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A ‘nice-chassis’ chica adrift in Honduras

Tegucigalpa, with all its chaotic metropolitan glory of a Latin capital city, produces a jungle chorus to rival the Amazon.

Walking the 40-minute stretch from my neighbourhood, down Boulevard Juan Pablo II to the office is like being bathed in a natural symphony usually reserved for remote rainforests under the cover of darkness.

If I close my eyes, I can picture a giant stag beetle whirring overhead like a ceiling fan. Crickets and grasshoppers pump out their rhythmical notes in perfect timing. A cockroach rattles its exoskeletal casing against something equally as hard. Huge moths fly past with a faint, virtually undetectable flicker. Other yet-to-be-discovered creepy crawlies punctuate the cacophony and the whole piece is underscored by a low, constant humming.

“Zsssst, ztttth, sssst, psssst, pssss, piiitht, pfizt, clic-clic, clac-clac, clk, fssss, fssst, tith, tssssst, tck-tck-tck.”

Open my eyes again and – THWACK – I’m back down to Central American soil with a bump. Honduran men have got insect imitation down to a fine art. It’s in their blood, probably taught to them by proud fathers and older brothers before learning to use a knife and fork.

Of course, its sole purpose is to show appreciation for a passing girl – especially if she has blonde hair and blue eyes – and to give the orator some credibility in front of his mates.

This carefully-honed and well-practised talent of shaping the mouth to create subtly different sounds, producing deep guttural purrs and being able to tap out a virtual Morse code message with the tongue on the back of the teeth, would have most speech therapists cooing with delight and wonder.

I’m not so impressed. Or maybe it’s because I just don’t register it anymore. My subconscious has taken to filtering out these strange noises and whistles so that I’m oblivious to any male croaking at me on a street corner like a toad.

Selective hearing impairments are as an essential piece of kit to a female backpacker in Latin America as suncream and a copy of the Lonely Planet.

But every so often someone will break the spell by creating a surprising new sound which snaps me straight back into MachoLand with a jolt.

What starts off as a slow, gentle drumroll of admiring hums and grunts builds into a crescendo of actual words.

“Grrrrrrrrrrrringita, hola gringa, gringa I love you. Mmmmmmmmamacita, mamacita guapa, bye mummy, hi mummy. Mmmmmmmmi amor, mi vida, mi reina. Wow! Hey guapa, que guapa. Hey you! Adios! Hmmmmmm hermosa, chica hermosa, chica linda, pretty lady.”

This sustained daily heckling doesn’t worry me too much, and I certainly don’t get offended by it like thinner-skinned girls I’ve met on my travels. But a few aspects do bother me:

1. Don’t call me a gringa. I am from England. I am not from the USA, just like you are not from Mexico. Having blonde hair does not mean that I am from the States, just as having legs does not make me a table.

2. I will never understand why Latin men, particularly from Central America, crudely call girls they find attractive ‘mamacita’ or ‘mummy’. Oediphus would be having a field day here.

3. Why do Latinos say “adios” or “bye bye” when they are greeting you for the first time? It’s not being said in a nasty “get lost” manner. It genuinely means hello. So why not say “hola”? The words of a Beatle’s song comes to mind.

So, the insect-like drone from Tegucigalpa’s garage mechanics, taxi drivers, builders, newspaper vendors, businessmen driving to work, teenage schoolboys on their way to class – anyone who can shave – is not to be feared. It’s Nature’s way. Stags rut and lock antlers, peacocks puff their chests and display their feathers, cockerels strut and crow, and Honduran men adopt their own mating tactics. They are possibly the most vocal in their flirtations, more than any other country I’ve been to so far. All bravado, a show of testosterone and not much else.

It’s a sharp contrast, for example, to the slicker approaches I got in northern Mexico. Let’s look at the case of Don Julio.

I was hobbling around Zacatecas with a badly twisted ankle and needed to sit on a bench to take a rest. Alongside me sits Don Julio. He is about 40, plump and wants to “practise his English”. Smooth opening line.

As the conversation progresses it becomes pretty clear that his grasp on the English language is spot-on. He tells me he owns one of the largest chili farms in the area but unfortunately has recently got divorced and needs a new wife to share the wealth and munch on hot peppers with. Would I like to be that lucky woman? No, as much as I love picante food I didn’t want to share any spice with him.

So I invented a boyfriend who happened to be asleep in the hostel and wouldn’t take too kindly to me eloping with north Mexico’s habanero king.

Don Julio more or less gave a “you snooze, you lose” retort. If my ‘boyfriend’ was getting some rest, that was his problem. Meanwhile we could find a room of our own and “make beautiful Latin babies together”. I limped away as fast as my swollen, strapped-up ankle could carry me.

Not having such an extensive hold on the English language – or anything else for that matter – was Juan. I met Juan on a chicken bus in Guatemala. He went straight for the visa line, saying:

Juan: “Where are you from?”

Rachel: “England”

Juan: “That’s where they speak Australian, isn’t it?”

Rachel: “No, that’s where we speak English”

Juan: “Are you married?”

Rachel: “No”

Juan: “Can I come and live with you in England?”

Rachel: “No”.

Then there was Pedro, an artisan also from Guatemala, who sounded poetic in contrast when he looked me up and down, fixed his eyes somewhere in the middle and told me I had a “nice chassis”. Short, sweet and a compliment I will not forget in a hurry.

What awaits me in countries like Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina I am yet to find out. From experience the Andean region around Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador is not so intense. But one thing I know is that when I get back to England, my subconscious filtering system will cease to function and I will hear a deafening silence created by decades of effective feminism. What a shame!

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