Archive for the 'Female Travel' Category



Cities Like Boys: Vela and the New York Edition

So I’m a little late on this, but am stoked to tell y’all about a brand new venture I’m a part of: Vela.

The brainchild of ever-the-bad-ass Sarah Menkedick, Vela is a website that features the travel-related writing of six women. The site is a venue for women to write like women, and to define whatever that means ourselves—not to have to write in opposition to or in the style of the male-dominated publishing industry, just to do our own thing. “Written by Women”—check out Sarah’s spot-on manifesto for further thoughts.

I was beyond honored to be asked to be a part of the project. I’ve followed Sarah’s work for awhile, and she was the editor for my Glimpse project, so I was down to ride along with whatever she was scheming up. But the other ladies involved are just as awesome. Makes me wish we could have a meet-up or something, an anti-Sex-In-The-City lady date (no cosmos).

So the plan is that we publish one piece a week. This week was my turn. In “Cities Like Boys” I further the theme I touched upon in a blog post I wrote a few months back—how more and more, I relate to cities like people. In this piece, I focused on four cities that I feel like I’ve had relationships with. I made them boys, cause it was more fun that way.

So, furthering the theme (you can really get on a roll with this exercise), here’s a little epilogue—the New York edition:

JR eyes

You know, they say two things about New York—that he’s dangerous and that he’s rude. I’ve never found either to be true.

He’s a bit brusk, for sure—not all nicey-nice, and busy, always moving, defenses and filters and solid glass gleaming, to keep all the crazy out. But New York’s always been friendly with me, always eyed me kinda curiously—“You’re a different breed than we got out here”—the 21-year-old working student who hadn’t taken a vacation in four years; the vegan traveling with her brother, bleeding money; the girlfriend sleeping on the floor in Brooklyn, an apartment that shook like an earthquake when the subway rolled by; the 26-year-old couchsurfing with her best friend, a couple tattooed freaks. Toss in 2 day-long lay-overs, and New York’s seen me grow up in a way other cities hasn’t—the evolution of a traveler.

This time I came without maps or a guidebook or an itinerary, just left myself to the mercy of New York, and what that says about me now, I’m not sure.

But we’ve always been cool. And he’s got a sort of charm, you know, in all that toughness—the accent and the slang and the shit-talking and the posture—almost a kind of character he plays: the New York Guy.

And I’ve always been kinda enamored with it—a type of working-class macho we just don’t do on the West Coast. But it wasn’t until this time, this trip—curled up in the dim, light-shaft, perpetual-dusk of New York’s heart, an air mattress and the cling of old weed smoke—that I feel like I finally understood it.

It’s like a kind of persona he assumes—not an act, per se, but a version of himself he likes to present. And he turns it, not off and on (because it’s never all the way gone), but up and down, like a light dimmer, and I watched New York do that—on the street, in the subway, when some drunk bridge-and-tunnel guy was being a dick at 4am in the East Village—almost a type of defense: the New York Guy.

And it’s charming as shit. And I can’t help but laugh, and the Duane Reade clerks say, “Keep her smiling,” and New York says, “Yo, that’s that Cali smile”—and if New York were any other city, he’d say it with a wink. But he doesn’t.

Hey, it's a crappy iPhone 3 photo, don't judge

But then there’s this other side, that in all the previous trips I guess I’d only glimpsed. We took the train out to Roosevelt Island one night, broke into an abandoned small pox hospital, tromped through the dirt and gravel of a sleeping construction site towards the water, Manhattan like a glittering snow globe—a layer of glass and you can never quite touch it. It was still, and neither me or New York said a word for a moment. And then New York said, “Yo, this is like the Mercedes of trespassing,” and you both laughed. Then we rode the cable car back—up, up, beneath the belly of the bridge, steel wires quivering, and I thought how glad I was New York doesn’t get earthquakes.

And on the last night I curled up beside New York—started talking about my move and my project and without really meaning to, told New York about that gnarly shit that came up in Phnom Penh, that I’ve been too busy to think about the last few months but that I’ve felt sitting, waiting, watching, on the periphery of me.

And New York got real quiet, and it was only like a half hour later that New York said, “Yeah, I’ve got my own shit. And I think about it all the time.” I didn’t ask what that was—just listened and watched that other side, the one beneath the persona, unfold and open up—it all quivering under the veneer of “New York” like cable wires. I felt a monumental tenderness welling up in me, but it was a sad tenderness, because New York is something I could never quite touch, not then or now—not in 1 night or 5 days or 5 trips or nothing.

Because New York will ravage you. You’ll run with New York and pretend like you’re 22. You’ll eat dollar pizza and falafel and bagels, and you’ll drink 100 cups of battery-acid deli coffee. You’ll stay up till 4am, and when you wake you won’t be able to tell what time it is in the perpetual dusk. You’ll smoke on 7th-story fire escapes, and sneak up to Soho rooftops, and you’ll crunch through sidewalks of drunken miniskirts and food trucks, and you’ll be exhausted when you’re done—because you’re not 22, and you can feel the first chill of age rushing through you, an October breeze, and you’ll know that, won’t be able to forget that, even in all the fun and charm and “Yo, word?” of it—you’ll keep thinking of that song you listened to all goddamn summer: “You wanna get young but you’re just getting older.” And even New York can’t make you forget that. Or maybe he makes you think of it more.

But you can pretend for 5 days. And on the last day, the morning you leave, you’ll put on yesterday’s clothes and walk for coffee. You and New York will stand amid the trees, in front of a university neither one of you could afford, and you’ll give New York the biggest fucking hug you can; you’ll say thank you and you’ll mean it, fuck you’ll mean it.

And then you’ll flash that Cali smile, say something noncommittal, and you’ll walk away without looking. Because when you leave New York, it’s always best not to look.

Going Native: The Anti-Irony of Khmer Glamour Photos

I sat once in a cafe in Tangier, Morocco. Some famous man-filled cafe where Western writers used to pen masterpieces, or cruise for ass, or trip out on then-exotic drugs, or most likely some combination of the three. It was popular with tourists—in the way that that Hemingway bar in Havana is popular—and with well-heeled locals. I was the only female, Western or otherwise, in the joint.

I watched as a man strode in—large, burly, brusque. He may or may not have had a white beard—I remember something about white hair, though his head was most definitely adorned with some scarf. He had that expat look of permanent sunburn and wizened self-satisfaction; he wore a long, flowing robe of ethnic print and carried a thick wooden staff. Two younger men, one with a notebook, another with a video camera and a microphone, followed as he walked purposefully over to what I assumed to be his regular table.

He leaned back in a posture of pontification, began what I imagined to be a long soliloquy, in French, on Moroccan culture and the changes therein over the last decades, as observed by his keen eye. The guy with the notebook nodded and scribbled. I watched the camera man look around at all the Moroccans in the cafe, wearing t-shirts and jeans, then back over at the burly old dude before his camera, his attire some approximation of those sepia-hued photographs old explorers and anthropologists took, that are now sold as postcards.

Our eyes met briefly. I smiled; the camera man looked embarrassed. I chuckled, imagined we were having the same thought:

My God—he’s gone native.

There are few things funnier to me than people taking themselves too seriously. Travelers/expats who over-identify with their adoptive countries provide endless amusement while on the road. So when I saw the pointed fingers and fake-gold-gleam of Khmer glamour photos, I knew it had to do it—my own chance to Go Native, as it were.

To clarify, this isn’t some chintzy gimmick produced for tourists; this is a Cambodian—nay, Southeast Asian—phenomenon. People dress up, get a pound of foundation and fake eyelashes slapped on, squeeze into gaudy garb and let themselves be molded into ridiculous poses, to be later Photoshopped several skin tones lighter and superimposed in front of illustrious sights like Angkor Wat, or the parlor of a well-to-do person’s house (a fireplace and Persian carpet are key). People do it for their wedding, for their coming-of-age, as family photos—it’s not uncommon to see a large framed print hanging in someone’s home.

It is, in short, the Khmer version of cheesy K-Mart photos. It’s is legit, authentic inauthenticity.

I hadn’t noticed the photography studios sprinkled around town until someone pointed them out. The sun-bleached signs of smiling couples, the window displays of sequined gowns—they’d faded into the visual static of Phnom Penh storefronts. Until I decided to get my own.

Khmer glamour photos are something of a rite of passage for Phnom Penh expats, especially the females. So I rounded up a posse, walked into the first decent-looking studio we passed on Monivong, and made an appointment to be turned into an Apsara princess.

At two o’clock on a sweltering Sunday, five of us clamored up the back stairs of a photography studio to the dressing room. It looked like the backstage of an Asian cabaret, make-up and sequins and traditional costumes stacked to the rafters.

There was only one girl doing hair and make-up; at about thirty minutes each, we ended up being there for a loooong time. My friends chose the $10, more modestly ridiculous options; I opted for the $15 Apsara extraordinaire, which included more fanciful skirt folds, extra fake-gold bangles, even a wig. Behold the transformation:

I'd never worn fake eyelashes before.

Looking sufficiently like a drag queen.

Through the mirror

Fancy folds

I went to Cambodia and all I got was this mullet

Lock and load.

A couple days later, I went back to the studio to pick up my prints—three prints were included in the $15 price. I thought of the dude I’d seen, years ago, in the cafe in Tangier. The difference, I decided, was humor. And self-awareness: I was doing it as a joke, a statement on the ridiculousness of myself in the Khmer cultural context and how I, at 5’10” and a riddling of tattoos, will never, ever blend in with or a be a part of that culture. The photos were tangible evidence of the chasm between worlds.

I smiled and laughed out loud and thanked the ladies again.

I went to meet a few other friends for dinner at the Chinese Noodle Restaurant. I took out my prints and they laughed—it was ridiculous, right?

I noticed the waitress peering over our shoulders. I felt suddenly self-conscious—would she be offended? Would the joke translate?

To my relief, the waitress smiled, a chipped tooth and deep lines. Then she reached over and took one of the photos in her hand, examined it more closely. “Very beautiful,” and she looked up at me with a kind of sincerity that made me blush.

This was not the reaction I’d expected. I felt somehow more embarrassed.

The waitress proceeded to pass my prints along to the other tables in the restaurant, all the women smiling and nodding and murmuring their approval. The women’s eyes glanced over at me and it was a kind of warmth I felt, maternal and accepting and utterly devoid of the snarky irony with which I’d walked into the photography studio with.

They didn’t think it was funny, and they weren’t offended. They thought it was beautiful.

I hung my head. “I’m an asshole,” I announced. Then, looking up and grinning, “But at least I’m a beautiful asshole.”

Boys, Boys, Boys: A Solo Female Traveler’s Experience With the Men of Southern Italy, Montenegro and Albania

You know the picture...

“Southern Italy, eh?” He gave me the raised eyebrow of caution. “Watch out for the men.”

This was Alex, his voice lifting above the roar of hair dryers and hip music at the salon, two days before I left on my trip.

A lady friend of his, he continued, had recently spent several weeks in the Mediterranean land of machismo. “Apparently, they all use the same line: ‘I have a girlfriend. But tonight, for you, no girlfriend.’ She said it got really old.”

I laughed. To be honest, it hadn’t crossed my mind yet. Dealing with the men of a country as a solo female traveler is usually one of the first things people ask me about when they hear I travel alone—right after the “is it safe” question. But the truth is, I’ve been doing this sola thing for awhile now, and whether or not the men somewhere will hound me to death doesn’t really factor into my travel considerations. Plus, I’ve done the majority of my traveling in Latin America, where sidewalks can at times feel like catwalks of degradation. As long as the men aren’t physically attacking me, I pretty much feel like I can handle it.

But Alex’s comment did give me pause. When it comes to safety (and drinking tap water), I throw caution to the wind in Europe. It’s the civilized, more highly evolved land of social safety nets and low crime. Hell, the vast majority of Europe is safer than my hometown. My hairdresser’s comment reminded me that, oh yeah, right, I’d be venturing off sola in a scant 48 hours and that maybe I’d ought to mentally prepare.

You stand out as a female solo traveler, and in a way, get to experience a culture more deeply, if no other reason than the fact that its men are talking to you more. My last trip took me to Southern Italy, Montenegro and the capital of Albania (and Croatia, but I only stayed for a day, so I’m not counting it). The men in each these countries treated me totally differently—and, I think, reveal a little something about the culture.

Italy

Oh, Italian men. They have quite the reputation. American women swoon for their accents, their sense of style, their motorinos and chest hair. And they’re known for hitting on pretty much anything that moves, serenading you with sweet odes of professed passion.

I don’t get it. And Italian men, apparently, don’t get me.

During my venture Rome-and-southwards, I was largely ignored by Italian men. Which suited me just fine. Again, having traveled heftily through Latin America and once through Morocco, I’m stoked on anything that isn’t street harassment. I’ll take being ignored over obscene insults any day.

But it did cause me wonder… Who the hell are all these American women who are getting hit on Italian men all the time? I’m a cute enough girl, but do you want to know why I wasn’t getting any attention from the dudes? Because they’re surrounded by Italian women—who are impossibly gorgeous and stylish, with their cascade of curly hair and their moody black eyeliner. I wouldn’t hit on me either.

Traveling through Southern Italy was like an adventure in mutual disinterest—as though every guy I passed on the street exchanged a brief little dialog with me: “Thanks but no thanks.” Italy is a pretty culturally conservative place, and I’m a pretty not culturally conservation person, in appearance or attitude. So it makes sense to me that the Italian men and I didn’t vibe. In person, that is.

While I was in Naples my Couchsurfing inbox got flooded with messages from shirtless dudes in sunglasses asking me if I needed a place to stay. (“Um, no.”) But this was the extent of the Italian sleaze I experienced—an indirect, easily ignored, half-assed attempt.

Maybe that was the secret to the purported flirtations of Italian men: that it’s largely impersonal, having less to do with you and whether or not there’s any real potential for something to happen, and more to do with, I dunno, not having anything else better to do? Hitting on someone just for the sake of hitting on someone?…

Montenegro

If ever a girl was thinking of a place to take advantage of men, Montenegro would be the place to do it. I had more offers for rides, tour guides, free drinks, places to stay, etc than anywhere else I’ve been.

But the curious thing was a) all the attention was from middle-aged men, no guys my own age, and b) they somehow managed to stay just on the right side of appropriate and respectful. I never felt violated or threatened by any of the Montenegrin men; it all just came across as really, really nice.

I was of course only getting the attention because I’m a pretty young(ish) American girl traveling alone. Montenegro is really trying to woo Western tourists, and I think I was something of an anomaly; there weren’t many Americans, weren’t many backpackers, weren’t many women alone. I think I was on the one hand intriguing for this reason; I think Montenegrins in general also really want tourists to feel welcome, want to take care of them. I must have sparked all the paternal instincts of the middle-aged men there. But somehow not in a demeaning way. Most curious.

Albania

At a certain point one night, it got ridiculous. I had to put on my sweater and get the hell off the dance floor.

It was like moths to a lightbulb. I have never received more male attention from males I actually wanted attention from than in Tirana. It was dangerous.

Albanians my age, it seems, really want to be Western. They’ve lived most of their lives in post-Communist Albania, but still relatively isolated from the rest of Europe. They’re ready, it seems, to be a part of the rest of the world.

For most kids, this striving seems to take the form of mainstream culture, the Top-40 kind. Stylistically, Tirana is filled with tons of extremely beautiful nouveau riche girls, who could, at first glance, blend in on Parisian sidewalks. You look a little closer and you realize that they don’t quite have it right yet; they wear a little too much make-up, their clothes not quite expensive enough.

But the point is, they’re trying really really hard. They have the posture, the poise, the carefully cultivated look of class in the arch of their fingers as they lean back and drag their cigarettes. They also don’t seem like a whole lot of fun—a little snobby, to be honest.

So I stood out, and not just for being foreign. There weren’t any other girls in Tirana like me, in sneakers and a band shirt, with short hair and tattoos. I’m a dime-a-dozen in the Bay Area, but in Tirana, I was the only act in town. And every single rock n roll dude, it seemed, was eying me. Or talking to me. Or offering me drinks or asking me out or wanting to dance with me.

Big-fish-in-a-little-pond syndrome. I’d never experienced it. After the initial rush of validation, though, it felt funny. It didn’t seem real and, in a way, it wasn’t.

It was like Genti’s indie rock band. An Albanian turned Brighton boy, Genti was just another dude in a band in England. But in Albania, he was becoming a big deal, selling a ton of albums and appearing on Albanian TV. It would have been easy, he told me, to really make it there. “But, I dunno,” he yelled over the barroom clatter, “do I really want to be the guy who was ‘really big in Albania’?”

I paused, and asked myself the same question. I was pretty damn sure that if all these rocker dudes were suddenly delivered into the Bay Area, they wouldn’t be tripping off me so much. I wanted to tell them, to put my hand gently on their shoulders and let them know, “Honey, there’s a big world out there, and it’s filled with a fuckton of cuter girls with more tattoos than me.”

But they’d have had to take my word for it. Cause it’s so damn hard for an Albanian to get a tourist visa, or to afford to travel anywhere where rock n roll girls live, places steeped in privilege.

So I did all I could do, which was to shake my head and laugh.

A Woman in the Sun

I sat in the sun, butt naked and heat dazed, my starving skin soaking up all the UV it’d been hungry for since my trip to LA. The sulfur smell of the hot springs had stopped burning my nose, and I was in that drool state of relaxation where everything floats in and out of your consciousness like a dream. The bits of conversation from down the deck came to me in whiffs, like BBQ or the burning of some far-off fire.

“You know, Mark called me on Friday. And he started up again. And I said, you know, like we’d practiced, ‘I am not going to participate in this conversation with you.'”

The words roused me a little. Not so much really the words, but the careful way in which they were recited—deliberate, practiced, the memorization of an actor who knows the scene but hasn’t quite figured out their character’s motivation.

The patter of bare feet and a sleek ripple of water. “Oh, Myra, I didn’t tell you,” the voiced repeated. “I got to use that tool we talked about, when I told Mark: ‘I am not going to participate in this conversation with you.’ It felt so good!”

Wilbur Hot Springs is a retreat place, and that’s what I’d come for. That’s what we’d all come for, driven the two-line highway through pastoral postcards, past cheese-commercial cows, down a bumping dirt road where the dust plumed and twisted behind us like everything we’d meant to leave behind.

Wilbur is the kind of place that makes you lapse into cheesy cliches (partly because your brain is too full of steam to think straight). A Victorian mansion “nestled” into the “rolling” California hills, it’s an uber-NorCal experience, an “oasis.” Everything is solar-powered. The natural hot springs are directed into four flumes clustered around a clothing-optional deck. There’s a communal kitchen where guests cook their own meals, and instruments for evening jam sessions. Everyone talks in low, soothing voices, and the place smells like well-oiled wood. Sustainability and spiritualism; regrouping, reconnecting, getting off the grid and soaking in 114 degree water—you know, the kind of hippie shit a punk rock kid like me used to scoff at. Until I went up on a gift certificate a couple years ago with a similarly suspicious friend.

We’ve been jonesing to get back ever since.

Retreat is what these chatting women on the deck had also come for, and like retreat, they were something, a certain kind of woman, a younger incarnation of me would have scoffed at: middle-aged, middle-class, white, all-American. Bad hair and worry lines. I’ve grown less judgmental in my old age, and in my hot-spring-infused sedation, observed them detachedly, from an almost anthropological distance.

They’d come on day passes. They weren’t entirely comfortable, held their robes and towels around them self-consciously, seemed self-conscious about being self-conscious—they averted eyes, glanced this way and that before letting go and slipping naked into the steaming water.

I’d pieced together their conversations, about ex-husbands and astrology, how to figure your aura energy by the kinds of animals you attracted (“You got lizards and butterflies; I got bit by a tick!”). This day trip to Wilbur appeared to be the culmination of a healing workshop. The leader of the group was some kind of psychic—not a predictive one, she assured, but one that dealt more in energies, a kind of cosmic therapist. They weren’t super New-Agey about it, talked in a kind of down-to-earth tone that made them seem less like people on board some kind of bullshit train, and more like people genuinely seeking, genuinely lost and hurt and looking for something, some kind of solidity.

“I am not going to participate in this conversation with you.” The statement rang in my ears, plucking me out of my sun-drenched stupor. The speaker’s voice held in it all the excitement of a pupil who’d just felt a switch flip—who’d practiced the arithmetic but wasn’t sure the equation would work for them, with their own dull and trembling pencil. But it wasn’t a young voice and a glance at the body from which it issued revealed a gravity, breasts heavy and hips wide, a child-bearing body.

My God, I thought, to have lived that long and only now have learned to say that.

The woman’s comment, the thrill with which she yielded it, struck me as tragic, in a particularly female kind of way—that a woman could go that long in her life without having learned to say no before.

Boundaries. Standing up for yourself. Not taking shit. They’re vital things for us girls to learn. You flat out won’t make it in this world without them, I’ve come to believe, and I don’t just mean with manipulative ex-husbands. You’ve got to learn where the world stops and you begin, what is and is not okay with you, and how to be firm and true to that. Cause you’re not going to make it—ride the buses or walk the streets or, shit, travel the world—you’re not going to survive the barrage of shit hurled at you without learning the word “no.”

And there, on that sun deck, a wave of gratitude swept over me, like the spring breeze on my pink and steaming body, for my mother. My tough-as-nails, take-no-shit mother.

My mother, my model: pretty and blond and trained in karate. She worked in factories, held her own in the male-dominated world of politics, worked in West Oakland during the worst of the crack years, dared a scab to follow through with their threat to punch her on the picket line (they punked out). It stems from that: my childhood love of Tina Turner and my vow that if, when I was older, I ever went on a date with a guy who tried to make me do something I didn’t want to, I’d “kick him in the nuts with my high heels”; my busted-Converse affection for Riot Grrls, Le Tigre, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. And it stretches before that: my grandmothers, no-nonsense Midwest girls who endured Depression poverty and marched in Civil Rights protests.

I come from a long line of tough ladies. I can’t ever forget I stand upon the ground they forged for me. It’s a generational adventure, this learning of how to be a woman in the world, and what my mother and grandmothers fought for is in me, my blood. So much so that it still surprises me, blinking-eyed shocks me, when other women ask me how I have the “bravery” to travel alone. It simply never occurred to me to not have the bravery.

In that sun-drenched moment, any residual judgment melted away, just like the knots in my lower back unclenched in the hot, healing water. It may have seemed tragically late to learn how to make boundaries, she may have had to take a healing workshop with a psychic, but this woman had learned. And she sat now, naked and free, gently turning pink in the sunlight of it.

Marrakesh, You Broke Me Down

DSCN3558It was a long, hard, hot last day in Morocco, in Marrakesh, the pounding heart of the country´s tourism industry.

As I was venturing down the Atlantic Coast, south of Agadir and thoroughly ¨off the beaten path,¨ I was giving some serious thought to ditching out on my flight back into Europe, and spending the rest of my two weeks in Morocco. There was certainly enough to keep me occupied—I didn´t even make it to the Sahara!—and I felt like I´d hit my groove with Morocco. I was getting skilled at traversing the streets, haggling for taxis; I was in love with fresh-squeezed orange juice and mint tea; even my French was improving. We were vibing, Morocco and I, and it seemed a shame to cut out so soon.

But the prospect of Portugal, Western Europe´s ¨forgotten¨ country,  combined with a pre-purchased flight and a chance to wash my blue jeans and ditch that filthy blue scarf won out. I arrived in Marrakesh with just one day to soak in the crowning jewel of Morocco´s imperial cities, and its exotic lure.

I´d heard horror stories—travelers and Moroccans alike warned me that Marrakesh´s touts were the toughest, the street harassment the ugliest. I got off the bus from Tiznit suited up in my thickest armor, ready to do battle with a mean look and a linguistic sword of two words: la shokran, no thank you.

The problem with Marrakesh, or my problem with it, is that people like to touch. I don´t. As my grandma said, I´m ¨a real touch-me-not.¨ The men in Marrakesh really see no problem with poking you, grabbing your arm, pressing their bodies against yours, literally tugging you this way and that. I think it´s largely a cultural difference; Moroccans touch a lot, are extremely affectionate with one another, and I don´t think they view touching as the same kind of violation as Americans do. As in, get-your-fucking-hands-off-me, or touch-me-one-more-time-and-I-swear-to-God-I´ll-drop-your-ass-don´t-even-think-I´m-playing.

Not that I ever said either of those. But I thought it. And I suspect the wild-eyed, shocked look I gave the dudes who put their hands on me communicated well my very visceral reaction to unwanted contact. They, in turn, almost seemed offended that I was offended, got really defensive. It was one of those tough cultural clashes, and I refuse to admit I was in the wrong. Maybe just the different.

But there was, I have to admit, a kind of magic to the city. I always feel lame saying that about a place that´s really hyped up (as in, yes, Paris is all that). I was intermittently in awe of the city, and frustrated beyond belief.

I stayed right near Djemaa el Fna, the open-air market of insanity that really was everything it was cracked up to be. Imagine a county fair. Now add throbbing drums and shrill pipes; snake charmers and witch doctors; wrapped women hunched on plastic stools, ready to ready fortunes and paint henna. Picture billows of meat smoke, the glare of a thousand gas lamps on a thousand white tarps;  see gleaming date stands and pyramided orange juice carts; beggars hands and child shoe-shiners. Hear the zoom and honk of motorbikes; feel the buzz of bodies weaving around one another. Wrap it all in a breeze that comes eastward and touches everything, envelops it in one big ball of electric humanity, shakes it up furiously, like a snow globe—and you´re somewhere close.

I meant to treat myself to a fancy last dinner, but when I got to the white-linen restaurant, it felt sterile. I headed down to Djemaa el Fna, stopping to slurp  snails at a food stall along the way. I dined on a wooden bench under the white tarps of one of the skewer stalls, watching the multi-lingual touts and hustlers do their business, sometimes rudely, but mostly with a charming penache that was hard to refuse. The breeze blew, and I felt in love with the night, the place, the country.

I thought I´d seal the deal with some chocolate ice-cream. I made my way across the square, nimbly traversing the crowds, not responding to the barrage of ¨bonjours,¨eyes on the prize.

I heard a loud voice rumble, ¨Hey sweetie!¨ Though the crowd was thick, I had that prickly back-of-the-neck feeling that the call was directed at me. I didn´t look up, kept walking. ¨Hey sweetcakes!¨ it yelled again. Still, I kept moving. ¨It´s okay,¨ the voice hollered, ¨I like small boobies.¨

I whipped my head around and saw a reddened face laughing, jowls shaking in a grotesque mask of amusement. Other faces were turned to look at me and my shawl-covered chest (I mean, come on, a B-cup is not that small). My cheeks flushed; I muttered ¨piece of shit¨and stormed away, trying to lose myself in the throngs.

The face hadn´t been a teenager´s, but a grown man´s, which angered me more. It had seemed quite pleased that it had humiliated me, that other people had noticed and looked. I felt the blood in my body burning with frustration.

A well-dressed man sidled up next to me, holding a clip-board and a perky straw hat. I looked forward, didn´t acknowledge him.

¨That man,¨ he said to me, ¨you can´t get angry. You have to just accept and—¨ out of the corner of my eye, I saw him make a brushing-off gesture.

I sighed, not entirely sure of this man´s intentions, and not in the mood to risk it. ¨I know,¨ I respond. ¨But sometimes I get tired of accepting, of always being the one to have to accept.¨ I could feel hot tears in the corners of my eyes.

¨Where are you from?¨ the man asked.

I eyed him cautiously, as the question was usually a prelude to some kind of hustle. ¨The US.¨

¨Ah, welcome,¨ he nodded thoughtfully. He leaned forward, said softly, ¨Of all the things you remember, of all the things you take home, don´t take that.¨ He nodded again. ¨I´m sorry.¨ He paused, let the words and the sentiment linger there in the charged air for a moment, turned and was gone, swallowed into the crowd.

It was all a little too much for me, the intensity of extremes—the degradation, the laughing face, the twisted soul-sickness that makes someone humiliate another person—and now, such thoughtful tenderness. All of it from strangers, all of it strange, somehow finding me in the immensity of the crowd. The whole day had felt like that, a tugging between two places, between two sentiments, of both loving and hating a place.

DSCN3551I was exhausted. I decided not to fight it, not to try to be tough anymore. I went back to my hotel room and sobbed, for the overwhelming kindness and cruelness of it all. For being a woman, for being a person, in a place, a world, that is simultaneously horrifying and beautiful.

Legzira Love

DSCN3456I think I may have just found the most beautiful beach in the world.

Yes, it’s a sweeping statement, and no, I’m not a beach afficionado. But if red cliffs diving into pebbled sand coves count for anything; if lazy waves crashing against sandstone arches score points; if a tourist to local fishman/swooping seagull/stray dog/donkey (hey, it’s still Morocco) ratio of 1:5 means much—if these are the elements that create that “paradise” thing all the guidebooks talk about, well then, I just spent the night there. And slept with the windows open to the ocean. Cause why not, you know?

Legzira Plage is pretty incognito—it warrants not more than a paragraph in my guidebook and a weathered-beaten, graffitied roadside sign along the pretty two-lane highway connecting Tiznit, Mirleft and Sidi Ifni. Down Morocco’s Atlantic coastline, just before the Western Sahara and a disputed border, the area as a whole doesn’t attract the hordes that the country’s other wonders do—which is why it attracted me. A near-deserted beach away from any big city or pushy tout? I’m in.

I took the local bus from Mirleft, got off at the faded cement block sign at the access road, and took the 20 minute walk down to the beach, a lazy slope washed in ocean breezes. The scenery revealed itself like a striptease: a sweeping hill view, a peak of ocean, the sound of waves, the pink edge of a pink building. I turned into a small dirt parking lot, and almost started laughing—it was so beautiful, it was almost obscene.

DSCN3464There were half-a-dozen pink buildings cascading down the cliff to the beach. Sweaty and shoulders aching, I set my backpack down in a cheap but cheerful hotel room with windows that flung open to the ocean. (Now thoroughly “off the beaten path,” the room costed only a little more than my smelly toilet- and shower-less hole in Essaouira.) I kicked off my shoes, grabbed my camera, and went for a walk.

I’m not much of a shutterbug, but I exhausted both my camera battery and memory card. I walked for over an hour; each cove was more secluded and empty than the last. On the first few beaches, I passed a small group of teenagers playing soccer, a fisherman, and a handful of sun-bathing tourists, many of them Moroccan (tell-tale sign: the lady’s swimming fully clothed). We “bonjour”ed politely. I rounded a gently jutting set of red rocks, and was alone. I closed my eyes, and let out a long exhale.

I’ve really been liking Morocco, but I can’t tell you how good it felt to be alone, away from any non-human sound—just me and the seagulls, you know? Later, I stripped down to my swim suit, and wave-hopped and sun-bathed without concern for modesty. I soaked up much-needed sun, vitamin D sparking wildly through my body. I didn’t worry about, well, anything.

I had a simple dinner of grilled fish (yes, caught that afternoon) and pommes frites, washed down by that killer mint tea. The hotel’s patio was sparsely populated with about a dozen dining guests. If there were any less people, I realized, it would have felt creepy. Like The Shining or something.

The hotel only ran electricity for prime hours during the evening, so I read by candlelight for awhile before crashing out. It was warm enough, so I left the windows open and slept to sound of the waves, to the smell of salt.

Donkey on the beach!

Donkey on the beach!

In the morning, the fog outside the window was thick. The tide was so far out that a previously offshore crag of rocks connected to the beach. I sipped my freshly squeezed orange juice and nibbled on my still-warm bread breakfast, and watched the fishmen trod out for the day, the sifters search out clams and mussels (I think) in the tide pools. A waiting donkey with two empty sacks on its side bickered with a yapping stray dog with a wobbly magazine of stretched-out nipples. The fog thinned, turned to a fine mist, and slowly, so faintly I could hardly notice, was gone.

I don’t know why Legzira Plage is so under-visited, under-promoted and unknown. But I’m not complaining. My camera battery may have konked out, but my personal battery is fully recharged. Just in time for Marrakech.

Bonjour guapa, you want sex?

No way did I flatter those boys with a photo. Here's a busy street in Meknes instead.

No way did I flatter those boys with a photo. Here's a busy street in Meknes instead.

In Fez and Meknes, I finally got a taste of the street harassment all the guidebooks warn of. It was still a lot tamer than anticipated, a multilingual assault of adolescent bravado more than an actual threat. Though the intention spans the confines of language, it’s easiest to brush off these comments when they’re in French or Spanish. It’s a little like having monkeys hurl feces at you; it sticks less when you don’t know the actual words being said.

But those boys are a cunning lot, and have managed to master a few key phrases in English: “massage”, “sex”, “fuck”, and most telling of all, “you like me?” Just to be safe, they like to mix it up, covering all linguistic bases, just to make sure their intention is entirely communicated.

The harassment comes nearly exclusively from one group, teenagers in Western clothing. Adult men are by-and-large very respectful; if anything, they want to sell you something, but I’ve had far more pleasant exchanges with adult Moroccan men than not. The young guys dressed in traditional jellabas tend to just ignore me, which is A-OK; same with the poorer young men, who just want to shine my dirty sneakers or sell me some tissue. It’s the 12-18 year olds in faux Western clothing you’ve gotta watch out for.

They hang in packs, pushing and nudging and teasing one another. They’re a kind of pathetic lot: thin and self-conscious, somehow lost in their t-shirts and blue jeans, short hair over-gelled and haphazardly spiked. They are consumed by this proposterous posturing, seeming at once to resent and idolize Western culture. They desperately strive to emulate it, can’t quite get it right; their cat-calls and gross comments feel like a plea for acknowledgment, validation. They want so much to be taken seriously, to be something other than what they are—and in that way, I suppose they’re not unlike any other ill-at-ease teenager. I can relate to the insecurity, know so well where it springs from, and I almost feel sorry for them when I see them all there, so sadly absurd in their metallic G Star Raw shirts and bedazzled-pockets denim.

And then they say some dumb shit, and I don’t feel so sorry for them anymore.

It’s a pain in the ass, for sure, but it seems to be something that comes with the territory, part of what it means to be born female in this world. It can wear you down—I may or may not have snapped and thrown a banana peel at a man in Venezuela once—but I’m sure as hell not gonna let it stop me from seeing the world, from being in it as fully as I can. I’m just gonna cover myself in thick-ass skin, maybe a tarp or something. You know, so the feces doesn’t stick.

Morocco: First Impressions

DSCN3259As I staggered off the Tarifa ferry, through the desserted port gates and into the quiet Tangier morning, I had a thought I’ve had before. It was the same thought I had as I first stared through a taxi window at the hazy Lima streets, when I first stepped out the Bogota airport, when I walked around big bad cities like Caracas and Mexico City. The thought is, “Oh. This is it?”

And I don’t mean it in a disappointed, anti-climatic way. The opposite, in fact. After all the hype, all the warnings and precautions, horror stories and wayward looks, my initial reaction to notorious destinations I’ve encountered is, “Hey, this isn’t so bad. Or so scary or different.”

Okay, I admit the squat toilet I used earlier in a restaurant bathroom was a little different. And I didn’t expect that hooded jellabas would look so curiously like clan robes. But, really—the intense cultural shock I’d been prepping for, again, didn’t hit.

My guidebook had prepared me to be inundated with pushy faux guides as soon as I left the port gates, to be lured into medina shops and held captive till I bought something, to be oogled and followed like a celebrity by sex-starved adolescents because I’m a solo Western female. Guess what? None of these things happened.

DSCN3241What did happen: I left the port gates, took a moment getting my orientation, and found the left luggage office. The clerk and I fumbled with mutally poor Spanish, and I left my backpack secure. I headed uphill, largely ignored by every passerby, and parked it at a cafe along the Grand Socco. I lazed, and have been wandering the Medina and Ville Nouvelle ever since. I plan on getting a coffee at the Beat-beloved Cafe Paris before meeting up with my couchsurfing host (only slightly concerned we won’t actually connect).

So far, the street harassment I so feared is, well, about what it is at home. Maybe less. A few young men have said hello in whatever white-person language they think I might speak; I’ve been the target of one gross kissing sound, and received one offer to be bought coffee. In short, Latin America still wins the prize for harassment, cat-calling and all-around-demeaning (but what kind of prize would that be?).  Attempts in Tangier have thus far proven half-hearted, generally good-natured and easy to brush off.

DSCN3236I’m also surprised by the dress of the women. I wasn’t expecting burkhas or even necesarily hijabs, but I’ve even seen some short sleeves—on the younger women, that is. I’m tromping around town in long sleeves, but I’ve seen many tourists in spaghetti straps and shorts. I have yet to see visible tattoos (does a knock-off Ed Hardy shirt count?), which I’ll take as a que to keep mine covered.

One thing I wasn’t expecting was for half the city to still be shut down for Eid (thus the killing of time in an internet cafe). The attractions I’d starred in my guidebook have all been closed, and I haven’t been able to find any open shops in which to buy better long-sleeve shirts in. I’m hoping for tomorrow.

As I wandered around the Medina’s narrow Medieval “streets” (some aren’t as wide as my arms’ reach), I came around a blind corner and narrowly missed walking dead into a hijab-donning middle-aged women. We paused, made eye contact; we both smiled and laughed, then went on our way. I guess this is the oh-so-frightening Morocco, Muslim, African and not all that different.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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