mercoledì 7 settembre 2011

The Gender Gap in Travel: Myths and Revelations

Readers often write in to remark that I am a man, a fact of which I am generally aware. But then they point out something that often slips my mind: my travel experiences are those of a man, as well. Some say they would prefer the column to be written by a woman, a request I parry with reminders that two of the three previous Frugal Travelers were women, and many of Daisann McLane’s and Susan Spano’s columns are still online and just as packed with insight as when first published. But others have a strong argument: they say that the advice I give and the experiences I recount are not always as applicable or accessible to women. How would a female traveler feel about staying in my $4 room at Hospedaje los Arcos in Coatepeque, Guatemala? Or being invited to a family lunch by an older man in Intepe, Turkey? Or hitting working-class immigrant nightclubs outside Madrid? So I decided to talk to female travelers I trusted: Daisann, whom I consider one of the savvier adventurers on the planet; Amelia Thomas, who wrote the Lebanon section of Lonely Planet’s Syria and Lebanon guidebook (which I used and found insightful this summer); and friends, friends of friends and the always-responsive Twitter crowd. The results were interesting, various and sometimes conflicting. Daisann — who now writes the Real Travel column for National Geographic Traveler and gives back-street foodie tours in Hong Kong, where she lives — began with this: “Yes, I think there’s a huge difference between traveling the world as a male and as a female. But there’s also differences if you’re white or Chinese. Or straight or gay or lesbian. Besides gender, there are many, many different things that affect the way people relate to you. You’re a woman, but you may be a tall, athletic woman who speaks 12 languages. That’s very different from a woman who is 5-foot-0 and has never been abroad before.” But she quickly turned counterintuitive. Many Twitter followers and I shared the unexamined belief that travel outside North America and Europe posed more danger and annoyance for women. Daisann, though, pointed out that repressive regimes are – despite the obvious negatives – among the safest places for women to travel. She was talking about countries with extremely low crime rates like Saudi Arabia, but I was reminded of a trip to Cuba in 2000, when police officers often approached when they saw me talking to a Cuban man to warn me to watch out, and occasionally whisked him away. (Only one problem: he was my friend.) Amelia, author and co-author of endless Lonely Planet guides and now at work on her first book of fiction, expanded on Daisann’s thought: “Most people feel scared of the Arab world, but ultimately it’s actually a really safe part of the world to travel in. I’ve always felt safer traveling in places where people will say to you ‘Really, you went there?’ than walking around London.” She reports being frequently approached by Middle Eastern women who offer to help her, and notes that the main danger in the Middle East has nothing to do with gender. It’s being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Where women traveling solo run into problems (and men generally don’t) is with unwanted romantic and sexual advances. I expected to hear stories about encounters in the street, but was surprised by how many incidents occurred in what I would have thought were safe spaces. Waiters turn out to be the some of the most absurdly aggressive, self-anointed ladies’ men of all time. This seems true, from Puerto Rico, where the Twitter follower Carly Zimmerman, a recent graduate of Lousiana State University, was persistently hit on by an older waiter, to Cairo, where a waiter in a hotel whispered to Daisann that he would come up to her room later. In most cases, Amelia told me, these are just annoyances, not dangers, and easily dealt with by a firm “no” and walking away. Experience seems to play a huge role in how women deal with or avoid these situations. “There’s a type of traveler who thinks, ‘Why should I have to not wear my comfortable cut-off jeans just because I’m in fill-in-the-blank country with a slightly different dress code?’ ” Daisann said. She always wears Indian clothes in India, she said, and has rarely had problems. “If you’re in a culture with really segmented sex roles, things are a lot easier if you look like someone’s mother or sister. It’s almost like an ur-response. I don’t look Indian but then there’s this little bit of hesitation about jumping on me.” Amelia contributed a neat trick: learn how to say “brother” in the local language and use it to admonish clumsy and annoying suitors. Traveling on a budget is clearly more difficult for women. The cheapest hotels, my bread and butter, are rarely the safest, whether because of their location or their weaker security or simply the creepiness of the other guests A Brazilian journalist friend, Giovana Sanchez, noted that even midrange hotels can be dicey. When she traveled to Doha, Qatar, on a research trip as an undergraduate, she was terrified by the men in the room across the hall who knocked at her door consistently and left lascivious messages on her room’s voice mail. (She eventually got them kicked out. Nice work.) I was particularly curious about whether women travelers could (or should) take advantage of invitations to strangers’ houses. (These were a staple of my travels in Turkey and Lebanon.) The answer, of course, is complicated. Daisann told me that she relies a lot on cues – when she was invited home for dinner by a silk-sari trader in Kanchipuram, India, she politely declined until he, sensing the reason for her hesitation, told her he would call his wife to let her know they were having company. And Amelia said it was important to be aware of local cultural notions of hospitality: “If a guy, or even a family, came up to you on the street in Paris or London and invited you to their house you would assume there was something dodgy going on,” she said. “It’s really hard to appreciate that the rules change when you go somewhere else.” For those who like night life, traveling alone as a woman can be a challenge. I remember talking to an older woman in Colombia last year who said she was enjoying traveling alone although she never left her hotel after dark. That struck me as overly cautious, but Daisann thought it sound, noting that as the Frugal Traveler, she tended to avoid going out to bars and clubs, using the evening to write and research or deal with photographs. Occasionally, I heard stories that made me jealous. At the home of a Bedouin family where Amelia had been invited for dinner, men and women ate separately, but she was able to switch back and forth between the two groups. “I’ve always felt like it’s a really great situation to be in because you have the benefits of being female in that women will talk to you, but so will men because you’re kind of like an alien species to them,” she said. I recalled not daring to talk to groups of women in Turkey this summer. If there was a common thread to all the comments, it was that while female travelers experience the world differently than male ones, experienced women are more likely to find advantages, while novices are more likely to focus on staying out of trouble. This makes sense: the longer you spend on the road, the savvier you get. You begin to place situations in context to assess their danger level, and you begin to trust your own instincts. Or course, some people get to travel only a few weeks a year and will never have Daisann or Amelia’s savvy. So I‘m going to let Emily Baron, a television reporter in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, have the last words. She wrote in with advice that – with one glaring exception – is equally applicable for men and women. “First, strike a balance between trusting and foolish — most adventures happen when you say yes. But weigh out the options first. Does someone know where you are? Do you have cellphone reception? Do you know exactly where you’re going? Do you know the people you’re going with — even a first and last name is something. “Second, be really comfortable with yourself. Some people can make friends easily anywhere they are, and that’s amazing. But even the friendliest of people need some down time, and when you’re all alone you can become lonely really fast. So make sure you can be okay with your own thoughts. “And third, take a tampon everywhere. It’s not just good for your own period, it’s a bonding experience. If you’re in a crowded train, or a hostel room, or a bus ride, and someone doesn’t have one, you just made a new friend by giving yours away. They also work well to stop blood if you scrape your knee or get a nosebleed. Really, tampons are awesome.” That’s the sort of insight I would never have thought of bringing to readers. Thanks Emily, and thanks to all readers and interviewees whose thoughts now form part of my own travel wisdom. Though I won’t stop being a man in my travels, I pledge to seek more input from women travelers I encounter in the future – along with gay and lesbian travelers, older and younger travelers, travelers of other races and religions, and travelers with dietary or physical restrictions. In fact, I have a feeling that a burst of new input is coming sooner rather than later, in the form of comments below. I look forward to reading them. nytimes

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