We had ridden less than a mile into Panama when a group of construction workers in orange jumpsuits started whistling and hollering in our direction. Anger and frustration bubbled in my chest; I was already getting catcalled. Costa Rica had turned out to be a refuge from the harassment, and I’d hoped the same for Panama. But there I was, in grungy clothing and encrusted by road dust, receiving the unwanted attention yet again.
I find that the best way of responding to catcallers is with animal noises. It leaves them with a taken aback look on their face that sends a shiver of satisfaction down my spine. My go- to animal is the rooster; a nice, loud bokk- bok- bok-bookkkkkk-bokk is neither an expected nor desired response to sssttt sssttt “oh hai baby” sssttt sssttt
But Ben stopped me before I began to crow, because the men were madly flailing their arms in the direction that we were not going. Confused, we pulled over and a worker approached us.
“You don’t want to go that way” he stated firmly. “There is nothing. Bananas one side, bananas the other side.”
“That’s ok” we replied, not understanding his opposition to bananas.
“The road is dirt, only dirt”
Alas, the truth came out. “Ummmm…ok. Maybe there are men with machetes and they take your bikes and your money.”
Aahhh, that made more sense. We thanked them and turned around, taking a longer but safer route.
All the trip preparation in the world could not have saved us from the daily unknowns. We’d be even more lost, vulnerable, and destitute without the generosity and guidance of the strangers that help us when we don’t even know we need it.
From the street vendors that fill in when Google Maps fails, to the crazy old woman that filled our bottles with ice cold water, to the firemen that let us sleep in their stations, to the retired couple that housed us for two nights when we were too tired to move; travel would be draining without these people.
And just when the racists, homophobes, chauvinistic pics, and other sad and surprising prejudices start to wear on my faith in humanity, when I drown in anxiety from judgements passed on me, when I hate myself for passing the same judgements on to other people, and when I fall into a spiral of doubting the existence of any good, the beacon of a stranger feeds my spirit a love nugget.
Yet kindness always surprises me- it’s hard not to fear ulterior motives. Skepticism serves both as protection and as a barrier to communication. But not communing is also dangerous, in that it breeds those same prejudices that makes us hate and use each other.
I am filled with a warm, fuzzy gratitude for the strangers that put their skepticism aside and make small, random acts of pure generosity to help other strangers. They break down stereotypes and prove that altruism is a trait shared by people from all over the world.
When those construction workers saved us from the robbers, I felt my biases melt a little. On the streets, I am more aware- I even listen to the catcallers. Awareness is a better defense than skepticism; rather than acting through preset judgements that you may have picked up at home, you make decisions based on what you learn from new interactions.
I hope that one day, everybody chooses awareness over skepticism so that we can all be friends, and I won’t have to defend myself with poultry sounds.