Women’s Travel E-Mail Roundtable, Part Two: The ‘Feminine Card’
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.
10.08.07 | 3:17 PM ET
From: Stephanie Elizondo Griest
To: Catherine Watson, Liz Sinclair and Terry Ward
Subject: The “Feminine Card”
I don’t feel remotely guilty about using the “feminine card” as a means to an end—perhaps because this exact same card has gotten me in so much trouble. Like the time a girlfriend and I were walking home in Moscow, wearing short skirts and high heels after a night at the theater, and ended up getting chased down a dark alley by a pack of drunk Russian men. Or the time I was undressing in a Saigon hotel room and looked up to find the next door neighbors (three middle-aged Vietnamese men) watching me through a partition in our ceiling. Or the night some piss-drunk bloke started pounding on my door at a Day’s Inn in Baltimore, saying he had “nine pulsing inches” to show me.
Just as soon as my “sola traveler” status plopped me into those situations, however, it whisked me right out of them. Security guards overheard my primal female screams and chased away those drunks in Moscow. I pitched a fit at both of the hotels and was quickly granted new (and far nicer) rooms at a reduced rate. Every attribute that makes a traveler unusual—be it age, skin color, citizenship, or gender—can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the situation. I have no problem using (or, in the case of citizenship, concealing) any attribute, as needed.
For the most part, being a lone woman has been a saving grace. Take my own sola debut, eleven years ago. I hopped a bus from Prague to the medieval town of Cesky Krumlov and arrived in the middle of a thunderstorm, sans hotel reservations. As I headed toward the main plaza, I passed scores of soggy backpackers who were trekking back to the bus station because they couldn’t find a room for the night. The town was celebrating its famous summer solstice festival and every bed was booked.
The rain soon turned into a downpour, and I darted into a pension for cover. The clerk looked up and snapped: “No rooms!” I asked for permission to wait there until the storm subsided and she told me to go to my hotel. When I said that I didn’t have one, she told me to join my friends. When I said that I didn’t have any of those either, she muttered something in Czech and grabbed the phone. After a few calls, she scribbled an address on a sheet of paper and handed it to me. “I found you a room. Now hurry up and change out of those wet clothes!”
Would she have done that if I were a man? Or if I had a man around to protect me? Probably not. As women, we are forever developing familial relationships with other women and becoming each other’s surrogate daughters, mothers, and grandmothers. Women won’t let women go hungry, or sleep without shelter.
Of course, the “feminine card” has its flipside, as I learned one evening in a Bedouin community in Egypt. The men treated me as “one of the guys,” inviting me to eat with them, smoke sheesha, share stories—while the women darted about, filling our teacups. I soon felt guilty that the women were doing all the work, so I gathered some dirty dishes and followed them to the kitchen area. My presence seemed to unnerve them: the women snatched the dishes out of my hands and turned their backs to me. When I rejoined the men, the energy had totally changed. They didn’t seem as interested in talking to me.
This experience has repeated itself around the globe. Even when local women seem to appreciate the extra help, the social dynamic changes with the men afterward. This puts me in a difficult situation, as I am inevitably interviewing the men for a story. Are we—as female travelers—obligated to do kitchen time with the women? Or can we kick back with the men at the table?