Posts Tagged 'Female Travel'



Rome, Like a Cannon Shot (Bella, You Must Be New At This)

I come into Rome like something shot out of a cannon—hair blown and thirsty, sweating in the thick denim and long layers I had to wear cause they wouldn’t fit in my backpack.

It started with the fact that my flight was 2 hours delayed. Which really started with the fact that I’d gotten about 7 hours of sleep in the 2 days prior; that I’d stood on a rush-hour E train all the way to the airport, all 60 fucking pounds of luggage draped around me so that my right fingers went numb holding on to the metal railing; with the fact that I actually nodded out a little bit at the terminal, all the eager/antsy middle-aged tourists in their neck pillows and compress socks buzzing around in anticipation of when the plane would actually arrive.

Couldn’t really sleep on the red-eye, which is rare for me—it was more freezing-cold than usual and since I’ve decided to bring half my closet with me, I didn’t have room for an extra blanket, which you really only need on flights and trains and buses anyway. But when you need it, fuck, you need it.

So I land with, what now?, 12 hours of sleep in a 3 day period? Doesn’t really matter anymore. Part of the trick of not ever really getting jetlag is that flying makes me so wonky, I’m out of it anyway, so I can rally and stay up for hours, or I can crash immediately. Or I can blaze bleary-eyed through a gleaming-stone ancient city and make all those novice traveler mistakes I like to think I’ve outgrown.

Get waved through immigration with barely a glance at my passport. This happens to me sometimes, when entering the EU, which is supposed to be all tripped out on the xenophobia tip, but I guess that only applies if you’re not white American. There isn’t even a long line—homeboy just glances at my picture (which doesn’t even look like me anymore, people tell me), his fingers barely grazing it, before pushing it back through the window, flicking his wrist and dismissing me. So, okay, that means I can stay forever, right?

But I’ve done this trek from Fiumicino to Termini enough times that I could kinda switch into automatic mode: the escalator down and the escalator up; the kiosk you don’t buy the train ticket at; the kiosk you do; the counter you get espresso at (not cause you need it, just to kill the time and get your heart racing more than it already is); the place where you validate your ticket; the number of machines you have to try before you find one that actually validates the ticket (usually 3); waiting waaaaay down the platform so that you’re away from the herd and can actually get a seat; how when you get to Termini you have to walk for like a mile down this loooong platform, how the station looks like a mirage in a desert down there, how when you finally reach it it isn’t an oasis at all but swarmed with rolling luggage and hustlers and pay phones that don’t work. Welcome to Rome, motherfucker.

I’m looking for the Laziali Tram—my fourth time in Rome and I’ve finally decided to fuck hostels near Termini, not even worth it. I did some research and found an affordable B&B outside of center, near Pigneto, which is where I want to stay anyway. So I walk down to the streetcars, which all look vintage and chic and rattly, like an old train model—I see the 5 and 14, which I suddenly remember are the trams that take you to Pigneto—where the hell that knowledge lay tucked in the bleary recesses of my brain, I don’t know.

But neither of them say “Laziali,” so shit, gotta keep looking. So I ask the dude sitting on the bench next to me, so I ask the tram driver, so I decide fuck it and try to go find a payphone to call dude at the B&B and ask him for better directions than the ones I scribbled for myself while waiting at the airport terminal. Phone steals 3 Euros and yells a series of tones in my ear—no luck. A cab maybe? They all look dicey.

Which is when I note to myself that I feel lighter, less encumbered. Which is when I notice that one of my bags is not with me—the one with my new laptop and my thyroid medication and fuck you, my makeup and cheap jewelry—important shit.

Ugh—that sudden razor of fear that cuts through your gut, laser of panic and you feel it radiate, shock you into focus. Dash back to the payphones—not there. Remember, as I lumber across the street as fast as I can, that I haven’t bought travel insurance yet—why?

But miracles of fucking miracles, my stuffed messenger bag is still sitting on the tram stop bench. The dude I asked for directions smiles sadly and shakes his head, as if to say: “Bella, you must be new at this.”

I gush a million thank yous, he tells me how lucky I am, especially in Rome, and I say, “Hell, in anywhere,” and I feel like a tired dog that’s gotten kicked in the ribs, like an old TV, shocked out of my static—I feel alive again.

“I watch your bag for you,” a squat man with an Indian/British accents tells me. “I ask everyone, ‘Is this your bag?'” Shakes his head. I gush a few more thank yous in his direction.

He asks me where I’m going, and he shakes his head again and points over to a bus parked across the street. “I’m going there too, come with me,” and shit, it’s not like I’m not gonna go with him—he coulda swiped all my stuff and he didn’t, so he can’t be half bad.

He walks with his chest kind of puffed out, has a sweater draped around his shoulders, sleeves tied sloppily or jauntily, I can’t decide—maybe both. He like to play the big shot, I can tell, I’m the man that knows this place, and it strikes me as a kind of pauper’s authority—but he’s obviously got a good heart beneath it.

He seems pleased that I know how to validate my ticket when I get on the bus (cause actually, I’m not new at this, I’m just a wreck). He asks me what country I’m from, tells me about his brother in Boston, how he wants to go to Boston—the usual immigrant conversation. He asks me if it’s my first time in Rome and I sigh and shake my head, “No, but you’d think so, wouldn’t you?”

I leave myself at his mercy, cause why not? My brain is bleary as fuck and I haven’t eaten and I’ve barely slept and he seems to take a kind of pleasure in leading me, in asking every Indian street peddler when we get off the bus where Via Capua is (even though I kinda know where it is), and I wait until the sign is right in front of us to point and say, “Look!”

And he walks me to the door of the B&B, which is locked because I’m about 3 hours later than I thought I’d be, and dude offers to wait with me, but I tell him “No, it’s cool.” And I thank him again and shake his hand and he wants to write me if he ever goes to the US, and I tell him I’m not going back for a long time. And he nods and gives me a different look—maybe he’s decided that I’m not new at this, I don’t know—and then he waves and walks back down the street, that puffed up chest leading the way.

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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.

Lady Love: Digging In to the Blogroll

Thank you, Flickr, for another gem

I’ve got a long Blogroll. What can I say?—I gotta lotta love.

Recently, I’ve seen some fellow bloggers do posts breaking down their favorite blogs. I was honored to be included in both Abbie Mood and Nancy Harder‘s lists, along with some really great writers I often read.

These posts got me thinking: I should really call out some of my own favorites. Many of my go-to blogs aren’t as widely read as I think they should be, and this’ll serve as a chance for me to give an extra shout out to some deserving, ass-kicking writers.

So I’ll start with the ladies. Five of my absolute favorite lady travel bloggers are…

Click Clack Gorilla

I’m not sure how I discovered Nicolette’s blog, but I’m stoked I did. This girl is old school, a DIY, dumpster-diving punk currently living in a house without heat in Mainz, Germany. She writes killer prose about digging around abandoned buildings, au pairing, living on the cheap and trying to keep warm through the winter. What I love about this blog is that it’s something different—utterly non-corporate and unapologetically  its own. It reminds me of the kind of writing the filled zines I’d find at the old Lookout Records. Thanks for keeping it real, lady.

Girl, Unstoppable

I’ve been following Ekua’s blog for awhile, so I was excited to see her get some big-time props from the folks over at Matador recently. The blog’s title says it all: Ekua is an adventurous lady who writes from a Bay Area perspective about her travels around places like Ghana and Bolivia, as well as her life here in San Francisco. One of my favorite features of her blog is travel quotes, especially this one, from a kid she works with—priceless! Despite living just across the Bay, and talking about it for months, Ekua and I haven’t been able to get it together to hang out yet. One day…

Kanitha Heng

Kanitha’s self-titled blog is a well-kept secret that shouldn’t be. Her stuff is seriously off the hook. She’s an engaging, provocative American writer currently chronicling her travels through her parents’ homeland, Cambodia. Her prose is both unafraid and tender, exploring cultural chasms and haunting histories. Kanitha’s writing consistently blows me away. Get on this shit, y’all.

Posa Tigres

Okay, so technically it’s a joint blog between Sarah, who does the writing, and Jorge, who does the photography. It’s quite the dynamic duo, and Sarah’s writing is some of my favorite out there. She doesn’t water shit down, or shy away from tough subjects—case in point, one of my favorites of hers, about the cultural implications of taking a Dia de los Muertos tour. She writes about living in Oaxaca with her boyfriend—beautiful prose that’s not nuggetized or easily digestible. Get ready to think.

The Mija Chronciles

I started reading Lesley’s blog a few months ago, enraptured by the photos, recipes and, most of all, her sumptuous descriptions of regional Mexican food. She’s currently living in Mexico City with her husband, and writes not just about food, but Mexican culture and the expat life. She’s a solid writer with journalistic credentials, and her tweets about what she’s cooking constantly get me salivating. She once casually invited me to come down to Mexico City for a foodie tour. What she doesn’t know is that I totally plan on taking her up on it one of these days…

Sola: A Fetal Manifesto and Healing Tattoo

My swollen arm, looking more like my calf

Swollen and bruised and freshly tattooed, I’ve decided that there’s more to this “lonely girl” thing than a catchy title and purchasable domain name. It’s got to do with an approach towards travel, and maybe even an approach towards life, that’s developing inside me, embryonically. And at the center, the tiny heart between the budding limbs, is solitude, going at it sola.

There’s plenty of articles and blogs out there lauding the benefits of solo travel. Solo Friendly and Solo Traveler are devoted entirely to solo travel, with service-oriented tips and how-tos, while Women on the Road focuses exclusively on encouraging women to backpack. Independent-traveler sites BootsnAll and Matador have featured articles discussing pros and cons, and urging readers to take the solo plunge. The benefits promoted are fairly obvious—the freedom to do what you want when you want—as are the chief drawbacks discussed: safety and loneliness. Nearly every article and site on solo travel I’ve encountered has urged all travelers to go at it alone at least once.

I could write something similar, talk about how traveling solo forces me to be more social, to interact more with my surroundings; how it teaches me self-reliance and thus self-confidence; how I relish in the freedom of it; how none of my friends that can afford to travel are able to take the time off to accompany me anyway. But underneath and inside all those benefits is something harder to explain but ultimately more appealing, a kind of central gravity that all the other pluses of solo traveling orbit around: solitude.

It’s both positive and negative, both the exalted glory of Rilke and the insanity-inducing agony of solitary confinement. It’s a gnarled old wizard dude with a staff and a lantern, setting out into the craggy blue of the Hermit tarot card, now etched into the tender flesh on the inside of my arm, swollen amid the lymph nodes and brachial veins that hold me together.

On my last trip, I met many incredulous, widened eyes that asked, “You’re alone?” Then, declaratively, both impressed and horrified, “I could never do that”—in the way I’d respond to someone who’d climbed Mount Everest: good-for-you, thanks-but-no-thanks. People told me I was brave, fool-hardy, a feminist.

The truth is, I never really considered the fact that I was traveling alone; it rarely factors into my trip-planning, doesn’t strike me as odd or especially intrepid. It is what it is. Of course I’ll be alone. Who else am I gonna drag off around the planet?

But things like that, core characteristics and fundamental truths, rarely strike us as odd. Or even occur to us at all. They’re so central to who we are and how we live in the world that we aren’t aware of them. They strike us suddenly, in strange moments of lucidity—the porcelain-clutching “moment of clarity” in which one finally realizes she’s an alcoholic, or my mom’s recent epiphany that “we were the crazy white family in the neighborhood.” Or when someone else points it out to us, in the dingy back of dingy taxi, when you tell them you’re traveling alone.

For me, it goes back to my travel roots, which aren’t travel roots at all. It’s where I first learned to be alone in the world—the raggedy-ass East Bay buses. During my hour-and-a-half commute home from a far-away high school, I learned all the things international solo travel would later confirm and deepen—self-reliance, self-confidence, how to handle dicey situations and dodgy characters. It was especially important as a female. Honing my street smarts and learning how to carry myself and not take shit have been invaluable. And not something not every girl learns. The lessons taught on the hard plastic of AC Transit buses equipped me to travel sola everywhere from Colombia to Morocco.

But there’s something more inside that, something deeper and more fundamental than knowing how to watch your back and tell someone off with your eyes. More than even the confidence of knowing I’ll be able to figure out and make it through whatever crazy-ass situation I end up in. What is comes down to is a kind of comfort and security in who I am, and the way in which I never feel more like myself, the who-I-am underneath whatever’s happening in my life at the time, than when I’m alone, out in the world. It’s not the same sitting here in my bedroom typing; it’s gotta be out there, walking the streets and riding the buses of this world.

I think everyone should travel solo once in the same way I think everyone should be forced to wait tables once: it’d be nice, but not gonna happen. I don’t think solo travel is for everyone, but it’s become a defining part of how I experience the world, how I exist in it. I simultaneously delve deeper into myself (“the teacher within,” as they say in yoga) and my surroundings. I experience the world from a more intuitive, back-of-the-brain place, where I’m okay with it not making sense, where I find a way to somehow swim through the chaos and insanity and all-too-often heartbreaking cruelty of it, and tap, however lightly, on the beautiful something at the center of it all. I’m more able to trust that I’ve got a place somewhere amid it all.

During my four-hour detainment by the Venezuelan police a few years back, the female officer kept looking at my passport, me and back again, and asking, “Y estas sola?” She couldn’t believe I’d venture off in some other country by myself. However much of an evil, child-abusing American I might have been (it’s a long story), my being sola amazed her. And may have had something to do with me weaseling out of the situation.

I suppose it would have been more accurate to get a feminized Hermit card tattooed, but the beard was too Zeppelin-y to forfeit. And I feel cheesy having an uber-symbolic tattoo, to finally have some kind of answer for the middle-aged customers that look up over their reading glasses at me and ask what my tattoos mean. Most likely, I shrug and continue to say, “I just thought they looked cool.” At least until this approach, this fetal manifesto, is a little more gestated.

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.

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.


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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