Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Respeto, respeto.

(For Katie)

Lois introduced me to Katie during my first week in Granada—spunky, eighty-three-year old Lois, who I first met at the opening readings of the Nicaraguan Poetry Festival. Although Lois had no luck in matching me with the attractive Chilean man she’d also befriended that night, she brought me Katie, my only real friend during these six weeks I’ve spent in Granada. In a town overrun by French guys arguing over the price of a beer and American guys shouting to each other across the hostel where I rented a room, Katie’s friendship was a gift, and meeting her for wine on the Calle Calzada has helped to keep me sane in this heat that’s enough to drive you mad, and in this city that’s so far from home.

Katie’s an attorney. She spent four years in DC working for the proverbial man, selling her soul to pay off her loans, cooped up for long days and even longer nights in her office, scanning documents, writing up outlines, presenting evidence to her partners. She did what she could—buying herself massages in precious free hours, or paying obscene amounts for laser hair removal—to keep herself from going mad. She still doesn’t know whether it was worth it, she admits to me one night as we sip wine at an outdoor cafe and watch street performers throw sticks of fire up into the air. All those missed holidays, missed birthdays, abandoned vacations, fizzled relationships—at least now she’s here, here in Nicaragua, thousands of miles from all of that madness, trying each day to forget that price she paid.

Specifically, she has a contract with the Pan American Health Organization; she’s working to gather research on women’s sports in the developing world, specifically in Nicaragua. These days, she can wake up with the sun; she has time for the gym and for dinners with friends, or for mini-vacations when her boyfriend comes down to visit. She’s been here since September, and her work includes going to Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, every few days to meet with government representatives who inevitably show up quite late, or cut the meeting short, or arrive without having prepared what she had asked them, many times, to prepare. Truthfully, all I know for sure is that Katie has been assigned this research on how women’s sports work down here, how teams are formed in schools and what hinders girls from pursing athletics, and she must present her findings this fall. If you want more information on the loftier, legal aspects of her work, you’ll have to ask her, because we don’t discuss those broad findings, or what they might mean for the Nicaraguan Constitution or the decisions the Pan American Health Organization will ultimately make from their Washington headquarters. What we discuss, Katie and I, are the crazy meetings she has; the incredible reluctance she encounters everywhere when it comes to examining and fostering women’s sports; the rampant sexism; the unbelievable mockery that comes when a women steps up to bat.

Katie has met a few times with Peter, an American guy who has lived in Granada for years and who has invested his considerable US-made fortune in a local school. He started small, with practical incentives for teachers and students, as well as strong disciplinary policies, and his school has grown into something that’s really successful. Katie came to him, I suspect, because her work was moving slowly, because her meetings in Managua could be like meetings with pieces of furniture, and because she is a motivated, very bright woman who desires some kind of measurable result for her time here. A packet of research will not be enough, and so she got Peter to help her recruit girls at his school for a softball team. Starting a team, Katie thought, was one great way to put her research into action. She attended their second practice on Saturday.

It was like all my research was thrown at me, she tells me the other night, of that practice. All the things that keep women from playing sports, I saw firsthand. Once again, we’re sipping wine, watching the street performers throw their fire and dance around on stilts. I wish I were a writer, so I could write something beautiful and funny about what happened, but I’m not. So she just tells me about the practice, which lasted three hours—way too long—Katie says, and took place on a hot, hot field in the middle of the morning. Although the girls were told by their coach to wear shorts, they all showed up in dark skinny-jeans and flip flops and tight, revealing shirts, their hair slicked back, their faces made up. Two girls, Katie tells me, wore gladiator sandals. No one arrived on time, and by 8:45—forty-five minutes after the practice was to begin—only ten of the twenty-five team members had shown up. Katie had arrived at eight, in shorts and sneakers and athletic socks, her hair tied back. There were so many things about that day, she tells me, laughing, drinking, leaning back in her chair. So many ridiculous things.

The first thing was the field. Some boys had already gotten to the field that the girls were meant to use, and they shouted that those girls needed to find somewhere else. That somewhere else ended up meaning a grubby old patch of dirt without bases, without stands, and without shade, and by the time the girls made it ambled over, they were already sweating and complaining. So there was the field, the space, and no questions asked when the boys took over, even though use of that place had been slotted for the girls.

The second thing was the stretching—the coach instructed the girls to swing their arms, shake their legs, move their necks back and forth—and the girls complained that they were in pain. For me, Katie says, stretching is like a massage, easy and deep and relaxing, but for them, it means using their bodies in a way they never have. Sure, they’ve carried their little siblings around on their hips, they’ve lifted buckets of water and baskets of food, but they’ve never moved their limbs for the sake of just moving them, warming up, shaking the muscles just to get the blood moving. That was the second thing.

The third thing was the coach. In the States, Katie explains, coaches are your friends. They are on your side—yes, they could be tough, but they also want to help you. This coach, a middle-aged Nicaraguan guy, screamed at the girls when they missed a pitch, fumbled a catch, ran too slow. What’s wrong with you! He would roar. I told you to do it this way! Don’t you listen? It took all Katie had not to pounce on him, start pounding on his chest, and demand what, in fact was wrong with him. That was the third thing, that awful coach, and the fourth thing was the team of hecklers. Boys from the high school sidled up to the edge of the field to whistle and shout at the girls, to flirt with them, to distract them, to ask each other why girls would ever want to play softball, and then to ask the girls themselves why, as Nicaraguans, they couldn’t throw a decent pitch. The girls grew dusty, sweaty, their hair sticking to their foreheads, and not a single one had brought a bottle of water. The coach screamed at them for that, too.

When the drunk fifteen-year-old staggered over, Katie thought she might break. He was the worst of all the hecklers, with a forty in his hand and a loud, arrogant voice. You throw like girls! He screamed, and when Katie told him to leave, he told her to chill out. Relax, blondie, what’s the problem? Don’t be crazy. For the second time that morning, Katie wanted to explode, wanted to use her fists on that drunk kid, but she took a deep breath and told him she was in charge here, and if he didn’t leave, she’d call the cops. (A lie, she adds, sipping from her glass and grinning. I wasn’t in charge, and anyway, the cops would never come.) Finally, he staggered away, probably to go do drugs somewhere else. Katie smiled when she told me the story, but I could picture her shaking fists, her blood growing hot, hot beneath that merciless sun and that young, drunk boy’s sloppy stare.

Katie taught the girls to learn each other’s names so they could cheer for each other. She let the coach handle the group pep-talks, and went instead to each girl. You’re doing great, she told them all. You’re doing great. By the end of practice, the girls were having fun, they had made friends, and maybe a few will come back next Saturday, Katie hopes. One practice a week isn’t enough, but on the weekdays the mothers need their girls to help with the housework—they say that even three hours on a Saturday morning is a lot. Maybe next week a few will be wearing shorts, a few extra girls will show up, and maybe the boys will get tired of coming around. Maybe, Katie says, practice won’t always be in that horrible heat, on that dirty field, and maybe the girls won’t always be sexually harassed and screamed at. But probably, at least for the time being, they will.


I’ve stopped seeing the charm of this place, Katie tells me as the sun sets on Granada. She sips her red wine and leans back in her chair. All I can think about these days are the guys that I know are going to harass me—on the corner, in front of the post office, across from the pulperia near my apartment. I’m sick of telling them whatever comes into my head—Shut your mouth! What’s your f-ing problem! Show some respect! She takes another sip of wine and laughs, but you can tell that those guys really get to her. I haven’t been in Granada long enough to feel that same resentment, and anyway, my Spanish isn’t good enough to ask for respect the way she does. I don’t yet know how to curse.

For months, Katie considered herself unrecognizable, just another gringa face on the street, talking back. But the other day she overheard a few guys muttering about her as she passed. Don’t bother with her, she heard one tell the other, and the guys leaned back on the steps of the Church of San Francisco and kept quiet. As Katie walked away, she heard the guy add, Respeto, Respeto. She’s always looking for respeto. I can’t help but laugh at that one. Katie, the respect-demanding gringa, the one who stands on the softball field in her shorts and sneakers and threatens to call the cops. I love this girl for that. She drains her glass of red wine and orders another from the cute waiter who, by day, is her personal trainer. Guess they know me now, she laughs, brushing away one of the street vendors who stops at our table to try and sell us a hammock. Cheap price, very cheap, he tells her, crooning, and she rolls her eyes skyward.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful character description, with your usual beautiful writing style.

    I did wonder what you were doing drinking red wine in such heat. Here, in Buenos Aires, when it's really hot, they drink white wine with ice cubes in the glass.