Today in the New York Times there’s an interview between me and Seth Kugel, the NYT Frugal Traveler. (Full disclosure: I was the NYT Frugal Traveler, from 1998 to 2004). The topic? That perennial one: Is it harder to travel when you’re a woman?
Regular readers of my Real Travel column might have noticed that I’ve never, ever written one about being female on the road. I explain the reason why in my interview.
Seth asked me whether it’s different/harder/more dangerous being a woman on the road. My answer: “Yes, I think there’s a huge difference between traveling the world as a male and as a female. But there’s also differences if you’re white or Chinese. Or straight or gay or lesbian. ”
In other words, we all travel in the skin and bones that we’re in. That’s the “baggage” we can’t change or replace. Our gender is just one part of it. You might be young or old, a large person or a small one. A good traveler learns how to work with what she or he has got. It’s instructive to note that Jan Morris, arguably the world’s greatest living travel writer, is a transgendered person (she started off her career as James Morris.) Clearly, being a woman or a man did not impact Morris’s ability to travel well!
So what follows are some tips for “Traveling Female.” But my tips apply to men, too. In many situations and places it is less safe being male on the road than being female. This is something a long-ago boyfriend pointed out to me when I wanted to go dancing with him at a night spot in his very macho country.
“You’ll be okay in there,” he said. “But I am from another city and could get beaten up just for being a stranger.” Sadly, you can easily change the word “stranger” to “gay” or “white/black person” and come up with the same deal: the world can turn into a dangerous place when you don’t “fit” the local norm.
Daisann’s Four Tips for Traveling Female (and Male, too)
1. Know where you’re going
No two destinations are alike, and cultures are different. Do your research, and find out what the cultural norms for women (men, gay men, lesbians, people of different races) are.
2. Know yourself
What kind of traveler are you? Are you so passionate about the place you’re going that you don’t mind being hassled in small petty ways at every turn? Or will being bothered all day sap your energy and ruin your trip? If the latter sounds like you, then perhaps you should look for a more simpatico destination. The world is a big place, and for every country that gives you a rough ride, for whatever reason, there’s another that will will be magic for you.
3. Dress appropriately
No matter what skin you’re in, it really does help if you try as much as possible to give a nod to the local style. I once did a little experiment in a small Indian town–I went out dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, and then went back to my hotel, changed into a sari, and went back out again. When I’d dressed in the jeans, I was hounded by touts following me. In the sari? Zip. As I said to Seth in our interview, “It’s a little harder for people to bother you when you remind them, on some ur-level, of their mother or sister.”
The dress sensitivity applies to men, too. Remember all the countries, during the hippie era, that would refuse to let long-haired, bearded guys in at immigration? Dressing appropriately, and in tune with the culture, can open and close doors as easily for men as for women.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
4. Think about advantages, not disadvantages
That’s another reason I’ve never written the “Oh God It’s so much harder to be a woman on the road” column. Because that encourages us to fixate on what we’re missing or losing, rather than what we’re gaining. And while men might have more “freedom” on the road (arguable), women often have more opportunities. We are seen as less threatening, so we get befriended more easily, and invited to family occasions.
I also suggest taking advantage of the “perks” that many cultures offer to women. In India, for instance, there are separate waiting rooms in all the railway stations for females. They’re usually cleaner, and a great place to just hang out and get to know local ladies. (This is where I get most of my Indian clothing fashion tips.)
5. Yes, I know this was supposed to be “Four Ways”…
The most important thing to remember is that you are a traveler. You are the sum of all your parts, whatever they may be–male, female, Asian, fluent in 12 languages or none. Those parts become the voice of your instrument. Play it well, and no matter what skin or shape you’re in, your travels will flow like a soaring jazz solo.