I finished the Lost City trek a couple days ago, and I went with a group that utilized indigenous guides. Our guide, Gabo, talked a little bit about his culture and the way that they live. Despite the hundreds of years since the Spanish invasion, and the 45 years since the “discovery” of the Lost City (the local people knew about its existence the entire time haha), they have remained fairly tribal!
People live in groups of around 250, under the leadership of a Mamo (with a masculine ending, we correctly guessed they were all males). There are still other leaders within each group (I reserve the word tribe for the 4 main “tribes” of 17-20k each that make up the indigenous population around the Lost City), but the Mamo is the main leader who retains pretty much autocratic control (which, as is perhaps obvious in a group of 250 people, is rarely exercised autocratically). The mamo is also the medicine man, the shaman, the leader, the one who knows about medicinal plants and is responsible for the vision and direction of the community.
Many things were interesting to me (their belief in reincarnation, dating rituals, religious or cultural ceremonies, etc.), but one interesting thing that stuck out to me was how they have rituals for when a member of their society becomes a man or a woman. Our guide was a Wiwa male, so he talked more about the male ritual. What happens is the entrant, around the age of 17 or 18, will spend a month in a hut reserved specially for this ritual where he is accompanied by the mamo and other leaders of the community. The point of this time is to teach him what it means to be a man. One of the leaders is actually an older woman who teaches him how to be a man from the woman’s perspective, including instruction on how to have sex. After the month, the young man will receive a symbol from the Mamo, based on the Mamo’s interactions with him and this symbol will accompany the young man his whole life. It is used to center and ground and expand the young man’s view of himself and his role in the community and in the world.
I was thinking about this and what it means to be a man for myself. First, I lamented that we don’t have a ritual for becoming a man. It occurs in stages for us, like going off to college, and the gradual independence that is achieved through that separation from one’s parents (though of course not all students live away from home in the college dorms, or even go off to college, or even gain a strong sense of independence from their parents through college or their first job, etc.) Essentially, there is no immediate ritual you can point to and say “alright, now I’m a man.” Even my religion uses baptism which occurs before the infant knows anything, and while I appreciate the baptism ritual for many things, what it does not do is allow the person to remember the event and hearken back to it for stability or grounding. It’s an event that happens to oneself, but one doesn’t remember it – one has faith in the community for its existence (your parents, for instance, can confirm that you were baptized, or your church members), but that’s very different from the Wiwa ritual regarding manhood (the Church has confirmation but that’s still a very different thing).
And besides, the symbol is really the icing on the cake, isn’t it? Something that’s determinative and particular and unique for that one person, something concrete that lasts from the experience that can be used to bind and bundle together all the experiences and memories of the month in one’s mind and heart and soul. Where is that? I suppose in my Catholic religion, we have a new name that will be given to us when we die and enter heaven, a new name that will be known only to us and to God. A new name that fits us perfectly, whereas everything else in this realm of existence is partial and contingent and never-exactly-fitting (all of our roles, titles, names, personaes, etc.). How interesting to get a symbol like that!
I thought of myself and different “symbols” that I associate with myself (whether it be animals like the seahorse, the panther, the dragon) or astrology (my 7 planets and their sign-positions), or inner figures (my anima named Sam, my aggression), even various symbols that I use from Christianity (almost all of them, though it’s complicated). I have many ways of accessing the depth of my psyche, but they are fractious and numerous: far from having one symbol, I have a multitude of symbols. I wonder what it would be like to have one symbol and how I would appropriate that. Moreover, that one symbol that the Wiwas all have is given to them by a person. It doesn’t come to them from the depths of the psyche or from various cultural norms or experiences or portrayals in the media or television or culture. Actually, it is given to them by the only person who, by his nature, can and does represent the entire group.
Moreover, it made me think about my experience as a man. First of all, I don’t really identify much with my masculinity. When I think of what makes a man masculine, I think of sex drive, aggression, competitive nature, and affinity with other men. Side note: I say the affinity with other men because I truly believe that’s in our genetic code or in our hormonal effects that causes men to bond closely with other men in particular, and we see this especially in military platoons or sports teams. I bond with other men, of course, and sometimes prefer their company, but it seems that most of the time, I prefer being with women, and I interpret this as one way in which I fail to live up to my ideal of a masculine man. I’m also very attuned to harmony and the roles that harmony (for the group that I’m in) requires of me. This is a more passive, adaptable personae – not a strong, be-my-own-man self that I associate with masculinity. Also, I’ve never been handy or good with fixing things or tools or construction work (which is one reason why I’m here in South America, to become much better at all of these things). Lastly, I love the experience of queering gender, breaking out of boxes, the many ways that we can have gender diversity and celebration of queerness. So I have an important part of me that wants very much to not be a traditional man because it just seems so boring and unexciting. Maybe even my love of strong women is somehow related.
Contrast this with my 5 months of experience in South America – and I mean both language and culture. The Spanish language is very gendered. All nouns have gender, and so if you mess up the gender, sometimes it changes the meaning, sometimes it just confuses the person, and sometimes the person figures out that you made a mistake but understands what you’re trying to say anyway. Then once the noun is set in its gender, you have the adjectives that also change. Sometimes even the numbers (un versus una for 1 in its masculine and feminine forms). In groups, for instance, if there is at least one male present, the gender of the group changes from female to male. Even if there’s 99 women and 1 man, the very entrance of the man changes the group from ellas to ellos. Needless to say, I am continually reinforced in my masculinity – the adjectives I choose for me have to be in the masculine form, and I’m on the lookout for men in groups so I can use the correct group gender (and corresponding gendered adjectives). It’s a very awkward, uncomfortable feeling that occurs deep down for me, not strong and not very conscious but fairly ubiquitous.
But that’s not all! It’s not just the language game that reinforces gender differences, and my own sense or history with my own masculinity… the culture does too! Whereas in America, the gender stereotype of men seems to be the non-emotional man who’s distant and passive and rational, the Latin culture displays a more affectionate and feeling man (TV, telenovelas, and walking in the street). On the TV for telenovelas, for instance, the men cry and feel emotions strongly (although usually younger men, not older men in my experience). Men here are much more affectionate, and while they won’t hold hands with each other, public displays of affection are tolerated to a much higher extent than in the states, especially for couples. I’ve seen couples making out often (which is super rare for me to see in the USA), and I see a lot more couples than I’m used to holding hands, holding each other’s bodies, being attached physically in some way. (It’s also much more common to show off your body, whether it’s clothing for men or for women, but especially for women, which I find endearing and empowering).
Before this experience here in the country, I don’t think I’ve ever resonated much with my masculinity, never felt very much like a man (even if I’ve wanted to), and so now that I’m 5 months in, I feel more like a man than I think I’ve ever felt before. But because I’m getting so many different signals about what it means to be a man, whether it be from my own Dad, or American culture, or Latin culture, or the GLBTQ culture…it’s reinforcing a fractious and scattered idea, not a unified idea. For instance, my Dad was emotional and tender and affectionate while still also being the disciplining one. American movies and TV seem to portray the dispassionate and rational and non-affectionate man, whereas the Latin culture is a strong and emotional man, and definitely not a blurring of the genders. Gay couples and affection between gays is rare for me to see (though I’ve seen it a couple times in my 5 months). To conclude, with the ways that I’ve experienced masculinity growing up, with American Hollywood culture, then with the GLBTQ culture and the queering of gender, and then to be bombarded with the Latin experience of masculinity…I feel more like a man and more confused on what it means to be a man all at the same time.
I like the idea of having strong identities because I can use them to feel further grounding and stability. Even if I don’t believe in grounding for the identity, the feeling I get from such an identity can still ground me. Take, for example, the identity that I am a child of God. I still love this identity and derive value and grounding from it. Sometimes when I’m discouraged, I remind myself that I am valuable because I’m a child of God. I don’t believe in God, so I don’t actually believe in this identity, but that doesn’t mean I can’t feel the identity. Likewise, I am starting to appreciate my male identity, even if I don’t know exactly what it means, and even though I haven’t felt like a “man” in a long time. This identity label is coming to nest in my psyche more and more.
Now changing the topic:
I’ve finished my time on the coast. I did the 4-day hike of the Lost City (with the Wiwa guide). I did 2 days in Santa Marta (boring), 4 days in Minca (very relaxing, with a bird tour and a waterfall hike twice), 2 days in Palomino (a tranquil beach town just before the Sierra Nevada desert, with huge waves and, again, not much to do), then 3 days in Cabo de la Vela (located in a nice bay but located in the Sierra Nevada desert). I’ve attached some photos for you.
It was a very relaxing time here, but I’m ready to head back to Bogota (today being…Jan 25), then head down to Chile! I’ll be camping around Punta Arenas by myself, and just renting equipment or hooking up with people down there, for some unknown length of time. Because this area is so important to me, I plan on spending about a month hiking and relaxing and camping out in nature. I don’t have a tent or a sleeping bag or cooking equipment, which makes me a little anxious, but then again, camping by myself in refugios is a lot cheaper than a tour which is about $700/day. (4-8 day tours are available for Patagonia.) Without that money, I am able to go do it alone, without a guide, for a lot cheaper and a lot longer. I thought about buying the equipment so I don’t have to rent it (thus saving me about $30/day), but then I’d have to buy a new bag and that’s just too much money for me at this time. Besides, I’d still have to pay $12 for a place to stay at the refugio and also pay for food…so I’ll just pay for everything when I’m down there lol. Now I have to make friends!!
This is my second dream site (of 4) for my South America trip, so I’m very excited. I’m a little sad because I won’t have a hot shower for a while (and I’ve already not had hot water for the past 3 weeks) and it won’t be very comfortable. But such is life. I can practice being simple. 🙂 Back to the good ol’ Boy Scout days!!