A few months ago, Salon published an article called Dangers of traveling while female. As a fellow female traveler, I was horrified by Ms. Burton’s perception of how women should/must travel. Then I read The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why It Matters last week, and I knew I had to say something.
I have never let my gender stop me from having an adventure. In fact, I’ve always thought that traveling alone is easier for a female than a male.
I mean, come on! Sparking conversations with huge numbers of new people; on-the-fly invitations to helicopter rides, lobster diving outings and other escapades; being welcomed to crash in someone’s house or share a meal with their family… are all things that are more likely to happen if you’re a lady.
And next thing you know, you and your two hitchhikers are kayaking in the Cuevas de Marmol on the Chile-Argentina border.
Sure, some people see women as targets and sex things. But most see them as non-threatening visitors to the place they call home. People abroad are often just as interested in learning about your country as you are in learning about theirs – but if you are an imposing male, rather than a pretty female, they might be afraid to ask. (Which is why it’s a good idea to bring pictures – of your family, your home, famous landmarks near you, etc. – when you travel. People will want to see them.) Once the conversation starts, there’s no telling what could happen next.
And, yes, some men might also hope to get lucky with you later. That’s why, it's good to lay down your boundaries and expectations (e.g. “I will sail with you, but nothing sexual will happen;” “I’d love to stay with you, but I can’t take the bed – let me stay on the couch instead;” etc.) when accepting offers and invitations. Which may sound awkward, but it’s really not that hard. Especially when embedded in the silliness of communicating in your (or their) second language.
That’s what I do. It works so well that I’ve often gone weeks on end without ever having to pay (or even ask) for a place to stay. Some days, I would meet a local resident while out exploring. He’d recognize me as foreign, and we’d get to talking about -- anything. The weather. The clock tower. Where I’m from. Where I might be going next. Next thing I know, he’s asked where I’m staying, I’ve told him I don't know yet, and he’s said, “Then you’re welcome to stay with me.”
Or she! Meet my wonderful friend Ali, whom I met at Handley Cellars in Philo, CA. My plan had been to camp -- but somehow I forgot my tent and sleeping bag. When I met Ali and told her about my predicament, she was all, "Oh, no biggie! I live right up the road -- come stay with me!
Meaning that I’ve slept in the homes of countless people I’ve just met – sometimes, even in the same bed. It’s a really cool way experience to the family dynamic in a new culture. Or, if they’re single, to see how young people live and party there. It’s a chance to hear them say what it used to be like, before the war, before the white man came, before they got older. It’s a way to bring the buildings and the cafes outside alive with new richness and meaning.
But, like I said, it’s your responsibility to make your boundaries clear ahead of time, not theirs to read your mind. Men I’ve crashed with have always gone into it knowing that this is not a sexual thing. And it has been a problem exactly zero times. None of these people ever tried to force me, drug me, or guilt me. They’ve only ever expressed gladness to have met me, and mild sadness to say goodbye.
Here’s one reason I’m comfortable doing that: I know, for a fact, that I am worth spending time with. I am sure no one’s ever thought, “Wow, I shouldn’t have wasted my day having that epic adventure with her, because I didn’t get laid.” “Darn, I really wish I hadn’t relived that important childhood story or heard that funny anecdote about California’s ‘tech elite,’ because we didn’t even make out after.”
And this confidence, this knowledge that I am fun, smart and kind, is what drives me to travel in this open and “masculine” way. Men know they’ve got something to offer. They know that they have something– their stories, their network, their experience – worth sharing. But sadly, a lot of women think that people only want them for sex -- and they act and feel accordingly. They fear. They say no. They miss out.
If you’re a woman and you need further convincing that you are worth spending time with, know this: psychology research proves that people like looking at faces. Especially female faces. And especially pretty female faces. Having an exchange with you – buying you a drink, showing you around town, taking you out for a meal – makes him feel good. It elevates his mood. It gives him the chance to practice his English – or, at the very least, to share a cool story with his friends later. Even if you are the shyest, most awkward person ever, you are worth spending time with.
But some nights, you just want to sleep alone. Constantly being around people is draining. On those nights, you can check into a hotel. I do that sometimes. But other times I'm on a budget -- and I take advantage of other cheap or free (but still alone) options.
Unlike Fermor, I’ve never slept in a haystack. But I’ve slept on the sailboat decks – a girl can walk right past the guards at a marina, no questions, because she’s a girl. Then she can find a boat that looks unoccupied, spread herself out below the stars, and fall asleep to gentle waves and a warm breeze. It’s probably one of the best sensations in the world.
No one’s ever caught me doing this – but I’ve never been too worried about what would happen if they did. If I were a dude, they would probably call the police. Since I’m a girl, I imagine they would just wake me up and ask me to move along. Or offer me a slice of melon. Or something.
Another nice thing about this sleeping arrangement is that most marinas have bathrooms and showers, so you can rinse the salt off after your morning swim.
I also slept in the bed of a Cat 789 once. Not my favorite night of sleep ever – I was sleeping on metal, and there was a slight slope that kept me tossing and turning. But it was nice to have walls around me while I rested. Emotionally, it was more comfortable than sleeping in an airport or a train station, where I have a constant nagging that someone will steal the shoes off my feet or the camera from my wrist. I considered the possibility of being crushed by an onslaught of dirt or rocks in my sleep – but eventually decided that I’d be woken by the rumbling and crashing of mining equipment long before that happened.
Not a bad place for a night's rest... but not a very good one, either.
Then there was the night of the Rolling Stones concert in Budva, Montenegro. I’ll never forget it. I’d happened upon this town on one of the craziest nights of the year -- and was able to get a ticket for about $10. I had no idea if my ticket was real or not, but it didn’t end up mattering. There were about two security guards per 10,000 spectators, and no one even ended up checking. After the concert, to which I’d hitchhiked, I had no trouble getting out of the “parking lot” (i.e., field full of disorderly, haphazardly-arranged cars). I didn’t spend one moment waiting in traffic. I just made my way to the exit and stuck out a thumb. One car passed by me, then a second. The third car had a strange, mischievous aura – like it was laughing. I knew immediately that it would stop.
And stop it did. The car was full, so I climbed onto a lap in the backseat. Then we laughed our way into town. On the way, we stopped at a Podunk hole-in-the-wall that happened to have the best cevapcici in the world (“we” were friends with the owner, so it was on the house). Since it was the middle of the night and I’d made no sleeping arrangements, the driver offered to let me crash on his cot. Just, his room was too tiny to fit inside of it.
So he did what anyone would do and unfolded the cot under the staircase.
It felt a little sketchy to be sleeping in such a public spot. But there was a little emergency nightlight in the hallway, so it never got completely dark. And even though it was a large building, most of the residents had already gone to bed. I didn’t wear my sleepy head (you know – those things you put over our eyes to keep the light out), just in case. But it didn’t end up being an issue. No one noticed or bothered me. It was an amazing night.
Let’s go back to hitchhiking – a free mode of transportation that is absolutely easier for females than males. I love hitchhiking! I’ve often joked that it’s a safe, fun way to meet interesting people. After all, most people who would invite a total stranger into their car are fun, carefree souls. People who want to pay it forward, or would just enjoy the company of someone who’s doing what you’re doing. Male or female, it sort of takes balls.
Years ago, after hitchhiking across several different countries with hundreds of different people, I vowed never to leave someone on the side of the road again. And, for the most part, I haven’t. Once in a while, there wasn’t room, or I had someone’s kids in the car with me, but the rest of the time... Hop in!
A hitchhiker and I camp out on a beach in Northern California.
I still hitchhike on occasion. It takes about five minutes to get a ride, since women are not seen as threatening – and the people who pick me up will often go a little out of their way to help me get closer to where I’m going, because benevolent sexism. And, of course, they’re locals! They can tell you where to find the secret hot springs and cheap gear rental -- just tell them Antonio sent you. At the very least, you'll probably hear an interesting story.
If you’d prefer to hitchhike with a woman driver, don’t hold your breath. About 99 out of the last 100 people I’ve hitchhiked with were male. Probably for the same reason 99 of the last 100 hitchhikers I’ve picked up were men. Women are scared. And that’s fine – I don’t think anyone should do anything they’re not comfortable with. But, contrary to the popular notion that women who hitchhike get raped and killed, I can say that the absolute worst thing that’s ever happened to me is that the guy said, “Well, here we are. Why don’t I give you my number, and if you need someone to show you around town or anything, you can call me.” Absolute worst.
Meanwhile, men who hitchhike have a much harder time of it. Car after car drives past, leaving them standing in the rain with the sun setting and the temperature rapidly dropping. This would never happen if they were girls.
I won’t ignore the possibility of rape, kidnapping and murder. All travelers, male and female, take certain precautions to try to stay safe. And sometimes, no matter what we do, bad things still end up happening.
I’ve done a lot of crazy things while traveling. I've lost count of how many times someone’s told me, “Never do that again!” or “You’re lucky to be alive!” But none of those stories ever actually resulted in anything bad happening to me. The closest-to-rape travel story I have involved a man jumping on me while I was sleeping in a hostel in Albania. In a matter of seconds, I’d thrown him on the floor, put a knife to his throat, and told him that if he didn’t leave immediately, I would kill him. And I meant it.
It sucks that that happened, but, honestly, it didn’t even upset me that much. All I felt was anger. How dare he try to do that to me? What a sicko! But the next day, I went back to travel as usual. Nothing like that has happened since, and nothing has changed about my travel behavior. Why would it?
Statistically speaking, random strangers in hostels and alleyways don’t rape people. Coworkers, classmates, friends and acquaintances rape people. And those situations are much more frightening and hard to deal with. Would I have pulled a knife on a friend? A recent ex? A boss? I don’t know. All I know is that the men I “know” – the ones I play basketball with, work with and go climbing with, have tried to do worse things to me and respected my clearly-stated boundaries less than the ones I’ve adventured with abroad.
Which is obviously very disturbing and sad… but also a completely different story. One unrelated to being female while traveling.
I think where Burton and her sympathizers run into trouble, then, what keeps them from traveling the way their "male heroes" do, is that they:
1. Drastically overestimate the number of rapes that happen to female travelers.
2. Assume men are only interested in them for sex – and will be disappointed or angry if the interaction doesn’t end in the expected result.
3. Are afraid to say, “Yes, BUT (clearly state your limits here).”
4. Fear people. In my experience, people are generally good. They want to help you. When I look lost, people offer directions. When I’m walking someplace that isn’t safe, women warn me -- then suggest that I either take a cab, or allow their husbands to escort me. When I travel, I sometimes find myself smiling like a lunatic, because I’ve realized, once again, that the whole world seems to have my back.
5. Are afraid to be “rude.” If something gets weird and you feel uncomfortable, say so. Confront the person. Yell if you need to. Storm off. This person is disrespecting you, and there is no reason you need to respond politely. Likewise, don't be afraid of embarrassing or hurting someone's feelings. This hasn't happened, but I've sworn to myself that if I'm ever hitchhiking, and the person who pulls over first makes me feel the least bit unsafe, I will tell him, "Sorry, I thought you were someone else." "Sorry, I was just kidding." I have mentally rehearsed doing this so I'm not caught off-guard and I won't feel bad when it happens. And sure, he might be innocent and I might hurt his feelings... but I'll never see him again. And I'd rather hurt his feelings a little than be raped or killed, which would hurt my feelings a lot.
At the end of the day, people should do what they feel comfortable doing. I totally respect the way Burton has evolved her own travel style, which allows her to enjoy new experiences while still feeling safe. But for someone like me, it’s essential to recognize the advantages traveling while female.
As a result, my stories don’t leave men asking, “Can’t you just get over it?” They leave men exclaiming, “That could never have happened if you were a guy!”
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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