Updated: Dec 19, 2018
With a little under 3 weeks left to the trip, I find myself with a lot of reflections. On a daily basis, I make comparisons between what I’ve seen and what I know. How the countries compare to one another - what’s different? What’s the same? - or, how I’ve changed as a result of what I've experienced. What foods have I liked the most? Who are the most interesting people that I have met? Why are their stories compelling? What’s different about the economy in these countries?How does each country’s economic state relate to its history, natural resources, and political landscape? What have I witnessed that would be classified as political or economic dissent? I feel as if I don’t have enough time to answer and understand all of these questions as thoroughly as I would want.
I have seen and learned an incredible amount, and it would take me forever to recount all of my experiences to you, Reader, but I suppose my weekly (or bi-weekly) posts have been a start at sharing everything I’ve absorbed. So without further ado, here’s another read for you:
Don't take any jewelry with you. Wear very simple clothing.
Wear nothing form-fitting.
You’re going down there? Really? Why?
Are you bringing something to protect yourself with?
Don’t wear any makeup.
Machismo is alive and well.
...may be worth it to invest in a fake wedding band.
Are you going alone? I hope you’re not.
The above text is not verbatim but it captures the essence of the advice I received before going on this trip. All of these pieces of advice were from other women. I did heed their words, but lightly. I didn’t bring makeup, except for a tube of mascara. I’ve worn the same small hoop earrings for the entire trip and the tightest piece of clothing I brought with me was a pair of running tights. I’ve heard and read enough to know why a woman would say these things to another woman. I know it all too well. To avoid unwanted (and potentially dangerous) attention from men. I was told that if I wanted to travel down in South America I should be accompanied by some friends, specifically, male friends. And that’s what I did end up doing. I agree the decision was a safer one (not just because I’m female but because there is solid truth in “safety in numbers”) but I can’t help but wonder what the reactions would have been if my travel companions were female, or if I decided to forgo company and head off alone.
I will admit that thoughts have passed through my mind before and during the trip relating to my safety as a woman and the culture surrounding women in South America: Is machismo (defined as “strong or aggressive masculine pride”) really as bad as they say in South America? Will there be a situation where I’ll have to defend myself? Will I be harassed? What will I do if I were to be harassed? How are women oppressed down here?
From my travels, not just within South America, but other places in the world too, I know that being a North American white woman comes with certain privileges, and that I’m sadly better off than many other women around the world. But, as much as I recognize my better standing (in terms of access to education, jobs, and most healthcare) and know I am blessed in this respect, there are still hurdles that I have to overcome simply because I was born female. Women’s rights are a particular subject that I feel very strongly about. Access to health care, access to education, access to simply being in charge of one’s decisions. I don’t want to have to write “sadly” when I’m describing my privileges as a woman compared to other women. Not at all. I want to be able to write that I’m equal. That I’m equal with all other women and equal to all other men.
I have been extremely aware of the local women down here in South America. How do they make a living? How do men talk or engage with them? How are they generally treated? I have been surprised and disappointed at some of things I’ve observed. In all of the countries I’ve visited, more frequently in rural areas, there is a noticeable difference in how men and women are treated, and the roles they play in society. As a disclaimer, I am not classifying these roles as “good” or “bad” but rather recounting what I observed as impartial as I can be. Here are some of things I’ve observed:
In the vast market streets of Huaraz, Peru, most of the vendors were women. Often, they had young children alongside them. Either wrapped in a blanket on their backs, or sitting besides them. In Valparaiso, Chile, I witnessed not one, but three, women attack and scream at a man. Their fingernails leaving bloody scratches on his head. I sat next to a woman with a young child on a bus in Peru, the left side of her face was swollen and bruised. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, I went to a few upper class cafes and restaurants. All of the waiters were men. In more rural areas, the only groups of people I’d see outside were men. In Colombia and Ecuador, most of the simple and cheap eateries I went to, women were directing and handing out the food. In Lima, Peru, I saw many policemen and policewomen. I only saw policewomen directing traffic, while the policemen were armed guards or on patrol. Buenos Aires, Argentina, is the only place I have seen so far in which a father is pushing the baby stroller. Peru was gearing up for political elections, many of the ads and propaganda were promoting woman representatives. Standing in line on the border of Ecuador and Colombia I saw a woman with eight children. I did not see a father figure as far as I could tell. In rural areas across countries, I have not seen one woman wearing shorts. Every construction worker I have seen (across countries) has been a man. In Ecuador and Peru, I would see clothes being washed in the local river, only by women. In Colombia, I saw a man grab a woman’s arm and angrily speak to her, shoving her away when he released her. Save for one, all of the guides I’ve had for trekking trips, day-hikes, and other excursions have been men. Futbol (soccer) is huge, almost a way of life in some cases, but with all the countries and with all the street and organized games I see (which is at least a few times a week), only one game consisted entirely of women. Across countries, women are generally taking care of children. Watching the news in Bolivia, a man had allegedly raped and killed a woman. The news footage showed him being taken out of a police van while a mob of angry people descended on him. Hitting, kicking, and throwing things at him. The police stood by dormantly and eventually picked him up off the sidewalk and dragged him into a building.
I leave it up to you, Reader, to take what you’ve read and critically think for yourself about how this is different or the same to what you have observed in your life.
This is a sample of what I’ve observed. I will now give a sample of what I’ve personally experienced:
In particularly rural areas, when I would walk alone, I was stared at. By both men and women alike. This is probably in part due to the fact that I appear to be foreign. On numerous occasions, however, words were said to me, only by men, commenting on my looks. Nothing was vulgar but it was enough to make me uncomfortable. Que linda, one said. How pretty. Another whistled and said something to his friend, who laughed. In these encounters I would grit my teeth and keep walking. On more than one occasion I was asked if my male travel companions were either my boyfriend or my husband. Tampons are expensive down here and the facilities in public bathrooms do not cater to menstrual needs. When looking for some athletic clothing, the only womens clothing was put in a small corner. On one wall devoted completely to soccer cleats, not one pair was for a woman. I was right behind my guide for a grueling hike in Colca Canyon, Peru. When he looked back and saw me and two other women right behind him after one particularly steep ascent, he was visibly surprised and commented “strong girls”. In conversations with locals across countries, my university degrees (computer science and cognitive science) brought many a raised eyebrow, specifically from men. In Bogotá, Colombia, a man uncomfortably chuckled and then soon ended our conversation after learning of my degrees. When my male companions and I had finished a meal and we’d ask for the check, I would often put my credit card to cover the bill. When returning with the paid bill and card, many a waiter (and waitress) would try and give it to one of my male companions, awkwardly giving it to me when they’d realize it was me who paid. I’ve heard comments from locals, they call me “gringa”.
At times, these experiences have irked me. But, to be honest, most of them didn’t phase me. I have had many experiences similar to these before in the US. Interactions like these are unfortunately normalized, and occur often for many women that I know. I can only hope that things will change in the future. That being ogled at like a piece of meat doesn’t happen on a weekly basis. That a woman can travel alone somewhere and not have to worry about what type of protection she should bring. That a woman can be viewed as an intellectual and athletic equal. I have reason to believe that things will change. It will take time, but most things do. The #MeToo movement has recently been a hot topic and has brought sexual assault and harassment to the attention of an international audience. The protests are increasing and the voices contributing are too. The United States, Europe, and, most recently, India, have seen the effects of thousands of women demanding change and justice. Considering what I’ve seen and observed, I wouldn’t be surprised if South America’s #MeToo moment will be amplified in the near future. I will be following closely if it does.