I can recall many times that I wandered Granada on my own – enjoying the city, running errands, and contemplating the same question: Could I really do this?
What I meant was, could I actually live in Granada, or Nicaragua, or Central America? I was living there now, sure – but always with the plan to move again and soon. At the time, I didn’t know where I would go or when, but I always knew I would leave Nicaragua in just a few months. While it was definitely a valuable experience to stay put for those weeks, it wasn’t the same as facing a future in this place. I can’t say why the question of whether or not I could do it long-term kept creeping into my head, but it did.
And my answer? A definitive no.
No. I couldn’t live in Nicaragua long-term. And it wasn’t because of the lack of hot water, or the nonexistent services, or the tremendous poverty too obvious to ignore.
It was because of the men.
As a woman, I had experienced street harassment many times before. It happened often on weekend nights in the East Coast cities I lived in during my college years; it was rampant on trips to Italy and Turkey, and present on visits to Spain, the U.K., and Greece; I definitely experienced it on vacations to visit family in the Dominican Republic and on Austin and I’s backpacking adventure through Mexico. But it was different in Nicaragua.
My best guess is that it was different in Nicaragua not necessarily because of the place itself, but because of my experience of it. I lived in local neighborhoods and often traveled alone. Plus, I spent more time in Granada than any other locale I’ve ever traveled to. The more time you spend somewhere, the more time there is to have bad experiences, right?
So I want to preface my story here by saying that I know this topic is not exclusive to Nicaragua. But my experience is.
The machismo culture of Nicaragua became a normal and grating part of my everyday life almost immediately. There wasn’t a day that went by that I walked alone without a barrage of catcalls and blatant stares. I never got used to it. Instead, I learned to anticipate it. This probably made it worse. As I walked down the street I surveyed my surroundings. As soon as I saw a man I evaluated him. Anyone relatively young-looking was a sure thing. The middle-aged men usually joined in too. There were many times I was accosted by men carrying their young daughters, or clearly walking with their wives. Don’t you know what you’re doing to these women you love by objectifying me? I wanted to scream. The old men tended to be better behaved, but I couldn’t count on them either.
I grew angry quickly. I immediately tensed every time I walked out the front door. As I made my way past my harassers, I would spit my anger at them in practiced glares. I wouldn’t look at them, to be clear. My glare was always straight ahead. But I doubt I hid my emotion well. It didn’t matter. They didn’t care.
Every man on the street elicited anxiety. The only exception was the occasional white man – usually a tourist or aid worker. It sounds racist, but it was my truth. The white men didn’t harass me. The brown men did. To see a white man on the street was always a relief to me, because for at least the few seconds as our paths crossed, I didn’t feel vulnerable.
That might sound hugely generalized. Certainly I have been harassed by white men in other places. But it didn’t happen to me in Nicaragua. And my truth was that I was so constantly harassed by the locals, that I got to the point where I felt threatened by every single one of them. Even when someone did not look or call I felt tense, because I knew he lived in a culture where he was allowed to.
Not everyone has the same experience I did. There are certain things about me that drew extra attention. My youth, light-colored skin, and height (5’7” is very tall in Nicaragua) made me stand out as a foreigner. There was never once a time a local spoke English to me without wanting something unseemly. I learned to block any English out altogether, actually. It was never a good sign when someone started a conversation by using English to imply his knowledge of my foreign-ness.
I’m also a highly sensitive person, so I know my experience was intensified by my own heightened perceptions of the world. I regularly worked and traveled with other women who were treated exactly the same way as me. But they were able to walk around the city completely unaware, noticing only the most blatant attacks on their humanity. For them the harassment was an annoyance. But my senses wouldn’t allow me that comfort.
I should say, there were many women who I witnessed contribute to this culture of machismo. If not by complacency (i.e. the wives and mothers who sat silently while their husbands and sons sent their lewd looks my way), by direct encouragement. There was a group of local teenage boys who often hung out in front of a house on my block. I particularly hated walking by them, as their number made me nervous. Sometimes a few local girls sat with them as well, and for one reason or another that seemed to make them particularly bold. There was one occasion when they were being even more vocal than usual. I walked by looking straight ahead, as I always did, when I was suddenly aware of an unfamiliarly high voice joining the typical low jeers. One of the girls had chimed in, but not in my defense.
‘You are not too good for us gringa,’ she was saying in Spanish, a big smile spreading across her face as she met the approval of the boys around her.
Oh the things I wanted to say in return.
I’m not too good for you, I seethed inside, I’m too good for this. And so are you.
Even many of my coworkers, both male and female, contributed to the culture. It was a very common occurrence for female volunteers to be groped in crowded places – especially chicken buses and the market. I watched many times as someone recounted their story only to be dismissed by their peers. It happens, people would shrug.
Just because it happens doesn’t mean it’s okay that it happens. And it definitely doesn’t mean you should belittle the experience of the person it happens to. It is an intensely intrusive experience to be groped, and it’s a natural reaction to be angry or upset by it. Who are you to tell a woman to not be bothered just because it happens often?
Things got better for me as I spent more time in Granada and started to make friends. Walking with a male was always a different experience than walking on my own, and I was lucky to meet many gentlemen in Granada who were happy to walk me home, escort me to the market, or stand defensively nearby while traveling via crowded bus. Still, while all of this was a huge comfort to me, it didn’t lessen my anger. Why did it take the presence of a man to grant me my humanity?
I am still torn on what the right way to deal with this situation was. On the one hand, the machismo culture was a deep affront to some of the morals I consider most important. It was impossible for me to totally ignore them or not be offended by them.
But on the other hand, this wasn’t a case of a few men misbehaving. This was an ingrained part of the local culture. In a lot of ways, it was not the men’s fault that they believed their behavior to be acceptable. I myself watched as my own organization facilitated the handing out of Christmas gifts to local children. There were two tables of gifts – one for girls and one for boys – the boys’ table was filled with all different types of toys. They were allowed and encouraged to choose for themselves. Even though many of the toys on the boys’ table could have been defined even by strict definitions as unisex (stuffed animals and puzzles in addition to toy cars and various types of sports balls), the girls were not allowed to consider that table. They had only one choice – a baby doll. They didn’t even get to choose which doll they wanted. They just had a doll thrust into their hands before they were pointed towards the door.
If a local non-profit whose stated mission is “to brighten the future of the children by empowering the people of the villages to improve their current living conditions and break the cycle of poverty” can’t be mindful of these ingrained biases, what difference can I really make? And what right do I have to come into someone else’s world and tell them what they’re doing is wrong in the first place?
Maybe wrong is the wrong word. How about harmful? Sexism towards women is so harmful in so many ways. And it’s not just harmful for women. Check out this article from The Economist that explains just one very dangerous side-effect of machismo and the impacts it can have on the lives of men.
Coming from a so-called ‘first-world’ country, I was very mindful about not imposing my culture on the people I encountered in Nicaragua. My idea was never that I’d go ‘save’ the people of this place. I simply wanted to affect change on a very small level. I went to Nicaragua to work with children in poor barrios. My goal in my classes was not even to advance the children’s reading and writing. I made my lessons more about self-esteem than anything. What I was attempting to do was very simple. It was very small. That was deliberate.
But I left feeling so torn. Most of the students I developed a close relationship with were girls, and I couldn’t help but ponder their futures in this male-centric country. What opportunities would they have – not just for education and career and breaking the cycle of poverty – but what opportunities would they have to feel empowered by their bodies? To be able to walk the streets without shame? To feel strong? To feel good about themselves and all that they could accomplish? What are the chances that they will ever feel valued for more than their physical appearance? How often will they have their bodies held against them and used as threats and examples of their weakness? How many more times will they be gently put down by teachers and aid workers before they grow up? How many times will they watch the boys around them ponder their options while they are not given a choice? What chance do they really have to take control of their lives? Of their futures? What chance do they have to develop a positive notion of their own self-worth?
I realized in Nicaragua how much of my strength comes from my privilege.
And I’m still confused. Tell me, single reader – What do you think is the best way to travel in a machismo culture?