Unwanted Touching in the Andes

Unwanted Touching in the Andes

Check-out time was looming and my brain was begging to be caffeinated. I brewed a strong batch of local Peruvian coffee and handed a cup to my friend Zemmy. The whites of her eyes were gleaming and I knew something was up.

“Javier touched me last night!”
“I was shuffling around in my bed, and he was touching my leg saying, ‘What’s wrong; why can’t you sleep?’”

Javier initially came across as sweet and well-spoken – the trustworthy manager of El Tambo hostel, which we had called home for a fortnight. A local Peruvian guy of little more than five feet in stature, his presence was refreshing, because almost every other dude in the town had heckled us or stared at our bodies.

Initially, El Tambo had been a refuge from the prying eyes on the streets of Huaraz, sufficiently secluded from the chaos of the city. All day, Argentinean hippies jammed, smoked weed and cooked up veggie feasts. When we realised it was only four dollars a night, we were sold.

With the clarity of hindsight I can recall the first clue that things were a little… off… with Javier. Zemmy and I had been chatting with him, when our conversation turned to his perception of Australians.

“I want to go to Australia. They like to party and have one-night stands,” he said matter-of-factly.

Zemmy and I made eye contact before emitting awkward chuckles, confounded by his overt assumption of promiscuity. I couldn’t help but think, This is his perception of us, too, but I tried to reason with the fact that Javier was unlike your average machismo dude on the street. He looked incapable of threatening a child, so I rejected the possibility that his comment was a precursor for sexual advances.

But alas, things did eventually get creepy. He came into our dorm, apparently disappointed that we were leaving. This was confusing, because half an hour earlier he had told us that he had given our beds to new guests and we weren’t able to stay at the hostel. He was annoyed at us, in response to the fact that we took an overnight trip to a nearby town without telling him, despite most of our belongings remaining on our beds and our intention to pay for our entire stay upon check-out.

The result was that we had to move to another room and Javier ended up sleeping in the bed next to Zemmy’s. It was weird, because Javier had a private room that he normally slept in. Why the fuck is he sleeping in our room? I thought, reasoning that perhaps he preferred a real bed to his usual makeshift mattress made of couch cushions. I was making a mental effort to reconcile the fishiness of the sitch, but I shouldn’t have.

Zemmy and I just smiled awkwardly and tried to smooth out the tension we felt both internally. I got an early night and it wasn’t until the next morning that Zemmy told me that he touched her. In saying our goodbyes, we let a few friends know what had happened before bolting to the bus station.

One week and several hundred kilometres later, I got a WhatsApp from a friend back at El Tambo.

“Javier tried to get into bed with six Argentinian girls last night. He tried to deny it, even accusing you guys of lying when we confronted him about touching Zemmy. He’s been fired.”

Instantly the heap of intuitive hunches made sense. The truth of his creepy ways had become undeniable fact, and any defence of his actions I’d previously held fizzled out, along with my naivety. The stories of his touching and bed jumping continued emerging as more women spoke up. The wall of silence had come crashing down, tearing through his veil of innocence.

I wish I had listened to my intuition the first time it spoke up, when he said Australians were promiscuous. It took a lot of unnecessary – and potentially damaging – willpower to disregard my alarmed inner voice. When traversing the grey area of undesired sexual advances, one is plagued with fear and confusion, even in the most covert of situations. The insidiousness of Javier’s behaviour was harder to call out than, say, the blatant harassment on the street. This made it no more acceptable, just harder to detect.

I have learnt that our intuition always knows what’s up. The challenge is valuing that voice above all others and acting accordingly. If I had, I could have spoken out earlier. I should have told him he couldn’t sleep in our room or alerted other people in the moment. Anyone speaking up could have disrupted Javier’s abuse of power toward women.

In a foreign country, particularly one with a machismo culture, it is difficult to discern between inappropriate behaviour and innocuous cultural difference. But the benefit of the doubt is not owed to anyone, particularly if you are a female travelling. Sexual harassment and abuse comes in many different guises, some more traumatic than others, but it’s never acceptable. To always consider oneself lucky that any shifty situation doesn’t lead to something irreversibly damaging is super fucked up too. Alas, it’s the reality of a woman’s existence.

Self-doubt and denied intuition are the creep’s strongest assets against us. But we can strengthen our armour through attunement to that intuitive inner voice, and for that I am grateful.

Cover by Daniil Vanilov

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