By Regina Ernst
“Where is everyone having sex?”
Upon arrival to Colombia, the reality of living with a host-family set in, and with all the lack of privacy, the doors of the house flung wide open day and night, I wondered if this would force a two-year season of celibacy. At the same time, I knew all these babies had to be coming from somewhere. My naive question burned for weeks until finally I found myself in familiar enough company.
“The residencias,” a seasoned volunteer said matter-of-fact.
That answer was like a penned drawing begging for color. After a few months of living in Colombia, I felt I had better bearings of the city, so I visited my first residencia with a man who I was attracted to and trusted. In the taxi, he asked the driver which was the nearest residencia. He mumbled a name I couldn’t decipher, to which my partner commanded, “Dale,” and moments later, we pulled through a tree-covered driveway, into a yard full of closed garages. We landed in one that was open, and the door lowered behind us.
“Are we hiding from somebody?” I asked.
“Society,” my partner joked.
He paid the driver, and we escaped from the car and climbed up a twisting flight of iron steps that led us from the garage to a sterile white bedroom. The room had a glass box shower, a queen-sized bed with a loose-fitted sheet covering a rubber mattress, a leather couch, a bench that looked like some sort of exercise contraption, and an enormous mirror on the ceiling over the bed. It smelled like bleach and lemon cleaning supplies, and when I took my sandals off, I felt the floor freshly wet beneath my feet.
When my partner paid the bill, which was based on an hourly rate, he slid his credit card through a small wooden tunnel. For our entire visit, we never saw another human being until we exited back down the stairs to find a taxi waiting to return us to our respectable homes.
This experience conjured complicated feelings. I marched into my host-sister’s bedroom in Cartagena to understand better the culture of sex. We shared her double bed, our bodies lying close, and I attempted in my broken Spanish to explain my experience. She was delighted to talk openly about it. She laughed at all my dumb observations and questions, most of which just boiled down to an overly simple, “Why?”
“Éste es Colombia.” With that, she encouraged me to try again.
I visited many other residencias, some shaped like castles, some so inconspicuous that my partner had to whisper a secret code word for the person at the front desk to turn over the key to a small sex room. In some, I wandered through winding hallways, lined with paintings of voluptuous nude women. In others, the cleaning women negotiated prices while making sure there were condoms and towels available. In every room, strategically placed mirrors covered the walls. On one occasion, I entered a large room with a jacuzzi to find a huge flatscreen TV playing some loud raunchy pornography.
“I only had two beers,” I told my partner. “I’m not ready for all that just yet.”
Each had names, which translated into words like “Secrets,” “Lighthouse,” or my personal favorite, “Casanova,” the name of the most famous womanizer of all time. When tempted to judge, always my host-sister’s basic sentiment lingered in my head, “Éste es Colombia.”
I thought I would conclude that this sexual expression was insulting, tucking away, hiding, and I worried that having to travel to have sex would limit spontaneity, but neither has been the case. My current partner and I visit residencias as frequently as we want to, and we linger. I enjoy having mirrors at every angle. I relish the escape from the burdensome heat. I take long, guiltless showers (sometimes hot showers!). The best part is that there’s no room clean-up. When we’re done, we leave the mess behind, and it’s somebody else’s job to extinguish the scent of body and sweat with lemon bleach.
Simultaneously, I value the general openness in my house, something I used to interpret as lack of privacy. The fact that all doors in my host-family’s house are open to me, that I can barge into my host-sister’s bedroom unannounced to seek advice, makes me feel welcome and trusted. I see how tight family members are, how involved they are in each other’s lives, and I can imagine that if having sex in the house for them means trading that togetherness and sociability, there’s no question.
One recent afternoon, my partner and I hunted for a residencia for the comfort of sex and AC, only to find that two places in a row were completely booked. We eagerly landed at the third, where they had available one last room.