I was walking back from climbing the other day with Soleil in the kiddy-pack, and a guy I’d never seen before crossed our path from the opposite direction. As we passed, Soleil’s tiny hand started waving vigorously behind me.
“Hola! Hola amigo! Hola!” she said.
Ten feet further up the trail already, the guy yelled back, “Ola Soleil! Todo bem?”
And, yet, even though I didn’t recognize this man, I’d be willing to bet he’s seen my boobs.
It’s like this everywhere we go. Within a week or two of arrival, everyone in the neighborhood knows Soleil, and therefore they’ve probably seen a part of at least one boob.
Fortunately, as constant foreigners, we live between cultures, in a limbo of social mores, so we don’t have to abide by our own cultural norms or always follow the visiting country’s rules either. Barring being rude or disrespectful of in-house customs, we get to cherry pick what we like from each country–or just make shit up.
And that is why Sol has a bazillion friends and everyone has seen a boob or two. It’s all a part of our sui generis, personal family ethos.
For us, it’s important that Soleil grow up feeling like she lives in a friendly world, where people are kind and willing to connect , so we’ve taught her that if she leads with a smile and offers something to share, she’ll make fast friends. And she has.
In fact, she’ll be the first to tell you that she has “muchos amigos.”
Of course, in order to teach her this, I have to lead by example. I have to walk up to complete strangers and say Hola amigos! Como estan? And wave and blow them kisses. I have to sit down at strangers’ picnics and introduce myself. I have to remember the guy’s name at the panaderia, the verduleria, and the carniceria; and, I have to start conversations with the people behind and in front of me in line.
I’m not gonna lie, sometimes it gets awkward. But, astonishingly, most of the time it’s fine. People tend to make room for my good cheer and even reflect it back at me.
I experience the same gracious acceptance (with a few awkward moments) about breastfeeding on demand. Whipping my boob out at the climbing crag or even around the group dinner table doesn’t seem to bunch up any boxers or ruffle any feathers.
And it’s not just because Latin Americans are culturally warmer and breastfeeding is more common here. Sure, people kiss to greet and almost always ask how you’re doing prior to getting down to business, but what Soleil and I practice is more extreme; it’s like South American manners mixed with North American ambition: We REALLY, REALLY want to share with you, and hug and kiss you all over. Like A LOT. Soleil has been known to camp out next to a stroller and “da carino” (give affection) to a baby for five, ten, THIRTY minutes–really, she’ll do it as long as the baby can stand her petting its head.
And, although there’s less freakout over the boob in South America than in North America, giving “teta” to a full-grown toddler is not common here. Especially when your toddler is really vocal and yells things like, “Mmmm Teta! Que rica teta! Quiero DOS tetas, Mama! Oh, deeeeliciosasss tetas!”
I mean just imagine some kid at your local Apple Bees yelling,“Mmmm tits! Yummy tits! I want TWO tits, Mama! Oh deeeeliciouuus tits!” I don’t think it would go over so well.
Truth be told, even Tree thinks it’s creepy. The other day he gently informed me, “First of all, I love you, and I love Soleil. And I am totally 100% okay with it. BUT, just so you know it really does look freaky now, like you have a small person sucking your tit. Definitely not a baby. She does NOT look like a baby anymore.”
But you know what? I’m an outsider! And, therefore, I am liberated by my alterity: I exist beyond the norm.
“Well,” they think, “she’s an American. Maybe that’s just how they are.” And they pass it off as just a freaky foreigner thing.
Sure, sometimes I’m called the ‘crazy gringa’ and maybe people run from me at the park, but who cares. I’m unfettered by social standards and peer pressure, and if that’s what crazy is, I’ll take it.
Of course, the pressure and standards I’m referring to go way beyond the boundaries of stranger etiquette and breastfeeding. Concerning MOST social aspects, I don’t have to keep up with the Jones, because the Jones are totally irrelevant to a nomad. We don’t stay anywhere long enough to give a shit what “they” think. I don’t have to dress in the coolest designer jeans or unwrinkle my face wrinkles, nor do I have to forego my flip-flops, don full-lenghth petticoats, or take silly machismo seriously. It doesn’t matter what I do for a living, how much money I make or what kind of car I drive because the specific prejudices and judgments of both North and South America are foreign to me. I’m free from all that headache.
Basically, I get to live in this custom-free zone, according to my own personal ethos, sans bullshit. It’s awesome.
But, even more awesome is that our cultural ambiguity occasionally liberates other people from the crappy, self-limiting parts of their cultures, as well.
Unfettered by homegrown hindrances like classism and prejudice, we’ve had the opportunity to make what would be considered unlikely friendships where we were–for instance, with Maria, our housekeeper, in Lima, Peru.
In Peru, and much of Latin America, there can still be a pretty strict divide between the rich/upper-middle class and the people that work for them. To give you an idea, people with the means to hire “help” still have separate bathrooms and eating quarters for their empleadas. When we first moved into our apartment in Lima, I immediately filled the “help” bathroom with storage, thereby making it impossible for Maria to use. So, when Tree and I also insisted Maria get out of the kitchen and have lunch with us, and I referred to her as my friend when we were out shopping together, she was a bit… confused. What is up with these weirdo gringos? And, yet, only a couple months later, she was meticulously correcting my Spanish, blushing while she told lewd jokes, sharing stories from her harrowing childhood escaping the Shining Path, and helping me into sitz baths with llanten leaves after my private parts exploded giving birth to Soleil.
She went above and beyond the call of duty; she had become my friend.
Of course this kind of friendship isn’t so unusual in the States. Twenty five years later, I’m still friends with Emilia, the last nanny I had while growing up. But for Maria and me, in Lima, Peru, it was unique. I am very grateful that she was willing to cross the ‘divide’ that existed between us in her country and join us in limbo, a cultural Switzerland, if you will. Before we left Lima, I helped her set-up her first FB account so we could keep in touch.
Sometimes I wonder how it would be if we lived back in the States. Would I still identify as Culturally Ambiguous in my own country?
Would I engage strangers with the same fervor as I do on the road?
Would I feel comfortable breastfeeding my almost two year old in public?
Would I try to create community everywhere I go, remembering names of store clerks and constantly inviting new people over to our camp/house/van to have a glass of wine?
Would I continue to kiss people upon greeting because I really like that practice, or would I go back to the handshake or butt-out, back patting hug?
Would I risk ridicule and judgment, or even just awkward moments, in an effort to live by my own ethos and connect with others?
I’d like to think that I would. I’d like to believe that the immense kindness of strangers I’ve learned to trust on the road translates not just beyond borders…but maybe within my own, as well.
Someday we shall see.
But for now, we’re off to Rio de Janeiro!!! Woohoooo!! And, super exciting, we will be staying with Paula and Guillermo, our friends that we met in Cartagena, Colombia, over three years ago.