Written by Mindy
Warning: If you freak out at the word tampon, this post isn’t for you.
We, as females and most males I know including Chris, all know being a female is in general more difficult than being a male. People can argue that this isn’t true, but all they have to do is think about female politics in high school, or unfortunately out of high school, and/or the lines for the bathrooms and most people will tend to agree. (Though I have to say I would so much rather be a woman!)
After having just finished a 23-day trek through Nepal and a month of traveling in India, this has never been more obvious to me than it is now. Our femaleness definitely makes it just a tad more frustrating to be on the road than it is for our male counterparts.
First the Practical Things
Let’s start with something simple, peeing. The places Chris and I are traveling to are often filled with dirty toilets or just as likely a disgusting pit in the ground (that is if there is any kind of bathroom at all) and a major lack of toilet paper. Take that lovely multi-hour, probably bumpy, bus ride with the only stop being alongside the road. Guys pop out, turn their backs, and they are ready to go. However as a female, you best hope you don’t have to go or that there is somewhere with a bit of privacy because otherwise you are just going for it or holding it. (Also, best be quick because that bus is only waiting for a few minutes!) Or if you are lucky and there is a bathroom stop, well you can often guess the state of that toilet as well as the long line you’ll have to wait in. My favorite is when you have been hiking for days on end so your legs are a bit shaky, it’s about 5 degrees (best go quick!), and you try to squat standing on ice over a hole, definitely keeps things interesting!
Also, there is our lovely once a month visitor. A period is a pain normally but I can tell you when traveling in places with squat toilets and no toilet paper, trashcans, trash disposal, or sinks, it takes on a whole new level of sucky. Add on jarring bus rides when you are at your crampiest and little access to showers, comfort foods, heat pads, or your favorite brand of tampons and well let’s just say it’s not a lot of fun. (If you want to make things a bit easier for yourself and the environment, try a Diva cup. They rock!) I will say it is a great way to commiserate with local women (who often just roll up a piece of fabric as a pad) and makes you truly appreciate the comforts we are offered in the US.
There is also the frustrating fact that is just takes a lot more for females to be presentable. I have found that women in most of the countries we travel to actually dress up significantly more than women in the US do. I already don’t wear jewelry, which is beyond comprehension to the women of South America or India, and combined with my limited resources, I often feel below par. Chris can get away with a pair of jeans and a button down shirt anywhere, not to mention he really just needs a bit of water to wash up with, (of course his beard makes things easier), however I often need a shower and definitely have to carry a wider range of clothing. It really does make you feel crappy when you go to a nice restaurant in a cosmopolitan city such as Lima and have to wear hiking boots and a fleece.
Now For The Things That Really Make My Ovaries Grind
Unfortunately in the countries we are traveling to, women are seen as 2nd class citizens. This is obviously hard to witness, especially as a female, and makes you yearn to be able to do something, to speak out. However, figuring out how to navigate supporting women’s rights with balancing cultural norms is a challenge in itself. Women are often, as they should be, incredibly proud of raising and feeding their families, and while you want to promote that education and careers should also be an option, you have to balance that with not putting down their lives, much of which may often be outside their control. (However, when it comes to the Gender Violence that you are bound to see or young girls at the age of 11 being sold into marriage, well then I think it’s time to speak your mind.)
Along with this is how others perceive you as a woman. First off it never seems that absurd to people that Chris is traveling. However, a female? Well I should be home. Further as a 27-year-old female who doesn’t have children, I am just plain weird. (At least Chris and I are married, I would hate to try to explain that all the time.) Femininity in many countries (and let’s be honest in the US as well) is so deeply entrenched in motherhood that I am often seen as less than a woman by not having kids. Whereas in the US most people assume I will at some point in the future, (whether making this assumption is wrong or right, it does make it so most people leave me alone for now), in the places we are traveling it’s often seen as already being too late. This can make it difficult to connect with other women and even more so for men to understand.
Another issue that I encounter once in a while is sexual harassment. This is one of my least favorite parts of traveling as well as my least favorite part of India, where a lot of men for some reason feel that it is their right to be allowed to intensely stare at a female all they want. Not that I have never experienced sexual harassment in the US but it is definitely much more prevalent in some other parts of the world, and while I wouldn’t say it is everywhere, it is an issue. (Check out this video for a bit about how women in India are working to counter men’s leering.)
Due in part to the US media and women travelers who don’t follow cultural practices (i.e. wearing the long skirt, seriously to you college age girls wearing just a sports bras and yoga pants while hiking in Nepal, what are you thinking?), along with women’s status in most countries, white women are often automatically seen as loose. It is rarely a problem when I am with Chris, through I do get asked regularly if he is my husband, but if he leaves my side, I am bound to get comments. Usually they are just aggressive come-ons, I’ve never been grabbed or anything, or being followed, but it is a bit unnerving. Thankfully, for the most part, completely ignoring them works. I’ve also had a woman in Zimbabwe step in and tell the guy to beat it, which was much appreciated.
So there you go, some of the difficulties of traveling as a woman. I will say in spite of these, traveling as a woman is completely possible, very safe, and definitely pretty awesome. People are much more likely to speak to a woman, I get kids and other women who want to talk to me all the time, and are also much more likely to step in and help when needed. Men give up their seats to me and are always trying to carry my bags and women offer me advice or show me the proper ways of doing things. Chris and I were even offered a ride and visit to a woman’s home, something I am pretty sure would not have been offered if it had just been Chris.
I also think it’s great to be able to connect and learn from the women I am meeting, something that Chris just isn’t able to do to the same extent with men. While I am fairly disconnected from the US feminists who created so much change for us in the early to mid-1900’s, on this trip I am constantly meeting women who are at the forefront of women’s activism. These every-day women are the ones who are leading grass roots anti-gender violence campaigns, who are figuring out at all costs how to send their daughters to school, or are building small businesses out of their homes. They are pretty amazing heroines in my eyes and I feel incredibly lucky to get the chance to meet so many of them.
It’s also great to get to share with them about the US and show them we have many of the same problems (albeit at a much smaller scale). Womenhood is a really powerful bond and it’s one I am glad to be a part of. Now if only I could figure out where to by a Shewee.