Women’s Travel E-Mail Roundtable, Part Three: Arguments and Getting to the Heart of the Subject

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 | 8:05 AM ET

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From: Liz Sinclair
To: Catherine Watson, Stephanie Elizondo Griest and Terry Ward
Subject: Arguments and Getting to the Heart of the Subject

I agree with Terry and Stephanie in that I play the feminine card every chance I get when I travel, because I’m already dealing with the backlash of being female.

I’ve flirted my way into a long visa extension in China that I wasn’t supposed to get, a private sleeping compartment on a train in France for no extra charge and bringing illegal Chinese medicines through Indonesian customs.

I’ve found that men usually don’t want to argue with me for long, perhaps because they don’t want to be seen browbeating a single woman, and I usually can get my way if I keep pushing. I once bought a ticket on a train into Rome, but didn’t know that return tickets had to be purchased in advance. I had a heated discussion with the porter on the later train before he finally gave up and walked away. I have always wondered if he would have given up if I’d been a man. I’ve seen arguments between male travelers and locals degenerate into shoving matches.

And, I hate to admit this, but I have used the time-honored technique of bursting into tears a few times, which no matter the country, stops an argument cold. This is an option that is simply not available to a man.

The downside to being a solo woman traveler is the constant sexual harassment and possibility of rape. I do most of my traveling in Asia where women are seen as being easily intimidated. I’ve got a hidden advantage in that I’ve studied martial arts for many years. However, despite all the harassment and sexual offers I’ve received over the years, I’ve only ever had to hit a man once, a cab driver at a depot in Guangzhou, who was trying to get more money from me and grabbed my shoulders. After I broke his jaw, the other drivers surrounded me, stroking me softly, telling me to calm down. Then they found me a new cab and driver who took me at break-neck speed to catch my ferry to Hong Kong.

I love the network of women around the world that comes to my aid time and again. I once encountered a trio of Italian nuns on a train who had created a man-free compartment and were walking up and down the carriages, persuading single women to come sit with them, much to the chagrin of the men. When I traveled in China, I learned to eat at small, sidewalk cafes run by women, who would whisk me away to a table of my own, sit and chat, repel any man that tried to come over to talk to me, and hand me their baby grandchildren to hold while they supervised the cooking. I’ve been fed lunch by a group of women prostitutes near Nha Trang and been handed betel nut to chew by market women in the highlands of West Timor.

Stephanie raised a good point about kitchen time. When I’m traveling, I see myself as a writer first, a traveler second and woman third. I often face the dilemma of joining the women or staying with the men. I feel ashamed, smile at the women, but stay with the men as they are often the best sources of information. I’m so used to feeling dislocated anyway in a foreign land; I just consider it one more way I feel out of place in someone else’s backyard. There’s also a practical consideration: the women are far less likely to speak English than the men. Also, I know the women will more easily forgive me and I can visit with them in the market the next day.

One very definite advantage (besides winning arguments) I’ve found in being female (and an outsider) is that men, in private talks, will open up and reveal a great deal of their emotional life to me, whereas with another male, they’re likely to drink a beer, laugh and engage in small talk. And it’s obviously much easier to get women to talk to me. Do we as female traveler writers have an easier time getting to the heart of our subjects?

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 Three: Arguments and Getting to the Heart of the Subject

MargoWolf 01.04.08 | 6:05 AM ET

Dear Liz, I have not wanted to take advantage of my feminine self. But befriending women can help if you are hurt or ill. Or hungry. Befriending the owners of the Caravan Parks I stayed in helped me        
stay longer for less money and when my funds were low I was fed by a woman owner and given credit by a pair of men who ran a pub and camp store so I had what I needed. These people were wonderful and
got me through the thin days and gave me advice about weather and having patience to wait out a gale blowing 50 miles up the road rather than arrive in the midst
of it. As a trained journalist I have often decided not to reveal that fact and also not to ask too many questions right off. I let people open up as they wish to and because I will stay a month or several in an area, I eventually hear
plenty; from politics to local lore and gossip. When I returned after 125 days in Ireland I went into culture shock and
was so low because it was so hard to leave. Now I am returning this Spring and hope to get at least another 125 days into Ireland and beyond, as
far as my shrinking dollar will take me.
Again I will design and make jewelry and leather bags so I can be paid in Euros on the road. This is often my food money
and it is my way to meet others like me
locally. It is the best feeling to be self contained and not dependent on others; but kindness I have offered over the years and kindness I have been shown. After working on environmental issues and wildlife legislation which has burnt me out these past 7+ years, meeting new people far from home is magical and electric.Don’t you think so?
This year I want to tackle counties that
are not English speaking and I expect there to be some differences as I am not fluent but have basics in Spanish and French that are rusty. Learning languages is a must and with time it is
possible. When I was treated a bit badly
by snotty Belgian college boys high on hash, my friends, the owners, had a talk with them. Shut up or leave. They pouted
and still said some nasty things in their lovely language. Boys will be boys. Sexual innuendo is universal and I
had people at my back. This is not always possible but disconnecting with
BS is necessary at times. There are real threats. You are very travel-wise and experienced in a part of the world I may never see because I have asthma. But Winter travel in exotic places does interest me. After Europe, one day…MargoWolf

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