Traveling while female

In front of the Chinggis Khan statue, Mongolia

This is my 100th post to this blog. Two Vegetarians in Mongolia turns two today, as well. I’d like to thank everyone for following our lives these past two years. I was hoping to be writing this post in Mongolia, but of course we are still stuck in the USA. Emma starts her online school at the International School of Ulaanbaatar next week. We’re both really happy about that, because it helps us to feel like we will really be going back to Mongolia. I’ll start teaching online for Mongolia International University at the end of the month. For this post, though, I wanted to write about something that I’ve been thinking about nearly all my life and that came at me sharply last night as Emma and I went out to look for shooting stars.

The Perseid meteor shower peaks around August 10-13 every year, as the earth passes through debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle. I usually miss them because of weather, but once when I was in my mid-30s, I was visiting a friend up in Fresno, and we drove out to the middle of nowhere, sat on a couple of beach chairs, and watched the show. The sky was dark, and we saw a lot of “shooting stars.” We also got eaten alive by mosquitoes, and I got West Nile Virus out of it, but that’s another story. This year, I was hoping we’d be able to see something. Our plan was for Emma to wake me up in the middle of the night (she is a night-owl and usually goes to sleep around 1:30 or so), and we would go down to the park behind our apartment complex and see what we could see.

It was a slightly hazy night, but we could see the brighter stars clearly. The marine layer was hanging above the trees to the west, starting its journey inland. We walked across the park through wet grass, avoiding the sprinklers that I hadn’t reckoned on in my plan, to a paved area in a little hollow that had two damp benches. We decided to stay on the concrete, which was dry. I stood for a while, and Emma sat down; I was reluctant to sit down on the ground if it didn’t seem like we’d be there long, partly because my back was still a little off from throwing it out two weeks ago. But as we looked up in the sky, we saw a few bright meteors in quick succession, so I got down on the concrete and we both lay on our backs, looking up at the sky.

The problem was, I couldn’t relax. I looked up at the stars, but then I’d lift my head up and scan 360 degrees around us, looking for… something. Right when we arrived at our spot, I had looked around and told Emma, “If anything happens, like zombies or something, just run like hell for the street over there.” I had also brought my cell phone and our large Maglite, which I always appreciated as much as a club as a flashlight. It’s heavy. And I rehearsed in my mind what I’d do if someone—not a zombie—approached us.

Even a simple midnight outing to a local suburban park to watch a meteor shower can’t happen with planning for an attack. This is how my life has been since my mid-teens. I came of age amid the growing public realization that one in four women would be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, when discussions of date rape started to happen in school hallways, and we at least had words for it that our mothers hadn’t had when it happened to them. It was one of the topics covered in our freshman orientation at college. I got PE credit for a self-defense course for women that I took my junior year in college; after the course I couldn’t go into my dorm basement alone to do laundry for weeks.

I travelled a lot after college graduation. I was preparing to become an archaeologist (my first career), so I worked as a “shovel bum” for two years, going from one archaeological project to the next and spending the winters in Boston to earn money. I worked in Mexico twice, as well as Yugoslavia (in what would become Bosnia and Herzegovina after the war), Wales, and France. I also traveled in between projects, but rarely completely on my own. After the Wales field school, I went to York and Scotland with another person I’d met on the dig. After one of the Mexico projects, I traveled around Mexico a bit with a friend from college who came down to meet me in Mexico City. After the dig in France, I went to Nancy with another archaeologist, and then on to Champagne for the vendange, the grape harvest, and on down to Basel to stay with my aunt for a bit before my parents would meet me to travel in Switzerland. And after the dig in Yugoslavia another of the archaeologists and I caught a ride to Istanbul and spent ten days in Turkey. I loved traveling, but it always seemed good to have the company of a fellow-traveler. Sometimes I traveled with another woman, sometimes with a man, but it was nice to have someone else to plan with, bounce ideas off of, and share experiences with.

The other reason I preferred to travel with someone was that it seemed safer. Things were less likely to happen if there were two of us. This was also the understanding of the people I traveled with. As I got older, I got more comfortable traveling on my own, but when I was in my late teens and early twenties, there was just this…understanding…that bad things would happen to women on their own. It hasn’t gone away; if anything, teaching on a university campus and breakthroughs like the #metoo movement have highlighted that sexual assault is rampant. I had students drop out partway through a course who emailed me later to let me know that it was because they were raped, and they couldn’t handle being on campus for a while. I’ve had women crying in my office.

And now I am raising a daughter. I am raising a traveler as well. She has already been to fourteen countries. She has great plans for seeing more of the world that I hope won’t be thwarted by climate change and future pandemics (COVID-19 is only the beginning). She is already, at an age when I didn’t have the words to talk about it, well-versed in the topics of sexual assault and child sex-trafficking. It didn’t only come from me. I certainly had conversations with her from a young age, maybe four or so. It started out with talk about inappropriate touching and consent, and graduated to talk about sexual contact and consent. Always consent. If she didn’t agree to what was happening, then it shouldn’t happen. But kids now learn a lot from the Internet and from each other. She was having conversations about sex at school from a much earlier age than I remembered.

She is also very often lost in her own thoughts and unaware of what is happening around her. While we are out together, I act as her eyes and ears (though there were times I let her walk into a lamp post or telephone pole because it was just funny). I also try to train her to look for herself. She needs to be able to, because now that she is older, she does walk places on her own. I want her to feel comfortable walking around alone, and to feel like she can handle most situations. When we are watching TV and a fight scene comes on, we talk a lot about why people don’t just kick men in the crotch more often, and I think back to that self-defense course I took and the point that was made that when something happens, you don’t think rationally, and you don’t always react the way you think you will. I tell her, yes, go for the crotch and the eyes and nose, and don’t stick around. Just get away. But it’s really not like what you see on TV.

I have been fairly lucky in my life, for the most part. Situations that could have ended badly usually didn’t. But I have also tried hard to not get into those situations to begin with. There have been times when I have been phenomenally unthinking, like when I was traveling on my own around Botswana and Zimbabwe, and I decided to take a slightly different route to Victoria Falls. A man came out of the woods with a knife, and when I saw him, I ran back the other way, but he was faster, and he got my camera bag, which I mindlessly had put my passport in because I was going to change money. (I say “mindlessly,” because I had a money belt, too, which I should have used.) He got my camera, binoculars I’d borrowed from a friend in Gaborone, and the money I was going to change, as well as the passport. He also took my ability to walk in certain places by myself peacefully. It’s gotten better as the decades have passed, but let’s just say the whole thing left a vivid impression.

Probably the most challenging place I lived, besides the US, was Cairo, Egypt. This was several years after the Victoria Falls incident, and I was in my early 30s. In one apartment I lived in, I was often followed home by shadowy figures who would fade away when the bawab came out to greet me loudly and let me into the building. I was often followed down the street and grabbed or groped or spat upon in broad daylight; this is usual for foreign women living in Egypt. I learned to be more comfortable wearing long sleeves and pants through the scorching Egyptian summer, and I’d marvel at the tourists who wore culturally inappropriate tank tops and shorts. I also learned to shout “Ayb!” (shame) when someone said or did something inappropriate. I never turned down any street where I would be the only person walking. Things got better when I moved into an apartment on Zamalek, just off Abou el Feda, which runs along the Nile, and a few short blocks from my office. But I always felt like a target. It was worth it to me, though, to put up with this, because living in Cairo was also so interesting. There were days when I loved the city unconditionally, and the life I built for myself there was a good one. I encountered extraordinary warmth and kindness there. Never was I more challenged to question my own assumptions and beliefs, which is really the whole point of living overseas.

But I know that the US has been the most dangerous place I’ve lived, and I seldom feel safe here. Aside from violence against women, there is the everyday gun violence, the knowledge that I could be killed just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that Emma could be killed just by going to school. In all the places I’ve lived, the US has the most violent society I’ve come across. I know there are more violent societies out there; I just tend to choose safer places to live.

I want my daughter to be able to live where she wants to live and feel comfortable walking down the street. I want her to not have to worry when she goes to college. I want her to live in a society that is safer for women than mine has been. I know she won’t. The patriarchy won’t fall that easily. So the next best thing is for her to be able to handle herself. To know what situations she needs to avoid, and what to take with her so that she will be safer in the situations she can’t avoid. Traveling while female isn’t easy. Existing while female isn’t easy. We can’t move down the street with easy confidence the way many men seem to be able to. We have to be on our guard. We have to be ready to be blamed for whatever happens to us, to be disbelieved, to be mocked and ridiculed when bad things happen to us. And we have to be ready to fight back. This is life for many women in many countries around the world. Preparing my daughter for that, as best I can, without making her afraid to live her life the way she wants to, is one of the most difficult things I have to do as a parent. Fortunately, she’s tough. Tougher than I am, at least.

Back to the meteor shower.

After we had lain in the dark for a while and seen a few more lights shoot across the sky, Emma asked, “How much longer are we going to stay here?” I replied, “I’m ready when you are.” We got up and made our way back across the park with the flashlight, dodged some sprinklers, found the stairs up to our apartment complex. We were walking back behind the buildings to our apartment, the park just off to our right behind the wooded area that lines our apartment complex. The bushes to that side rustled abruptly. “Hello, zombie,” Emma said quietly. We both laughed.

9 thoughts on “Traveling while female

  1. This.

    It is sad that this is what played a part in grabbing my attention when I came upon your blog. ‘She did it, so it can be done.’
    When it should have rightly be just because I was interested in the content you were putting out.

    One day, who know, yeah? Maybe E will have it better than us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for commenting! It’s good that we offer each other encouragement. I remember you were asking if I’d had any difficulties in Mongolia because of my gender, and I have heard of women encountering problems there, but I think because I was there with my kid, I didn’t go out at night or do any of the things women ought to be able to do without difficulty. I mostly felt like people left us alone. I do hope my daughter’s generation has a better time.

      I mainly feel bad for people who follow my blog thinking they’re going to be getting food posts.

      Liked by 1 person

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