It seems to be a universally acknowledged truth that young women traveling alone are always, in some way, in need of assistance. Of course this is based solely on my experience, so maybe I’ve just run into a number of friendly fellow travelers, but I’d be willing to bet that young women are likely to receive unrequested aid than men. It’s one of the double-edged swords of being a woman, I suppose: more likely to be the recipients of friendly gestures, more likely to be the victims of violence and sexual assault.
While it might be a holdover of sexism – the supposed helplessness of young female travelers – I’m happy to accept the kindness of others. Often it’s an offer of food. On planes and trains older women or couples have offered me snacks and things to drink if I don’t pull out anything of my own (usually some form of cookie or pastry) in France. Once on a night train to Hungary an old Hungarian woman helped me sneak back into the private compartments and we both slept on the seats in the compartment. On another occasion a young Turkish man helped me find a grand taxi in Fez, Morocco that took me to a smaller village outside the city.
The kindness and conversation of strangers can be one of the best parts of traveling to a new place – but sometimes it’s hard to know what that kindness means. I like to assume for the most part that people act out of a sense of generosity or empathy for fellow travelers, but sometimes there seem to be hidden motives. The same Turkish man who helped me find a taxi also made me a miniature bicycle figurine out of wire with a heart and my name balanced on the seat. There was clearly more than just kindness factoring into his interest in me, as a young Moroccan girl pointed out when she asked if he was my boyfriend. One host family I stayed with had received a laptop computer from the last girl they hosted, and when I presented my gift of pancake mix and maple syrup the daughters of the family were visibly miffed.
Gift giving is a frequently studied form of behavior in anthropology because giving a gift is a loaded gesture (as an anthropology professor so humorously demonstrated using me as an example when he asked the class what everyone would think if he were to give me something from Victoria’s Secret). Anyone who has received candy from a love interest, been treated to a meal or a coffee, or even been flattered by an unexpected compliment knows that there’s something behind these acts. Whether it’s meant to simply reveal another person’s feelings about you or is an attempt to garner some return act of kindness, it’s important to consider the cultural context of a stranger’s friendly behavior. This can be frustrating because you don’t want to assume the worst about people, that they’re being selfish in their friendliness and expect something from you. But it’s worth thinking about, especially if you sense your friend might actually be flirting. There’s nothing as uncomfortable as a man from a different background getting the wrong message and trying to put the moves on you.
Warnings aside, friendliness on the road is usually innocuous and much appreciated. In the same way that strangers in strange places are kind to us, we should consider acting the same way to travelers in our country. I could say more about this treat-others-like-you-wish-to-be-treated attitude (ahem, U.S. immigration policy), but we’ll save that for another article.