Thursday, August 4, 2016

No Means No

Captain’s Log: June 23th 2016

Let me be completely honest right now; I went back and forth on publicly sharing what I'm about to share! Ultimately, I decided to do so for a number of reasons. For one: I strive to be an authentic person. Two: so many other women don’t share about these experiences out of shame and public guilt. And three: the people who read my blog I don't think are the ones who will judge me and place the blame on me for what happened to me.  

My first night in Cusco, I was almost raped!  

“Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with you! You are blessed among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen!” As I clutched the rosary ring from my late grandfather, reciting loud and proud the words to this prayer, I hung on to every single word as I stared down the man sitting across from me in the small room I found myself in. 

Let me back track a bit. This man I found myself with is a Couchsurfing host in Cusco, Peru. And by every standard – every single one – he checked out well, as a safe, reliable and courteous host. However, my experience with him was a far cry from that! And after such a great experience with my host in Lima, this was such a stark contrast, and came at such a terrifying surprise. 

It started after my Peru Hop bus dropped me off outside Cusco’s center. The few minutes I had to connect to wifi, I was able to message this host. After he told me to meet him on the church steps of San Blass square at 7pm, I flagged down a cab and was sitting on those church steps by 6:30pm. I waited for 45 minutes on those church steps, and I began to get worried. And without wifi to connect to, there was no way for my host to contact me or vice versa. By 7:20pm I managed to find a business nearby that allowed me to connect and message this host. By 7:30pm we met for the first time and I thought we would proceed to his place. After being on the road all day from Puno, Peru, I was exhausted! Surly anyone can understand my need to just eat, unwind and relax; right?  Well, that isn't what happened. As we walked the narrow cobble stoned streets he tells me in his broken English that he has a gig to play music at, and that I will go with him, and “have a great time.” He failed to mention this to me prior to this moment! Thanks for the heads up dude - not! And I did not have a great time. I couldn't socialize with anyone; everyone was either drinking or on something; I was wiped; hungry and felt stuck! But that was the least of my worries that night.  

“How long will we be?” I ask.  
In his broken English: “Oh maybe one hour or two hour and a half.”

It is 11pm before we leave. I hadn't had a decent meal all day; I felt the fatigue from the day of being on the road; I felt grungy and just craved a hot shower; I was cold and extremely irritated with someone I could barely communicate with. After taking a cab to his apartment my irritation morphs to hesitation, and hesitation quickly turns into fear – the kind of fear as a women, I have never felt until that night. As we walk into his apartment complex my nose was greeted by a powerful stench of cat urine! Whoever lives in that first apartment room with a feline friend paid that pet no mind – and the uninviting aroma was proof of the negligence. As we continue down the hallway towards his apartment, I realize I was stepping on broken glass and think: oh God! After turning the corner and standing behind him as he unlocked the door to his apartment, I stared horrified to what I saw behind the door.  Literally a room – a single room – that was utterly filthy! No kitchen, no bathroom; it was one, single, room - a box really. A room about 10 by 10 feet covered with dirty laundry, books, magazines and garbage. There was no empty floor space to speak of; no furniture to be had, much less a bed to speak of. It was literally a dump! As I look around, I notice the one window in his one room apartment was broken and all the cold air was coming in. Fantastic - I thought with a deep sigh and an eye roll! 

"Where's your bathroom," I ask. Discovering the bathroom was some kind of shared dorm space restroom, that everyone on the floor shared, my horrified feelings was paired with disgust! As I surveyed the restroom, I saw a broken toilet seat, a broken shower door and yet another broken window, wet substances on the floor, and surfaces that looked like they haven’t been cleaned in over a year. I touched no part of my skin to any surface in that bathroom. Ladies, know the squat well, and this situation called for it.

After returning to the room, I asked where I would be sleeping.  Remember, there was no furniture in his 10 foot by 10 foot room. I kid you not; he literally pulls a raggedy mattress from the ally of the hallway, moves some trash and dirty laundry from the floor and plops down the disease ridden rag of a sleeping device on the newly cleared floor space. After the initial "eww" thought, I think: how did he have such great reviews?! This doesn't match anything on his profile. Wide eyed, I am well beyond the point of: what have I gotten myself into; I’m already at the point of: how the hell do I get myself out of this situation – now?! A quick thought process concludes that I am in a catch 22 situation. If I stay, I stay at my own risk. Or I venture into the night; after midnight; in a foreign city, where I have never been before; I don’t know my way around, and my wifi wouldn’t even work to tell me where to go; I don’t know anyone else to come save me. My options are none and I feel unsafe either way - I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't.  Truly I was stuck.
So I proceed to sit on a pile of blankets that cover this repulsive mattress and open a school book, and pretend to read.
“You should relax.” He says to me, as he has a certain seductive look in his eyes.
“No, I want to read right now.” I say very sternly with a kind of bitch look on my face. 

Everything I knew about rape, and rape victims, and rape culprits comes to my mind...
Don’t feel like you have to be polite; 
Look them in the eye; 
Be stern; 
Don’t appear as vulnerable or easily tricked; 
Have something at hands reach in the event I have to attack; 
And all the self-defense moves I learned when I was 10 years old I was digging out of my memory bank. 

Some minuets later he tries again.  “You seem tense; you should let me give you a massage.” As he stands and walks towards me, with that same seductive look on his face, I immediately stand too, put my hand out and say: “No, stop! I don’t want you to touch me!” I look him straight in the eye and hold back the fearful tears I am sensing just behind my eyes.  All the while I'm thinking, do not show weakness!  “Com’on senorita,” as he reaches for my hand, I whip back the hand he tried to grab, and with my other hand I whip out a weapon I had in my pocket, and hold it to the side, and say again: “No, stop! I said no; no means no!”

He looks at my weapon hand and backs up. His expression of desire is replaced with hesitation.  Proceeding to sit down in his corner I keep my weapon hand out and with the other hand take my rosary ring off and begin to pray – out loud. After making the sign of the cross I began with the Our Father, saying every word of the prayer staring at him from across the room, thinking, “God, protect me, keep me strong tonight.” After one decade of the rosary (one Our Father, 10 Hail Mary’s, and a Glory Be), he begins to look at me like I’m crazy. By all means, I’d rather that look, than him looking at me as his sexual object or target. After other failed attempts to get me to let my guard down, he realizes he's not getting anywhere with me; literally calls me a “loca gringa,” and with a grumble falls asleep.  Goes without saying, I decided NOT to sleep that night. 

With his sleeping body blocking the only way in or out, I couldn't go anywhere. I had to wait till the mornings light to make my move and break out of there. It was one of the longest nights of my life, and I couldn’t help but think my grandfather and father must’ve been just a couple of my guardian angels in that moment when I really don’t know where the strength came from. Because the truth is all I wanted to do that night was cry; something would not let me.
The next morning after gathering my bags at 7am, and waking this guy up, I told him that I was leaving. Not knowing the area, I sternly told him to walk me to the nearest square so I could find some hostels as options for lodging. After walking the early morning cobble stoned streets and reaching sight of the square, I turned to him and said, “okay, I can take it from here.  Bye!”  He looks at me as if I owed him something, and I kept walking, and walked towards to the nearest hostel before sitting, and watching from the window for about 30 minuets before choosing a different hostel. While Couchsuring offers travelers to stay with hosts for free, I knew at that point my sense of safety and security were more valuable than any amount of money I would be saving. So I checked myself into a private room and bathroom in a decent hostel for the rest of my stay in Cusco. 

After sharing this experience with one of my housemates she later finds a news article where a solo woman traveler found a couchsurfing host (who by every standard checked out as safe, reliable and courteous) and was raped and murdered by that same host. My housemate's caption to the article she sent me was, “I ban you from doing this ever again.” The article gave me chills - it could have been me in that news report! Knowing I had to make a honest review on this guy, on the Couchsurfing website, I decided to wait until after I left Cusco for Ecuador and I'd be with other graduate students from LMU. At that point my solo time would be over; I'd be in a controlled setting; and he’d have no way of tracking me down and doing God knows what to me. The moment I landed in Ecuador, I went on to Couchsurfing to make that review on him, and his profile somehow didn’t exist anymore – interesting.  So now, I must navigate Couchsurfing, so that this guy doesn’t target any other unsuspecting women.  

When I was deciding whether or not I would share this, I thought about the rape culture we live in, and how it is still very taboo to talk about it. Also, I thought about how rape victims (still) are shamed and blamed for what happens to them. Even though I wasn’t raped, the experience could have lead itself to that point, and I am sure some people who will read this will still find a way to place the blame on me.
Why would you Couchsurf Barbara?  
They are strangers you stayed with?  
How safe is couchsurfing, really?  
Why didn’t you leave that night?  
You really put yourself in that situation Barbara. 
You kinda brought it on yourself.”  
And while I can call all the lines people may have for placing blame on me, I have to ask: did you ask these critical hypothetical questions to me before or after you placed that same blame and shame on this man for the advances he came at me with? And while, other rape situations are all very different, the bottom line comes down to consent. If a women is held responsible for “asking for it,” by wearing skimpy clothing (which I was not guilty of), why is the man not held responsible for practicing self control? If a woman is held responsible because she is "not drinking responsibly" (I am also not guilty of this argument) why is the man not held to a high standard, and getting her a cab home, or at the very least finding people who she came out with that can take care of her?  Whatever the situation entitles; why are men’s actions in the case of rape dismissed as: well you can’t blame him if the woman – fill in the blank with any rape victim blame line.  This train of thought implies that men can’t practice self-control; this is to say they have too many animalistic instincts to control themselves. This without a doubt is an insult to men; and I know too many great men (young and old) to say this societal assumption holds ANY credence!  

Now, I know – without a doubt in my mind – I was very lucky to end that night and leave the situation the next morning with nothing more than a racing fearful heart and a memory that will be branded in my mind. Goes without saying (and despite my feelings of hunger, cold and uneasiness) I am grateful and truly feel blessed that I had a few things on my side: my wits, my weapon, my rosary ring and not least of all my late father and grandfather by my side, as I’m sure they were providing me strength that night. 

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