“Oy mami!” I was fiddling with my camera on the streets of Granada when a man walked by moaning this at me. I was so shocked when I looked up that I snapped my head around and followed him with an icy stare until he left my field of vision. He almost had the humility to look ashamed.
The perpetrator? A sixty-something-year-old white guy.
Since I arrived in Nicaragua, I have been harassed by locals. By what I presume are expats. By boys so young I can’t imagine they’ve hit puberty to men old enough to be my grandfather. In one weekend in Granada, I did not walk a block without being cat called and did not eat dinner in public without brushing off relentless and unwanted advances. I felt tired, too soon, just one week into a four month trip.
Those of you who follow me on Instagram may have seen my call for advice on the topic, and followed along on the extremely interesting conversation that grew from it. As promised, I’ve finally worked up the nerves to press publish on a full post on the subject.
The Art of Being Alone
I have traveled quite a bit in Latin America, to six countries over about seven cumulative months in the region. But for the vast majority of that, I have not been solo – I’ve been with a boyfriend, with a family, with a friend or with a whole group of them. Being truly on my own again is eye opening. I know, in a way, that I could make life easier by aligning myself with other backpackers – doing my sightseeing with them, eating with them, being in transit with them. But I came here, in part, to enjoy my own company. I want to take pictures of old churches in solitude. I want to read quietly while I eat my salad. I want to join up with other travelers when I want to, not because I feel I need to.
In a way, I think my travels in Southeast Asia have shielded me from what a reality this is in so many parts of the world. I remember being absolutely shocked by being catcalled in Gili Trawangan, the first time I’d experienced such a thing in years of wandering around the subcontinent. I certainly experience my fair share of street harassment back home in Brooklyn, where I almost developed an amused attitude to it. Sure dude, I look sooooo super sexy coming home from the gym with an armful of toilet paper I just picked up at the bodega. But in Latin America, I’ve found these encounters to be more threatening and aggressive, and my reaction to them more intense.
I’ve been surprised to find this is such a touchy topic, with attitudes ranging from extreme empathy to extreme eyerolling. When I tried to explain how male attention was affecting my trip to the female half of a young couple in my guesthouse, the girl looked at me somewhat suspiciously, as if I were exaggerating or perhaps overly sensitive. “We have not experienced much of this,” she told me with a shrug. I smiled back but in my head I was snarking that yeah, I got left alone with a 6’6” Scandinavian dude by my side too! I don’t think it should come as a surprise to anyone that in much of the world, woman are treated completely differently with a male companion.
I understand that Latin America has a strong culture of machismo. I understand that I am a blonde young woman, an anomaly traveling alone in this part of the world. I understand that some people actually think that catcalls are a compliment. Hissing, muttered “guapas!,” and other simple shout outs – I can get used to those. I can brush them off pretty easily. I can even, in some corner of my brain, register that this is a culture different than my own and accept the explanations I’ve read that they are “an appreciation of youth and beauty.”
But no. Grabbing your crotch and gesturing at me with it while you walk by me is not a compliment. Trying to reach out and grab my arm or leg while I walk by you is not a compliment. Waiting until I round a corner and startling me by screaming in my ear or kissing at my face to the great amusement of your friends is not a compliment. Making a woman feel fearful or uncomfortable is not a compliment.
I know that the popular tactic is, basically, to get over it. To chalk the whole thing up to “cultural differences,” to say boys will be boys, to smile, and to move on. On one hand, that’s a pretty open-minded and accepting way to live, and I’d like to think I strive to be both those things. Plus, frankly, it seems like the only long term survival tactic out there.
But on the other, I don’t know if I ever want to accept that this kind of casual harassment against woman is something not to be enraged by. It’s almost like I want to stay angry, because anything else feels like an injustice – but how long can you live with a constant rage-on like that?
I think my girl Rikka, who has been living on the Honduran island of Roatan for several years said it best when she chimed in with the following: “I’m all about respecting local culture but aggressive catcalling and street harassment against women should not be okay anywhere, period.” Rikka, it seems from her other comments, has stayed angry — and I give her kuddos for it.
The Gringo Effect
I noticed something really interesting while I was in Granada.
While the street harassment is overwhelmingly by local Nicaraguan men — surprise! It’s the old white dudes who pick up where they left off. It’s as if the visiting and expatriated North Americans who flock to the area have almost co-opted the local attitude towards woman and found a way to expand upon it.
On two separate occasions in my week in Granada, I was left shuddering after encounters with equally relentless groups of sexagenarians. (You might think I’m being funny, which would be an understandable mistake considering I’m usually so hilarious! But that is actually a term for 60-69 year-olds.) On both occasions I was working over dinner – using a restaurant’s wifi to blog while enjoying a quiet meal in a public space. Yet it appears something about me sitting there, surrounded by a laptop and notebooks and clearly working very hard, screamed to men old enough to be my grandfather, “Yes! Please! Come over and make inappropriate comments and even try to touch me! Ask the waitress to send over drinks and refuse to take no for an answer! Have that street musician play me a song when I politely said no and told you I was working! Have at it!”
Another group tried to manipulate me into being polite by berating me that “girls your age are usually so rude to men my age.” Gee, I wonder why? Could it be that you tried to introduce me to what you described as your “rich friends” as if that would be enticing? That you told me I’m beautiful and asked what kind of man back home would let me out of their sight? Or that you informed me that if you were forty years younger you’d be trying to get the key to my hotel room? Dude, you officially entered Creepsville, population you, like four conversation attempts ago and breaking news: I am not here for your entertainment. I am disgusted by this kind of selfish behavior from anyone, but especially men old enough to know better. And worse, I’m mad at myself, because I leave every encounter wondering how I could have behaved differently to make it end sooner.
I didn’t even bring the expatriate issue up on Instagram, as it seemed too tangential for that format. But to my relief, one of my commenters specifically mentioned the seedy expats they’d seen catcalling at women all over Granada. It was comforting to know I wasn’t the only one who’d experienced it.
How to Deal
Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a magic formula for warding off unwanted attention. I dress conservatively in cities, I don’t make eye contact and I carry a personal alarm with me for my own peace of mind. My fellow Instagramers had some great tips, too, like wearing sunglasses, working on my Resting Bitch Face, putting in earbuds without actually listening to anything, and investing in a fake mustache — okay, the last one may have been for comedic relief. Personally, the only thing I have found to make a difference is how I wear my hair. I always tuck it into a bun before walking the streets, and this actually does make a difference versus letting it hang down to my waist like I prefer. I knew several fellow blondies who have temporarily dyed their hair to make their travels in certain parts of the world easier, but, I think I’d rather stay home. I mean, just kidding guys! Hardy har! Obviously! (But actually only sort of kidding.)
I also, found, strangely, that the problem was noticeably worse in Granada over the weekends – I’m not sure if that’s because the offenders aren’t busy working or because they come into the “big city” from out of town on those days, but a few other girls I met confirmed they had made note of the same thing.
So I might not have found clear answers, but I did find I’m not alone, thanks to the outpouring of support on Insta, as well as warnings from USA Today that “street harassment is often worse for solo females and blonde women. Occasionally, Nicaraguan men will try to touch foreign women in the street.” Or a post from fellow seasoned traveler Camille Willemain, who wrote, “Now, in Granada, Nicaragua… the looks, the whispers, the shouts, the touches are more incessant than any place I have ever been, I just can’t take it anymore.”
I actually don’t think this is a Nicaragua problem. I’m sure similar shit would have happened everywhere from Peru to Panama had I not been shielded by the other people I was with. From where I’m sitting, the men who do these kinds of things are cowards and they prey on woman who are alone and easy targets. That kind of attitude, sadly, transcends borders. I say this because I’ve got a lot of love for Nicaragua already and don’t want this post to be misinterpreted to mean otherwise.
I thought one day, as I almost screamed with frustration at the third man to make me uncomfortable in two blocks passed by, of one of the most visible sculptures from Burning Man 2013. An impossibly tall statue of a woman surrounded at the base by the text, “What would the world be like if all women were safe?”
Granted, I don’t fear for my safety – statistically, Nicaragua is a safe country and crimes against foreigners are rare. But I do fear for my psyche. It can’t be good for my brain to feel this much rage on such a regular basis for the next four months while I traverse Central America primarily alone.
I accept that there are so many things I can’t do as a woman traveling the world alone. I really do. But I refuse to accept that walking down the street or eating dinner alone is one of them.
. . . . . . .
Genuinely – how do you deal with this when you’re traveling? I’ve thought about memorizing a really pithy response in Spanish to the street harassment, but my instinct and everything I read tells me its safer to ignore. As for the men approaching me while I’m working/eating/reading and not taking no for an answer, I’m working on being very firm and saying something like, “I’m sorry, but I’m actually working/really enjoying this book/really just enjoying my own company right now. Have a great evening!,” and physically moving if they won’t relent.