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
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?