Monday, November 3, 2008

Crazy Is Good - How to Travel around the World Alone and Survive

If you've been on my site and looked at my Bio page, you'll know that I am a world traveler. On my trip around the world, the majority of the time I spent in Australia and New Zealand but for five or so months I was in Asia by myself. And I learned a few things that have been useful in everyday life. In a lot of Asian countries, if you're female and you're traveling alone, the locals think you are a prostitute. And they act accordingly. I had packs of men follow me down the streets making rude and lewd noises.

Not an enjoyable experience.

When I was in Asia, I was constantly being asked where my husband was. As if I couldn't possibly be alone because, as a woman, I needed a man to protect me. And, I have to admit, at times I really wished I had a very tall, muscular man with me. It would have prevented a lot of problems. But I didn't have that so I had to resort to different strategies, let's call them, to avoid or divert or scare attention away from me.

The things to do in Asia for women traveling alone:
  1. Buy a cheap gold colored ring and use it as a "wedding" ring. When people asked, I would  flash the ring and tell them all sorts of stories: my husband was sleeping off a hang-over, I'm meeting him down the street, etc. 
  2. Cover as much skin as possible and wear baggy clothing. I didn't cover my head but at times I think it would have prevented some of the negative attention.
  3. If you're blonde, seriously consider changing your hair color to dark brown or black. Blondes have a target painted on their backs.
  4. Realize that people in Asia get North American and European TV shows and somehow think this is how all Westerners behave. I cannot count the number of "Hey baby, you want to come to my place" comments I received. I took to either ignoring the comments, sneering at the guy or looking at the guy like he was crazy. Another four letter word plus the word "off" also did the trick.
  5. Never tell anyone you're lost - they seem to take it as a game to see if they can confuse you more. Know where you are going 100% of the time if you can manage it. Study maps. If I absolutely had to ask for directions, I ended up asking five or so people and taking the most popular answer. And even then, I still got the wrong directions 80% of the time.
  6. If you walk down the street muttering aloud, then people generally leave you alone. 
  7. Walk with purpose, your head up, shoulders back and a determined expression on your face. Don't stare at people you walk by but don't drop your eyes either because that marks you as a target.
  8. Realize that you are in some of the poorest countries in the world and the poverty is devastating to see. The urge to give a thin, frail-looking child a few rupees is overwhelming but be aware that, if you do this, the kid will tell all his hundreds of friends and you will be mobbed. 
  9. Enforce your personal space no matter what. I was in Srinagar, Kashmir, India for long days some months before the all the fighting started. I stayed on a houseboat on Dal Lake which was very nice, looking out towards the Himalaya Mountains. The not so nice part was that I would take a skiff to the quay and there was always a group of men congregated about ten meters away from the dock. They would always verbally harass me but didn't touch me. I took to walking on the opposite side of the street to avoid them. One day, they verbally harassed me as usual but one crossed the street and grabbed my arm. I turned around and slammed my fist into his face. Not very hard but hard enough that he fell, probably out of shock. His friends started to laugh. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this course of action (I have never hit anyone but my younger sister, when I was around eight years old, and this guy) because the situation could have gone either way. Fortunately it went my way. No one EVER came near me again and the verbal harassment stopped. Personal boundaries are important, even life-saving. Enforce them.
  10. Learn to lie. Like a rug. Back in Kashmir, I decided I needed to get out of Asia because I was tired, cranky and I just wanted something familiar, or at least identifiable, to eat. So I went to the airline office in Srinagar to book a ticket back to New Delhi. The man I spoke to was extremely unpleasant, saying that I hated his country and the people of his country, asking why I should want to leave, spoiled Western woman that I was. I knew I wasn't going to get any help at this rate and believed he would delay my departure out of spite so I told him that my younger sister had just died in an automobile accident (a total fabrication - she is very much well and alive). Tears rolled down the most miserable, sad looking face that I could conjure. The man's attitude changed into one of sympathy (because I was acting like a stereotypically emotional woman in need of manly assistance) and, wouldn't you know it, I was on an airplane the next day. A few days later, I landed in London, England.
Despite the above, I don't regret going to Asia. It was an EXPERIENCE. I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, which at that time was very, very white. I didn't even see a non-white person until I was thirteen years old. For the first time in my life, in Asia, I was in the minority and I hadn't realized until that point how much I stuck out, how out of place I felt, as one of a minority. People make assumptions about minorities that have nothing to do with reality. As well, the sheer volume of history is staggering and humbling. You can breathe, feel, eat and touch the history in the air, in the food, in the water (bottled, of course).

Of course, I had some beautiful times in Asia. Some of the most perfect moments of my life were in Asia. I was walking up a winding road in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia with a fellow traveler I'd met, the road surrounded by undulating hills and forest. The Islamic call to prayer started to drift throughout the area, the singing chant filtering magically through the trees to reach my enthralled ears. I had never heard anything so beautiful before, never anything so ... indescribably, exotically foreign. I'll remember that until the day I die.

Thailand and it's people were beautiful. I'm straight but I swear the most stunning women in the world must be Thai with their delicate grace, smooth ivory skin and their almond-shaped tilted eyes. I rented a moped in Krabi, Thailand to take a look at the surrounding country-side. I had never driven a motorcycle before and barely understood the concept of shifting gears, especially without drifting onto the wrong side of the road (most of Asia drives on the left side of the road). At one point, I drove up to a roadside restaurant with outdoor seating. I was covered in dust and thirsty. I sat down and asked for a Coca Cola because the entire world knows what you're asking for. When I looked back from the waitress, there were about twenty villagers all gathered around me in a circle. Not threatening in any way, but curious and friendly. They were fascinated with my white skin (kind of sunburned at that point), green eyes and lighter hair, all of which they touched and looked at with delicate but respectful curiosity. It was actually very sweet - they charmed me and I think I amused them with my butchered Thai and my wordless communication attempts.

These days, traveling in Asia is much more dangerous but I think it can still be done safely. If you can at all manage it, travel with someone you know. A satellite phone would be a God-send. Research, research, research. Use your common sense to stay out of trouble - think ahead. 

And finally, know that these countries are totally foreign and can't be judged by Western standards.

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