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10) Complications in the field (i.e. more reasons to drink and use)

Without a doubt, it was emotionally draining to work in the red-light district. Just being in the ambiente was heavy, I never knew what I would witness from day to day. There were certain givens: everyday a client would approach me, asking my price, thinking that I was a sex worker, a steady stream of various people would ask me for money or to pay for certain things (from schools supplies for their children to funding for ovarian cancer treatments, etc.), and then, getting regularly threatened by a couple who were constantly triquedos. In terms of being mistaken for a sex worker--we all got a good laugh out of that. Some of the women took great joy in pretending to pimp me out: "The gringa costs $200/hour!" (The Ecuadorian women cost $30, if that). We would dissolve into giggles. It's true, there wasn't a good explanation of my constant presence with the sex workers. I certainly made an effort to dress down on the streets--I'd throw on my baggy jeans, t-shirt, sweatshirt, and pull on my grubby sneakers. I never wore makeup or anything form fitting--no tight skirts, no high heels, or plunging necklines. I wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible, which was a losing battle, as I was the only white foreigner randomly "hanging out" in that area of the historic center. I carried a bag with my notebook, in which I was busily scribbling observations all day, with my voice recorder as well. I started getting permission from the women to voice record them about six months into my fieldwork--I had needed to earn their trust before I pulled out a tape recorder, let alone my video camera, which became a constant companion as I started to film my documentary on Santiago (all names have been changed) and his family. The constant requests for money: I picked my battles. I did end up paying for Vanesa's cancer treatments, it was just too heartbreaking not to. I swore her to secrecy though. I took Santiago and his kids for lunch every day in exchange for my filming. They got used to my camera following them 24/7 and like reality stars, they didn't even notice its presence after awhile. The base users who regularly threatened to kill me and/or rob me: not pleasant. I have no idea why this couple saw me as a menace, but I didn't get too nervous when they threatened me because, for one thing, I was never alone on the streets. I was always with Santiago, or with one of the sex workers, or with a group of sex workers or, even, hanging with the pimps. The pimps collected at one cafe, waiting for their women to bring them money as they serviced their clients. Santiago, my unofficial bodyguard, knew about this triqueado couple and warned them that if they laid a hand on me, he would kill them with his bare hands. Santiago held great sway on the streets, so the couple generally backed away when he was around. But Santiago wasn't always dependable--he would go on days' long binges on base and sometimes neglect his bodyguard duties. Not that I needed Santiago, in particular, as many people, by that point, were looking out for me on the streets.

These were everyday annoyances. But the trickiest part of fieldwork, by far, was navigating the social dynamics of all the different, overlapping social groups I belonged to. I consider myself a quintessential "people person." Mostly extroverted, outgoing, I have always been a social person and have always had the ability to fit into any social scene or group. Very useful for a cultural anthropologist (and therapist). Like many addicts, as a social chameleon, my own identity can be diffuse at times, as I people please to make sure others like me. People pleasing has gotten me into lots of trouble, especially during active addiction, and it certainly did on the streets. It was hard to set boundaries with people, like the daily requests for money, but eventually I did. It's difficult because I needed to remain friendly with the entire community of sex workers--all 40 of them. My study was based on all 40 of them, so I had to remain as "neutral" a presence as possible and able to get along with every single one. Tricky? Yes. Impossible? No. It could be challenging because I was in the field for four years, and obviously, I became much better friends with some over others, simply due to personality types or congenital connections. But I had to be mindful never to get involved with the constant drama, conflicts, and gossiping that took place on the streets. I was the ever active listener, but I tried not to speak my mind. Sometimes big blowups happened between different groups of sex workers and I would be asked to pick a side. I dreaded those moments. I would try to empathize and listen to all sides. I always reminded the women that I respected all of them and considered myself an ally to them all. I won't lie: there were times I avoided the streets for a couple days, just to let a big dispute simmer down. The complex hierarchy that existed among the sex workers is worth discussing in its own post, but I would just say that unfortunately, I had to make sure I was "in" with the most powerful women on the streets. As such, at times, I had to preference them over others. But I always tried to make time for everyone. I made a concerted effort to sit and talk to each sex worker throughout the week. I would make my rounds and every day I sat with alternating groups of sex workers for lunch (if I wasn't eating with Santiago and his children that day). But my alliances were difficult to navigate--being friendly with all the pimps benefited me because they offered me protection, and more to the point, were capable of physically harming or robbing me, if I didn't foster those connections. But yet, peculiar dynamics ensued: for example, I was friendly with the pimps, but obviously, much closer to the sex workers they were pimping out. So here I was--at the cafe with the pimps in the morning and then offering a shoulder for sex workers to cry on in the afternoons, as they would seek me out, upset about the abuse they received from their pimps. I questioned my ethics. How could I remain friendly with these men, some of whom were vicious and dangerous, while my true loyalty rested with the sex workers they were pimping out? It got awkward, as I inevitably became friendlier with the pimps as time went on. I was placed in social situations that were confusing and unclear. I navigated them to the best of my ability, trying to remain authentic to my own values and principles. But yes, maintaining my social relationships in the field took skilled maneuvering. It certainly added to my daily stress and produced yet another reason to use and drink.

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