measly 1,000 pesos short, I regretted the coconut I had ordered at the beach the day before. The hostel, of course, wouldn’t lend me 1,000 COP (Less than $.050). They told me I would have to take a mototaxi to the ATM. Spend 20,000COP for 1,000COP.
Alas, the life of a traveler.
These things happen to me so often I’ve completely gotten over being the least bit upset. I just sighed and decided the ride on back roads through Colombia would be an adventure. Someone from the hostel offered to walk me to the road and asked one of the young guys standing around with motorcycles to take me. Apparently this trip (taking tourists to the ATM, waiting for them, and taking them back to Palomino) is very common.
I got on the back of the motorcycle and we took off down the dirt road. My driver, Luis, was excited to ask me questions. He didn’t speak any English so I decided to mentally itemize the trip expense as a Spanish lesson. The conversation started pretty basic: What is your name? Where are you from? What do you do? How long are you in Colombia? How do you feel about Colombia? How old are you?
Before I go further, “Gwendolyn” or “Gwen” is very difficult for people in Spanish-speaking countries. I’ve started telling people they can just call me “Wendy” which they seem to both enjoy and appreciate. So Luis started calling me Wendy.
We got the money, he stopped on the side of the road for gas (i.e. a kid with a coke bottle of gasoline and a funnel) and began our 30-minute return journey. The following conversation then took place. I will write it in Spanish and give the English translation.
Luis Gets Frisky:
Luis: “Tu eras muy linda” You are very pretty
Me: (realizing exactly where this is about to go and far from excited for it) “Gracias” Thanks
Luis: “Muy muy linda” Very very pretty
Luis: “Tienes un novio?” Do you have a boyfriend?
Me: “uh…Si. Si si si. Tengo un novio.” Yes! Yes, yes, yes. I have a boyfriend
Luis: “En Estados-Unidos?” In the US?
Me: “En Argentina. Vivi en Argentina antes de Colombia.” In Argentina. I lived in Argentina before Colombia.
Luis: “Tu eras muy linda.” You are very pretty
Me: “Gracias.” Thanks
Luis: “Regalame un beso?” Give me a kiss?
Me: (Very much understanding) “Um….no entiendo.” I don’t understand.
Luis: “Regalame un beso?” Give me a kiss?
Me: (Still understanding just as well) “No. No entiendo.” No, I don’t understand.
Luis: “Beso! Beso! Beso es…” Luis kisses his hand to illustrate. “Entiendes?”
Me: (through a sigh) Entiendo. I understand.
Luis: Regalame un beso?”
Luis: Porque no? Why not?
Me: Porque no. Dije tengo un novio. Because no. I said I have a boyfriend.
Luis: awwww, pero tu novio esta muy lejos de aqui. No esta en Colombia. But your boyfriend is far from here. He isn’t in Colombia.
Me: No es appropriado. It’s not appropriate.
Luis: (dramatically disappointed in a slightly joking way) Awwww! Por favor? Please?
Luis: Wennnndyyyy por favor!
Me: No. No quiero. No, I don’t want.
Luis: (Dramatically) bending over on the bike as he is driving as if emotionally crushed. Pero eras muy linda! But you are very pretty.
Me: hay ortas chicas lindas en Palomino, tal vez puede hacer un beso con ellas. There are other pretty girls in Palomino. Maybe you can do a kiss with them.
Luis: Nooo, pero tu eras mas linda! No, but you are the prettiest.
Me: No es verdad. Hay otras chicas sin novios mas lindas que mi. That’s not true. There are other prettier girls without boyfriends.
Luis: No! Un beso.
Luis: Awwwww! Porque no, Wendy? Necesito un razon. Why not, Wendy? I need a reason
Me: Te di un razon. Te di quarto razons! I gave you a reason. I gave you four reasons!
Luis: Porque no? Why not?
Me: Uno, no quiero. Dos: Tengo un novio. Tres: No es appropriado. Quatro: hay otras chicas en Palomino. One, I don’t want. Two, I have a boyfriend. Three, It’s not appropriate. Four, there are other girls in Palomino.
Luis then gasps as we pass a small creek, slows down, and turns the bike around. Only at this moment did I start to get afraid. It was the middle of nowhere and there weren’t even other cars on the road. He does a loop and stops the bike on the side of the road. He points into the creek and says “babilla!”
I had no idea what babilla meant but I looked into the creek and realized that a crocodile was standing very still, nearly blending into the the brown hues of the trees and dirt surrounding it. It was small for a crocodile, maybe my size. I’ve since realized that “babilla” in Spanish doesn’t just mean “crocodile” but a type of crocodile found in Mexico, Central America, and the northern part of South America.
We left, and I told Luis that I thought the crocodile was actually pretty cool. He kept begging for kisses. I kept refusing. He actually started chanting “Wendy!” “Wendy!” “Wendy!” from the front of the bike.
Luis again slowed his bike and pulled to the side of the road. He asked “quieres conducir?” (You want to drive?) I thought I must have misheard but Luis stepped off the bike. I thought about my options and decided if I drove, at least I wouldn’t have to deal with worrying about Luis pulling the bike off to the side of the road. I also figured if I was going to get bothered by this kid for kisses, I might as well get something out of it. So I said sure and took the little bit of control of the situation I could get.
As soon as I started driving I realized he had better access to try to touch me and regretted the decision. Thankfully he didn’t. At one point it looked as if his hand was subtly moving to touch my thigh so I shook the handlebars violently and that put an end to that.
I got home safely, paid him, and spend the rest of the afternoon afraid to leave the hostel since his bike stand was right outside. He had been pestering me to go to the beach or the club with him.
I don’t want to write this as if this is some sort of traumatic experience. Far worse things happen to women everyday. Honestly, it was annoying, but it’s nothing really that new at this point, sadly enough. But this is why girls/women are always complaining about creepy boys/men. It’s not because we just want to complain, it’s because it’s a common experience. If he had asked once and I had said no and that was the end, this wouldn’t be on my blog.
My initial reaction was simply pride that my Spanish was good enough that I could talk that much and that my first time driving a motorcycle went so well. That being said, upon telling this story, a lot of people were really upset. Mostly because they could relate. And it’s true. Too often, “no,” isn’t enough. “No,” needs to be coupled with excuses. Rachel said it well, “you don’t give them what they want so then they ask something else from you— a reason. And then when you give them one, you need to give them another.” They may not force the kiss, but they still force an explanation. My roommate in Medellin was also pretty upset. She said she agrees that keeping the situation light was the safe thing to do, but that it sucks that it had to be that way. Why couldn’t “no quiero” be enough?
And thus, I am once again stuck between the two voices in my head, in the limbo between “asking for it” and being a “bad feminist.”
A little bit of my feministic soul dies every time I make up a boyfriend as an excuse. Why can’t “no” be sufficient on it’s own? I hate myself a little bit for not lecturing him on the importance of accepting a girl’s “no” as a “no.”
I used to be honest and tell people I didn’t have a boyfriend. Why do I need a man for my ‘no’ to gain credibility? I still agree with that sentiment but I’ve started lying. It’s just too exhausting. And honestly, it feels like I’m being stupid. Like if I tell a guy I’m single and he starts harassing me people will say, “Why didn’t you tell him you were taken?” And I’ll say, “I shouldn’t have to.” And they’ll say, “Yeah but now look at the situation you are in…” (see next section)
I admit responding casually to Luis’ persistence. I didn’t yell at him. I didn’t demand to get off the bicycle. I didn’t give an eloquent lecture in Spanish of the importance of respecting women because my language skills are not there. Luis seemed to be having a pleasant time. He was joking around. And I sensed that as long as I didn’t change the tone, he would continue to be harmless. Perhaps if I started shouting, he would dump me on the side of the road. Or worse. I didn’t know. So I pretended like I wasn’t overly fussed. However, if angry liberals on Facebook have taught me anything, it’s that if I’m not fighting and angry for justice and equality in every moment, I’m part of the problem.
Asking For it:
Luis was a young guy from rural Colombia. We were in the middle of no where on a deserted road. I was dependent on him to get home. So I just continued reaffirming my “no” in as many forms I could think. I didn’t yell because a joking man is easier to control than an angry man. And if I had lectured him and he decided to stop the bike and ditch me on the road, I could hear the judgement. “You should have put your safety first.”
Likewise, I didn’t have to talk to him on the ride. When he asked me questions, I supposed I could have pretended to not speak Spanish or told him I didn’t want to talk. Talking to young Colombian men, after all, may mean I’m asking for it, right? In India, everyone made sure I knew this. Talking to strangers is giving off the wrong signal, you may not get sympathy when it goes wrong. But I talked to Luis because I don’t assume every man is going to hit on me. And why have I been paying for Spanish lessons if I don’t practice when I get the opportunity?
As for driving, as soon as I realized I had just opened myself for him to start groping me (which he didn’t) I felt like a total idiot. If he grabbed me, I couldn’t shoo him off without crashing. Definitely people would say I was “asking for it” when I volunteered to drive with him behind me.
And thus, once again, I’m stuck in girl limbo.
Colombia is one of the more interesting places I have lived when it comes to sex, dating, and male-female relations. I’ll have to save this conversation for my next post, but I also feel the need to stress that the situation I described is not a Colombian problem. I’ve had this happened to me in some form in dozens of countries. Honestly, some of the worse harassment I’ve had is in the US and Europe where men feel entitled to grab your butt on the street or in bars and when you don’t giggle and blush they look shocked.
I have no idea if this was the correct way to handle the situation or not. To me, Luis is a 22-year-old kid who has been taught that this is how men act and women just say “no” as “part of the game.” In societies where women are taught they must say no, even when they want to say yes, it puts so much strain on the women who say no because they mean no. Unfortunately, these societies are nearly everywhere.
And so, at the end of the day, I learned that a babilla is not typically a crocodile, but also that ugly scaly animals can take a lot of forms on the way to the bank.
*Image: Norbert Kaiser ,
Zoo Rostock: Brillenkaiman (Caiman yacare, früher Caiman crocodilus yacara)