Leaving New York City with no concrete plans other than a couple of plane tickets to South America inspired a bit of anxiety in everyone I know. I hadn’t traveled alone internationally in four years and my Spanish felt rusty. The idea of sleeping in a bus station or on the floor of a random person’s apartment when things went awry felt less appealing now than it did in my 20s. And it didn’t help that when friends, family, and acquaintances asked me about my travel plans and I responded “no real plans,” they gasped in horror and basically told me “not to die.”
As I landed in Colombia, my anxiety reached its peak levels. I had to pass through customs, exchange money, and negotiate transportation to the city in Spanish. This would be the first of many days of uncertainty.
While waiting on the long line of foreigners entering Colombia, I caught the eye of an extremely attractive backpacker who soared over the crowd. Somewhat embarrassed, I looked away and wondered why, of all the short travelers with big bags, he choose to look down at me. Perhaps I had imagined it all together.
When I reached the airport exit, the handsome backpacker approached me to ask in English about where to exchange money. We later introduced ourselves and he told me he had been traveling for a month or so from Germany.
I pointed to the money exchange counter. He handed the cashier $20 USD, and he received back $60,000 Colombian Pesos. “Explain this to me” he barked into the glass. The cashier struggled to explain the math as he continued to puzzle over the exchange rate and asked questions in English.
Of course, as a female traveling alone, I had already done the math on the exchange rate, and created a little cheat sheet to keep in my pocket:
Even if it seems simple enough to multiple by 3,000, I find the math extremely hard while under the gun to negotiate a transaction. Generally, I’ve always found numbers most challenging in a second language (my brain translates them first to English in a way it doesn’t for words).
While the German backpacker took at least five minutes to perform what should have been a five second transaction, I mused that he a lot like Ben Affleck. When “Ben” (that’s what we’ll call him) asked me to split a cab, I handled the negotiations in Spanish given my fear of his further English barking.
Although I love a good bargain, when a vendor (almost always a man) gives me the firm “no deal” sign, I either accept his price or walk away. Ben had a different strategy all together. Even without uttering a word of Spanish, he conveyed a firm tone that suggested he wasn’t fucking around.
At the airport we developed a strategy that would prove extremely effective throughout our time together. While I served as both interpreter and “good cop,” he played “bad cop” using a combination of English and non-verbal puffery. I never had to step out of the traditionally meek female role because ostensibly, I was only Ben’s messenger; if I failed to get him what he wanted, I too would face his wrath. I could throw up my hands and basically say “don’t shoot the messenger. He only wants to pay $6,000 pesos, no more.”
Even though I came to understand Ben’s demeanor while bargaining as a deliberate exaggeration of his actual mood, Ben’s bad cop disposition actually made me momentarily intimidated. Intimidation had never been in my box of negotiation tools, and I couldn’t pull off these kind of deals without him. (I later learned Ben is actually a cop in Germany).
After dropping our bags at our respective hostels, Ben and I met for a late lunch. Lunch turned into a walk at dusk and then drinks. It was only several activities in that I realized that, for Ben, this was a day-long date. Perhaps I sent mixed messages because of his rugged good looks, or maybe German women stereotypically present more “gay,” thus robbing Ben of his gaydar. (There’s a mildly offensive website dedicated to this phenomenon that has a game called “German” or “Lesbian?). Whatever the reason, Ben seemed shocked to learn that that I identify as queer.
Of course, Ben had lots of questions about my sexuality most of which revolved around whether or not I’d consider myself bisexual. Subtly wasn’t Ben’s strong suit.
When Ben asked me about how “it works with a woman so I can imagine,” I avoided discussing anything explicitly sexual by describing how much I liked the lack of pre-assigned gender roles in a same-sex relationship. (I had attributed the phrasing of this question to the language barrier—Ben’s English was mildly awkward—but that might be giving Ben way too much credit).
When Ben asked me to elaborate on how gender roles played out for lesbians, I told him that as a woman who presents as “masculine of center” or “androgynous” (some new vocabulary for Ben), I am sometimes expected to take the lead in certain ways. Ben reacted to this statement with indignation:
“I’d never find you attractive if you were masculine!” Oh Ben…
With Ben by my side (or more accurately towering over me), the world saw me differently. I encountered less street harassment, negotiated better deals, and even caught looks of envy from far more feminine women (“is he your man?” a woman asked me on the beach).
One morning, Ben absentmindedly placed his phone on the street to free up his hands to light a cigarette. Without thinking, he walked away and forgot to retrieve the phone. A few minutes later, he returned to search for the phone, and ran into a group of Argentine tourists who had found the phone laying on the ground, and decided to stick around to see if the owner would return.
When Ben attributed the return of his phone to his excellent karma—“good things happen to good people,” he boasted—I nearly snorted with laughter. Ben’s trip “karma” was nothing more than luck and a huge amount of white male privilege. His English barking, his bargaining over the equivalent of 30 cents, and his general lack of awareness of where his belongings and body existed in space didn’t buy him any karma points.
After nearly a decade of dating exclusively women, I probably stuck around with Ben longer than I should have just to take in the world as a straight woman might. While imagining life as Ben’s girlfriend induced feelings of panic, I couldn’t ignore the fact that the world seemed to have the opposite reaction.
As Ben and I parted ways (a moment we both welcomed), I realized that wherever I travel alone, I almost always find a “Ben.”
Bens have let me stay in their family’s apartments, offered me home-cooked meals (to be fair, cooked by their mothers usually), served as tour guides, carried my bags, drove me around the city, and even taken care of me when I was sick.
As I begun to recount my solo travels over the last decade, the sheer number of Bens astounded me. I’ve had several Argentina Bens (from Argentina, France, and the US), a Puerto Rico Ben (from the US), a Peru Ben (from Scotland), a Dominican Republic Ben (from the DR and New York), a Mexican Ben (a family member of a friend in the US) and now three Colombian Bens (one real Ben from Germany and two Colombian Bens). Once, a Chilean dude tried to become a Ben but I couldn’t understand his thick accent so we never ended up coordinating a successful meeting after getting to know each other on an overnight bus.
The vast majority of my Bens showed great kindness, respect and generosity without any expectations. I don’t regret my time with any of these Bens without whom I would certainly have missed out on incredible travel experiences (hitch hiking to a hidden river; scaling a mountain at an altitude I’d never attempt myself; hiding out in a tiny town far off the beaten path; bargaining at a Colombian outlet mall for new shoes).
A few Bens from my early 20s converted into short-term boyfriends. While I secretly dreaded sharing a bed (perhaps that should have tipped me off about the gay thing), I did like paying for only half of a private room. I even stopped protesting occasional assistance with my luggage when I saw how my 6-foot-something Bens made my backpack look like “Travel Barbie’s” favorite accessory. The majority of my Bens; however, were completely platonic friends (at least from my perspective) who served as travel companions and guides.
Unfortunately but not surprisingly, a handful of prospective Bens tried to pressure me into sexual situations that, in retrospect, I understand as attempted or even actual assault. These men never earned true Ben-status but it often took a day or two to rid myself of these parasitic travel relationships.
After I bid the real Ben goodbye in Colombia, I vowed to either remain solo or seek out a female Ben. But thus far, I continue to encounter male Bens. In Colombia, I stayed with a Ben’s family and had a personal tour guide (who drove me pretty much everywhere in terrible Bogata traffic).
Ironically, even when I engage in the most independent behavior I can imagine—traveling alone without any obligations or plans—it appears that societies across the world push me back into a traditional female role. To those I meet, I’m not a dyke traveling alone, I’m someone far easier to digest: I’m Ben’s other half; I’m Ben’s interpreter; I’m an outgrowth of Ben.
Before the end of this trip, I vow to push back against whatever forces create a climate in which it’s always raining Bens. But that might mean a lot of time alone. A prospective Ben just interrupted this post, tried to read over my shoulder, and enticed me to come with him to the pharmacy because he has a toothache. I declined.