When my close friend, Sara, came to visit me, we took a 3-4 hour bus ride to a small town called, Villeta. I had never been there and picked the place because I was told that it’s warm (“tierra caliente”) and has a lot of beautiful nature and natural waterfalls. We got there, found a place to stay and the next morning we set out to go hiking and swimming. We stopped at a small Panadería, a bakery, and a 9 year-old boy– who was seemingly the only worker at the place—served us coffee and white rolls. After I paid the $1.50 for the two of us, I asked how to get to the falls. The boy pushed in our red plastic chairs, stepped outside onto the dusty brown road and pointed his little finger down the way.
After hiking for about 20-30 minutes, following a river, we found a calm inlet of pond flanked by large rocks, and a small stream cascading over one of them. There was one other small group of people there, three boys and a girl seeming to be in their early 20s, hanging out in their swimsuits. We waved. As we laid our things down on the rocks and took off the layers which covered our swimsuits, we watched as two of the boys climbed the seemingly edgeless rock over the waterfall as effortlessly as mountain goats. When they got to the mouth of the fall, about 15 feet over the pond, they jumped in. I was impressed. When one of them looked in my direction, I gave a little clap. After this same guy jumped in again, he motioned for me to join him. I put up my hand as a gesture of No thanks, but after the third time watching him, I decided to give it a shot. Sara stayed where she was, relaxing on the side.
Getting to the mouth of the fall was not as easy and the two made it look. It wasn’t very far, but involved stepping on a lot of slippery rock to get there. I took my time. When we finally got to a small platform of stone near the mouth—the friendly stranger leading the way had waited for me—I heard my name being called from over the loud misting of tumbling water. Up until this point, I had been focusing mostly on my feet: I looked up to see Sara on the other side of the pond accompanied by three, forest green-uniformed police officers.
“¡Bajense, ahora!” Come down, now! called out one of the officers. I considered my options. Looking to the right was the way we came, a long and somewhat precarious route.
To the left was the fall, but the ridge one would be required to step on looked even narrower than it had from below: it was the width of about a nickel. The boy explained that one makes a sort of hop onto this edge, pushes off of it and leaps into the water. Back story: I’m that girl that would hold up the line on the high dive at the local swimming pool, jumping off only after not-so-brief delays of self-pep talks and deep breaths. I don’t like to be rushed.
The fall looked higher from where I was and I had serious jitters. The time crunch put into effect by the new arrivals didn’t help. I wasn’t too cornered about the police, because we hadn’t done anything wrong, but I didn’t want to leave my friend alone with them for longer than absolutely necessary. I gestured to the right and asked the guy if he thought I could go down that way. He shook his head, explaining that the water was shallow that way, that there was solid rock underneath which would be dangerous if I were to slip and fall into it. The safest way would be jumping into the waterfall. “¡Ahora!” emphasized a young-faced officer, putting the pressure on.
Long story short, I finally jumped. It was fine, I felt empowered, yadda yadda. As I wrung my hair out, coming out of the water, the young officer said, “Saque sus cosas. Tienen que irse.” Get your things, you have to leave. Meanwhile, another officer, fat and unibrowed, was brazenly staring at my wet bikinied chest. “¿Por qué?” I asked the young one, annoyed.
This area isn’t safe, he replied, sternly. Then, Do you know those guys? Did they offer you drugs?
–What? No, we didn’t know them before and no, they didn’t offer us drugs, I responded, snottily. They had been smoking a joint amongst themselves earlier but that wasn’t the point. The fat one looked up from my chest.
Guys come here and give girls drugs and then try to rape them, he said, his brow dour and flat. Who told you to come here?
–Someone from town, I snapped back. Plus, there’s a girl WITH them. I paused. We’re really not allowed to swim here?
The other officer who had been quiet, a skinny, long-faced man, piped in. You can find a hotel with a swimming pool, he said casually. Or you can come back with… friends. You girls shouldn’t be alone.
Note that in Spanish, the word for friends is Amigos, which can mean one of two things. It may refer to plural males and females, taking on the masculine ending –os, by default, rather than –as, the feminine ending. It may also refer to plural males. By the context, I gathered that the man was suggesting the latter.
—So you’re saying that we can’t be here without men to protect us? I responded, plainly.
The skinny one stammered. Just… come on… let’s go.
I dried myself off, Sara and I put our clothes back on and the fat one and the skinny one escorted us back to town. The young-faced one stayed, his hands authoritatively resting on his belt, to talk sternly with the people we had met. I waved good-bye.
When we got back to a major road, the two hopped on a motor scooter and asked where we were going now. We had all of our things with us. Back to Bogotá, I said truthfully, as our plan was to go back to the city after swimming. They said OK and rode off. While we were walking to the bus station to take us back to the city, another scooter with two other policers pulled up beside us.
You’re those two girls who were down by the river, one said. Where are you going? Taking a deep breath, I explained that we were going back to Bogotá and that they didn’t have to worry. They didn’tworry us all the way back to the bus station. At the station, we were met by two other officers who heard about the situation and tried to get our information. I explained that there would be no point—the paperwork would have made for a relatively long process—and the bus was leaving right then. I waved them off, we hopped on the bus and left town.
Maybe the officers were right. Maybe the entire police force of Villeta was reacting the way they did because former events had warranted it. But maybe not. The people we met were friendly but not overly forward. Maybe this was just another instance of the culture considering women to be defenseless and vulnerable and the younger, more lower-class people as being delinquents.
In Colombia, in public, women are constantly reminded that we are women. This presents itself in the way we are taught to take extra care of ourselves, whether communicated through specific verbal instruction or by an environment which implies our spatial restrictions and the limitations of our physical strength. If I take a walk at night by myself down a side street with few people on it, which I rarely do, I assess how many other people are that block at all times and how many of these individuals look stronger than me. Being a man and walking at night puts one at risk of getting mugged; as women we have belongings other than objects we must seek to protect. We are taught that the best way to do such is regulate our activities.
There is an expression in Bogotá: No des papaya. The direct translation is, “Don’t give papaya.” It is used to say, “Don’t give people the opportunity to take advantage of you” or “Don’t ask for it.” This expression is used for both women and men to avoid trouble. However, particularly for females, the question shifts from, “What can one do as a woman?” to “What can one do to a woman?” and “What can women do to avoid these situations of possible vulnerability?” The thing is: I’ve never cared much for papaya. I’ve never cared much for rules. If either one is served in a fruit salad, chances are I’m going to give them away.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought to whether or not living in Bogotá as a feminist is something I can do as a woman; as a particularly stubborn woman, at that. Maybe this culture of can’ts isn’t something that’s going to change any time soon, but recently I realized how important it is that I try. Over the next six months or so I’m going to do my best to try to create art and dialogue about these issues. Having grown up in the states, in the Midwest, I was taught that I could grow up to be whatever (and presumably wherever) I want; and that does not involve being stuck between a rock and a hard place.