No matter how hard you resist your cultural wiring and expectations, it is easy to fall into stereotyping. Since I arrived in the southern reaches of Colombia, to the beginning of the Andes indigenous regions, I have been captivated by the women. Stolen photos and glances, National Geographic moments and textbook images come to life on the side of a mountain or in a small town market. This is what I had in mind with the Andes (along with the llamas I’ve only seen one of).
I’ve traveled a bit and don’t like to think of myself as that (American) person arriving in a new place with a head full of naive stereotypes. But that I had done that was made clear by three encounters I had this week that broke the proverbial fourth wall. The actors walked off the stage in into my life.
On Wednesday I went to Las Piscinas de la Virgen thermal bathes in Baños. I only stayed overnight there on my way to Cuenca, so I didn’t have time to check out all of the various spa offerings, and the owner of the hotel said that most weren’t open in the morning, anyway. So I wandered into the public bathes at the waterfalls. It cost $2 (as opposed to much more in the other spas) and $.50 to rent a shower cap (required). What I found was several different pools under the water falls, of varying temperatures, changing rooms, and an outdoor mixed shower. And a hundred or so Ecuadorians.
I was the only gringo there. I was the exotic one who was stared at, and probably photographed. I’m relatively inured to being stared at, after 14 years in Asia, where with my height, build and full head of white hair, I stand out a bit. But it is still an experience of role reversals, where I am the object of curiosity and gaze.
I mostly hung out in the moderately hot pool, where the families and couples, ranging from elderly to young and amorous, were gathered in small groups chatting splashing about. At one point I realized that a particular old indigenous woman had taken an interest in me. Like in some Asian cultures, it didn’t seem a problem for her to move in fairly close and check me out, pore by pore. I once had a female taxi driver in Korea stop the taxi and stroke my hair. I got used to it.
When I went to take a shower, she came up behind me again. Being a mixed outdoor shower, I stayed in my suit, but she pulled hers down to her waist, handed me a black stone and indicated I should rub her back with it. I gently pushed the stone on her back, and the first words she finally said to me were “mas fuerte, mas fuerte.” So I scrubbed her back with the stone as I had once had done to me in a hammam in Morocco, and layers of dead skin sloughed off. I handed her back the stone, and that was the end of it.
The next day I took a bus to Cuenca. The buses here stop for everyone to get on and off anywhere. If you aren’t fond of your seatmate, he or she will change in a short while. I found myself watching what they paid so I would have a sense of when they would disembark. At the Canari terminal, another woman got on, wearing the traditional red skirt, socks, little hat and very long braid. I noticed her, and then went back to my end of a long bus ride musings. Then, with very clear English, she asked me what State I was from. A bit startled, I told her, and then we proceeded to have a conversation in Spanish (a lot or repetition and clarification involved). She explained the significance of her hat to me, told me about her family, and her job in tourism that takes her to Canari for 3 days, and then back home to Cuenca for 3. We exchanged Facebook information and email addresses as the bus arrived at her jump off point in Cuenca.
My third experience happened yesterday, as I strolled through the flower market. Saturday morning brings everyone out, especially when the sun shines. I crossed the street into a crowded corner and my way was blocked by a short, older indigenous woman in a red skirt, etc., eating espumilla de guayaba (a local very sugary treat) from a cone. She tilted her head back and stared up and me and refused to yield. I caught on quickly and looked both ways and found her partner’s hand in my pocket. I slapped her hand hard and yelled “mala” at her. They both ran off and people at the crowded corner smiled and laughed.
At the end of the week, I now feel that I will no longer see indigenous women through the same lens. Exotic as they may seem, they are not subjects in Gauguin paintings, but just other people making sense and making do with their lives. And I now feel so much less an outsider. I’ll always be the tall gringa, and they will always be the short women in red skirts, but it does feel that a major barrier has been broached.