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Dating in the Comarca

In the "Cult of Escapism": Dating in the Comarca

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dating in the Comarca

Me: “I had a girlfriend, but we stopped being together because I came here.”
Old Mountain Woman: “Well, I belong to a religion, where men respect women…”
Me: “Bull. Shit.”

Ok, I didn’t really say “bullshit,” but it was the first thing I thought. Who is she talking about? Which men? Is she actually from a different planet, where all men actually respect women, and just pretending to be an old, xenophobic, mountain Ngäbe woman?

I was explaining to a group of women the concept of dating – i.e. be with one person until it doesn’t work out, then be with somebody else, until you find “the right one.” All the women were shocked and mountain woman was downright hostile. Because dating doesn’t exactly exist in the Comarca. At least, it’s not supposed to.

Supposedly, all Ngäbes meet someone they’re interested in during their mid-teens. Then through a mysterious (to me) and private process, they meet up, talk to one another, have mountain sex and build a house together (putting up a zinc roof over a shared structure is as close as they get to a marriage ceremony). Then they spend their lives faithfully together in strictly enforced gender roles and have ten children.

In reality, teens meet up and have mountain sex until the girl gets pregnant and then the guy abandons her. There are currently more American astronauts than men paying alimony in the Comarca. Cheating is so common, it’s basically a given and there are almost never repercussions for spousal abuse.

So, like humans have throughout history, the Ngäbes claim to be respectful, faithfully monogamous mates and are, on average, everything but. Which is why the mountain lady’s comment (accusation) annoyed me. Who exactly was she talking about? Ten to one her husband has another family.

Given the depressing and often opposite reality, I’m constantly surprised by people’s receptions to my explaining dating. I have to suppress myself when single moms, with kids from three different men, hear my explanation and say, “That’s bad.”

Really? I’ve never cheated on, let alone impregnated and abandoned anyone (to my knowledge), so how is my preferred dating system so despicable?

I suppose dating sounds too promiscuous. And while their ideal relationship situation is rarely achieved, at least it ideally involves monogamy for life. Whereas, the way I explain it to them, dating probably sounds inherently promiscuous, like you’re not even trying to have just one person. Which of course, isn’t quite true. The end game, generally, is marriage. But to them, it seems like the means are just too sleazy.

To qualify, western dating also produces abandoned children and involves infidelity. No doubt. But there are many people that at least admit that they might not get it right the first time, so they protect themselves and if the guy suddenly disappears, there are hurt feelings but not children. There are also those who save sex for marriage, which is an excellent way of increasing your shot at lifelong monogamy (in theory).

So it’s not their ideal that bothers me, it’s their denial. I can think of one family that fits the ideal criteria (my third host family). Off the top of my head, in under 20 seconds, I can think of 14 single moms in the community. Empirical system? No, but still, probably an accurate reflection of the reality of relationships here.

I think, more than anything, ignorance and shame are birthing so many fatherless children here. Ignorance in that people are shocked by the idea of western dating. Not like a Hassidic is shocked by a shellfish and swine buffet, but like a stoner was no doubt shocked by the advent of delivery pizza (you mean, they like, bring it here? They can do that!?). When I talk about dating, there’s inevitably a woman who says something like, “You mean, I get to test them out first?” Exactly. Like trying on pants at the store. Only pants can’t give you HIV.

But unprotected sex sure can. Yet there’s a shame surrounding condom use here. Women are ashamed to ask and men are ashamed to admit they might need one. Hence the single mothers and rising incidence of HIV in the Comarca.

Western dating won’t prevent pregnancy or HIV, but smart and safe dating will definitely help. Because clearly, abstinence and monogamy aren’t common, so maybe it’s time to try something that caters to the realities of basic human desire.

Or we could all just move to the mountain lady’s planet. 


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