When I signed up for volunteering on the shrimp farm, I naively envisioned a laid-back operation where the majority of the workers were extended family members, and there was a token drunk old fisherman who was never short on odd quirks and habits. None of this was true and upon arriving, I quickly learned that I was the only female amongst a group of about 30 strapping shrimpmen of various ages and walks of life, and there was no booze whatsoever on this island. In other words, this was a large and professionally run operation here. Why this wasn’t the first scenario that came to mind instead of a tired cliché from Hollywood movies gives me great pause. But in any case, it was a very welcome scenario albeit unexpected as I discovered the men were more than happy to go out of their way to accommodate a lady volunteer.
The Princess Treatment
“Dále la mano!” Translating to “Give her a hand!”, this was one of the first things I heard when exiting the boat to Isla Puná for the first time and is now engrained in my memory as being the last thing I hear before stepping onto solid ground again. From the very start, the men were very concerned about my well-being and making sure I always made it from the boat to the shore without incident was always a big deal. My favorite shrimpman in this regard was Victor. He actually started referring to me as “Princesa” by the 4th week, which I found very endearing. He took the “Dále la mano” command extremely seriously and put a death grip on my hand and arm as he guided me across the slippery steps towards safety. I knew this was overkill and sometimes was worried about the circulation in my left arm but I never said anything because I enjoy chivalrous behavior and I knew he was acting merely out of genuine concern for my safety.
While the guys working on the dock were busy passing me from one hand to another, the cooks, Isidro and Darwin, were bringing their A game in the mess hall. Most of the men on the farm eat their meals with a spoon and drink from metal cups. But not me. I was always given a fork, a knife, a special crystal glass and napkins. For the first week, they would also remind me to tell them if ever I wanted anything else.
One day, there was a new cook in the kitchen who I guess wasn’t informed about my special status. I went in a little late for breakfast because I wasn’t hungry at first but then heard some scuttlebutt that they were serving butter shrimp. When I asked for some shrimp, the new guy told me they were no longer serving breakfast. My face sunk but I accepted it was my fault and walked out. About a minute later, the same cook comes running out to tell me he’ll make eggs if I come back. I accepted and smiled. I like to think that Isidro and Darwin smacked him upside the head when they found out he denied me food. Isidro also shook a stern finger at the new guy when he tried to serve me my juice in one of the barbaric metal cups. I came just short of feeling awkward and embarrassed about all of the attention and argued with myself that they love this!
Later on during my stay, I went absolutely crazy eyed when I saw Jorge with a piece of cake (desserts and other sugary treats were not regular food items on the farm). He split it with me and I almost starting spilling tears of joy all over the mess hall. After that, Jorge was always handing me and later, Adrienne, the other female volunteer, little packets of cookies on days we worked in the afternoon. I started calling these “Gringa Treats” because I would smile, laugh and dance around every time someone gave me one. You know, as a dog does when you give him bacon bits.
Reveling in the Attention
Make no mistake, I’m completely aware of the fact that almost any woman could have come strutting up on this farm and the shrimpmen would have been equally as attentive and chivalrous. I’m definitely not getting any grandiose ideas about the power of my feminine charms in the grand scheme of things. However, this certainly did not stop me from basking in the glow of being the prettiest woman in the office (at least until the next female volunteer showed up). As I briefly mentioned before, I came close to feeling a little embarrassed about the extra attention but when I realized this was a win-win situation for everyone, I went with the flow. This was certainly a very rare opportunity I had to be doted on by multiple men in a socially acceptable situation.