A FEW YEARS BACK my house lease was up, not to be renewed, and I found myself desperately needing a place to hang my hat. When I was offered the chance to inhabit an abandoned house on a large plot of beautiful land at the foothills of the Andes in Argentina, I was naïve enough to think I was moving into a place where the only difference was that I would be invited to some killer authentic asados by my very gaucho neighbor who owned the place.
Little did I know I was about to enter not just a new house, but a whole new world. One where men still handle problems directly with a knife or shotgun, and where, in my opinion, too many women understand that what’s expected of them is not much more than keeping their mouths shut, the mate water heated, and their legs spread wide open on demand by their husbands.
Not exactly an ideal environment for an independent, outspoken, ‘peace-and-love’ liberal woman to end up.
I found myself living on this land because my best friend, Alejandro, had been close to the gaucho, Miguel, for years; through him, I was accepted as extended family that needed help. While Ale is originally from the city, he throws a knife with more accuracy and less hesitation than even the fiercest of the gauchos, and thrives for long stints in the middle of nowhere with little to no resources outside his stubborn spirit. He is treated like one of them. Ale’s recommendation of me was good enough to get me a house.
All went well in the beginning, although the culture clashes were obvious. My choosing to paint the interior walls purple and red and yellow and orange was met with a confused shaking of the head. The contemporary art sculpture of a butterfly that Ale and I whimsically assembled one afternoon out of scrap roofing materials and posted in the front yard…even more confusion. (Mental note: Gauchos in general do not have a finely tuned appreciation of whimsy.) And let’s not even touch on my on-and-off vegetarianism in a culture that lives off goat and cow.
While I can’t say I ever felt entirely welcome (gauchos aren’t exactly world famous for their warm, affectionate nature), I did feel fully tolerated at first. I was an alien of sorts, an exception to the rule. Miguel didn’t really know what to do with me, so he took Alejandro’s lead and treated me how Alejandro did.
Suffice it to say, then, that I was treated much differently than the gaucho’s wife, Luciana. I got invited to ride horses into the mountains with Ale, Miguel, and Miguel’s brothers. I drank whiskey, hunted, and played truco (a card game) like one of the guys. I was never once looked down upon; I was actually treated like an equal.
It was fine when I was just with the guys, but when I was offered a cigarette or the bottle of wine at an asado, for example, when Miguel’s wife was ‘forbidden’ by him to smoke or drink, I would feel the weight of my special status within her glare.
Part of me felt like cheering her on every time I saw her question her husband. Part of me was very scared for what might happen after, when I was not there.
Resentment turned to curiosity, and soon enough Luciana started to show up on my doorstep almost every afternoon. We would bake bread together, drink mate, talk about our kids…and always the talk would eventually come around to my lifestyle. “So, Ale lets you have other male friends…?” (Um, yeah. I am friends with whomever I choose, male or female.) “You work. You make your own money?” (Last I checked, no prince on a white horse showed up to whisk me away and pay my bills, so yup. I work. A lot.) “You travel by yourself?” (Often. I love nothing more than to hit the open road by myself).
Soon my house and our afternoon talks became a sort of refuge for her, and day by day I could see Luciana challenging long-held beliefs about what her life was ‘supposed’ to look like. Luciana had a friend buy her a pack of cigarettes, and she would hide them in my backyard and sneak a smoke in the late afternoon, when Miguel would not be around. She asked to go into town with me one day to hang out with me and some of my girlfriends. Although in the end Miguel told her that she had to stay and mind the house, it was a huge step for her just to vocalize her desire for girl time. She took the initiative to get a job picking garlic in the fields, even made arrangements to be able to take her young daughter along with her, but this step towards economic independence was seen as an insult and a threat. The next thing I knew, her excitement about the job morphed into resignation that it was not going to be ‘allowed’ to happen.
I began to see massive tension building in her household. Part of me felt like cheering her on every time I saw her question her husband. Part of me was very scared for what might happen after, when I was not there. And a big part of me was scared to be seen as a cause of their marital difficulties. As I saw how he tried to keep her stifled, my relationship with Miguel slowly began to deteriorate. I started to keep my distance from him (especially after he shot my beloved dog point blank one day, but that is for another story).
Luciana grew up as a goatherd, living deep in the Andes with her grandmother. Not educated in any traditional sense of the word, she had always assumed she would live out every day of her life working her grandmother’s land. When Miguel passed through on a horse one day, and whisked her as a teenage girl 150km away to his land, for her that was a breath of fresh air and a huge shift in what she had expected of her life. But now she dared to dream even more.
I found myself questioning if she was better off having met me or not. She admitted to me that before having met me, she had not dreamed much, but she had basically been…content. I felt as though I helped spark her to dream, to dream big and to dream loudly, but as a result she was becoming less content with her current lifestyle by the day.
Alejandro approached me one day, ashen, to tell me that Luciana had just begged him to drive her back to her grandmother’s farm and not tell Miguel. He was torn. While Ale supports the freedom of any person to go after their dreams, male or female, he also knew the culture and temperament of Miguel all too well. He knew that meddling in his marriage, helping Miguel’s wife to leave, would be seen as grounds for shotguns to be loaded and knives to be sharpened, and that none of us — Luciana, Ale, or I — would be immune from Miguel’s anger.
I felt horrid, like I was somehow personally responsible for breaking up a marriage and tearing apart a family. I felt like it was my fault that people I cared for deeply were now in a situation of potential danger. I also felt like I had, in my own way, said a giant “fuck you” to a man who had been nothing but kind to me, a man who gave me a house to live in and access to a place within gaucho culture I am sure few women have been able to experience firsthand.
At the same time I felt inspired, like I was maybe somehow personally responsible for breaking up a shitty marriage where the woman received zero respect and where she lived in fear. Like I had triggered a friend to start dreaming big and to think of better possible realities for herself and her daughter.
Is it okay for me, as a foreigner, a complete outsider, to harshly judge actions within another culture I can’t ever pretend I fully understand, and may never be able to?
That week, Luciana decided to stay put and I decided to leave. To be honest, it broke my heart to hear that she would stay. But within that was a great lesson for me personally. Author Steve Maraboli has said, “When we are judging everything, we are learning nothing.” Once I could stop judging her and Miguel for a second, I could understand with more clarity that everyone must be accountable for themselves and walk their own path. You can inspire, you can give resources and support, but every individual will implement change only at the pace and in the form that feels right for them. Call me overly optimistic or downright ignorant, but I choose to trust that people do the best they can within the level of consciousness they have at the time.
After a while I learned to not question too much if what my presence had awakened within her family was ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ I had tried to act with respect towards all involved. I had been available as a friend to both Miguel and Luciana. I had tried my damndest to understand both of them, even though as a female dreamer who had recently left her own husband and confining marriage, it was much easier for me to relate to Luciana. I may have opened someone’s mind to a larger world of possibilities and someone’s heart to dream bigger, but at the price of creating friction and discontent. So be it. I accept it.
But along with lessons learned, I was also left with a pile of questions I’m still working on. Is it okay for me, as a foreigner, a complete outsider, to harshly judge actions within another culture I can’t ever pretend I fully understand, and may never be able to? Are some things, such as extreme machismo, universally ‘wrong,’ or is it not that black and white? How arrogant am I to assume that my chosen way of life is somehow better than what others choose? Would a life on her own, separated from her husband, with no education, money, or support, really be all that much easier or better for Luciana and her daughter?
I once read, and it stuck with me, that “to love a person enough to help him, you have to forfeit the warm, self-righteous glow that comes from judging.” Luciana, whether you are still married, if you are goatherding with Grandma, or whether we cross paths on some random beach somewhere and laugh about how your past seems lifetimes behind you as we finally share that bottle of wine you were not ‘able’ to enjoy before: Know that I love you and I care about you. Know that you impacted me just as much as I may have impacted you.
Every time I put my thumb up along the side of the road and am facing infinite possibilities of where I might end up that day, I think of you. Knowing you has made it easier for me to vow that my happiness will never be dependent on any other person, let alone a man, and I thank you for that. I learned that there are perspectives to gain from every single person who appears in our lives — and often, most so when we initially feel ‘against’ or ‘different’ from that person. You deserve happiness, Luciana, but you also deserve to choose in what form that happiness comes, without being judged by your friends.