Smash Patriarchy: experiences of travelling alone as a woman

Greece, Society

***The below blogpost shows my experience of just a couple of days of travelling alone. Although it is written about the region within the borders of Greece, I have had similar, and worse, experiences in other countries.***

My friend Albin once told me how he had taken a succession of ferries from Turkey to Italy. So when I was planning to head to Turkey again, I also booked ferries. It sounded like a more romantic way to travel than hitchhiking on grey motorways through the Balkans.

My first ferry is from Ancona, Italy, to Patras, Greece. The massive ten-floor ferry is not in the slightest bit romantic, and it is, of course, a very capitalist experience. My 72€ ticket doesn’t even get me a reserved seat, let alone a bed. People around me drink beer whilst the Italian news channel shows footage of a ‘black bloc’ rampaging on the streets of Milan.

The boat’s full of men, most from the Greek region and they’re walking around in packs. I feel really self-conscious: they all stare at me as if I am a product that they are sizing up to buy. They don’t seem to see a human, but rather a female, and therefore a sexual object.

At midnight I find a comfy spot to sleep in, near two couples and no groups of men. I take out my sleeping bag, and just as I’m about to go to sleep, a man asks if he can sleep one chair along from me. I can’t really say no. He asks me where I’m from, and to be polite I ask him where he’s from. Turkey, he says. As I get ready to go to sleep, his eyes follow my every move. He stares at me intently for twenty minutes or so. So I get up, go to the reception desk and ask how much extra a cabin is. 111€, they say!

I decide not to move to another part of the boat – after all, why should I have to? – but for a couple of hours I lay awake, one metre away from the man, pissed off that I have been made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe. Just because I am a woman and I am alone, it does NOT mean I want company, I think to myself. Fuck patriarchy.

The man is Turkish, but he could well be from anywhere else, and in my years of travelling solo I have found that men in many regions can act like this (except for in Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Finland and Scandinavia, where I never seem to get problems).

Years of travelling solo have, on the one hand, given me a greater faith in humans. I have met so many women and men who have gone out of their way to help me, host me, feed me, or be compassionate and friendly. But on the other hand, my experiences of being harrassed by men have also made me cynical about men’s intentions. I don’t want to feel this way. I want to spread positivity and smile at everyone. I want to live in a world where a smile won’t be mis-read as a come-on. Unfortunately I don’t live in that world, and instead I scowl at certain men in order to protect myself.

I spend the next day in Patras, Greece. It’s a city of contrasts, with smoggy streets in the city centre, and beautiful old lanes up on the hillside with the smell of fresh flowers filling the air. Anarchist posters and squats and an Anti-Authoritarian May Day party are just a few streets away from made-up people getting drunk in gentrified bars.

A day later I catch another ferry from Athens to Rhodes. This ferry has more of a diversity of people on it, but there’s still a good number of young macho men wearing sunglasses and tight T-shirts staring at the lone female.

I remind myself that I don’t know what they are thinking, so I shouldn’t jump to conclusions about them. And besides, I think, if I feel resentful and guarded all the time, I’m going to be miserable.

As I sit reading my book on the deck, ignoring the stares, a young guy in his twenties talks to me. We exchange a few sentences and then I go back to reading. He doesn’t have any intentions other than to be nice, I happily think to myself. But then he stands a few metres away, staring at me.

Half an hour later he walks up to me again and says something. I say a short reply and go back to reading. He then leans on the ferry deck, his body facing me, and stares at me once again for a long time. I look up from my book and I scowl at him. He smiles at me and continues to stare. I shake my head and look away.

Another half an hour later, he talks to me again.
“STOP TALKING TO ME!” I shout at him in front of other people. It’s probably not the best tactic, but I’m really fed up. He’s doesn’t come near me for the rest of the journey.

These incidences on the two ferries may not seem like much. But this is behaviour that women have to tolerate every day. Most men don’t go through life being sized up and objectified in the same way as women do.

As females, we are taught from a young age that the world is a dangerous place for us. “Don’t walk alone at night!” we are constantly warned. And when women and men hear that I travel alone, they are shocked and say, “aren’t you brave?” Travel guide books warn against women travelling alone. And then the media reports the most distressing stories of rapes and murders.

And so male-domination is upheld and women continue to be the fearful, subservient sex: too timid to do things alone. If we were to break free from these fears – if we were to realise our limitless potential – then the male-dominated society would start to crumble.

This is one reason why I travel solo – to break free from society’s conditioning that tells me that because I am a woman I am the weaker sex.

So I think the common rhetoric that the world is really dangerous for a woman is nonsense and reinforces men’s power. However, I do recognise that the world is really sexist, and experience has shown me that I do need to be on my guard sometimes. I will always be viewed differently as a solo woman traveller to a solo male traveller.

The answer to these problems isn’t to stay at home and live in fear. And the answer is not to only travel with a companion. Instead, as women we can realise our potential, break the stereotypes of what a woman should or shouldn’t do and challenge patriarchy.

If you’re a man who is against sexism and patriarchy, then you can also challenge men around you when they are being sexist. And we can all look at small actions or words that we do or say in daily life that are sexist.

Instead of telling women that they shouldn’t do something because it’s not safe, let’s look at the core of the problem – patriarchy – and all work together to abolish it. Let’s start doing this in the communities where we live, where we have the most understanding of how we can change it. Let’s ensure that our children grow up to be free from the chains of sexism and patriarchy. In the meantime, I’m trying to learn to travel with an open, friendly mind and heart whilst being slightly on my guard.

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Homeward Bound! Siem Reap and Bangkok to London

Cambodia, Hitchhiking, Thailand
A monk takes a photo of the Buddha in Bangkok

A monk takes a photo of the Buddha in Bangkok

A strange thing has happened to me! Whilst travelling through South East Asia, I’ve had a niggling feeling that I actually miss home. So because of this, I’ve controversially made the decision to book a flight from Bangkok to London. I don’t like to fly when I could go by land. But I don’t have a Russian visa to return the way I came, and the thought of doing the Trans-Siberian again alone fills me with dread! As I get closer to Bangkok, though, I guiltily wish I had tried to get that Russian visa and travelled the long way home.

Paradise Almost Lost

All hiking posts, Cambodia, Hiking, Kep, Cambodia

So speak out loud of the
Things you are proud
And if you love this coast
Keep it clean as it evolves
Cos the way that it shines
May just dwindle with time
With the changes it will confront
Xavier RuddMessages

Some of your people can’t hear it
The cries of the Earth
Some of your people can’t feel it
The way that it hurts
Nahko – Great Spirit

Koh Ta Kiev, a Cambodian island

Koh Ta Kiev, a Cambodian island

Tina Turner’s Private Dancer blasts out of the stereo, taking me back to my childhood, when me and my sisters were subjected to Tina Turner on a daily basis. The sand is white and the sea as warm as bath water. I’m on Otres beach, Sihanoukville’s more tame tourist spot.

“Massage? Pedicure? Oh! Hair removal!!!” a woman says, pointing at my legs. Maybe I’m the first western woman that she’s ever seen who doesn’t remove the hair from their legs. I politely decline her offer.

Five minutes later another woman approaches. “Bracelet? Oh! Hair!” she says, looking at my legs.
“No thanks.”
“Where are you from?” she asks.
“England.”
“You have a nice body. English people are fat.”

For the next hour, more people approach me, all analysing my legs and deciding that I really need to remove my hairs. I think about discussing patriarchy, sexism, and the pressure that women are under to conform to a particular image of beauty. I want to tell them how unfair it all is. But then I realise that these women are just trying to make money, and it must be really frustrating for them to see the hairs on my legs and then not be allowed to do anything about it!

“Well done for not shaving your body hair,” a French woman says to me. “Me and my friend tried it for one week and felt too self-conscious.”

There’s also children selling things. They’re cheeky and funny and when I last came to Cambodia, me and my friends bought lots of books off of them. This time, I’ve decided not to give the kids any money. Travelfish says why here and here.

After the tenth woman comments on how hairy my legs are, I decide that Otres beach is not a good place to relax and do meditation!

I take a boat to the relatively unknown island of Koh Ta Kiev. The total population on the whole island must be about twenty or thirty people – a fishing village which I don’t see, and a couple of beach hut-style guesthouses.

Deliveries arrive at the island

Deliveries arrive at the island

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The view of the sun setting over another island from Koh Ta Kiev

The view of the sun setting over another island from Koh Ta Kiev

Alone on one of Koh Ta Kiev's beach...soon to be changed forever

Alone on one of Koh Ta Kiev’s beach…soon to be changed forever

I walk in the rainforest, all alone as beautiful massive wild hornbill birds fly overhead. The island is famous for its many species of birds. The trail is completely overgrown and l get lost. Afterwards I find out that nobody has walked on my route for months and months.

Lost in the jungle, I laugh as I come across this carving on a tree

Lost in the jungle, I laugh as I come across this carving on a tree

As with everywhere I visit, this untouched, perfect island is set to be destroyed. The Cambodian government has leased half of the island to a French company and half of the island to a Chinese company. Whilst the French company has, so far, done nothing to ‘develop’ Koh Ta Kiev, the Chinese company has already chopped down and logged trees, and a huge, ugly road has been bulldozed through the forest.

The company is called KSKW, and is owned by Ni Zhaoxing, President of China’s ZhongRong Group. They boast about their plans on their website. I’m told by locals that they plan to build a huge resort, with a golf course and casino for the rich. During my stay on the island, the company come to collect rent from the beach hut-style guest houses. It’s really sad to think of the destruction that is to come, and the inevitable death of the beautiful wildlife.

The start of the destruction of Koh Ta Kiev - a road through the rainforest

The start of the destruction of Koh Ta Kiev – a road through the rainforest

As I walk along the deserted beach (there’s literally no-one around: the island is so unspoilt!), with thousands of crabs scurrying across the sand and rocks, I’m shocked by how much plastic washes up here. Every day, piles and piles of plastic wash ashore on an island with barely any people living on it. As humans, we’re completely disgraceful, abusing and destroying our land and our seas without a second thought.  I guiltily acknowledge all of the plastic that I use and casually discard on a daily basis, knowing that it’s not biodegradable. I vow, there and then, to cut down on the plastic I buy, and to try to wean myself off of plastic completely.

Plastic plastic plastic

Plastic plastic plastic

More plastic. It stretches around the whole perimeter of the island

More plastic. It stretches around the whole perimeter of the island

Inspirational plastic-free activist Beth Terry summarises on her website why plastic is so toxic, both to the oceans and sea creatures, and to our own health.

A few days later I head back to the mainland and travel to Kep, and it becomes my favourite place in the country! I really, really love this small town and the locals are so friendly. Kep’s full of delapidated French colonial villas, ruined by the Khmer Rouge, and there’s wild monkeys.

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One reason why I love Kep is because there’s a MARKED HIKING TRAIL through the jungle! There’s no need for guides, and there’s no one in Kep trying to sell me a tour of the national park. And so I embark on a small, 8km trek alone. At the start of the trail there’s a warning: ‘DIFFICULT: ONLY FOR EXPERIENCED WALKERS’, mostly because you need to use ropes to haul yourself up rocks. “Fine,” I think, “I’m an experienced hiker.” There’s also a big photo of a scorpion on the warning sign.

The route map and warning signs at the start of the hike, kindly marked out by Led Zep cafe in Kep :)

The route map and warning signs at the start of the hike, kindly marked out by Led Zep cafe in Kep 🙂

I walk happily uphill, looking out for birds and monkeys. However, within minutes I realise that there are thousands of spiders in this jungle, and hundreds of them want to cast their webs across the trail. Each web seems to be at the exact same height as my face, and I spit cobwebs out of my mouth every two or three metres.

“Lucky that I’m not scared of spiders,” I think to myself.

But then I stop suddenly.

The biggest web ever, which reaches from the ground to my head height, stretches across the small dirt trail. Visions of Shelob from Lord Of The Rings come to my mind. I hack down the web with a stick (sorry spider, but there’s no other option!) and I walk on.

One minute later I see it.

The biggest spider that I have EVER seen in my life: the size of my hand, yellow and black in colour, sitting on a web at my head’s height. Petrified, I duck beneath the web. “What if I’d been looking at the ground, searching for scorpions?” I think to myself. “That spider would have landed on my head!”

For the rest of the trail, I nervously thrash a stick in the air, cutting down webs in front of me.

The next day, I hitchhike with a beautiful family to the Vietnam border (they go far out of their way to take me to the border), and I’m so happy that I visited amazing Kep with its wonderful people, old mansions, monkeys and even its giant spiders.

A Greek Island-Hopping Experience…

Greece

Chris and I arrive on the island of Kos, Greece, and decide to get the hell out as soon as we see signs for bacon and eggs. Greece comes as a culture-shock to us – the Kurdish women in baggy trousers and headscarves have been replaced by women whose tiny shorts don’t even cover their bum cheeks.

Kalymnos, our next stop, is an island ruled by goats. They stand on steep rocks, keeping an eye on humans (and with local goat on restaurant menus, who can blame them?) and they steal the food of people who dare to come onto their beaches.

Yes, the waters of Kalymnos really are this colour!

Yes, the waters of Kalymnos really are this colour!