After a 14-hour bus ride to Valparaiso, Chile, I hauled a backpack up the steps to Luigi’s apartment and rang the bell. He cracked the door open, forced a smile, and waved me in.
This dude sure didn’t look like a clown.
Luigi sported a mohawk and was peppered in tattoos, and his apartment was like a frat house if those exist in circuses—cluttered with empty beer cans, top hats, dirty dishes, a unicycle and some juggling pins.
This may sound like a nightmare to some because clowns in North America make us think of IT, child molesters on Law and Order SVU or that doll that terrorized Carol Anne in Poltergeist, but I’ll have you know South American clowns are way cooler.
Inside, a circle of hippie dudes with tattoos, fauxhawks and ironic rat tails sat on the floor smoking a blunt. They spoke virtually no English. But within minutes of plopping down in the circle with them, they started making me balloon animals.
I’d learned from Luigi’s profile on couchsurfing.com that he was a clown. But it never occurred to me I was going to be crashing in a house of clowns. Either way, it seemed like the kind of bizarro random adventure I’d get myself into.
A few of them were already eyeing me like a lion sizing up a juicy steak, so I immediately went into cool big sister mode. Having worked and played in mostly male environments as a raft guide, climber and ski instructor for years, then later as both a comedian and crew member in the New York film industry, I was a master by now at making myself totally unfuckable.
Sit like a man, talk like a man, burp even. Do absolutely no flirting whatsoever and square up when you talk to them like a football player would. Done correctly, this powerful nonverbal message leads to them treating you like one of the boys instead of a hole with legs.
It seemed to work like a charm. Finally, I felt safe and could relax for once.
Two months earlier, I’d landed in Buenos Aires for what would become an 8-month-long solo trip living and working around South America. Like the true adventurer (and dummy) that I am, I hadn’t financially planned well for this jaunt, buying a one-way ticket and assuming I’d figure it out like usual. Using couchsurfing.com is how cheap-ass people like me can sleep for free and meet awesome locals.
It never occurred to me this might be dangerous, though. I’d traveled solo and lived in the back of my truck for years all over America, so I was a confident nomad. But with a truck, you can crash in Walmart parking lots or wilderness areas without worrying too much about getting harassed, lightly fondled, raped or straight up murdered. I had doors and windows to lock boogeymen and rapists out and curtains to hide myself behind.
But now that I’d downsized from a truck to a backpack, I was at the mercy of couchsurfing.com and essentially the kindness of strangers. And some of them had already proved to be a little too kind. Women never hosted me, probably because they don’t generally feel as comfortable as men letting complete strangers into their homes. We have to worry about our safety enough as it is in public spaces. Why bring that stress back home?
I’d been smart enough to steer clear of classic couchsurfing red flags — profile pics of shirtless bros chugging bear, negative reviews or male hosts who only allow female surfers. I mean, why go to the bar and pick a chick up when, instead, you can have a vulnerable, disoriented woman show up at your house, brush her teeth and walk around in her PJ’s in front of you, then pass out in the next room.
Couchsurfing can be an amazing way to meet people. But it can also be the perfect means of entrapment for entitled, lazy or straight up predatory type men. And unlike Airbnb, which is a business with actual consequences for getting bad reviews, the couchsurfing.com police aren’t coming for you if you stick your hand down the pants of some foreign chick passed out on your sofa.
But I felt safe in my closet, which is where the clowns put me. It had a gross stained mattress on the floor but after two months of couchsurfing, I was stoked to have a door to close.
At first it was fun, this living with clowns business. They taught me how to ride a unicycle and made me feel less alone. But the clowns were a bit much, too. Like comedians, clowns are exhausting, needy people to be around, always doing these stupid bits. Plus, they partied late every single night and wanted me to, as well. I didn’t drink anymore, so this wasn’t my jam.
One night I went to go watch the “Hunger Games” at a theater, just to get a break from these damn clowns. When I got home super later, they were all waiting for me and seemed to be trying to keep me up. Around 2 a.m., two buff clown friends in muscle man shirts and cargo pants showed up with some beer.
The one who called himself Blue Angel (I’m not even kidding) plopped down next to me and started asking me things in English. He spoke way better English than the other clowns, so we were able to hold a conversation beyond preschool level subjects.
Every time I asked Blue Angel about his clowning, he’d turn the subject to my body. “Your legs are so big!” he said, pretending to squeeze a basketball to further stress his unsolicited opinion about my figure.
“You know, in my culture, that’s a mean thing to say,” I said.
He lured me into the kitchen eventually with promises of some acrobat trick, but when we finally got there, there was no trick. He was just trying to make out with me. I fought him off, told him I was going to bed, then started to walk away.
“Wait! You want learn how walk on stilts?”
Damn, he’s good. I’m a sucker for new experiences. And when was the next time I’d get a chance to learn how to walk on stilts from a clown in Chile? So, I gave in. And — shocker — when I tried to go to bed after our lesson, he began making his case as to why he should give me a massage.
I fought with him on that for a good 15 minutes. But I’d been traveling for months, had no female friends to remind me of my rights, had two cavities, had just gotten over the flu, had an eye infection, was on the rag and had an intestinal parasite. And like a lot of women, after awhile I thought, “To hell with it. It’s easier to just hook up with this dude than to keep fighting.” Plus, my curious-to-a-fault personality reasoned that it would be hilarious to hook up with a clown.
So I did.
And boy did it suck.
Later, as he was wiping his clown jizz off my leg, I made a little joke about how unexpected this turn of events was.
“Well, Luigi say me there is American girl wanting to sex over here.”
I shot up, “Wait — WHAT?!”
“You mean those clowns set me up?”
As it turns out, they did! Since I wasn’t interested in any of them, they’d whored me out to their clown friend, Blue Angel, down the street. I was livid.
And that’s when I heard my adult-self scream at my kid-self, “What the FUCK are you doing here? And when will you learn?!”
Before staying in this Bozo frat house, I’d already been played one too many times. The old man I’d stayed with Buenos Aires, who was an American friend of a friend, had gotten super weird with me. My host in Bariloche had seduced me and I’d given in. My host in southern Chile ditched me the night I showed up so he could hook up with some girl from Texas. And then the friend of my Chilean buddy had gotten drunk and taken pics of me while I was sleeping… with MY camera. But it wasn’t just couchsurfing around South America.
It was traveling in general as a woman.
All those years people had always told me I’d get raped and murdered eventually by living in my truck. Well, that never happened! In fact, staying alone in my truck was WAY safer than staying with men, whether it be strangers or friends.
One of my oldest climbing buddies ruined our friendship in one night by seducing me while I was back in town for a wedding without telling me he was dating someone else beforehand. Another guy friend hosted me in Los Angeles during a visit, let me take his bed while he slept on the couch, then tried to spoon and fondle me after he thought I’d passed out. And another one masturbated right next to me after he thought I’d fallen asleep.
At least 99 percent of my nights in the company of platonic male friends or strangers have been totally respectful. But all it takes is one (or six) to make you rethink things. This shit never happens when I stay with women. I was over it. I wanted my safety guaranteed for once.
I moved out that day. And decided to aggressively find women to hang out with in this clown town.
I went on couchsurfing.com and searched the Valparaiso group page. I sent women messages saying, “Hey, I hope this isn’t weird, but you seem cool and I need some good women in my life.” Inez, from Germany, wrote back right away. That night she met me for a drink with an American girl, Beth. The next day the three of us went to the beach and laid out and then that night they invited me to a Girls Night Out with all their Chilean lady friends, who became my tightknit family from that day forward. And through those women, who I trusted, I made some awesome Chilean guy friends, none of whom tried to bone me.
These women went on to be my family. No matter where I go in the world, women (and gay men) often try to take care of me like a bunch of surrogate mothers and sisters. Heterosexual men sometimes do, too. But what I’ve had to learn to accept is that despite thinking I’m one of the boys, I will always experience this world as a woman.
And I was wrong about clowns. South American ones are just as scary as North American ones.