Let me also be clear that this is not just me. Tall, blonde Americans are not the only recipients of unwanted attention. The young, the old, the locals, the foreigners, the comely and homely... apparently, the only necessary requisite for catcalls and come-ons is two X chromosomes. I've spoken about this at length with my host mom, who has an unwanted male admirer that has been calling her every weekend for years, and she chalks it up to machismo, the aggressive and often-overbearing pride men take in being, well, men. Talking to women my own age at the University who are from Ecuador, they admit that they are just as offended, humiliated, angered, you name it, by the attention. And yet...
First, it was funny. Did that mandarina hawker really just tell me I was "delicious"? Did the empanada seller on the bus call me a "muñeca"? Then it gets annoying. Okay, you said good morning to me, I was polite enough to respond, and now you're making kissy-noises at my retreating back. Really, Ecuadorian men, really?
Other times it's startling. While walking down a busy street on a two-foot wide strip of grass with traffic on one side and a chain link fence on the other, if you honk at me I'm going to assume there's an impending collision. Oh wait, you were just acknowledging the fact that I am, of course, a woman. Thank you, I hadn't noticed, and since you did honk and whistle from your unidentifiable make of a beat-up sedan spewing exhaust on which I am currently choking, why sure, I'll just hop right in.
You can't make it stop. There is absolutely nothing you can say to shut them up - any response is taken as encouragement, and makes the heckling get worse. One afternoon I was walking to a nearby mall about two blocks away, and passed two young guys sitting on a curb, fixing a bus. As I was approaching, they both say, "hola," very politely. Because they didn't speak to me in English (a clear sign heckling is about to ensue) and because I can't help but feel how rude it is to walk by without responding, I say hello as well. As soon as I had passed, a chorus of kissing-noises (you know, the kind you make to a dog) reaches my ears. Furious, I yell at them in Spanish to shut up. This is apparently the funniest joke ever made on the planet, as they burst out laughing and then proceed to mimic me in falsetto. So then I'm so angry, so humiliated that I'm actually in tears, still walking down the street. If I hadn't lent my pepper spray to a friend the night before, I'm not entirely sure I wouldn't have stormed back there and hurt them back in the only way I knew how. Sadly, I'm pretty sure they're not even aware what they're doing - I am just an object to them, devoid of feelings or thoughts.
I know that this is not all men; although I'm not sure it's not a majority. But - and chalk it up to the machismo if you'd like - I'm convinced that there is a significantly higher 'creeper' ratio in Ecuador. Take my conversation partner. There's a google doc online where you can enter your availability throughout the week and then contact or be contacted by someone with a similar schedule looking to learn or practice your native language. Cool, right? Super great way to meet people and make friends, I thought. So when I responded to an email from this person, I was really looking forward to our meeting. Nice enough guy, kind of shy and awkward, but since his English was very basic, we spoke mostly in Spanish which was fine by me. The next day, I accept a friend request from him on Facebook. Within the day, I get some unwanted comments on pictures of mine dating back months, not exactly the first pictures in the stack. Some samples: "mmmm... wow.. you look vey nice.." and, translated, "...what a beautiful view... and you too hehehe... when I improve my level of English I'll leave you a comment in English hehe..." Please, please, just don't. And also tell your friends to stop friending me. Kthanks.
Maybe I should have expected this. After all, at our first meeting, we began by speaking in Spanish. When I told him he should start asking me questions in English so he could practice too, what was the first thing out of his mouth? "Do you have a boyfriend?" Of course. Of course it was. That, by the way, is probably the most common question I've gotten from boys I've just met here in Ecuador. If you don't it's like you've just announced the start of open hunting season. The only appropriate answer, for the record, is, "Yes, and he's that hulking guy standing in the corner." Girls who say they have a boyfriend in the US are literally told, "Oh, well then it doesn't matter." Girls who have a boyfriend in Ecuador are told it doesn't matter if he isn't there. Ecuador, by the way, has the highest incidence of cheating among men. Colombia, I'm told, has the highest rate among women. The point of this being - it seems like it has literally never occurred to these guys that they will be rejected. The only possible reason you would not hook up with this person - especially if you're an American, since we're assumed to be, to put it delicately, "easy" - is because you are already hooking up with someone else. Period.
And the saddest thing of all is how it affects friendships here in Ecuador. Most of this had to be explained to me, and it took me awhile to see. I still don't understand the entire dynamic. Generally, the rule is that guys and girls can't really be friends, not just purely platonic friends. At first I was so frustrated because I couldn't seem to break in to a friend group, and wasn't using Spanish as much as I would have liked for that reason. It took me the better part of the semester to figure out, but any guy I talk to on campus is either blatantly interested in me romantically, or assumes I am interested in him. This has led to a few unfortunate misunderstandings, like the conversation partner. With girls, it's a little more complicated, but it has been explained to me that they generally are afraid of bringing a new girl to hang out with her group of friends, for fear I would 'steal' her boyfriend or another guy in the group - so even though there are a lot of people who are friendly to me in class, it never really results in an invitation to hang out later. Most of these girls have known each other since elementary school or earlier, and the social dynamic here is very, very similar to high school in the US.
If I had known this, would I have still chosen Ecuador? Maybe not, although I think there are similar dynamics at play in other Latin American countries. And hey, it could be worse - I could be in the Middle East. Mostly, and this makes me very sad to say, I think a lot about how much easier this experience would have been if I were a guy. I could travel alone. I could go dancing without having the night ruined by creepy men. (One night I was literally falling asleep after going dancing, and when I closed my eyes could only see the eyes of off the men who were staring at us all night. It was terrifying.) I could make friends, although still not with girls. (To be seen with an American guy is, apparently, not the best thing for a girl's reputation, although it's not too infrequent.) I could walk down the street, and just maybe, feel like a person - not an object. Despite the persistent inequalities between men and women in the United States, I am very, very thankful to be able to live in a country where at least I am granted that.
The fine print: Dad, I know you're not going to be happy reading this. It does happen to be a true part of my experience abroad, and since that's what I set out to record, I'm posting it here. And despite what I may feel, in terms of going about my daily routine I know that this doesn't really pose any serious threat to my health or well being (okay, maybe sanity) and even that can't be guaranteed anywhere, even in the US. The other interesting phenomenon is that the cat-calls and attention never, ever turn physical. Although admittedly, that may be related to the ever-present pepper spray in my hand.