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

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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?

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.

1 Comment for Women’s Travel E-Mail Roundtable, Part Two: The ‘Feminine Card’

MargoWolf 01.04.08 | 5:19 AM ET

Stephanie, When I met a second married man in Kinvara, county Galway, I asked to meet his wife. I am so glad I did as she was a fellow artist and is still my friend today. In the states I was always with ‘the guys’ when I was younger. But I have cultivated women friends because these relationships have lasted. Because a wife of a fellow photographer accused me of wanting to be more than friends with her husband(and it was the other way around) I
lost a peer and was pushed out of the circle that included my photography mentor. We have seen each other at his shows and been in touch since, but being the woman deprived me of relationships that I loved and which were professional
and important to me. Losses like that are a set back. On the road in the USA
I want to know more about someone before
I am seen in public in social situations. In Ireland I met people from all over Europe and they were wonderful to me. But when a man asked me to make leather pouches for his daughters and I did, his wife became very defensive. This was a handsome man who had befriended me in front of his wife at a country pub by the Caravan Campground we
were all staying at. He hung out after hours as did I after the Bartender invited me. There was a lovely little mix of travelers and locals. It was like home. Those were great moments and being
a woman on the road applauded and envied. It cuts both ways, don’t you think? I am wary of the wives and girlfriends and seeing disaproval in their eyes. But when I had dinner with a couple and she was a great cook, it was she I was more friendly with and our friendship endures. I love meeting creative people and exchanging our creations with one another. Having these
items to bring home is personal and gratifying. I would still like to purchase a photo of my woman friend from her husband that I liked very much, but he was jealous of our friendship and I
had to settle for taking a photo of the
poster photo as a keepsake, as it was hung inside the big van they lived in.

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