Shocking though it may seem, in all the places I’ve been in the world, and there have been a few, there is nowhere I’ve been where I haven’t been female. A woman, girl, dame, damsel, floosy, whatever, I have always been identifiably of the “fairer sex.” And while I don’t think that predicates too many specifics about me personally the world tends to differ and living in the world I’ve made my peace with that. Other people’s assumptions don’t mean much to me.
Traveling as a woman however, especially traveling alone, brings a whole separate set of baggage (no, not shoes). I had a conversation with a similarly-travel inclined friend once; we were trading war stories, just shooting the breeze, and while no one was keeping score, his notches quickly outnumbered mine. In the end I turned to him saying “that all sounds amazing but I could never have done any of that because every one of those stories starts “so I followed this stranger down a dark alley.”
That lesson I learned the hard way. My third day in Marakkesh, hot, exhausted, hungry (out of respect for Ramadan, I refrained from eating outside my riad until sundown) and into my second hour of lost wandering, I unthinkingly followed the man who claimed he could help me without ever asking the name of my guest house. My anxiety woke up when he asked if I wanted some hash and gathered momentum as the alley grew dim and deserted. My eyes were focused on the next turn, praying to see a literal light at the end of the tunnel, so I didn’t see him reach out to squeeze my left breast in a matter of fact way, like he was checking the ripeness of some fruit he wanted to buy. I reacted without thinking and my closed fist thudded against his chest before my brain had time to calculate a trajectory. We stood staring at each other for a long moment a comic parody of shock before my instincts kicked in and I took off running. He followed hurling curses (apparently, my actions made my *mother* a whore, leaving me confused about what he had thought I was). When the alley dead ended I was in the awkward position of having to 180 and hurry past him again. His enthusiasm for expletives diminished but failed to die and he followed a few feet behind until finally I turned back. “Look, I just want you to leave me alone.”
He looked at me skeptically for a minute and then smiled and held out his hand to shake, “ok ok, yes let’s be friends.”
Too off guard to be incredulous, I replied firmly, “no, I don’t want to be friends. Please, I just want you to leave me alone.” He shrugged as if to say “who understands you foreign women” and when I turned back up the main road, resumed his post at the alley’s entrance.
The experience, benign as it turned out to be, shook me so deeply that a few days later when I found myself lost (a forgone conclusion in moroccan kasbahs) and following a strange man who knew the name and proprietor of my riad, my panic nearly overwhelmed my composure and only the appearance of the guest house’s sign saved me the embarrassment of bursting into tears in front of a completely well-meaning stranger.
And in my experience the overwhelming majority of strangers do mean well, a belief I’ve tested to lengths that would appall my mother. After some polite small talk the 30 something man seated next to me on the plane to Cairo offered me a lift to my hotel. Climbing into the backseat of his friend’s car at 1am in a strange country I knew that I was living the start of a horror story, but as it turns out I was just saving myself a cab fare. When I agreed not to get on the bus but stay in Boulmalne and come see the 20 something year old boy’s shop, it was likely just another sales pitch or possibly a scam, but in the end I saw another side of Morocco and made a friend.
So far India has had more than its fair share of helpful strangers. A young woman could probably navigate this country without doing much more than turning up somewhere busy and looking lost. But our fears, our ideas of safety dictate that it’s unwise to appear that vulnerable. What I realized after my incident in Morocco is that safety isn’t as iron clad as we like to think. We’re never as safe or as in peril as we think we are. How in danger was I *really* in that alley in Marakkesh. Certainly less than in the back seat of the car in Cairo. People’s intentions only become clear after the fact. And by then, the incident is over and the fear is past.
Much like my day in Varkala. Sunbathing is *not* a socially acceptable activity for a woman in India. Local women go in the sea as they appear on the streets, fully covered from the knees to the shoulders. But Varkala’s a tourist town and I was with friends. In a group it’s easy to ignore the stares (especially when you’re getting them on the street every day no matter what you’re wearing.) But when I volunteered to stay with our things while they went for a stroll, I kept myself busy with my camera and Ipod, eyes on the water or the ground. It was only at his third or fourth pass that I realised someone making wide loops past me. I looked up to see a skinny boy, late teens, early twenties, grinning salaciously at me, his hand jerking deliberately at his open fly. What I realised quickly afterward is that he had no intention. He wasn’t “accomplishing” anything. He wasn’t planning his attack. He was just trying to get a reaction. Which, in hindsight made me wish i’d given him one, preferably laughing and throwing sand shouting about what a pathetic pervert he was. Instead, I just shivered in disgust and quickly pulled my shirt back on, sneaking anxious glances at his retreating back while searching the shore line for the return of my friends.
But (touch wood – absolutely NO pun intended) that’s been the worst of it. Being a foreign women in India has thus far meant a few infringements on personal space, being the unconsenting subject of (some spectacularly non-covert) photographs, awkward brushes that are so anticlimactic you can never be sure they were actually deliberate and a LOT of staring. From everyone, men, women and children included. Some of it hostile. Some curious. Some uncomfortably sleazy. And some with an unnerving intensity that makes you wonder if in India it’s actually considered rude to stare. With women, children and the elderly I’m comfortable backhanding a smile or a “namaste”. But with men I am never sure how to react, always aware that I have no idea what they actually mean.
In the end who knows what it means. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe the same men who stare at me stare at Indian women as well who, knowing the rules, just keep their eyes down, their heads high and keep walking. Maybe for some I am actually the first white woman they’ve ever seen. Maybe the goofy would-be flirtatious stares are from goofy would-be flirts and the frightening intense psycho killer stares are from intense psycho killers (although I doubt it). Maybe I look “exotic”. Maybe foreign women have “a reputation”. Maybe they collect photos of western women like baseball cards to compare with their friends. Who knows. I’m not sure anyone really knows why anyone does anything to be honest. But the truth probably lies somewhere between the opinion of the lackadasical hippy (whose blissed out state of mind was enhanced by some fairly ingenious methods of cannabis consumption) who told me (with the kind of earnest wide eyed sincerity that automatically sends my eyes rolling toward the ceiling) “he staring because you’re *bea-u-ti-ful*! You’re beautiful and exotic to him! Why does that bother you?” and the exclamation of the hyper cynical Puerto Rican from New York City who, when I waved to a teenager snapping my picture on the street said “don’t girl, they *masturbate* to that shit!” To which I replied, hey, if a photo of me beet red in the heat off the day, sunburned, dripping in sweat, wearing no makeup, hair a mess, covered from my elbows to my ankles in the least shapely clothes I own *really* gets the guy off, more power to him.