The weight of his hand presses down on my head, while his other hand steers the boat down the dark river ahead of us. The two of us are surrounded by the darkness of a beautiful Amazon night, alone in this vast, uninhabited rainforest. His fingers creep to my forehead, and after some slow strokes make their way back across my hair to the nape of my neck. My body stiffens and my eyes widen: what is he doing? His hand starts massaging. He turns off the boat’s engine -the sudden silence falls heavily upon us- and starts using two hands for his massage, making me feel everything but relaxed.
And so starts my adventure in the Peruvian Amazon. Later that night my guide and host, who owns the nature reserve I have chosen to visit, apologises for his behaviour, saying he got carried away and doesn’t want to scare me. I accept his apology, even say there is no need for it, but know that the damage has been done (why does he move his hammock next to mine?). He does not adjust his behaviour. The next day I struggle to avoid his touches, but cannot prevent his fingers rubbing my face with some jungle concoction; his fingers around my mouth to teach me to whistle; his hands upon my chest to demonstrate where the animal sound should come from that he told me to mimick. He takes me out for a night walk through the dense forest and although it’s pitchblack, I refuse to hold his offered hand. He tells me how comfortable I make him feel, how I make him forget about our guide-tourist relationship. I tell him I don’t want to walk in the forest anymore, I want to go home.
As a solo woman traveller (exercising due caution) I have felt surprisingly secure in South America. Taxi drivers usually were nice and chatty, men in buses humorous or helpful, women curious and sweet. It was not until my last week in South America that I found myself, by accident, in this situation in which my safety felt beyond my control. It was a learning experience. For on that first night when my guide’s hands started stroking me and I wanted nothing more but for him to stop, I did not tell him so. When he apologised to me I waved it away, suggesting there was nothing to apologise for.
It is an unfortunate characteristic of uncomfortable or unsafe situations: you often find yourself in the middle of them before you know what hit you. Although, (to stay with this imagery) there is always a moment when you see the hand being raised. It is often out of disbelief or a misplaced desire to be liked that we don’t warrant this signal. Nine out of ten times nothing happens (the raised hand ends in a high-five), but to prevent the one time that it does, I’d like to impress a message upon myself and other travellers. When travelling the world you don’t have to make everyone in it like you: it’s ok to play it safe and turn away from the raised hand.