Last weekend I went out with my new friends Kristina and Josh to, delight of delights, a gay bar. Although Kristina and I accepted that there probably wouldnt be any lesbians there, and we really going out so Josh could get laid, I was still pretty darn excited about my only expedition into the land of the gays for about 4 months. A long time to be travelling away from the herd.

Since being in Central America I have been curious about the existence of queers, especially women here. The investment of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua in machoism makes male sexuality very obvious, and although all homosexuality is, according to some doctors and taxi drivers my friends have met, ¨bad¨, I can imagine that men get laid here a lot more often than women (I love that the machosim which only pisses me off, and fascinates me a little here, is for Josh amazingly hot). Like our own countries, men are allowed an exuberant sexuality while women´s is sketchily linked to things like emotions, and procreative desire, instead of lust (I´ve recently come to believe my ability to lust after a woman I know is a complete jerk and will not satisfy any of my emotional needs disproves this theory). The lack of visible female queers here caused me to be so excited to see a Salvadorean butchfemme couple before Christmas that, if I hadnt been on the bus, I might have run up to them and demanded to be their friend (Which, knowing the people here, probably would have worked). As it was I just tracked them along the window pane as though I were five (or, um, 25) and they a delectable pair of lollies until they passed.

Queers on a boat

Queers on a boat

It is such an overwhelmingly heteronormative culture that it is easy to believe that queers just dont exist. Or that they live trembling inside their parents undersized closet (Unmarried people here live with their parents, no matter their age or economic situation). However, in a few places such as Matagalpa and the capital Managua, where we were, a queer community and culture does exist. It´s just that you need to be very industrious to find it. So, following Kristina and Josh´s internet research we headed to Tabu, an appropriately named dive. When we got there we encountered one crappy aspect of being a gringo in C.A.: the scam. We were told that there we strippers and we had to pay 5 bucks, an exorbitant price. We later realised that both the price and the strippers were a load of bullshit. So, we decided to go upstairs and participate in that other cultural phenomenon, karaoke. And not only karaoke. Gay Karaoke. I challenge Tokyo to produce a similar spectacle of queer men screaming along to latinamerican (or Japanese) songs of forbidden love and crappy lovers. In this over-airconditoned room we ordered a servicio of Flor de Cana rum and started to check out our fellow clientele. A room full of gay men, four lesbians, one woman about whom we were undecided, a group of annoyingly affectionate straights (perhaps trying to prove just how open-minded they were for being there whicle actually preventing any contact with the nasty queers by being as sleazy as possible with each other), and one old straight man who, typically, came onto me. I think we went on the wrong night.

Nicaraguan and, according to Kristina and Josh, Central American lesbian culture in general seems to be based on a strong butch-femme dynamic. A common question is whether you are activo or passivo, with the butches being active and the femmes passive. The top/bottom relation obviously exists elsewhere, and the butch top and femme bottom dynamic is one that I greatly enjoy, but activo here seems to mean more stone butch than anything else (For those who aren´t familiar with the term, stone in this sense means someone who won´t allow herself to be fucked). Although I (unfortunately) haven´t tested it out that much, the only (kinda butch)ladino lover I´ve had here really wanted to be the doer and wouldn´t let me touch her much. These identities seem similar to the lesbian scenes of the fifties and sixties that I have read about (mostly in the U.S. although I am sure they existed in other countries such as Canada and the UK). I find them completely valid, yet I am always inclined to question any rigid definition of how a queer sh0uld be, whether imposed by that community or by the big bad straight world. I´m sure this dynamic suits some just fine – and I sure have had my fun with it – but there must be those who feel forced into one way of being just to have the pleasure of joining the scene.

the lonely monkey I fell in love with and wanted to rescue from negligent hell

Monkey love: the lonely monkey I fell in love with and wanted to rescue from negligent hell. N.B. This is NOT a comment on homosexuality and d/evolution.

I don´t really have any concrete conclusion to draw from my observations. Although I am welcomed into the lesbian scene as a queer myself, I am not ladino, not from this country, and there must be so much I don´t understand. I assume that the amount of queers forming a community must be a newish phenomenon however, and following this idea, I look forward to a time when more lesbian identities are explored here.

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Back to nature . . .

January 12, 2009

I am about to have my most expensive meal in 3 months – the famous Rio San Juan shrimp – and I hope it´s damned good. It seems ridiculous that the locals who fish the shrimp can´t afford to eat it, but that´s economics (poverty and tourism) for you. The lack of available shrimp in the shrimping village of Boca de Sabalos, Nicaragua, means that I have to go to a super fancy hotel to eat some. At least I get a stunning river view to go with my meal. I guess for a once-in-a-lifetime culinary opportunity it´s worth it.

 

Sitting on the restaurant balcony watching the river twist past me, I have found the tranquillity I was looking for. Despite the fact that I have been travelling by myself for 3 months, I haven´t had much time on my own (a both good and bad fact) and after a hectic festive season in Costa Rica I felt the need to be alone with my thoughts. (By the way, having just heard my neighbour ask for turtle´s eggs, which the restaurant thankfully doesn´t have, I think I should stand up and yell at them for wanting to eat an endangered animal´s eggs and to point out that to collect, and eat, turtle´s eggs in in fact illegal. But I won´t. Because I´m scared to lose my temper with two middle-aged rich men. I hope I don´t find any, but it seems that there are some to be had in San Carlos. Grrrr.) I travelled up from Los Chiles, Costa Rica to the river-and-lake town of San Carlos in Nicaragua in what was the most calming border crossing of my life. Instead of immediately heading north as I had planned, I decided to explore the Rio San Juan, an isolated border river that runs alongside a nature reserve which covers 14% of Nicaragua´s land mass. Of course, its reputation for inaccessibility, nearly extinct man-eating bull sharks – the world´s only freshwater shark – alligators and jaguars made me even more determined to go. (Hilariously the guide book of a friend of mine went into a kind of hysterics over the area, suggesting that you pack both a first aid and a snake kit. Do the locals have snake kits? I think not.) So far, I haven´t seen any sharks, and I don´t really expect to, but I have seen a huge fish (tarpon?) and several turtles (so cute, who could want to eat them?) which swam up to me, maybe because they´re used to being fed by tourists. I´m sure that sandwiches and crisps aren´t the most healthy things for a turtle to eat. I have seen so many new river birds that I wish I had a bird book with me. I think my Mum would be ecstatic about the number of herons here.

 

The view from my hostel in EL Castillo

The view from my hostel in EL Castillo

Yes the shrimp (or is that crayfish?) were worth it . Almost the size of my wrist to my elbow – that is, my foot – they are like magnified normal shrimp so you can see the horrible detail of what you are eating. Kind of like the ant in Honey I Shrunk the Kids. Add on their unique thorned claws and they are even bigger. Apparently they can reach the weight of one kilogram! I wish I had my camera with me to take a photo.

 

To get to El Castillo last Sunday I took an all-too-quick two hour boat ride from San Carlos. Although it was too fast for me to appreciate the beauty, the river has since satisfied all my soul-filling requirements. I spent many hours (in fact, about two days) reading and writing on the balcony of the hostel I stayed in watching the rapids and birds. El Castillo is an old town, with fairly new wood buildings, but a Spanish fortress from the 16th century which was built to fight the British pirates and individuals over who got to colonize Nicaragua first. The river reaches all the way to the Caribbean sea and nearly across to the Pacific coast, making it an ideal trading-and-colonizing route. Apparently, the pirates were so slowed down by the surprising rapids next to the town that they would make easy targets for the cannons at the castle. Terrifyingly, local kids jump into the river and float down these rapids daily. I wanted to join them, but I thought I might die.

´I´m so cute, who´d want to eat me?´

´I´m so cute, who´d want to eat me?´

 

I did do something else which seemed to me risky, although it turned out to be fairly safe, which was take a boat out at night to look for alligators, or more accurately, caimans which are in the same species family. All the eight-footers slipped away as they could see us in the moonlight, but we got close to some babies, terrifying one by catching it and touching it. Drifting downstream in the dove-grey light was my only time on the river, and we heard the loud staccato of frogs who sound more like monkeys crossed with woodpeckers echoing across the water. They sing after rain, which, in this rainforest, is often. We also approached a large cluster of lilies, which then flew away having transformed into nesting egrets when we got closer.

spooky

spooky

 

 

I wanted to follow the river, past shipwrecks hundreds of years old, all the way to the sea. But with no ATM in the whole region, I need to hightail it on a 15 hour ferry to the nearest bank. WIsh me luck!

 

 

Reading my birthday messages last week, I saw an email from my Aunt Cherry, whose message can be summarized as, ´Happy Birthday, Laura. Don´t got to Columbia!´

´Don´t go there, there´s lots of robbers,´´Take a  taxi, it´s dangerous,´Ýou´ve been there (subtext – and you didn´t die?)?´´Ís is safe?´ are some of the refrains I hear on my travels. It seems that every place I go to is known for some danger or other, while, for many, capital cities are no-go areas (despite the fact that usually millions of people live in them). The fact that I feel safe walking around downtown San Salvador leaves some locals astounded. This climate of fear comes from two sources; Western or, perhaps more accurately, developed countries, and the local people and media. The first, I find both powerful and laughable. Looking at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office´s tourist information for every country in the world (www.fco.gov.uk), which is replicated inn various European countries, it seems that as someone who has recently visited Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, I should by all reasonable expectations be dead. Or at least severely mutilated in a chicken bus crash, robbed at gun point and sexually assaulted in the dark alley of some busy city. The fact that nothing bad has happened to me must, according the FCO, qualify me for some statistic-defying prize. Before leaving for Guatemala, I was horrified by the website´s description, which covers current political situations, natural disasters and dangers to tourist, I desperately needed one good friend´s assurance that I was not going to be in any extreme danger in the face of the FCO´s message, which seemed to be ´Don´t go there, you´re gonna die!´A few weeks later I arrived in Guatemala and was immediately whisked out of the city for fear of being robbed, mutilated or otherwise attacked and on my way in a very beat-up coach to Xela. 

Guatemala has a reputation among some for being dangerous, and with a crime-ridden Capital, institutionalized racism, a huge drug-trafficking problem, and, like the rest of Central America (apart from Costa Rica), a death-defying (or not) public transport system, people have good reason to be worried. However, I can´t help but feel that the extreme fear most richies like me feel originates in a form of cultural racism rather than being based on hard fact. After all, the West has every reason to fear those countries it has systematically fucked over in the name of democracy or whatever, and doesn´t it itself face many of the same problems? Whoever advised anyone against going to England because it´s dangerous? Faced with people who live so differently to us, our impulse to scream and run away must be linked to our collective guilt. There is no way we could live in the luxurious and unnatural way that we do if it weren´t for the price these countries have to pay. This is part of what I think must be the source of fear. I haven´t encountered any problem here that I haven´t also experienced in the rich countries I have lived in (apart from the earthquake, and doesn´t California have plenty of those?). The collective fear that makes some refuse point blank to visit any country blacklisted by the FCO seems to me totally ridiculous. It only serves to bolster the superiority complex of developed countries at the expense of others. El Salvador and Nicaragua are two of the most avoided countries in Central America, yet I have nothing but love for El Salvador and have great expectations of Nicaragua, according to what others have told me. My first day here has gone fine. And one of the countries with the worst reputation for danger in the world, Columbia, is the place travellers I have met have loved the most. The hype surrounding this country has led to some hilarious dialogue in my family. Telling my parents that I planned to go to Columbia if I could (I no longer can, for various reasons), they went into what can only be called a mild form of hysterics. There was no yelling, but every time I spoke to my parents for a few weeks they would tell me they didn´t want me to go, and every time I checked my email I found another message listing another reason why I shouldn´t. The situation has become so hilarious that, ´Laura, don´t go to Columbia!´ has become a running joke among my travelling friends. Of course I realise that my parents are concerned because they love me, but the fact remains that, according to other experienced travellers, Columbia is one of the safest, friendliest and most beautiful countries in Central and South America. The locals are so anxious about their terrible image, and so happy to see visitors in their troubled country, that they go out of their way to welcome you. Measuring my own experiences with the stories I have heard about Columbia, it appears that Guatemala is a far more dangerous country (and one which I survived), yet its reputation is much more benign. I can´t help but think the government and Western media´s description of other countries serves its own political and economic purposes more than we might ever suspect. The fact that my parents seem to have transmitted their Columbian hysteria to other members of the family demonstrates the strength of our collective cultural prejudices against countries poorer and with different problems to our own much more than it does their living situation.

The other, local fear I am obviously less familiar with, and understand less. As each country does have its own problems (such as the theft of babies for adoption in the U.S – outrageous, I know! – in Guatemala, and gangs in El Salvador), some areas are seen as more dangerous than others, while cities are seen as the dens of vice they always have been in our cultural imaginations. However, I feel unqualified to discuss this type of fear.

None of this tirade is meant to deny the fact that there are dangers to tourists, rather to question the extent of our fear and its foundations, to ask whose interest it serves to imply that one country is bad while another must be good, which then means that those people are dangerous and bad, while we Westerners can be assured that we are trustworthy and blameless.