|Behan gets her wiggle on with the local ladies|
I felt her hands on my waist before I saw her. Plump and smiling and wrapped in a red robe she tied a blue sash around my hips and then holding the fabric she tried to transform my awkward shimmy into a replica of her own graceful gyrations. Somehow, well, I sort of know how it happened; we were out for a walk exploring Mutsamadu, we heard music, we peaked behind some tarps to take a look and suddenly I had a hundred women trying to teach me to shake my booty at a stranger’s wedding while the men waited outside.
Depending on your perspective, I’ve failed dance class in three different butt-shaking cultures. In Mexico I perfected the hip pop as a solo manoeuvre, but when it came time to add the steps that turned it into a sinuous wiggle, something went wrong. In French Polynesia I decided I must be missing both the muscles and the portion of my spine that allow some women to move their backsides like a cocktail shaker. But here in Comoros, when I began watching women of all ages slowly swivel their hips as they danced in a long sensuous spiral, there was nothing obvious about the moves that struck me as not-physically-possible.
The celebration, the first stage of a wedding, was thrown by the groom’s family. It began with a dance where all the bride’s gifts were displayed. Women dressed in flowing print robes—some wearing make-up of sandalwood paste and necklaces of flowers and herbs, shuffled and shimmied to a loud African beat while holding up gifts of bed sheets, towels and golden jewellery. The dancers slowly settled into a line which spiralled into itself as more and more women joined.
Trying to get a better view by peaking around the booming towers of speakers Behan, Aline, Karen and I were urged into the dance area. Then my first dance instructor showed me her moves and I tried to mimic her.
|I don't stand out at all|
My next dance partner, a tiny elderly woman with a wide gummy smile, had me bend my knees, thrust out my hips and push back my shoulders. Then she showed me how she swivelled her hips without moving any part of her body. I stared and she watched my hips, smiling—waiting for me to catch on. The next woman danced up in a long purple-print wrap, sparkly orange headscarf and henna circles on the palms of her hands. She adjusted my knees lower and pushed my shoulders further back and got me moving in a manner that almost seemed to satisfy her. Then another dancer boogied me to the spiral and pushed me into position. Packed between wiggling hips I joined the slow writhing shuffle, arms held high—trying to let the pulsing beat guide my hips.
It was travel writing that gave me my urge to travel: tales about intrepid adventures and crazy escapades that always seemed to illuminate how, despite all our outward differences, there’s a basic sameness between people everywhere. The thing I notice now, when I turn back to my favourite writing, is how much of it is written by men, who hang out with other men (drinking, carousing and defying death) and how much of it is off limits to me.
I’ve been traveling for a while now—and much of our time has been in countries where the lives and actions of women are so restricted that wandering into a bar, meeting some bad-ass dude and setting off on a mad quest isn’t very likely to happen (not to mention Evan might not be so keen). I’ve also discovered that while I love a good adventure I’m equally curious about the lives of the women I meet.
It’s typically the men who have the freedom, leisure time and language skills to interact with us when we travel. The women are veiled by family and home (and cloth) and we often only intersect in the markets, or over children. These connections are sweet and memorable for me; I’ve been taught recipes, learned cultural details, held children and heard hopes and dreams. But these moments are quiet. They don’t usually become stories.
Young women won’t read my tale about discovering how to cook taro leaves (boiled, with baking soda!) from a woman in Fiji, or how to properly tie Maia’s sari from a tea plantation worker in Sri Lanka (you need at least two pins) and decide they must get a passport Right. Now. to replicate my adventures. Not the way I did when I read about one writer who went trekking through the jungles of the Congo with mercenaries and snakes. I needed to get to the Congo. I wanted to meet mercenaries too!
But when I was whirling through that kaleidoscope of women who had cut loose from their market stalls, children and kitchen duties; when I saw how their downcast eyes and shy smiles had been replaced with big grins (despite the embarrassment of the missing teeth they normally try to hide); and their reserve had been replaced with a willingness to grab my hips and shake them until I could just about feel their rhythm; I couldn’t help but think this is why I got that passport.