Women’s Travel E-Mail Roundtable, Part Four: Being a Woman—Wherever

Speaker's Corner: All this week, four accomplished travelers -- Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Liz Sinclair, Terry Ward and Catherine Watson -- talk about the rewards and perils of hitting the road alone as a woman.

10.09.07 | 12:00 PM ET

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From: Catherine Watson
To: Liz Sinclair, Stephanie Elizondo Griest and Terry Ward
Subject: Being a Woman—Wherever

Frankly, I’ve never resolved my feelings about The Feminine Card. I think it’s because, too often, the Feminine Card looks a lot more like the Young, Innocent, Vulnerable Card, and we’ve all played that (starting probably when we were 9). Sure, it works, and yes, it’s worth playing—heck, in a travel pinch, playing ANY card is worth a try. 

So I also endorse the Loud Screaming Card; the Let-Me-Hold-Your-Baby Card, which proves how trustworthy I am; the Amateur Actress Card, particularly useful when you have to move quickly away from problem males without making them mad, and of course, as Liz notes, the old, reliable, all-purpose Crying Card, helpful in a lot of cultures, including ours.

But after something like 40 years of traveling alone, I’d still rather have been dealt the Big Strong Masculine Card—particularly when I’m in a culture where women’s status is vastly different from mine at home.

Or—and this is worse—when I’m someplace where every signal I’m sending—including the simple fact that I AM alone—breaks the rules that local women have to live by. That signals to local men that they can break the rules too and behave worse to me than they would to one of their own. For me, that’s happened most often in the Middle East.

The wonderful He My HUSBAND story is a perfect example. My version happened in Luxor a few years ago, when I slipped the surly bonds of my Egyptian guide and went out walking alone one afternoon. It was brilliantly sunny, and I was only about one street away from the Nile—so close to the main drag that I could look down the side streets and see it. I was feeling perfectly safe, even after I turned a corner and found myself in a sandy cul-de-sac where eight or nine little boys were playing. There were no other people in sight.

I was starting to take a picture of a wall—just a beat-up wall, nice texture, good shadows—when the boys suddenly started yelling at me. They formed into a little gang and surrounded me, yelling and picking up rocks, and backing me into a corner.

A local woman came to my rescue— a housewife who lived in the building just behind me. She heard the ruckus, opened a shuttered window, shouted something in Arabic to the boys, who dropped the rocks and backed away, and said to me, in English, “Where is your husband?”

I took it as an indictment of the missing spouse—in her mind, it was his fault, not mine, because he had permitted me to run around unguarded. I don’t have a husband, but I invent one for Middle East trips—it helps with credibility, even with women. Now I said my husband didn’t like to travel, so I had to do it alone. “Wait,” she said. A few minutes later, she emerged from her front door, now in a headscarf and ankle-length cover-up, and led me straight through the pack of little boys and back to the Nile, where there were other tourists—back, in other words, to my own world, where being who I was wouldn’t invite so much trouble.

The last time I took real advantage of the Feminine Card—and I’m not too proud of this—was a few years ago, when I was in Istanbul with a guy I’ve traveled with on and off since college. Officially, the writer-me is the best traveler ever. The private me shamefully adores handicrafts and carpets, and I must radiate carpet greed. I try to make wise choices, but comparison shopping for rugs is something you can’t do in Turkey without having the owner and a couple of assistants pull down every rug on the shelves, which overwhelms me with choices and guilt.

Before I went into shops in the Grand Bazaar this time, I said to Jim, “give me 15 minutes in here and then come in, pretend you’re my husband and throw a fit.” He did, perfectly, practically yelling—“I’ve told you and told you! You can’t bring any more rugs into our house!” We’re not a couple, but we can play the Couple Card as well as anybody, so this worked perfectly. As I was dragged reluctantly out of the first stall, the owner leaned in close and murmured, “Come back tomorrow. Without HIM.”

I’m with Liz on the three aspects of a woman travel writer’s identity, with gender coming in third. But for me, “traveler” and “writer/photographer” have been too tightly braided to separate. When I’m working, I think of myself as my audience’s eyes and ears, so the writer part of me is collecting details and moments and good lines, and the traveler part is doing the legwork.

Part of this weird, delightful work is a kind of modeling—I mean, showing the readers how to travel openly, get off the beaten path, communicate with strangers, take risks, shake up their habits and fears and, for at least 50 percent of them, prove that a woman can travel alone, and travel well.

On exotic trips, I sometimes think my role is to screw up, as in Luxor—to make mistakes, get into jams, or—and this isn’t bad—be touched by something to the point of tears. Usually, it’s human kindness. I figure, if it happens to me—be it hassle or epiphany—it could happen to them.

That means, and I never expected this to happen, I no longer enjoy plain old private travel as much. I need my travel to have meaning for somebody else. (I’m about to head for Nepal, to volunteer in a Tibetan refugee camp, for that reason.) When I’m working, I’m actually a better traveler—more outgoing, more curious, way less high-maintenance than when I’m home. And way happier.

Wandering back to the Feminine Card, let me say all this differently: When I’m in Asia, Africa or especially the Middle East, I’d swap genders in a heartbeat. But the place I feel most vulnerable as a woman is here at home, under the good old red, white and blue.

So far, I’ve been attacked only once, about 15 years ago, but it was bad, and it was here—about two blocks from my house, in a safe neighborhood in Minneapolis, on a sunny spring afternoon, while I was walking my dog. As one of my female friends said later, “We are at war in this country on women and children.” Yes, indeedy. For weeks afterward, walking the dog made my skin crawl, and all I could think of was getting out of town. My feet actually itched, I wanted so badly to be somewhere else. For me, so far, life has been safer on the road.

World Hum contributing editor Terry Ward writes for The Washington Post, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Orlando Sentinel and AOL. A story she wrote about a women-run guesthouse in Rajasthan, India was selected as notable travel writing for the 2006 edition of the "Best American Travel Writing" series. She is based in Florida.

Catherine Watson is the former travel editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year and the author of two collections of travel essays, the new Home on the Road -- Further Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth, and Roads Less Traveled -- Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth. She recently wrote the World Hum story Where the Roads Diverged.

Stephanie Elizondo Griest has mingled with the Russian Mafiya, polished Chinese propaganda and belly danced with Cuban rumba queens. She is the author of Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, as well as Not Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines, and the guidebook 100 Places Every Woman Should Go

Australia-based Liz Sinclair is living in Bali, learning Indonesian, volunteering as a grant writer for a maternal and child health center for the poor and writing about Australia and Asia, with an emphasis on Indonesia and interfaith issues. She wrote Why I am Still Going to Bali for World Hum, and has written for The Melbourne Age, The Big Issue, Australia, The Brunei Times, The Evening Standard and Islands magazine.

2 Comments for Women’s Travel E-Mail Roundtable, Part Four: Being a Woman—Wherever

Scribetrotter 10.10.07 | 2:43 AM ET

I can’t help but see myself in this entry… I too travel alone, most often as a journalist, and I have a collection of wedding bands that I use regularly for travel in some parts of the world… the Middle East certainly, but also Africa, where being a single woman of a ‘certain age’ is a reason to be pitied, a sign of failure in life - not to mention a red flag to wannabe helpful men.

My ‘husband’ is always waiting at the next village, the next bus stop, down the street… I’ve been known to wave wildly at an empty street as though I could just see him, a dot on a far-off street corner… And I’m fortunate to have a gorgeous 8-year-old niece whom I ‘borrow’ (sorry, brother dear!) occasionally and adopt on my own on the road, pulling out pictures of my ‘daughter’ each time I can. That’s not hard - I miss her so I’m being sincere, if not quite truthful.

We shouldn’t have to do this but cultures change slowly - openness isn’t something you can impose. It has to evolve.

MargoWolf 01.04.08 | 6:49 AM ET

Catherine, On a further part of this series I am having a ‘conversation’ with
Melodee, a California lady about my age
(58) and she feels safe in American cities and cited me for saying that California is dangerous and so is Florida. The statistics are there and you said it, there is an open season on women and girls in this country that shames me. I am learning some kendo without using a sword. It means I can use a cane or stick for defense.I have done most of my traveling in the Rocky Mountain West and lived all over and all
I want is peace and security on the road. I used tents when I was young but only my topper on my truck will do in the USA and Mexico now. There are Bears and there are men. I tented in Ireland and felt safe as there were families around
with children. The ability to be self contained is great and costs less. I can shower, wash clothes, cook and stay in on rainy days and marvel at gales that whip my tent but never did I get wet or
uncomfortable. A small padlock kept curiosity seekers out and my cameras and
journals were always on me. I stayed my last night in Ireland in a B&B. I missed my tent. I realize this is very low maintenance and not necessary or practical in the Middle East or Asia. Or
Africa. But the Western World lets me do this and I am happy in the countryside and I love villages and seacoast harbors
and fishing for mackerel, buying local mussels for dinner. Getting fresh organic veggies from a local farmer. The
total independence is heaven. I live where I travel. My home is with me. A bus to Galway City for shopping or thumbing to An Gort for film and groceries. Walking to the post and the local Cyberspace for emails made me feel
like I was really at home in Ireland. It is a great first trip across the Atlantic. I love it. I will love other places just as I love Montana and New Mexico and New Hampshire.Being a woman traveler in the USA will prepare anyone for Europe and Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England. The latter also recommended as first trips so English is spoken. This is my time to grow away from the USA and have an altered point of view and feel like I have gone home.MargoWolf

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