The thing with solo female travel
The thing about being a solo female traveller is that people are always asking you about being a solo female traveller. Men trying to be thoughtful ask me about street harassment and women planning solo travels sometimes ask me for advice. How to minimize confrontation, how to avoid conversations which can so quickly become uncomfortable. How, in essence, to ditch unwanted company and stay a solo female traveller. The conundrum is how to exude a mature woman hanımefendi-ness when you will be read as young, sweet, pliable, girlish kızım. I wish I knew.
I’ve never met a woman who hasn’t been leered at, groped, ogled, commented at, and although I doubt I’ve been harassed anymore or less than anyone else (gropers being equal opportunists) I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering, after each butt brush or boob squeeze, if I haven’t gone over quota yet. There must be a quota. Surely there is a quota. Although I often travel alone for work or pleasure, to India, to Afghanistan, to Morocco, to European countries, the vast majority of my leers, oglers, street harassers, and gropers have been in my home countries, in my case, for the past decade, Turkey and the United States. The longer you’re in a place, the more likely you are to be out and about, living your life, getting groped. Simple law of probability. But when women ask me advice about travelling alone as a woman, they are hoping to avoid being groped and ogled while travelling, while alone and vulnerable and without the comforts of home and its coping techniques. What would Gertrude do? Wear long skirts and avoid public transportation.
If you are a younger-looking woman – unmarried looking, without-a-man-looking – on a bus in Istanbul, older people might call you kızım, ‘daughter’, that is, someone who needs looking after, attention, even affection. “Kızım, sit here, there’s an empty seat”, because girls with butts in seats don’t get groped, or “Kızım, let me sit down there”, because good girls give up their seats their elders. Kızım is an expectation of certain behavior. Growing older, you might be lucky enough to get a fleeting hanımefendi stage, the full-fledged unemotional don’t mess ‘madame’, but the real jewel is achieving teyze, ‘aunty’ status. Aunties not only get taken care of and given seats but also have full license to be grumpy and sweaty or sassy or carrying lots of shopping bags. Aunties also get – or demand – respect from everyone. And they do not get groped.
Most travellers’ language guides– the little Helpful Phrases sections at the end of guide books or online on travel sites – have sections like ‘PROBLEMS’ or ‘SEEKING HELP’, like this Gujarati guide I found online:
Leave me alone - Mane eklo/ekli chhodi dyo
Don't touch me! - Mane aadaso nai!
I'll call the police - Hu police bolawis
I need your help - Mane tamari madad joye chhe
I'm lost - Hu khovay gayo chhu
I lost my bag - Maru bag khowagayu chhe
Made with the best intentions, surely, but honestly... Ah, the Problems of travel! Getting groped and losing luggage, both likely but unavoidable circumstances. I can’t imagine being on the plane, approaching Whereveristan, trying to memorize the correct expression in Whateverese for “Don’t Touch Me” or “I’ll Call the Police.” So quaint! When someone is touching you, do you have time to flip to the back of your guidebook to find the right expression? Will your groper patiently wait for you to find it? Could I turn to a pack of young men following me around a street market in, say, Ahmedabad, and execute a textbook “Mane ekli chhodi dyo!” (“Leave me alone!”) and have them 1) understand my slaughter of Gujarati, and 2) stop following me, with an apology and a promise to never do so to anyone ever again, which is what we’re all going for, big picture. Shockingly, the phrases needed for that follow-up conversation are never in these language guides.
I’ve never known gropers and their ilk to be particularly chatty. Leerers or followers or gropers or general annoying men and boys rarely stick around long enough for a proper chat – Turkish men who yell ‘yalarım seni!’ out of your car windows, I’m looking at you- and they are among the last people I’d really want to have a heart-to-heart with. And being ogled or groped or being told “Nice Purple Skirt” by a twelve year old with daggers for eyes rarely puts me in a talkative mood, nor does it leave me with the presence of mind to recall endings and grammar and correct verb forms in my mother tongue, let alone a foreign language. And the idea that there is a magic bullet that you can say to make it all go away is a great fiction. Even if I could spit out the phrase, there are no grope take-backs; it just doesn’t work that way. But life is certainly stranger than these language guides would have you believe. People get groped all the time back at home, that’s nothing new, but a woman travelling seems to cause all sorts of unforeseen situations that no language guide has even imagined.
Last February I was in Gujarat for the third year running. I go for a week or two to work with block printers on my new fabric designs. I always stay in the same basic hotel where year in, year out, the staff is more or less the same cast of characters. I’m usually the only foreigner (once there was a backpacking type of Western couple in the breakfast room. We, naturally, ignored each other. They were gone the next day.) and certainly the only solo female. The staff is courteous and leave me to my own devices, which I appreciate, and I keep to myself. Just the same, I’m sure they know everything about me; small hotels are intimate places. A female manager helped me into a sari, and although she didn’t ask me where I was going, that’s probably because she didn’t need to. One of the night managers daylights as an auto driver cleverly waiting for a fare (often than not me) outside the hotel. It’s my strange little version of a luxury hotel experience – Have the car outside waiting for me, Patel, directly I finish breakfast I’ll be off! Not only does he know when and where I sleep and eat, he also knows where I go during the day. The teenage boys who clean the rooms know exactly how much toilet paper I go through, which, under certain circumstances, can be substantial. (Travelling alone means there’s no one else to blame.) And they know, obviously, since they change the sheets, which of the room’s two skinny single beds I chose to sleep in.
But I was still knocked speechless one evening when I returned to my hotel room one evening and found a linen-closet’s-worth of rolled bath towels arranged in a large heart shape doused with hot pink rose petals on my skinny single bed. The first and only thought that went through my head was SHIT, and I wasn’t thinking about toilet paper. I double-checked that the door was locked. The thought of them thinking of me sleeping in that bed was overwhelming. The thought of them planning to put a big heart on my bed was overwhelming. The thought of them connecting my sleeping with a heart and rose petals was overwhelming. The thought of them thinking of me sleeping, of my body, defenseless, unconscious, me, at all was overwhelming. I regretted not having switched beds back and forth, just to somehow dilute the inevitable one-way intimacy of them knowing where I slept.
It was Valentines’ Day. But towel hearts and rose petals on the bed, for the young solo female traveller, is a bit much. Coming back to my room the next day, I passed the room service teenagers and their linen trolley in the corridor. They were all toothy smiles and tracing hearts in the air and Did You Like Its? Of course I grinned and grimaced and nodded politely, trying desperately to avoid eye contact and distance myself from the thought of them poking at my bed. I opened my room’s door and stepped inside - alone at last! - only to find rolled bath towels shaped like swan lovers, balanced beak to beak like some horrid ice sculpture, a rose-petal-strewn 3D display on my single bed. “Dear god,” I thought. “What if they keep doing this until I leave? How many shapes can they possibly have in their repertoire?” Where’s the Helpful Phrase for this situation? “Thank you for your swan towels, it was quite an unexpected display, but any further towel and rose petal art on my bed is not necessary or desired. Also, may I have two rolls of toilet paper instead of one?”
But one lovely thing about being a youngish woman travelling alone is that in general, people do want to make sure you feel safe and welcome. You get treated like the world’s kızım. This is also the problem. Like days of rose petals strewn over a thin topsheet in a rather rinkydink hotel, things can go too far rather quickly. Praise the delicious food, give in to your host’s urging to have the second helping and you may well be faced with that classic universal, the creeper proposal: “Oh, you love the food here! We’ll have to find you a nice Indian/Afghan/Greek/Turkish/ Etc boy so you can get married and stay here forever and eat [= cook] it all the time.” The curse of being seen as the world’s kızım is that the world wants to marry you off. I once met a young Spanish man in a hot and dusty little plaza in Sevilla and he told me that the Spanish women wanted him for his rare blue eyes, and foreign women wanted him because he was gitano. I could have used a Helpful Phrase or two besides “uh… claro…” as I backed out of the plaza.
You never want to be impolite, for although slashing and burning through all sorts of my normal boundaries, these sideways marriage proposals are intended to be kind and welcoming. A solo female traveller’s safety code usually includes avoiding confrontation, but you really want to nip this one in the bud. Be sweet and smiley and polite and you just dig yourself in deeper.
Last April, I went into a nicer boutique in Rabat looking for a farasha, jellaba, and caftan the triple crown of Moroccan clothing. The youngish salesman told me I carried the caftan so well, being so nice and tall and all, that wouldn’t it be lovely if I could have a Moroccan fiancé and get married in a beautiful caftan and then stay in Morocco forever. He had helped me put the pink caftan on over my sweaty street clothes to try it on, and we were both looking at my reflection in the full-length mirror, the salesman behind me adjusting the shoulders and tying the wide sequined belt around my waist. I looked like a pale pink lump with a bedazzled boxer’s belt squeezing it all together. He was blushing. Doing my best hanımefendi impression, I proceeded to buy all three, have them wrapped in flowery tissue paper, and wished I could have had the language, the courage, to waltz out the door, head held high. Needed Helpful Phrase: “Oh, me oh my no, me a bride? Dear sir! I revel in my solo-ness!”
Despite the best efforts of people to fatten you up or caftan sellers to marry you off to themselves, if only to be polite, these interactions can make you feel even lonelier. You can go days without really talking to anyone as yourself, and feeling dusty and hot and alone and ogled at can get tedious, especially with no travel buddy to commiserate with. Such was my feeling one day in Ahmedabad as I took myself for a stroll through the lovely winding alleys of the beautiful old city center. Cracking wooden screens and carved columns with elephant-head capitals, veined plaster walls, sleek little dogs entirely deflated from the heat passed out on shady stone stoops, dark corridors leading to the once-grand haveli’s interior courtyards.
Every few moments, another man on another motor scooter whizzes around the tight corners, forcing me again and again to press myself against a house’s walls, feet flayed open to the left and right, like a silly dance at a wedding, both amusing and annoying. I hear a cackle from on high. Gods bless her! It’s an aunty with a kerchief there in the most natural of aunty habitats: leaning on her forearms, hanging out of a second floor window. An aunty! My heart swells three sizes bigger. Aunties are one of the most wonderful group of people alive, in any and all countries there they are, peeling onions and watching soap operas, cracking jokes and telling stories, not caring if they are too loud or too nosey, nor worrying about being too sweet or too smiley for safety. They can be brash or kind without consequence, or so it seems to me. But ensconced as they are in their homes, without an in, you rarely get to chat with them as a traveller, pity. They are the best people for tea and conversation. So many years hanging out of windows, they know everything worth knowing and have excellent senses of humour. I smiled and waved and yelled up an enthusiastic “KEM CHO!” How are you? suddenly thrilled and comforted to be able to play a kızım to this teyze, thrilled to find a conversation I actually wanted to and could initiate. She cackled again, beaming, wagged her head and yelled back, “oooOOOoooh, so you speak Gujarati!” she said. Another auntie stuck her head out of the window opposite and smiled down at me. I gestured at their neighborhood and I told them it was very beautiful, then continued my walk before they could offer up some nice nephew as a groom.
Clare Louise Frost is a fabric designer, carpet dealer, screen actress and model currently living in New York City. She has spent the last 12 years living in Turkey and travelling all over the world - no doubt collecting a story or two! Her beautiful designs may be viewed on her website www.clarelouisefrost.com.
All images courtesy of Clare Frost unless stated otherwise.