Until today, it hadn't rained for almost a week, and temperatures were climbing past 100 degrees. It was grueling. However, that's not the subject upon which I intend to expound at the moment, though it might be related. Ever since arriving in Nicaragua, the three of us volunteers in Puerto Cabezas have been upgraded to movie star gorgeous status.
In Nicaragua, as in all of Latin America, light skin is considered the most attractive, and it's one of the most salient features in determining beauty. Here, a darker-skinned woman who would draw far more attention than me in the US gets beauty demerits for being dark-skinned. Although, given the relentless sexual appetites men are expected to cultivate here, it probably doesn't much affect her ability to secure a partner. With this added boost to my admittedly already near-irresistible sexual appeal, I become the overt object of desire of nearly every man in the city, and probably not a few women. One day, as I was walking with Michael, even the mayor of Puerto Cabezas called out “Oy cuňado, cuidala!” Which means “Hey brother-in-law, take care of her!” In this clever taunt, the mayor posits himself as my boyfriend, thus relegating Michael to the role of my brother. Latin American culture dictates zero discretion in the revealing of sexual interest, so this sort of call follows me and Susan wherever we go in the city. This diminishes somewhat when I'm out with Michael, and stopped completely only when my parents came to visit and I was showing them around.
The effect of all this attention is both maddening and intoxicating. I will freely tout the assertion that the way men address women in the street is disrespectful and reinforces physical forms of disrespect, ranging from grabbing a woman on the street to rape. In this cultural milieu, I am much more sympathetic to men who jealously guard their girlfriends. Though my American independent-woman mindset makes me a bit ashamed to admit it, I actually feel better having someone who at least partially shields me from the unwanted attention that makes me feel physically less safe. I'm not sure how much more capable Michael is of fighting off an assailant than I am, but the fact is men are just seen as more formidable opponents. If I am accompanied by a man, I will be more likely to be left alone.
On the other hand, I would be lying if I said I only detested the attention I am given here. The truth is, it's wonderful to feel beautiful and widely desired. I find myself dressing up more here than I did in the US, even though I can draw attention regardless of what I wear, because people focus so much on keeping themselves stylish and immaculate. I used to think I cared less about what I wore when my self-confidence was higher. Now I'm not so sure. I'm experimenting with what it means to take pride in myself and my appearance. I do not aim to draw additional attention, but to both revel in and live up to the attention that is given. It's blowing my mind daily, because it's so contrary to the culture I had become accustomed to in which standards of beauty for women are considered a form of oppression. Perhaps it is not so much that I am fully embracing sex appeal and makeup, but rather I am learning to playfully manipulate these expectations placed on women to experience a different way of being and interacting.
I often wonder what it will be like when I return to the US. Will I feel safer on the street? Or more neglected? I suspect that I will at least be much more tuned in to men's intentions in my relationships with them, and a little more inclined to keep my distance. I sincerely hope the overall effect will be increased social savvy rather than cynicism.