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
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.