jueves, 29 de noviembre de 2012

Of menstruation and other demons

Beverly Strassmann wanted to know more about an essential force which has shaped the evolution of our species: the natural pattern of sexual cycles and reproduction in humans. Dr. Strassmann, an anthropologist, made her way to Mali in the 1980s to live for two years in a Dogon village and follow the menstrual cycles of all the women in this village. Dogon women reach menarche (the first menstrual cycle) at the late age of 16, after which they will menstruate on average 7 times per year until their first pregnancy. The ten first years following the first pregnancy are a seemingly neverending cycle of pregnancies and breastfeedings that reduce the frequency of menstruations to only 1 per year and finally, menopause creeps in around the age of 50. Thus, an average Dogon woman will menstruate around 100 times in her life. Meanwhile, an average Western woman will reach menarche at 12, menstruate 350 to 400 times in her life and reach menopause at age 51. Meticulous statistical analysis is unnecessary to conclude that women taking birthcontrol to delay their first pregnancy are having many more menstruations than they're supposed to. In my so far sterile 15 years of fertilty, I estimate to have had around 190 periods, which is twice as many as any woman under natural circumstances would have in an entire lifetime. 

Still, despite what every other woman with who I have discussed the topic has ever told me, I must confess that I don't mind having my period. Actually, I'll go as far as saying that I like having my period and I know I will miss it when it's gone. Every single menstruation is a reminder that I'm still young and healthy and that I have the infrastructure to bear a child (a hypothetical child who makes me feel a mixture of motherly horror and misdirected tenderness).

Ruminating on the internet, I came across an article that discussed women's sexuality in wars and conflicts. Menstruation, both its presence and lack of, were a big deal for women in concentration camps in World War II. Most women stopped menstruating shortly after arriving to the camps, both due to stress and malnutrition. Testimonials from these women reveal that they felt as if yet another part of them had been ripped away and they had been deprived of their youth, their femineity and their ability to bear children. For many of the survivors, being able to conceive a child after the war was a major achievement and proof that not all was taken away from them. Meanwhile, the few women who still menstruated in the concentration camps had difficulties dealing with these unexpected and especially unwelcome menstruations, as they didn't have anything to help them keep clean and often their menstrual blood would stain their clothes. Menstrual blood stains would be a reason for public exposure and degradation and these women would be beaten by the camp guards, humiliated and forced to clean after themselves.

Humankind has invented an extensive catalog of devices to deal with menstruation and menstruating women, ranging from menstrual huts to temporarily ostracize women, bedikah cloths, rags, reusable pads, disposable pads, tampons (made of papyrus, wool or cotton), menstrual cups and yes, even menstrual belts. Call me a feminist, call me a radical second-wave feminist (or don't). But I honestly think that menstruation has a worse reputation than it deserves. 

Now, I'm not saying we should rip our sanitary napkins off, throw out those tampons, embrace our menstrual blood and go back to the medieval days of indifferent bleeding into our clothes. After all, we are having periods 3 or 4 times more frequently than we're evolutionarily designed to. But I do think that the concept of menstruation as some sort of ethereal punishment that women have to endure or as a state of non-kosherness is obsolete and that idea is something that we should rip off and throw out. 

I was slightly horrified when I got my first period because my first assumption was simply that I was dying. At the young age of 12 and in seemingly good health, there I was, bleeding to death for no good reason in a bathroom stall at school. I could see the headlines "Promising student dies tragically at school. Family grieves her death". Quickly enough, I realized that this was probably one of the most illogical deductions I could have made and understood that I wasn't experiencing near death, just my uh, debut into womanhood. My mother however went on a motherly menstruation shopping spree and got me flowers, a package of sanitary napkins and a box of tampons. Her friend gave me a big kiss on the cheek and hollered "Welcome to the club! Some of us are joining, some of us are dropping out!". I guess I'm only halfway there.

martes, 20 de noviembre de 2012


As I said in my previous post, I was in Amsterdam a few weeks ago with Marcel, who happens to study photography and had come to Nijmegen to visit his next photography project, me. We found ourselves in Amsterdam, a bit uncertain of what to do after our very successful hitchhiking adventure. After running into a few posters advertising Diane Arbus' photo exhibition, we decided to head towards the Foam museum and check it out. Foam is, by the way, one of the catchiest names ever given to a museum. I'm uncertain of what would happen if the MoMa and the Foam would fight to death for the title of "best museum name". Perhaps they would have a child, the MoFoMa. But, I digress.

In addition to an interesting collection of pictures, the exhibition also contained a few rooms dedicated to Diane, her personal life and her writings. On one wall, there was a quote from her that really caught my eye and that fits quite well her work.

[About photographies] “They are the proof of something that was there and no longer is. Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they'll still be there looking at you.”

And in my own rip off of Diana Arbus,

 Picture taken by Marcel. Check out his website and portfolio (http://marcelnaumann.com/)

miércoles, 14 de noviembre de 2012

The unforeseen consequences of talking to strangers

I love my parents to bits and pieces, but in the 27 years we've known each other, I have received lots of useless recommendations from them. However, the single worst piece of advice my parents have ever given me is not to talk to strangers. 

True, there's a certain type of stranger that you should avoid altogether. As a child, the television taught me that those who hide candy and puppies in their van or those who claim to keep rollerblades in the back of their shop are probably not as cool to hang out with as they sound. As a grown up, this definition has expanded to include men who persistently invite you to go to their house while putting margaritas in your hands. But, despite what the TV says, the percentage of depraved sexual predators and cannibalistic serial killers in the population is quite low and statistically, you're more likely to be physically hurt by someone you know than by a stranger. So love thy unknown neighbour, damnit.

A couple of weekends ago, Marcel came to Nijmegen and stayed over at my place. I had met him once in New York, at a Couchsurfing meeting and we had e-mailed a couple of times ever since. We hitchhiked to Amsterdam on Saturday morning and we hitchhiked back in the evening. In other words, I totally dismissed the rules of common sense that my parents once injected into my education by having some dude (who doesn't even have a Facebook account) stay at my place for the weekend, a guy that I had met once in the company of some more random people from the internet. And then, we got into cars with people we didn't know (although, in all fairness they never claimed to have candies or puppies in the back of their cars), people who for no good reason were willing to take us to Amsterdam and then did the same thing on our way back, but this time with the added danger factor of total nighttime darkness. And then, as if that wasn't enough, we ate food from the garbage.

Marcel showed up on a Friday afternoon after a 25 km bicycle ride from Kleve. We caught up on what we had been busy doing over the past few months since the first and only time we'd seen each other before. For him, it involved a cross country bicycle and hitchhiking trip through the US and Canda. For me it was a couchsurfing trip through the US over the summer. We ate some food that Marcel had dumpsterdived, played the guitar and made our way to the city center. We went to the riverside so I could dip my hands in the Waal for the first time in my life and then had some hot chocolate.

We woke up early on Saturday so we could make it to Amsterdam and enjoy a full day there. We were on Graafseweg, on a secret hitchhiking spot on the outside of Nijmegen that we found on the internet by 9:30 and, by 9:32, we were in the back of a van on our way to Den Bosch with two guys, a set of tools, nails and a pile of wood. They were kind enough to go out of their way to drop us off at gas station on the highway to Utrecht and Amsterdam. There, we harassed some people we didn't know (and thus, became the creepy strangers), asking them if they were headed towards Utrecht and after 10 minutes, got our second ride to Utrecht, which ended up dropping us off in Amsterdam. They were a very nice couple who had never hitchhiked nor picked up hitchhikers but they were on their way to Almere (the Dutch mecca of tumbleweeds and crickets) and thought it would be fun to take us with them. They dropped us off at a place where we took a ferry to Amsterdam's central station and started walking from there. On our way back, a man took us from the outskirts of Amsterdam to Breukelen, from where a girl took us to the outskirts of Den Bosch, while recommending Ruigoord to us for trance parties and reggae festivals and finally I got to practice my broken Dutch with our last driver, who didn't speak much English. I managed to explain to him that we were headed to Nijmegen, but if he could drop us off in any train station we would be really happy. I then went on telling him what I believe was the story about how and where Marcel and I had met, what I was doing in the Netherlands and that I thought the Netherlands was a very cool country. I might have been telling him a fantastic story that made absolutely no sense about how we didn't know each other but had met that day in Amsterdam and decided to hitchhike from New York to Nijmegen, but it was dark and nobody wanted to pick us up anymore because I really like the Netherlands but I'm actually from Mexico. I'm not sure if I got all of my ideas across, but at least he dropped us off in the train station in Oss and gave answers to my macaroni stories that, to my mind, made some sense.

I could ramble about a lot of things for a long time because this post involved hitchhiking but also some echoes from Couchsurfing. When I created a profile on Couchsurfing at the beginning of this year, I did it because I was lonely and I didn't know many people in New York. With this in mind, I never could have imagined the impact it would have on my life, all the amazing strangers I was going to meet and who would become such good friends, all the interesting conversations held with people that I didn't know in a bar, on an emergency staircase at 4am or walking down a street that are still resonating in my head. 

It's been almost a year since I met my first friend ever from Couchsurfing for brunch. And it's been one of the richest years in my life, I have met so many wonderful and inspiring people, I have learned so many things and I have had so much fun. I am really grateful towards all the awesome strangers who did something nice for me, be it letting me sleep on their couch, sharing a meal with me or giving me a ride to Amsterdam. They didn't have to do it because they didn't know me but at the end of the day, I am grateful towards all these people that didn't need a reason to share their time with me and teach me something. My parents were wrong when they told me that tattoos and piercings are for criminals but they were even more wrong when they told me not to talk to strangers.

Playing on the swings in Amsterdam

martes, 6 de noviembre de 2012

Meer liefde voor Nijmegen

I guess I have been busy with too much excitement and adventures to update in the past few days. Little hearts have been popping around Nijmegen in the past few weeks. Graffiti hearts, that is, along with the sentence "Meer liefde" (more love).

I've also noticed that, when riding the bridge on the right bicycle lane from Nijmegen towards Lent, there are metal hearts nailed to the the structure of the bridge. I really wish I knew the story behind this one and I wonder if the idea behind both streams of hearts is the same...

I have been raking my brains trying to find something insightful to say about love or about whatever pushed these urban artists to embark on this bizarre graffiti "liefde" and "meer liefde" campaign. I end up censoring myself, with the excuse that the things that come to mind sound foolish and naive or sometimes a bit cynical. I'm going to skip the ramble about people I love or things that make me feel loved, to ramble about why this graffiti has caught my attention. Another frequent graffiti in Nijmegen, a cartoon bird with little Xs in its eyes (for everyone to know for sure that it's dead) has been appearing over the last couple of years on electricity boxes in Nijmegen, but it doesn't really intrigue me. I've also gawked at the "Pirates of the Waal" graffiti on the way from the train station to the university and stopped to take pictures of the menacing shark and octopus, but I don't sit down to wonder who did those.

But this one really makes me sit down and wonder. Who is this graffiti Jesus who wants there to be more love? And why does he care enough to vandalize public property asking us to love more? Is the message behind the graffiti that we all take a conscious and collective decision for "meer liefde"? What are we supposed to do with this additional love? Should I examine my own life and ask myself if there's enough love in it? I'm not sure what it is, but I'm under the impression that graffiti Jesus is on to something...

In other news, Markus and I have managed to find Orion's belt up in the sky, visible around 2 AM.