RAPE AND THE LONE FEMALE TRAVELER
In the early days of the second wave of the women’s movement, we started to take self-defense courses to protect ourselves.
In 1973, when I was 31 and recently divorced, I signed on for an all-day self-defense session in New York. The teacher was a domineering butch Lesbian who had a black belt in karate and could do knuckle push-ups. She sneered at those of us who couldn’t. She barked out orders and insults like an army drill sergeant to a submissive assistant who had a brown belt and a hangdog look.
We were a diverse group of women in color and age, and when it came time for hand-to-hand fighting, I was pitted against a 13-year-old African-American girl. I came out of my corner willingly enough, but she easily overpowered me. Since I’d never been hit before, the match ended with me curling up into a ball and crying.
I was pathetic.
I later learned that the girl was the daughter of the fierce African-American poet and playwright LeRoi Jones, who soon afterward changed his name to Amiri Baraka. This was one tough little girl fighter, and she may have saved my life that day.
Soon after, in 1974, alone, I left for South America.
I’m not saying that I asked to be raped. Or expected to be raped. Or understood the old saying, “Once, shame on you. Twice, shame on me.”
But what can I say about three times?
It may have taken me a while, but in the end I did that drill sergeant proud. Here’s how.
THE WILD EAST
I had been on the road for a few months when I landed in Banos, Ecuador, a small tourist town on the banks of the Pastaza River. There I fell in love again.
He was a beautiful young man from Quebec who played emotional French-Canadian folk music on an acoustic guitar — I especially loved a song about a little bird. I called him my Caramel Man because of his sun-touched palomino skin and his light blonde hair. Banos was a gringo town, and wherever Francois was, the party was. And Francois wanted to be wherever I was.
We had been going together for about a month when I became restless. I told Francois that I was going to travel along the Pastaza further into the jungle for a week and then return to his arms.
My parting gift to him was a piece of Otavalan embroidery and the words to Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” which he said was about me — “You know that she’s half crazy, and that’s why you want to be there.”
Only half crazy. I was leaving this loving man and his lovely music for Tena, a frontier town deep in the jungle. Like the children in Cohen’s song, I was leaning out for love and I would lean that way forever.
I got on the bus with my patchworked jeans, my eager eyes and my friendly grin. I was the only gringo.
The bus bounced east down the red dirt road that ran by the Pastaza, which was racing faster outside of Banos, after its fall over the Agoyan. It ran wide over pools of rocks by the side of the road, no longer in its gorge.
The leaves on the trees grew larger and the vines became tangled in them as we dropped toward sea level and the center of the continent.
Tena turned out to be a few shanties holding on to each other to stay upright. The only pension was ugly, the mosquitoes were worse, and the food — white rice with an egg on top and friend plantains, morning, noon and night — was the worst of all.
Undaunted, I started to explore. The first morning I followed a red dirt track that led me to a muddy river. An young Indian family beckoned me to join them from their thatched hut across the road.
They had slaughtered a pig that morning and were feeling social. So I sat in their yard all day, drinking beer, while their six kids played and their numerous chickens pecked at the dirt.
Alfredo and Gloria were younger than me, and spoke Spanish as a second language. I had about 18 words of Spanish by then, and as we got drunker the conversation grew easier. Lots of facial expressions, big smiles, hand gestures. I talked politics with Alfredo and babies with Gloria. I was better at the politics.
Every now and then Gloria left us to go over to the kitchen —an bamboo cookhouse built away from the house. I would later find a place to live just like theirs in the Bolivian jungle.
In a large shallow copper pan sitting over a large wood fire, Gloria was melting pig parts into manteca — lard.
We talked about America and women’s liberation and democracy, Alfredo wanted to go to the States and probably didn’t appreciate it when I told him how lucky he was to be living in this quiet, peaceful, beautiful green jungle.
In the early afternoon Gloria put sizzling strips of pig meat in the pan and we had lunch — fresh killed pork, rice and fried plantains. It was superb. Then we had a lovely farewell with lots of waving; you could almost feel the goodwill flying through the air. I walked back to my pension worrying about trichinosis.
The next day I pushed on by bus to Misahualli, where I rested for a day in a hammock, reading “Middlemarch” and underlining Elliot’s insights. The book had been left in the pension at Tena, and since it was heavy, it must have meant a lot to the traveler who had brought it all the way to the jungle.
In the morning I explored another dirt road, and when an open jeep passed me, came to a screeching halt, reversed itself and drew up in front of me, I was not afraid. Three young Brazilian men with big smiles were chattering at me in Spanish. They were staying at a fabled house down the road, I gathered, a house built by an Incan princess. Did I want to come with them? By this time it was a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese and English, but they were displaying the same goodwill I had encountered from Alfredo and Gloria, so I climbed in.
The house was far, far outside the town, set back from the road and enormous — three floors of dark wood with light bamboo trim. I could hear a stream rushing somewhere near. The gardens were lush with flowers, bamboos and palms. There were other people staying there; they seemed cool and hip, but no one spoke English, at least not to me. I was shy and didn’t know which language to use with them.
Maybe there were 10 of us that evening at a long table in the kitchen sharing bread and tea. The Brazilians invited me to spend the night, which seemed like a good idea, since it would be dark soon, no one seemed inclined to take me back to town, and I had no idea where I was. Or where town was.
The guys took me upstairs to a large empty room with an incongruous blue tent rigged in the middle of it. They had strung the lines over the bamboo ceiling beams and then knotted them into screws in the floor.
We sat on thin insulating pads on the floor outside the tent, the men ignoring me and talking in Portuguese. The goodwill from the jeep had evaporated, and the only place for me to sleep was inside the tent.
When it got dark, one of the men lit a kerosene lamp. Then they put their pads and mine in the tent, gave me a blanket, took their clothes off and crawled inside. I kept my clothes on, but there was nothing else for me to do but climb in, too. Someone blew out the light.
It was close inside, and I was cold and uncomfortable on the bamboo floor with only a thin mat as a cushion. I became anxious because I couldn’t find my way to the kerosene lamp, much less out of the tent, down the stairs, out to the road, or into town.
I was lying there, clothed and claustrophobic, when I felt something warm wiggling against my elbow. Startled, I put my hand out to push it away and realized it was a penis. Then I felt something crawling up my leg. Another penis. As I pulled away, a third penis poked me in the ear.
Three wriggling penises were coming at me from three directions in the dark, all without a word being spoken, without a touch, without even a vague attempt at seduction. There had been no attraction and no intimacy. Was it expected of me that I would have sex with these men? Why? Why not?
Without language to give me a voice, shy, uncertain and unable to flee, I quietly batted away at the penises with my hand. They grew more and more insistent. One might move away for a minute, but then another was rubbing or pressing against me. Still not a word was spoken.. It was like being attacked by velvety, spiky, silent worms.
I curled myself into a tiny ball but still they rubbed against me, prodding me like missiles. With one half of my mind I was actually pretending that it wasn’t happening. The other half was racing with fear.
Finally, one of the men took my hand in his — the first warm touch that wasn’t a penis — and led me out of the tent. He lit the lamp and, still holding my hand, he led me down the stairs to a patio. We spread our blankets on the bamboo floor and I consented to sex in gratitude that it was only one instead of three.
Afterward I guess I slept some. In the morning, again, no one said a word. I took some bread from the table, walked a few miles down the road to town and took the next bus back to Banos.
At first I felt I had come home. Mama Rosa greeted me at the door to the Americano Hotel with a cheerful wave and gave me back the key to my old room. But Francois was distant. We walked the darkened streets together, our arms around each other, but he couldn’t tell me what was on his mind and I couldn’t tell him what had happened to me in Misahualli — it took months of silent shame before I could admit I’d been raped.
Things had changed while I was away. Bob Melnick had come to town with a large stash of 94-percent pure Bolivian cocaine and Francois was playing for him now. He was taking a different trip.
“With the wolf,” he said, meaning the coke. “I can hear things inside the music with the wolf that I’ve never heard before. It’s like being inside my guitar.”
Melnick was a tall, skinny Californian with wire glasses and a fringe of graying hair. In the hierarchy of hip, he was a beat, not a naïve hippie. Indeed. we starry-eyed hippies were his prey. When he met me, he shook my hand and warned me. “I’m Bob Melnick,” he said, “And I’m a mean old daddy.”
He had come to Banos from La Paz.
“I bought a kilo of cocaine and a case of Incan wind instruments,” he bragged. “I stuffed the coke into the hollow flutes and quenas. I salted the shipment with unstuffed flutes to increase my percentages. Then I wrapped the package, labeled it ‘handicrafts’ and shipped it to a false address in California. Then I hightailed it out of Bolivia and came here.”
When his Mendicino friends safely picked up the package, they would telegram him and he’d come home to party.
Francois was captured by Melnick’s stories and, especially, by his stash. He spent most of his time hanging out in Melnick’s room at the Teresita, which was next door to the Americano. I wasn’t invited to the party, so I saw less and less of Francois.
I barely noticed how isolated I was becoming because I was still trying to figure out what had happened to me in Misahualli. Sex with Francois grew tense. Some nights we made love and his penis was a hard wall I could climb upon to reach my orgasm. On other days, when we passed on the street, he would pretend he didn’t know me. Sometimes I reached out to touch him and he mocked me and said I was too “en chaleur.” Too in heat. Funny how you can want some penises and not others.
Melnick had been hustling me for days, begging me to hang out with him. And one day, with nothing better to do, I consented to spend the day with him.
He said he had a great new psychedelic from California that he wanted us to try together. He called it “happy powder.” We went up to his room and snorted some brown powder. I expected a rush, but instead I became paralyzed. I couldn’t move my arms or legs or turn my head. Again I couldn’t speak, as if I would use it if I had had a voice.
Melnick took my clothes off and fucked me. I couldn’t stop him.
“You’re a lousy lay,” he sneered as he climbed off. The only thing I could do was stare at him. Then he taunted me.
“You’re a baby,” he said. “If you run out of money, you’ll write home to your parents. You’re afraid to leave Banos and hit the road. You’ll never see Bolivia. You’re a baby. You’re afraid to travel.”
When the drug finally wore off I got dressed.
“Don’t tell Francois,” Melnick begged me as I fled. “Please, promise you won’t tell Francois.”
Melnick didn’t want to lose the music.
I didn’t tell Francois about the rape, but it wasn’t because I was protecting Melnick. When I started to tell him about the happy powder, he was angry because I had tried it before he could.
Not long after that, Melnick got his telegram and disappeared down the road. The very next day, Francois went to Bolivia to find or fight his wolf.
Soon after, I slithered out of Banos on my belly like a snake and spent a week at the beach in Atacamas. To hide from the gringo trail, I took a room on the beach at the “luxury” hotel, which was $2 a night. It came with a private bathroom where both the shower and sink taps ran salt water. The owner left fresh water in beer bottles on my doorstep every morning.
Atacames had a long, gently curving white sand beach that stretched far into the distance and was ringed by boulders and palm trees. Over the lapping waves, lines of pelicans bobbed up and down on the air currents looking like musical notes in a complicated score.
The wind was warm and balmy, the sunsets were red and violet, and the night sky was filled with stars that glistened like diamonds. The few gringos there were mostly couples en chaleur, so I spent my hours alone, walking, thinking and talking to no one. I ate fresh fish, rode the waves, and longed for Francois, his guitar and the song about the little bird.
I sang to the sea and myself. I sang Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” — “Yes, and only if my own true love was waitin’,/Yes, and if I could hear her heart a-softly poundin’,/Only if she was lyin’ by me,/Then I’d lie in my bed once again.” I changed the pronouns but not the meaning and I longed to hear the sound of my own name.
What was I doing here? Had I been so busy romanticizing the open road that I never noticed that in all the songs and stories, it was the men who were always leaving and the women who were always left behind?
No matter how badly I was hurting, I began to see that I was was being driven by curiosity. I needed to continue exploring. If I went home, back to the safe and stifling arms of my family, I would never change. Here in this beautiful place where I was so lonely but never bored, and where living was so cheap that it would be a long time before I had to think about work, I could find out who I really was. They could rape me five times, I thought, and I wasn’t running home.
On the fifth day I went down to the shore, where the waves lapped around my ankles, and I in my head I heard Paul Simon singing “El Condor Pase.” “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail, yes I would, if I surely could…”
Oh, I surely would, I thought. It hurt to be the nail, being hammered by penises that felt like worms, by drugs that paralyzed me, by the rapist who gave them to me, by men I trusted who meant me no good, by my own shyness, by a gringo scene I didn’t understand, where some people were friendly but others were just plain cruel and I didn’t have the skills to know the difference.
I’d rather not be a hammer or a nail, I thought, since one hurts and the other gets hurt, but if there are only two choices, I’d rather be the hammer than the nail, yes I would, oh I surely would.
Another song flew into my mind on the wings of a line of pelicans. “La Bamba.” I knew enough Spanish now to understand the chorus: “Soy capitan, yo soy capitan, yo no soy marinero, soy capitan.” I’m not the sailor of my life, I’m the captain. I’m not the nail of my life, I’m the hammer.
So I went into the water and watched the waves and the pelicans and the sunset and the breeze blew warmly against my cheek.
Melnick was wrong about me. I did leave Banos, and I did start traveling, and I did start making my way quite successfully in the cruel, cruel world. I thought I had put rape behind me.
A year later, though, I found myself in the Bolivian highlands, scouting for native textiles to sell in New York. When I got back to La Paz, I went up to the Ministry of Trade to talk about financing for a line of alpaca coats — I had an interested buyer at Bendel’s in New York City. I had a plan, a track record, a return-trip ticket to New York and five grams of 92-percent-pure cocaine stashed in my jeans.
The meeting was going well when I excused myself to go to the ladies room. While I was on the toilet I took a small hit.
When I finished and unlocked the door, a man pushed his way into the stall and blocked my way.
He was a native. He was young, about my height, dark-skinned. He was wearing a ragged alpaca sweater. His teeth were bad, his breath was foul and his smile was evil.
“You have cocaine,” he said in Spanish. “I will call the police.”
Then he pointed to his crotch and started to unbutton his trousers.
It appeared that I would have to give him a blow job or spend the next five years in a Bolivian jail.
Maybe his dick was small, because in the few seconds that he was groping around in his pants, my mind started whirling. We were in a women’s bathroom, for God’s sake. How did he get in here? How did he know I was carrying cocaine? He must have followed me in and stood on the toilet seat in the next stall, trying to catch a glimpse of my white ass. He must have decided that he hit the jackpot when he saw me snort.
“Oh, no!” I thought. “Not again!”
And then I went into action. I don’t know why the fear left me and the where the anger came from — some of it was the drug, of course. And some of it was being beaten up by a 13-year-old girl in New York, and some of it was the rage I’d buried since Misahualli and Melnick. But I lit into that guy like I was one of those cartoon characters who turns her arms into windmills.
I hit him randomly, hard and often and he went down, I tell you, he went down. He crashed against the stall door, slid right down it and lay on the floor with his head in a pile of used toilet paper.
It was over in seconds, but not really. I stepped over him, washed my hands — where was everybody else? — took the elevator down 15 stories, went across the street to a luxury hotel and I stashed my cocaine behind a toilet in a public bathroom on the main floor. Then I went back to the ministry building, went up again to the 15th floor, walked into the office and said, “Someone just tried to rape me in the ladies room.”
The secretaries screamed, surrounded me, offered me a drink, a chair and even smelling salts. I was trembling all over. A lot of “povracita,” or “poor girl,” was being murmured in my ear. A few men marched down to the ladies room, where, believe it or not, the guy was still lying on the floor. They hauled him away. I gave a statement to the police and that was the end of it.
When the hubbub had quieted, I took the elevator again, left the building, walked back across to the hotel, retrieved my stash and went back to my hotel room, metaphorically dusting off my hands all the way.
I was on the road for many years after that, and was alone in many dangerous places. But no one has ever again tried to attack me. And I have never again felt afraid.