puerto escondido and the loss of paradise

June 12, 2013

I spent my time in Puerto Escondido with Beccy, a beautiful Australian woman who I had originally met in Mexico City. Beccy was doing a Spanish course and renting a bungalow on the grounds of her school, and she was kind enough to let me stay with her for three nights. The bungalow was basic but had everything we needed – bed, ensuite, kitchenette, dining table, hammock, palm tree, ocean views and a spider as big as our hand named Nora. Nora’s duty was to eat the mosquitoes. A job she resolutely failed at.

For the first couple of days Beccy and I lolled around Puerto and congratulated each other on how great we are at life. During the day we’d go swimming or surfing and laze around on the beach. In the evening we’d retire to our beautiful little bungalow and make some food and laze in the hammock with a beer. Beccy is an insightful, clever and wonderful woman and we talked about everything under the sun and in our lives and became fast friends. The whole scenario was so idyllic it was sickening. We couldn’t get our heads around the fact that this would all have to end at some point, and reality would resume. It was all very perfect.

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This sense of paradise was broken a lot sooner than we had expected.

Paradise lost:

On Saturday night Beccy and I left the bungalow around 9pm to get some dinner. To get between the bungalow and the strip of shops and restaurants is a set of stairs. They’re not fun to walk up or down at night – they’re badly lit and often quite empty. However, it takes a maximum of two minutes from one end to the other, and residential properties line the path. The alternative is to take a taxi which feels a little ridiculous for such a short ride and would probably necessitate more time standing in the dark hailing a taxi by the side of the road than just walking the stairs. Plus I think Beccy and I felt that there was safety in numbers. We took the stairs.

As we began walking I noticed a man walking behind us. He was getting close, and did not seem to be trying to overtake. I stopped and motioned for him to go past us. He lunged at me, grabbing my arse. I stepped back and he moved to Beccy, grabbing for her private parts, motioning to his own. Beccy pushed him off. We ran. As we were scaling the stairs the man grabbed my arse again and I fell over. Beccy (heroically) spun around and gathered herself to kick him off me, but I managed to get to my feet. We ran. He went in the opposite direction. We stopped and looked, to try to identify him, to confirm that he was fleeing. At this point he reached down and seemed to be picking up an object, maybe a rock, and running towards us again. Time slowed and each detail of those few minutes is so distinct in my memory. We ran and we screamed for help and quickly made it back to the Spanish School, shaking and shaken.

I keep saying that Beccy and I were almost sexually assaulted, but actually looking up the definition of the term it seems that we were sexually assaulted. We were touched inappropriately and against our will.

In the immediate aftermath, the response by the school’s owner (a middle-aged American man) and his Mexican wife were attentive; however the emphasis was always on what WE should have done differently. The horror of the experience, the abhorrence of the perpetrator – all this was absent from the conversation. At one point, the owner even seemed to suggest that according to other eyewitnesses from the nearby houses, the man hadn’t run towards us a second time, but had run away. He seemed to be trying to minimise the incident, to suggest that we’d overreacted. Apparently we should have: taken a taxi, made a lot of noise (we did), be careful (we are), don’t go out at night (how can we live like that?).

When we’d gotten our breath back the owner had a friend walk with us down the stairs so we could get some dinner (actually we weren’t hungry anymore so we had a mezcal shot, and bought beer and chips for our bungalow debrief). But even the friend nominated to walk with us did not make us feel completely safe – he was a young guy who was clearly not neutral to us as a man. He asked us several times if we were going to a party, despite the fact that we answered in the negative each time, despite the fact that he knew someone had just tried to rape us and who the hell wants to go to a party and get drunk around a lot of strangers in such a vulnerable moment. He also seemed greatly impressed with our supply of beer on the walk back and seemed to be angling for an invite to our bungalow. In short: even the guy nominated to protect us from male threat was an uncomfortable presence, ogling at our femininity, wanting a piece of our sexuality.

Assigning complicity:

Many people’s responses since I’ve told them have been caring and beautiful and fully cognisant of the horror of the event, our capacity as independent and smart women to make the right decisions with regards to our safety, as well as concern for us and the urging to take as many precautions as possible. However, in the overall narrative of this event the emphasis has been on what we the victims should have done differently. The perpetrator is invisible. I noticed that even in the writing of this I was careful to justify why Beccy and I had made the original decision to walk down the stairs, why we took the risk. But why should this need justification? Why should walking to get dinner at 9pm be risk-taking behaviour that needs to be analysed or explained? Why should I feel partly complicit in my own attack? I wonder whether, if it were a man who had walked down the stairs and had had his wallet stolen, if the reaction to the incident would be more centred on the fault of the perpetrator, not the man’a part to play in his own misfortune.

Blowing the whistle:

Mine is a relatively minor example of what I see as a huge, deeply-rooted problem. I observed another, far more serious manifestation of this while in India. A component of my masters degree was an internship in New Delhi where we spent a fortnight speaking to refugee women and girls from Burma, Somalia and Afghanistan about the problems they encounter in India. The overarching, almost universal issue they face is rape. These women and girls, even babies, are raped in the home by their landlords, in the street by taxi drivers, in the workplace by their bosses and by police officers when they try to make a report. It is an epidemic, and it is traumatising these already vulnerable and unsafe women.

In India the UNHCR uses the organisation Don Bosco to outsource much of the work they are responsible for. In New Delhi Don Bosco was contracted to address the issue of rape in the refugee community with some training. It is highly problematic in and of itself that the UNHCR chose this Roman Catholic, male-dominated, conservative organisation to address sexual and gender-based violence amongst such vulnerable women.

The women told us about the training session that Don Bosco lead. They were forced to take a day out of their work and forsake desperately needed income. The women were sat down and told that they should be careful about the way that they dress, that they shouldn’t go out at night and that if someone tries to attack them they should make a lot of noise. At the end of the training the women were forced to sign a document saying that they’d completed the course, that it was great and that if they are raped now the UNHCR can wash their hands of it. All this is obviously so appallingly ignorant, disrespectful and irrelevant that it defies further analysis. There are just no words.

Even the Deputy Head of Mission for the UNHCR was no more enlightened in his approach. During our time in New Delhi we helped coordinate a day of presentations and dialogue. The idea was to create a platform from which the refugee community were able to speak for themselves to the UNHCR and other stakeholders, to tell them what was happening and to show the UNHCR how they could better respond to the needs of the refugee community.

Throughout the day the women bravely recounted harrowing personal stories about their experience of sexual and gender-based violence. The following day we reconvened to hear the response from the UNHCR. The Deputy Head of Mission was an Italian man who had been working in the field for some time. He had had a whole twenty-four hours to think the thing through. He presented his response. He proudly announced his intention to provide each woman with a whistle so that they could seek help when they are in trouble. The end. How did he manage to miss the point so completely? How could he fail to see that there is NO ONE there to help them? How could he expect a mother of eight to blow the whistle on her landlord when he rapes her and thereby have her family evicted and homeless? How could he expect a woman who is getting by day to day in crippling poverty to blow the whistle on her employer and thereby loose her family’s only income? This Deputy Head of Mission was a clever, educated and experienced man. Surely he knows better. It feels that in the case of sexual assault and harassment the misunderstanding is almost wilful. Coming up with real, relevant and effective solution is too hard. Too confronting.

I am tired:

The sad thing is that the experience I had the other night has actually affected me less than I’d expected. I feel sick and furious and saddened, but I don’t feel significantly less safe than I did before. I’ve been thinking a lot about why this is the case and I realised it’s because I’m ALWAYS scared of being raped when I travel. Like really scared. The incident on Saturday night shook me, but it didn’t surprise me. This isn’t the first time that a man has made me feel threatened in such a way. It’s not even the third or fourth or tenth or a hundredth time. I’m not downplaying the incident; it was one of the worst encounters I’ve had and it shook me. But living my life as a woman necessitates constant vigilance. I must analyse each situation, particularly when travelling solo, weighing up whether each experience is worth the potential risk. And the problem is that this is an impossible equation. How can I make the call as to whether travelling alone through Central America is worth the increased risk of rape? It doesn’t even make any sense. There is no correct answer. And why should I have to analyse things in such a way? Why should I feel that I must choose between my safety and my desire to experience new things?

We are never safe:

The other aspect is that it’s not an issue confined to travelling. We are never safe. I, along with every Australian woman, was forced to rethink the way I perceive threats in my own neighbourhood following the tragic rape and murder of Jill Meagher in Melbourne last year. I don’t want to say too much about this incident because enough has been said and I don’t want to use a family’s tragedy like an anecdote. Suffice to say that the violent, abhorrent events of that night unfolded in streets that I know well, that I frequent, that are my home. Recently, for the first time since I was fifteen, I have felt unsafe walking home by myself at night and I hate that. But what am I supposed to do? I choose to socialise with my friends at night-time. I choose to wear what I want when I do so, and I choose to drink too much if I am so inclined. I need to get home somehow and it is not workable to have my lifestyle contingent on having a housemate, friend or boyfriend accompanying me.

Maybe I could restrict my social interactions to daylight hours. But I still have to work, and we are not safe there either. In my most recent job I was involved in a Critical Incident in which a client cornered me in an empty part of the Community Centre, repeating to me that I wanted him to ‘fuck’ me, encroaching on me. He fled when I called for assistance on my walkie talkie. He realised that I was less alone than he thought I was and he ran for it. I was working with very vulnerable, often unwell, people though, so maybe I could restrict my employment to more stable environments. This wouldn’t work. I recently worked out that I have experienced sexual harassment in every single job I have ever had. The seriousness of the harassment varies greatly across jobs and the perpetrators range from co-workers, superiors, customers to clients. I’ve had about half a dozen jobs over the years across retail, hospitality and the social sector and I wasn’t safe in any of them.

Maybe to stay safe women should forsake work as well. We should remain in the safety of our home. We all know that this will not keep us safe either. As recent statistics from the US attest, more women were killed by their husbands or boyfriends 2001 – 2012 than those killed in terror attacks on the US, US troops killed in Afghanistan and US troops killed in Iraq combined. I have no doubt that the Australian statistics would be comparable.

How are we expected to make the right decisions to protect ourselves when we are never safe? How can the expectation be on us to keep ourselves out of harm’s way when the potential for harm is everywhere and there is nothing we can do to avoid it?

I am not being blasé about the reality of my need to protect myself. The thing is I DO protect myself as best I can. What I want is to be met halfway. I’ll be careful, I’ll consider fully my clothing, my outings, who I talk to. In return – how about men try not to rape us? How about we make this not and never ok? How about we get to a place where instead of the initial response to ‘Someone tried to sexually assault me.’ is ‘That’s horrible. What an abhorrent thing that man did.’ NOT ‘That’s horrible. You shouldn’t go out at night.’.

Alongside self-defence courses for girls in high school we need education for boys about how to treat women and their bodies with respect, not violence or entitlement. I’m sure these things exist, and I know my high school provided such parallel courses, but we need more of them and they need to be better ingrained into our whole education system. We need a million other programmes implemented worldwide that will change the dialogue around these matters.

Unless men are brought into the conversation and a more concerted effort is made to educate everybody on how to treat each other then emphasising the need for women to keep themselves safe is going to look like just another form of subjugation, control, suppression.

Moving forward:

I’m going to do my best to not allow this incident to dampen my view of Mexico. Up until Saturday night I was blissfully happy here. Things do feel a little more strained, more threatening and sinister now. Since Saturday night I have had to take an overnight bus on my own to San Cristobal de las Casas and also a taxi at 4am in San Cristobal in order to get my flight to Cancún. The night before both forays into the darkness unaccompanied I had nightmares in which men sexually assaulted me. I feel exposed and I feel far less equipped to cope with the prying eyes and calls that you encounter from men on the street everyday.

Beccy experienced similar things in the aftermath and has decided to go home. Travelling alone no longer felt like fun. I fully understand and support that decision and I’m glad that as I write she is on an airplane heading for the known quantity of New Zealand and the love and support of her boyfriend. I’m extremely lucky because Luke is also on an airplane as I type, heading over for some more travelling adventures with me. I really have no idea how I would be feeling if I were looking down the barrel of two more months travelling alone in the context of my experience.

So on a happier note I must depart so that I can go pick Luke up from the airport (wish me luck – rendez-vous sans mobiles is fraught with potential complications) and I have confidence that my next post will be far more cheery than this one.

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One Response to “puerto escondido and the loss of paradise”

  1. Charlie Says:

    Well this makes me very sad and very mad. You’re right in pretty much everything you say. I’m sending you many mental hugs and lots of love.


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