It’s 9:00pm on a Friday night. Relaxing after a long week of teaching English in Barranquilla, Colombia, I wander out of my bedroom to see what my host family is up to. In the kitchen, my aunt bangs pots and pans in the sink. My mother and a few neighbors sit in a circle of plastic beach chairs near the front door, chatting conspiratorially. My thirteen year old cousin shoots away at generic troops on the computer, and his eight year old brother lolls on the floor by the table, lifting our two puppies so they mock-growl and wrestle in his arms. It’s a regular Friday night in this crowded coastal Caribbean city.
In two plastic chairs in front of the TV, almost but not quite touching, sits my twenty-three year old host brother and his fiancé. They are watching some slapstick American movie, dubbed in Spanish. They smile and wave, then return to the movie. I hesitate, drawn by the zany actions of some movie character. But then I back away, out of habit affording them whatever luxury of privacy I can offer. Because this, apart from the stroll they’ll take when my brother walks his sweetheart the three blocks to her house, plus perhaps another turn around the neighborhood to draw it out, is their dating activity of the night.
There is, on the coast, a distinctly un-American view of privacy—as in, there isn’t any. As interesting as this has been to adjust in daily life, a separate aspect is how it plays out in dating life. Here, age eighteen holds almost no significance, in the sense of independence. It’s not uncommon for children to continue living with their families until they are married, which among the professional set can mean into their late twenties.
In terms of having privacy in relationships, well, even an analogy to high school doesn’t quite do the privacy-lack justice. There is, for instance, a general lack of family cars, let alone ones owned by teenagers or unmarried children. Many women occupy the position of ama de la casa— housewives and/or proprietors of small family stores kept in the front of the house. This means that in a great many households, there is always someone in the house. I, for instance, have been completely alone in my house in the last eight months for exactly six minutes. (Yes, I timed it.)
Then there is the question of general space. Houses mostly lack hallways or second floors— they are box-like and rooms open straight into the “living room” or kitchen. And of course, rooms might house a number of people from various generations. Doors are almost never closed when someone is inside them, and certainly aren’t when there are non-family guests in the house.
Even becoming accustomed to these practices, I still find myself cringing at couples going at it “Love Shack”-style on a public bus, or a street corner. It’s the audible lip-smacking that often gets me, and I catch myself muttering “Get a room!” before remembering— this is public spot is perhaps the most private place they can find.
Except, of course, if they were to spend money on a love motel. For an extremely Catholic country, there are a remarkable number of less-than-clandestine love motels. By-the-hour rooms are found everywhere from shambling back alley buildings to decorated complexes on main city blocks. The cheap ones are often disguised as strip clubs; the fancy ones advertise under names like “Passion City,” and include cave-like parking for discretion. They’re not even considered that taboo.
Families expect, I’ve been told, that their 20-something children, many who have full time jobs and long-term boyfriends yet still share bedrooms with younger siblings, grandparents, or cousins, will have visited said love motels. Of course that doesn’t stop my host mom, when she sees my 27 year-old host sister kissing her boyfriend, from nudging me as though we were on a middle school playground. “Mira,” she says, “Look.” She grins wryly as my sister twines fingers with her boyfriend through the patio fence as they say goodbye.
Maybe it’s “don’t ask, don’t tell”?
For now, I’ve stuck to observing this phenomenon. This is for a few reasons, not the least being that, on top of the rest, women and men aren’t often friends. Instead, there’s an idea that going on just one official date with someone can signify an intention to date seriously. Not a few times have friendly conversations and thoughts of slow-developing relationships turned to what Americans might term “stalking”—up to fifty phone calls a day, attempts to discern daily schedules to better “meet up” at any time, texts at all hours…I soon learned to never give out my phone number, even if the interested person was a mutual friend!
And after all that—who wants to date in a fishbowl?! How strange, at age twenty-four, to imagine introducing a prospective suitor to the family on the second date—and then having the family home be the center of many dates to come, Victorian-era style, in our ‘sitting room.’
And yet, there’s a chance I may still see the inside of one of those love motels, if only to beat the 100+ degree heat with almost 100% humidity…as one of my Peace Corps Volunteer friends put it, “They’re only 15 mil pesos an hour. Not a bad deal, for an air-conditioned nap!”