Alone in the border town, I got a bit too nifty with the Spanish phrasebook

Suzanne Moore’s weekly column, Telling Tales. 

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Border towns are often dodgy places. Anyone sensible would not arrive at one in the middle of night with nowhere to stay. But I was never anyone sensible.

What had possessed me to “do” South America in 1981 is hard to say. I had read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Blokes I knew were going out to Nicaragua to aid the Sandinistas in their revolutionary struggle.

Somehow I thought this was mere fashion and that Central America was not the real deal.

I bought a one-way flight from Miami to Quito, Ecuador, on my Barclaycard and then persuaded a Dutch guy and his Israeli sidekick to get a driveaway car from New York where I was living.

It is hard to say how unprepared I was for an entire continent. For a start, I had assumed Latin America was hot so I had nothing more than what could only be called a summer wardrobe. Somehow the Andes had not figured in my scheme of things.

Ruth was tall and skinny and hyper and gave me tips. I met her in the first week in Quito. When men hissed and clicked at her she would hiss back, “Fuck off and die.”

At first I thought this excessive. By the end of my trip I would have happily macheted many of them myself.

The sexual harassment was so extreme that stuff like going to the loo meant two men blocking your way and groping you. Maybe it’s better now? In 1981 a woman travelling alone was asking for it.

But I was a quick learner. I learned where to sit and where to avoid. I learned sometimes it was just easier not to go out at night at all. I learned the art of bribery. And the code of giving presents to officials which meant that borders could be crossed, papers would always be in order.

But this town, a collection of run-down brothels and bars, was a very bad place. My main aim was not to be murdered.

There were no hostels and no transport out. Old men with bottles of hooch sent me down alleyways looking for a room, hawking up phlegm as they laughed at my predicament. Staying in a flophouse was better surely than staying out all night with these characters.

“How much? ” I asked a toothless man in what would be called “Reception” only in a godforsaken shack.

The price was extortionate.

I began bargaining: “El noventa? Eso es ridículo!

I got the price right down.

Cincuenta soles.”

He leered at me. My Spanish was coming on in leaps and bounds even though this was a shithole.

He took me up to the room. There were dirty clothes everywhere and a poster of Clint Eastwood on the wall. He locked the door and came towards me. “Gringita . . .”

This was his room.

The price that I had so successfully haggled down? That was my price. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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