tagExhibitionist & VoyeurNatural Beauty Pt. 03

Natural Beauty Pt. 03


Exploring the Landscape

I was awake half an hour before dawn, and went out onto the balcony to sit and think and watch the shadows of the ridge behind the hotel retreat off the bay and up the beach. It was very peaceful. Nobody was congregating on the lawn this morning. Rain had chased away the songbirds but had since dispersed. No voices were coming from the adjacent deck. The silence was broken only by the distant roar of the waves and the haunting cries of far-off seagulls. A mellow breeze caressed my skin.

I wandered downstairs and detoured past the kitchen; and to satisfy my curiosity I peeked in. As I expected, the cheffe de cuisine and her female staff wore aprons, with nothing underneath. I moved on to the dining room where a buffet was being laid out; and while I normally avoid a hearty breakfast, today I needed the fuel. It was early, so I had the spread all to myself. A waiter was setting down platters of croissants and bagels. His pale and youthful countenance suggested he was a student on a working holiday. He had what I was already recognizing as the telltale traits of the novice to Palmira's ways. He glanced at me as I stood at the table pouring my coffee, and when I didn't react he took a longer look over my body. To my surprise, I found myself standing more erect and inhaling to puff out my chest.

The young man averted his eyeballing when the manageress came out and punctured him with a formidable frown. It was the petite woman who had presided over the restaurant the night before last. (She either works very long hours or rotates shifts.) Presumably it's improper to gape at the guests. But he shifted his gaze to her body and she didn't seem to mind.

Back upstairs I packed my bag and then went outside to wait for Ricardo. Having already bid adieu to the friends I'd made, I didn't feel guilty about avoiding a final farewell. I did find Regina, already on duty at the reception desk, and promised her a personally guided tour of the dig site once I was settled in. Ricardo arrived on time in his golf cart. I had an important mission to start the day and was grateful. He drove me to the Customs Office, where I signed for the boxes, containing my belongings, which had come in on the overnight air freight service. The College had arranged for a pick-up. My things would be waiting for me when I made it to Cimarrón Bay. I could have hitched a ride in the delivery van, but it was actually quicker to cross the island on foot than to wait for road or water transport. Anyway, everyone hikes on Palmira.

Ricardo left me at the College with Rebecca. Acting the mother hen, she approved of my footwear and sun visor, but furrowed her brow until, understanding her concern, I showed her how my duffel bag can be converted into a rucksack. (I was a tad offended that she thought me such a newb.) But when I put it on she started to adjust the shoulder straps, lifting the bag higher on my back. It took me a moment to realize why, and I couldn't help laughing. The way I had it, the pack sagged too low. The modification made for better walking posture, but it was also important that my bare buttocks be exposed to public view. The Palmirenes take their nude law seriously!

Rebecca accompanied me to the staging area. She would not be going with me to Cimarrón, but I would have no dearth of companionship. In a park at the western end of the Esplanade, twenty or so people had gathered, also kitted up for the trek. The women were massaging their bodies with lavish amounts of sunscreen. I prefer cream to lotion. Remembering Valerie's advice, I applied extra dabs to my breasts, especially my nipples, and between my legs. I must have looked like a rampant party girl with smears of cream all over my private parts. The other women certainly did.

Among them was Sarah and Rob. We greeted each other like long-lost family. Sarah was dwarfed by her backpack, and I noticed that her little derrière was hidden by its bulk. No one pulled her up on it. We walked together; and as the philosophers say, it's a small world. I discovered that Sarah is a physicist working on her doctoral dissertation who teaches at my very own alma mater. She had done some research on radiometric dating techniques — carbon-14, potassium-argon, thermoluminescence — and so had an interest in archaeology. It was a pity that her sojourn on Palmira was almost over.

There were actually two distinct groups of hikers, although we went as one from Régate to Cimarrón Bay, a distance of about four kilometres. We didn't really need to stick together, but the herd instinct is hard to resist. Once the first couple had set off everyone else just followed. Having reached Cimarrón, six of us would stay there while the rest continued northward on a three-day camping excursion. I admired the resilience of the women who would be bivouacking nude.

Most of the trekkers were young, although there were a middle-aged husband and wife. There was a Japanese couple who appeared to be botanists or herbalists, because they took samples of various types of plants along the way. They appeared dedicated to their vocation; the woman bore a tattoo of an intricate vine which snaked and intertwined across both her buttocks, over her left hip and into her cleft. Ahead of them was a party of five girls and two guys. They were recently graduated medical students from the United States. From their athletic physiques I guessed they were adventuresome types; but the girls' fading tan lines revealed that they were not used to full outdoor nudity. They (the girls) had been taking annual "extreme" holidays — rock climbing, mountain biking, canyoning, ice canoeing, that sort of thing — and confessed that this was their most audacious. It was the first time they had brought along men, to act as chaperones (or, as Bethany put it, "to keep us out of mischief"). Josh and Miguel are gay, and the girls at first had thought they might need convincing to tag along. But as Miguel pointed out, there's no reason why he can't appreciate the aesthetic appeal of the female body.

That got me thinking (again). Palmira is bliss for heterosexual males, offering visual delights unobtainable elsewhere. It's a sublime experience for us women. But I imagine it's even more so for lesbians and bisexual women, who get to enjoy both sides of nudity's sensual pleasures. I thought of the goth-punk girls and wondered where on the island they might now be — somewhere to the north, probably, where most of the hiking trails lead.

Our route took us through the eastern outskirts of Régate and up the forested ridge to a maximum elevation of about two hundred metres, which we reached in just over an hour. From the summit the view of Cimarrón Bay was spectacular, but to our rear trees blocked the vista of equally scenic Regatta Bay. It had not been a difficult ascent, but once we left the shelter of the densest part of the woods on our descending track, the sun beat down out of a cloudless sky. There was not a whiff of breeze, and it was nice to be out in nature au naturel, my body bathed in the golden glow of the solar rays. I felt a bit sorry for the men.

We didn't have a guide for the walk to the bay because the path is mostly paved. The track through the forest is well-marked track. The stretch of road down the eastern side of the ridge is rough for vehicles but ideal for walking. However, the country we moved through was an eerie landscape of virtually deserted houses and hamlets. Without a reliable fresh water supply, Palmirenes have largely given up farming and abandoned the countryside. Most of the buildings that are still occupied have been converted into holiday homes. We saw a few women, some pottering in their gardens, two cycling along the road, members of a work crew clearing undergrowth for fire prevention; and we were reminded that the nude law applies outside Régate.

As we came into Cimarrón village, we were greeted by a young man and woman who directed the larger of our two groups to a kiosk for refreshments and a briefing on the next stage of their trek, followed by a quick tour of the excavations. He was in khaki shirt and shorts, and though she wasn't wearing a uniform she had on a khaki collar, so I assumed they were park rangers. I said good-bye one more time to Rob and Sarah; and the six of us who were staying at Cimarrón Bay awaited our escort. It had been two hours since we had set out, so it was still just mid-morning.

As we waited, I got to know my companions. All had signed up for fieldwork at the excavation. Tom and Lorraine, the middle-aged couple, are Americans who pursue their passion for ancient history by volunteering on digs around the world. As veterans, they have worked on many sites and are members of an organization which promotes public archaeology. Rachel, Lucinda and Sean are students. The girls are from Australia. (Palmira gets a large contingent of visitors from down under. My theory is that because we already have a near-ubiquitous beach culture, Aussies look for something more than just the basic sun, sand and sea.) Rachel is high-spirited and gregarious. She has classic beach-girl looks — very pretty, sandy-haired, blue-eyed and freckled-faced, slim but sturdy, with an all-over tan and a leaping dolphin tattoo which arcs around the contours of her mons pubis. A jagged scar running up the inside of her left leg is the result of a surfing mishap. Lucy is small, olive-skinned and dark-haired with large brown eyes. She's more introverted than Rachel but with a subtly mischievous wit. The two complement each other, and have already worked together on a couple of excavations, although this is their first overseas gig. Sean is from Ireland, with the stereotypical green eyes and red hair, and was at the time the youngest member of the team at Cimarrón. Unlike the girls he's not studying archaeology. Like Tom and Lorraine he wants to travel the globe as more than a sightseer; he wants to be a part of the local culture.

Just after the other hikers had departed, Mike the site director and Sue the site manager came to meet us. He's Rebecca's deputy and is responsible for coordinating all aspects of the excavation, including personnel, health and safety, public relations and liaison with government agencies. Her role is the management of day-to-day operations — logistics, daily assignments and so on.

We were the last of the team to arrive for the season; the others were already on-site. Sue showed us first to our living quarters, a seven-minute walk up the road. What is known affectionately as the Barracks is a travelers' hostel, part of which is rented for the season by the Palmira Archaeological Field Research Institute. Because, I suppose, most of the students are undergraduates, unmarried residents are sexually segregated. Rachel and Lucy were assigned to a six-bed dormitory while I, as one of the professionals, was accorded the privilege (modest though it was) of a twin-share.

All the hostel staff but one are women. This may be the hiring practice, but since the majority are "work for accommodation" backpackers, it also reflects the fact that most itinerant workers on Palmira are female. The exception is the concierge. A personification of the hostel, he has an antiquated look and style, always neatly attired in a faded grey suit, his weather-beaten face set in an expression that is at once benign and intimidating. He commands his nude platoon like a retired sergeant-major, which possibly he is. With female guests he is grouchily paternalistic.

I found my boxes had been delivered to my room; but before I could begin unpacking the sergeant-major called Rachel, Lucy and me out into the corridor to give us a stern lecture, expounding on the DOs and DON'Ts of his domain, reciting rules and setting weekday and weekend curfews that both he and we knew he could not enforce. But we indulged him. Perhaps he was expecting orgies (we females being slaves to our hormones, after all), but more likely he was just being protective. So it was hard to suppress a grin at the irony, as we stood there being lectured about decorum while stark naked. However, his unnecessary reminder that we mustn't wear any clothing at any time made us a bit fidgety. Perhaps our reaction was illogical; but having a man tell us to expose our bodies was a tad vexing.

Meanwhile, Sean was waiting for us down the hall, grinning. Although he's younger than us, I'll wager he didn't get treated like a naughty schoolboy. In defence of his attitude, I'll concede that on our trek he had endured some puerile badinage from Rachel — good-natured teasing like her advice that he should wear baggier trousers if he was going to be around naked girls all the time, and the more acerbic suggestion that he hadn't come to Palmira just to dig in the dirt. Headstrong Rachel was the most perturbed by the sergeant-major's sermon, and Sean enjoyed witnessing her comeuppance.

Sue was waiting for us in the lobby and noted at our expressions. "The old boy is quite a character, isn't he? Don't worry; we all get the same treatment." She glowered at Sean. "Unless you have a penis." She flashed a benevolent smile.

Sue is the person I answer directly to and with whom I have developed the closest working relationship. She's physically slight but nevertheless imposing, both down-to-earth and larger-than-life, plain-spoken but sympathetic and supportive. Though she excels in the practical, she has a PhD in classical literature. In her role as site manager she's everything from quartermaster to mechanic to electrician to counsellor. I have been on quite a few digs, and Sue is as competent and hard-working as any site boss I've known... and she does it all naked.

(I was already conversant with Sue's work. Her field reports are required reading for aspiring archaeologists. Yet I developed even more respect when I got to know her in person. She came to Palmira three years ago, fresh from managing a Maya site in Belize. Her job was to assess storm damage and she has stayed on. At first uncomfortable with public nudity, she requested exemption from the law but her application was denied. Now, though she doesn't share the pleasure or the thrill that most of us feel, she's very matter-of-fact about it, neither bold nor bashful. Indeed, because of her pragmatic approach to everything, it was Sue who alerted me to one aspect of compulsory nudity I hadn't thought of, menstrual management. Yes, it's an issue, because you are not permitted to cover your genitalia. So feminine hygiene products must be worn internally, at least in public — tampons or menstrual cups. To repeat, Palmirenes take their nude law very seriously.)

As it was midday, and apart from us and the staff the hostel was deserted. Packed lunches are prepared each day for the team, and six had been left for us. After that, it was time to head down to the dig site. It is right on the edge of the beach, and a sea wall has been constructed to halt the erosion that once threatened the excavations. (The government has now banned sand-mining, which had been a major contributor to beach attrition.) The buildings — dig hut, site office, science hut, etcetera — are a short distance inland. Ancient middens (domestic waste deposits) and cemeteries extend along much of the shore of the bay. A row of broad trenches has been cut at right angles into the banks of sand, clay and coral rock debris. Around two dozen people were laboring in these ditches; and had I not been acclimatized to Palmira, the sight would have been baffling, even a bit shocking. For it almost goes without saying, by this point in my story, that all the women, who make up the majority of on-site personnel, were bare-skinned but for headgear, footwear and gloves.

Working on an archaeological site is serious business. The physical labor can be difficult and is often tedious (for example, the sifting and sorting). The remains are fragile and unless you're very careful with documentation, things can get mixed up, context and chronology can be hopelessly scrambled; so there's lots of bookkeeping to be done. But it can be incredibly rewarding, because while you don't expect to make any paradigm-changing breakthroughs, each object unearthed is a new piece of an historical puzzle, adding to the sum of our knowledge. Hence everyone is highly motivated.

Contrary to the popular view of archaeologists — as adventurers like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, or professional paleologists like Howard Carter — many are volunteer enthusiasts, like Tom and Lorraine, who pay their own expenses for the privilege of spending several hours every day under the sun scratching in the dirt... and without whom very few projects would be viable. These amateurs often have more fieldwork experience than the students, and even some of the career specialists. They contribute not just their labor but their maturity, know-how and intellectual curiosity. And because they come from all walks of life with careers outside archaeology and anthropology, they bring fresh perspectives and insights.

While there has to be a hierarchy, a sort of democracy prevails on-site. Everyone gets their hands dirty; and each afternoon when we gather in the dig hut to report on our progress, and in the evening when we discuss the day's finds, everyone has a say and everyone is listened to.

So after ten years in the field, it was rather jolting to see the sexes so starkly differentiated. And I have not yet really gotten used to it. We women toil as hard as the men but do so nude. On most weekends we go to Régate, or hike the nature trails, or head for one of the beaches, satellite islands or dive sites for rejuvenation, and being the déshabillé sex is part of the fun. But it still feels weird supervising my team members, giving orders to men whose simple act of putting on clothes is illegal for me.


The full complement at Cimarrón once I'd arrived was thirty-five — twelve senior (professional academic) members, ten students and thirteen volunteers. We newcomers didn't begin work that first day, instead acquainting ourselves with our colleagues and familiarizing ourselves with the facilities and techniques. (Each site has its unique features, according to the environment, the history and the people working there.) We took part in the afternoon conference and joined everyone for dinner at the hostel. The camaraderie was the same as at all the digs where I've worked.

As on every site, although it's not a case of all work and no play, people are usually too tired at the end of the day for much socializing. But letting off steam on weekends is important for morale; for regardless of how dedicated you are, everyone needs some downtime. My previous archaeological jobs were in remote areas. There were few opportunities for rest and recreation beyond the camp. Palmira offers plenty, in the towns, in the countryside and in the surrounding waters.

We did have some good times in the Barracks, albeit under the sullen surveillance of the sergeant-major. While we don't get to choose our companions, given that our interests are similar all the people working on the site will be basically compatible. Each weeknight after dinner we gathered on the terrace, a covered recreational area with a bar and barbeque, or in the theatrette. Nudity was generally a non-issue, partly because we the unclad heavily outnumbered the men, but mainly because you cannot afford to fixate on it, otherwise you will end up in a state of permanent arousal — both sexes. (Keep in mind that it's not just the nudity, it's the one-sided nature which gives it sexual resonance.)

Inevitably in the group there will be some hooking up, particularly among the younger members; and the rule is that whatever you do off-site stays off-site. Most interactions are casual; relationships tend to be short-lived. There are usually spouses, fiancés, boyfriends, girlfriends back home. In any case, the priority is to maintain a professional environment (and there are ethical considerations as well). Furthermore, with a typical "season" lasting just six to eight weeks, people are coming and going during that period. Tom and Lorraine stayed for a month, longer than most volunteers.

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