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Experiencing the World Through a Female Lens

The Frugal Traveler, a great column in the NYT, had an interesting article last week focusing on what it’s like to travel as a woman alone. It’s a good article, but the author Seth Kugel, seems amazed by the fact that, yes, women often have a different travel experience than men.

That’s funny, because as a woman I’ve had plenty of opportunities to reflect on how my experiences have been influenced by my gender.

Over the past year I’ve traveled in a variety of combinations: as a couple, with a female friend and yes, solo. The three experiences were pretty different, both in terms of how I traveled and how I was treated. Most enlightening was traveling with my boyfriend. As he is also an extensive solo traveler I got to have the unique experience of comparing the ways we travel.

On his last solo trip through South East Asia, Mike had a pretty great time doing things that I, as a solo female, would probably never have attempted. Things like accepting an invitation from a man on the train in Bangkok and spending a week with his family, sleeping on the beach in Ko Phi Phi because he couldn’t find a cheap enough hostel room and partying like a (very drunk) rock star in Vang Vieng.

I am a feminist and an egalitarian, but I’m also a realist with a mom who worries a lot. Sleeping alone out in the open or getting piss drunk on my own are just not reasonable or safe things for a wi=oman to do in the world we currently live in. They’re not exactly safe things for a guy to do either, but the threat level is higher for women.

When I am traveling alone, I have to be constantly aware of my surroundings and be able to assess the threat level of any situation. That means sometimes I miss out on really neat opportunities. I would never hitchhike alone (sounds like a good way to meet a serial killer) but my buddy Dylan did just that all summer long, and had an awesome time. I would never have gone home with a random man I met on the train like Mike did. As a result he got to spend an awesome week with a local family while I probably would have just switched train cars.

For women there’s always the threat of harassment, or worse. This is even more true outside of South East Asia. I was routinely followed down the street by creepy men in London until I learned to look meaner. In Italy there were constant catcalls when I was out sightseeing. It’s not because I’m some irresistible Hottie McHotpants, it’s because for some frustrating reason, some men around the world still think that kind of behavior is acceptable.

It’s not just when I’m alone either. When I was in Australia, camping with a female friend, we were cornered one night by a very drunk Ozzie dude who demanded to know if we were lesbians, with a kind of crazed titillation in his eyes. It was a pretty tense couple of minutes until his friends appeared to drag him back to their campsite. Nonetheless he reappeared several times over the next few hours to leer at us drunkenly. You can bet we triple checked the locks in our camper van before falling asleep that night.

This is not meant to discourage people from traveling, in fact I really hope it doesn’t. When you get down to it, this isn’t a problem with travel, this is a problem with the world we live in. Creeps live everywhere; just last year two girls were attacked and raped mere blocks from my quiet suburban home in Arlington. In her recent article on the same subject Jodi of Legal Nomads mentions a terrifying incident that happened to here in Marseilles. As women we’re taught to constantly be aware of our situation and to watchful for our safety. We’re told to watch our body language, to be sure we aren’t sending anything that could be interpreted as a “signal.” And sometimes that isn’t even enough. So ,until women can stop feeling unsafe in their own homes, there’s always going to be a hyper-vigilance involved with traveling the world. And I’m sorry but that blows.

There are silver linings though. As a woman alone you sometimes have access to certain cultural experiences men might not. In South East Asia I noticed that local people were much more interested in talking to me when I was solo, which lead to some really interesting conversations. This was a big part of why I loves Cambodia so much whereas my boyfriend didn’t care for it when he visited: I was able to connect more with the place and the people.

Additionally, much of my experiences in Asia were colored by the lens I use to look at the world: that of a woman who is concerned with women’s issues. I felt safer in Asia then I have most anywhere in the world, yet you barely have to scratch the surface to uncover so much disparity. There was the unreasonable beauty standards of Japan and China where women bleach their skin and tape their eyelids. There’s the exploitative sex trade in South East Asia and the ubiquitous human trafficking. Then there’s the sex-selective anti-girl bias in China which has lead to an entire generation of missing girls. There were so many things that made me feel fortunate that I even have the ability to be a solo traveling observer.

I truly believe the world is not an unsafe place and I live my life by that philosophy. I do think though, that the world is a very different place sometimes for men than it is for women, and often times in a detrimental way. Someday that will change, but not until the world learns to recognize the meaning of respect.

Has your travel experience been influenced by your gender?

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26 Responses to Experiencing the World Through a Female Lens

  1. Bobbi Lee Hitchon September 11, 2011 at 11:11 AM #

    Great piece and I couldn’t agree with you more. Sometimes I hate being a female traveler, because I feel like I have to be a bit more cautious with closes the opportunity for some great experiences. But as you say, it’s not just the countries we visit-it’s the world. I think we just have bigger safety net at home, so it’s more noticeable when alone in a foreign place. thanks for writing this.

  2. melomakarona September 11, 2011 at 11:57 AM #

    Women do have different travel experiences than men. This is much more evident when it comes to hitchhiking.

    Before I started my solo travels through Morocco, everybody warned me about traveling alone. They said it would not be safe. I didn’t really understand their concerns. Yes, I’m a girl. And yeah I do hitchhike by myself, but I had traveled alone before in other countries, and I couldn’t see why traveling solo in Morocco would be that much different.

    So when I got there I started out alone, and almost every car would stop for me. Catching rides had never been easier for me. And the men were very respectful. Much more so that in other countries I’ve hitchhiked in.

    But then I met another person (a boy) and we decided to travel together for a bit. He had never hitched before and said that if he were to try by himself, nobody would ever stop for him. So that’s why he wanted to travel together with me. Luckily for him, cars did stop. But unfortunately for me, fewer cars would stop and those who did, would no longer speak to me, just to the boy. The whole travel experience changed for me – it was as if I was just coming along for the ride. Eventually I decided to ditch my travel partner and continue on my own.

    I can tell that it was the best decision ever and not only is Morocco a mesmerizing country, it’s also completely safe to travel solo. As a girl. Hitchhiking.

    Yes, it’s good to be cautious, but don’t be overly cautious, cause like you wrote, you might miss out on some great experiences 🙂

  3. Nadia | Gap Daemon September 11, 2011 at 12:25 PM #

    Great piece Stephanie: I’ve travelled a lot as a solo female, and I think it definitely gives you a unique experience – partly because of your expectation (being warned to dress and act moderately, not to drink too much) and partly because of the attitude of some men. Bottom line: travelling solo is AMAZING and I’d recommend it to any woman – the sense of achievement/freedom is incomparable – but safety first, always.

  4. Mica September 11, 2011 at 1:21 PM #

    I think sometimes people tend to shelter you a little bit more, depending on where you are, in my case, taxi drivers help me out, people tended to want to help me out more because they saw that I was a female, and alone.
    And I hightailed it out of Rome a few years ago because I just could not get used to the catcalls..so aggressive and made me feel so unsafe.
    Of course we have to be more careful and watch out for ourselves, more so than I think men (although I had a friend in Cusco who always seemed to be getting his wallet stolen, but he was still happy)
    Depending or not whether you speak the language I think can make you have different decisions (when I lived in Peru, since I am spanish, I felt I could better judge situations and invitations since I fluently understood everything that was being said to me) versus me being alone in Asia and being much more guarded since I can’t understand the languages.
    So you’ve had good experiences in Cambodia traveling solo? This is good, I am headed there early next year and not that I was worried, but I think I got used to travel in South American where I understood everything and being alone in Asia had me worried about language barriers.
    Hell yea solo travel is amazing-and I try to encourage all my female friends to try it at least once. It is an incredible feeling!

    • Steph September 11, 2011 at 3:34 PM #

      Hey Mica,
      On the whole I felt pretty safe in Cambodia (although Phnom Penh is a bit crazy). I did get quite a bit of attention traveling alone and a lot of people talking to me (and, in the case of some tuk tuk drivers, singing Lionel Richie at me), but it was pretty much all friendly and positive. Some of the teenage male touts at restaurants and the like would try to flirt, but non-threateningly. I also got a lot of people asking where my husband was?

      The main issue in Cambodia is the extreme poverty and the child begging, but they are pretty equal opportunity about it.

    • Aimee December 22, 2012 at 4:37 PM #

      I think you make a very good point about how a language barrier affects a girl’s perception of traveling solo. I feel one of the best ways to feel more comfortable when traveling solo in a country where you don’t speak the language is to at least pick up basic phrases or improve on what you do know of the language. Taking Spanish classes every day while in South America made me feel much more comfortable while traveling.

      I too am traveling with my boyfriend right now but I will be going off solo in two months. I often try to explain to him how it’s different for me when I go off by myself during the day and walk through the streets versus him walking through the streets. I try not to limit myself, but there’s many things like walking alone at night that he is able to do that I simply don’t feel comfortable doing for safety purposes. I’m inspired by women who don’t feel this fear, but for me it’s just out of my comfort zone in the areas we are in. It’s great hearing everyone’s different experiences.

  5. Kit Whelan September 11, 2011 at 3:35 PM #

    Absolutely! Though I’m with my male partner 90% of the time, I still feel the intense differences in the way the world treats women (even in the US). I’m glad to hear you say you’ve also benefitted from the differences, though! It’s not all bad. Though I do plan on learning some self-defense in the near future, just in case.

  6. Lisa @chickybus September 11, 2011 at 4:23 PM #

    As a solo female traveler, I’ve definitely had to be a little more careful than a man would be. When I accepted an invitation to be a guest of the Bedouins in Jordan, I was reluctant to sleep in the desert–just me and the one who invited me, that is. I decided not to the first night. As I man, I’m sure I wouldn’t have thought twice about it.

    I got to know the family and neighbors and learned about the local customs from other foreigners. Then, when I felt safe enough, I slept in the desert with the original Bedouin man’s younger brother.

    I’ve also been careful with getting too friendly with hotel staff and always check room locks carefully. If I were a man, I’m sure I’d still be careful, but not as much and I’d be open to a wider range of situations.

  7. ayngelina September 11, 2011 at 9:42 PM #

    In a lot of ways I felt much safer in South America as a solo female traveler. There is still much much a sense of machismo and so a lot of people looked out for me, wondering what the crazy gringa was doing on her own.

    Like Mica said speaking the language really does help. Even when I was just learning Spanish knowing enough to talk to the bus driver was really helpful. A lot of drivers who unpack the bags would pull mine out first and hold it next to them. I had groups of women signal for me to sit by them, I had great conversations with people because they all wanted to know what I was doing on my own.

    I remember on one bus in Guatemala the driver asked for more money than it was supposed to be and everyone in the bus yelled at him.

    Yes we need to be careful but just as men have unique experiences so do women.

    • Steph September 11, 2011 at 10:17 PM #

      That’s good to hear. I’m headed down there in a couple weeks and I’m worried the machismo thing is going to drive me crazy! I’ll be with Mike most of the time but I do hope to get off on my own a bit. I am working really hard at my Spanish, so hopefully that will help.

  8. Jodi September 11, 2011 at 11:56 PM #

    Thanks for the mention, Steph. Like you, I felt very safe in Asia while travelling alone, more so than I feel when I’m back in North America. However, there are places where I have to be more careful than not and as you’ve said, it’s a reality of the world we live in. Like you, and Ayngelina and Lisa, I value the experiences I have as a solo woman and, while cautious at times, haven’t let it stop me from travelling.

  9. Christy @ Technosyncratic September 12, 2011 at 6:27 AM #

    Amen to the statement that “this isn’t a problem with travel, this is a problem with the world we live in.” Just that women being catcalled in other countries isn’t necessarily the fault of dressing inappropriately for a certain cultural context (which is always the presumption) – it’s the fault of men in those places feeling entitled to sexually harass women. And women shouldn’t have to carry the burden to prevent rape since, y’know rapists are the ones actually causing the problem.

    Too often our society misplaces blame and accountability, so unfortunately a lot of women get admonished not to travel solo. Which is hogwash; the fact that it can be more unsafe for women to travel alone doesn’t mean women should never do so – it means the world needs to shape the f*ck up! =)

  10. RenegadePilgrim September 12, 2011 at 8:32 AM #

    I had a similar conversation with Anil from FoxNomad while at TBEX this summer. I think the MIddle East (Israel, Palestinian Territories and Jordan) was probably the most difficult for me as a solo female traveler. I never felt like I was in danger, it was mostly me being aware of the differences of being a female and how I needed to adjust my behavior to not put myself at risk. I blogged about some of those experiences and plan to expand on some of that in the future. In SE Asia, I felt safe, for the most part.

    I took a self-defense class before I left last year for my travels and the most important piece of information I took away from it was to always listen to my gut. I have never been steered wrong.

    I don’t think the men realize how privileged they are when they travel. At the same time, I think traveling as a woman, solo, also affords you opportunities you might not have if traveling as a couple or a group…..it’s just something to be aware of and allowing yourself to be open to the experiences, within reason, of course.

  11. Alex September 12, 2011 at 8:57 AM #

    I have tried to explain to male friends in the past the way that the threat of sexual harassment and assault shapes my life as a woman, and they just don’t fully get it (how could they?)

    I don’t let that threat keep me at home, but I do let it keep my wild impulsiveness in check. I think what it comes down to is for women, the worst case scenario (rape, assualt vs. robbery, scams) is usually much more devastating.

  12. Roni Weiss September 12, 2011 at 11:49 AM #

    Traveling as a 6’5″ guy is entirely different. I take a lot more risks than I would otherwise. I wouldn’t have hitchhiked in Iraq, for sure, or even Turkey, probably, if I was a girl or potentially even a smaller guy.

    I dunno if I agree that it’s a ‘problem’ with the world, per se, as I see problems as things we should try to resolve. I just think it’s how the world is. It sucks, but it needs to be accepted, in some ways. You just can’t control individual behavior out in the world.

  13. Kristen September 29, 2011 at 3:13 PM #

    Traveling as a woman does have its disadvantages, but there are advantages, too – as a documentary filmmaker, I’ve noticed that people are way more likely to drop their guard with me than with male counterparts. They don’t view me as a threat, so they’ll open up more; maybe they just don’t take me as seriously. In any case, it works to my advantage.

    • Steph September 29, 2011 at 3:49 PM #

      I can definitely see that being a BIG advantage. I’ve found people more likely to open up to solo me as well!

  14. AK January 4, 2012 at 12:26 PM #

    If anything, I found that traveling solo made guys that I met almost adopt a big brother role. I always had people wanting to look out for me, help me and keep me safe. On the (very) rare occasion when a guy would cross the line, I had enough decent, respectful and helpful guys around keeping an eye on me that it never became an issue!

    • Steph January 9, 2012 at 3:07 PM #

      Yeah I had a similar experience when I was in London living with 3 dudes. They became my Australian big brothers! Thank goodness there are more good people than bad out there.

    • Pat May 10, 2013 at 10:38 AM #

      I think we get it beaten into us by society, that as men we’re supposed to look after and protect women. Sometimes it’s hard to ignore that programming even when we know you can handle things yourself.

      I’m a pretty laid back and non-confrontational guy and in my 25 years on Earth I’ve never been in a single fight. My last day in Madagascar some of my group decided to hit the town that night as our last hurrah. There were 3 or 4 guys (including me) and maybe 5-7 girls. We ended up in some night club this band was playing in. Some of the girls started dancing and these two older Malagasy guys who were obviously at least slightly drunk approached them wanting to dance. It was obvious the girls didn’t want to even if the guys didn’t understand their English (not many people in Madagascar speak English, especially the older generations and none of us spoke French or Malagasy).

      The guys wouldn’t take the hint so I got between them and the girls and said something like “they don’t want to dance.” and tried to indicate no by shaking my head and using hand motions since I knew they probably didn’t speak English. The one guy must have gotten the hint or just got tired of trying because he left. The other guy left but kept coming back and trying to dance with them and I kept getting between them and indicating no. After a few times of this I got so pissed I was ready to slug this guy so I got in his face and just about yelled something like “You need to back the fuck off or we’re gonna have a problem asshole!”. He must have finally decided it was a bad idea to keep trying because we didn’t see him for the rest of the night.

      As I said, I’m usually a very calm and non-confrontational and in the states when I’ve been out with girls I usually let them handle drunken men themselves. But I’ve never had a guy who didn’t take the hint from the girl like this Malagasy guy and him harassing them really hit a nerve and set me off.

      • Steph May 10, 2013 at 11:03 AM #

        We had a similar incident in Quito with an older man who couldn’t take the hint and kept trying to dance with the young ladies in our group. Finally Mike had to tell him (in spanish) that he was being inappropriate, and even then he still didn’t really quit.
        I think it’s great when guys stand up for girls (when it’s warranted). I also try to stand up for people who look like they need help whenever I’m in that situation. Anything to make the world a safer place.

  15. Travelling Gem July 6, 2012 at 9:18 AM #

    Great post. I hate feeling restricted when travelling because I’m worrying about my safety but it’s so important to be aware of potential dangers. I do tend to take a few risks when travelling but much less when I’m travelling solo.

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