Beauty Queen

Just before I left from Haiti, someone asked me if people ever stare at me or want to touch my hair when I travel. Hmmm…I know exactly what they’re talking about, but I haven’t thought about it for a long time. I know all my travel stories go back to Japan, but…I think I got over my touching/staring phobia when I lived in Japan. Some days, it was just a casual glance around a newspaper. Do you really think I don’t see you looking at me?? Some days, kids pretending to be texting on their cell phones which were held suspiciously at my eye level instead of theirs. Yes, I see you too. Some days, and these were the worst, college-aged kids who were in their window of less-shyness would point at me and get others to stare with them. I definitely see you. Stop it. So, three years later, I hardly noticed it at all. I embraced my rock-star status (I could just sign my first name in the bank and it was totally legal) and learned to be cordial at the gawkers. In Japan, a nice smile would generally do the trick to get someone to suddenly realize they were making me uncomfortable, which made them uncomfortable, and ended the whole ordeal. The college kids took something more overt like a wave or a “Hello!” In most cases–minus the refugee camps–I don’t really notice as much anymore I think. So, my answer to them was, no, I don’t think people are that interested in staring or touching my hair when I travel.

At least he smiled for this one…

It might’ve been the fact that we were in a rural area, or that we’re stunningly beautiful (I believe it’s most likely the former), but Haiti was a land of leerers. Less from other women and, while kids did stare, it was also not so threatening. But, for the first time in my travels when I wasn’t doing something culturally inappropriate or bad in some way, my smile lost its power to diffuse the situation. Even in India, where the presence in public of young idle men was almost oppressively apparent, a smile would get you a shy smile back, or at least some reaction that made the situation seem light. In Haiti, I felt constantly aware of young male eyes tracing my every step across the church compound, watching us through the window of the van as we drove by, or fixated on me as we sat through church services. I tried to smile or wave or in some way acknowledge that they were making me uncomfortable. If anything, it just got more of the group’s eyes on me. I’m not the only one. Don’t think I’m that girl who thinks everyone’s always staring at me. I’m not. I know it’s not for beauty, but for difference–blond hair, green eyes, pale skin. I get it. It was just disconcerting that there couldn’t be some unspoken agreement that they were unintentionally making me self-conscious and uncomfortable. I think, maybe, it’s because they were trying to make us uncomfortable.

To her credit, my beautiful travel companion always attracts attention wherever we go. People love to love her. So, I know they weren’t all staring at me. We were pretty joined at the hip during the trip, so most likely they were staring at her. But, all the same, when my tried and true methods of deflecting unwanted attention don’t work, things get weird. We decided to travel in pairs always. Intimidated by the creepers (by this I’m only referring to the young men gathered in groups and lurking in shadows under trees in the dark, not the regular little kids who are interested or other community members who will say hello right back), we became increasingly aware that we were being watched. It’s not like I want to make blanket statements that young Haitian men are creepy. Honestly, as a woman traveling to remote places at times, I think most men are creepy when I travel. That’s just my fight-or-flight response to being vulnerable. And this particular experience really tapped into my cautious instincts.

At the women’s center, two groups of probably 7 men each at the construction site were leering. It was so awkward that our translator (a woman) went over to talk to them. She just shook her head as she walked back to us. “They really like you two,” was all she said. At least it’s not just all in my head!

He really wanted his picture taken

The other experience I had in Haiti, related but different, that is in complete contrast to other developing countries that I’ve been to is that most Haitians seem to not mind having their picture taken. Many will actually seem like creepers at first, when all they really want is their photo taken. Our translator said it’s because they like to know that someone out there has a photo of them and thinks of them, though I’m no sure that’s true. In Africa, most people don’t want their photo taken. I’ve heard people say its because some cultures believe that cameras steal your soul. That might’ve been true at some point in some cultures somewhere, but actually most people I’ve encountered are modernized enough to be fine with the technology of cameras. Their driving motivation is actually that they hate that pictures of them could end up all over the world making money for someone (even aid agencies) without their consent. That’s not some kind of foreign “backwardness” or an obscure cultural belief, that’s a very real internalization of how the West has exploited the entire continent of Africa. We did try to steal their souls, in a way, and sell them on the market for capitalist gains. But, I wonder, in the case of Haiti, if loving to have your picture taken isn’t another side of the same coin. Overexposure to aid workers (as evidenced by the bus loads of church goers at the airport) might make it a local joke that foreigners like to take pictures of everything, so they don’t mind to humor us a little. Who knows. It turns out, one way to diffuse the creeper/leerer situation is to ask them if you can take their picture. Who knew? I never would’ve asked in Rwanda. I only ask people with whom I seem to be on good terms. Otherwise, I keep my camera tucked away for fear of further offending someone. In Haiti, at least in this remote village, the camera seemed to be just the trick!

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