Do a quick Google search of “women traveling” and amidst links to tour companies offering their female-exclusive services (no doubt a reaction to the following), you get headlines like “Her Own Way — a woman’s safe-travel guide” or “The Realities Women Face When Traveling Alone, And How to Stay Safe” or “Top 10 Travel Safety Tips for Women” or “The 10 Safest (and Coolest!) Cities for Women to Travel Alone”.
Now do a quick Google search of “men traveling” and the top hits are almost exclusively about how to look good while on the road: “A Man’s Guide to Travelling with Style”, “Airport Fashion: How to Look Stylish While Traveling”, “The Art of Manliness: Dress Well While Traveling”.
What a drastically different narrative.
But this should come as no surprise. As women travelers, we know all too well the refrains we hear when we’re about to embark on our next adventure, most especially if that adventure just happens to be somewhere in a developing country. In fact, Wanderful just recently published a piece that addresses this very concern (and which actually prompted me to write this one).
How often have we heard our family and friends cite the endless headlines they’ve seen in the media? The kidnappings in Mexico City, the latest sexual assault or rape case in Delhi, or maybe it’s last week’s armed robbery in Cape Town. The perception of safety in these places is next to nil.
Of course, these fears aren’t entirely unfounded; there is basis for the concern. But often, they can be misguided and can fail to take into consideration the complexity of these places and the people who live there.
And sometimes, the places and spaces we deem unsafe to travel to aren’t always where we expect.
Kicking it in Mombasa
Three years ago, I traveled through Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda with a group of strangers-turned-friends for a service learning program focusing on LGBTI rights with Operation Groundswell. It would be my first time in East Africa and, of course, I had my own trepidations.
Despite my better judgment and experience, pieces of media stereotypes still lodged themselves into my brain. My friends oscillated between admiring me for my “courage” or berating me for going somewhere so “dangerous”. Aunts and uncles warned me of mugging, sexual assault, and rape. My ever-supportive (or at least simply resigned to my adventure-seeking ways) parents just told me to “be careful” with a grave seriousness.
So off I went.
I traveled around parts of East Africa for what ended up being an incredibly inspiring, challenging, hilarious, and mind-bending six weeks. I lived in homestays, took local transportation, and rented an apartment.
My team and I spent many sweltering evenings talking about social issues while learning to cook sukuma wiki or pilau with our new friends from Operation Groundswell’s partner organizations. I took many weekend afternoons walking the dusty roads to the nearby store to gossip with friends while I gnawed on the sweet, sweet sap of sugarcane. On other evenings, I’d skip over to another neighbor’s house to chat over a steaming cup of delicious chai. It wasn’t long until I felt at home.
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At the end of the service learning program, my new friends and I traveled to the beautiful coast of Mombasa, Kenya to cap our travels with some relaxation. We walked along the white sand beaches, explored the Islamic- and Portuguese-influenced architecture of the Old Town, and finished up our last minute shopping.
We stayed in the most affordable accommodation we could find: a party hostel filled with young North American and European backpackers who spent most of their days drinking by the pool and barely ever leaving the hostel premises. It was an entirely different vibe from everything else we’d experienced in the past month or so. After immersing almost completely in East African culture, it was a culture shock to find ourselves somewhere that felt a hell of a lot more like a frat house back in North America than it did the coast of Kenya.
On our last night in Mombasa, my girlfriends and I were sitting at the bar in our hostel enjoying our Tuskers (Kenya’s national beer) and chatting. I skipped out of the sightseeing with the rest of the girls to finish up an article for a magazine I was freelancing for at the time, and so I was eager to celebrate. Plus, in just a few hours we’d be on yet another long, dusty, and hot bus ride.
We rehashed our day’s events in the midst of the loud music, beer pong, and late night swims—all while laughing at the ridiculousness of what was going on around us.
Then, out of nowhere, a guy came up to me and started stroking my back. Ugh. Gross. I turned around to throw him some serious shade and figured he’d get the message. He smiled a sleazy, drunken smile. I did not engage. I just ignored it and turned around to keep chatting. But his hand was on my back again and before I could do anything about it, he had unhooked my bra. In front of everyone.
I turned around to see him smiling triumphantly, and his friends laughing in the background. I felt embarrassed and humiliated as I fumbled around, trying to re-hook my bra as fast I possibly could in this bar full of strangers. I felt so violated.
What do I do? Do I say something? Should I say something? In my humiliation, anger, and shock, I couldn’t calculate the proper response (if there even is one in a situation like this).
So, I stood up and yelled at his face. “Don’t you dare ever touch me again!” Then, I grabbed my beer, poured it all over his head and said, “You like drinking, right? Drink this!”
Absolutely too drunk to respond, he simply laughed and walked away. As I looked around the room, I was surprised to find dropped jaws and the biggest, if not the only, collective stink eye I have ever experienced in my life. Men and women alike stared at me with such horrified astonishment. I could hear the whispers: “What a bitch.”
Me?! I thought to myself in disbelief and defiance.
But after that show of strength, fear crept in and made itself at home. I was, after all, staying at the same hostel where this guy and his friends were also staying and could, at any point in the night, go into my shared dorm room.
[Tweet “”Fear crept in and made itself at home…I spent the night on edge, feeling vulnerable.”””]
I spent the night on edge, feeling vulnerable and threatened.
I crossed paths with him in the common areas twice again that night and averted my eyes. Just in case.
I made sure to stay with a girlfriend at all times because I didn’t want to run the risk of being alone with that jerk around. Just in case.
And I didn’t go to my dorm to sleep until I had another friend hitting the sack as well. Just in case.
Challenging Our Assumptions and Preconceptions
For the six weeks I spent traversing East Africa, not once did I ever feel unsafe or threatened by the local men around me. Not once. Sure, there were the awkward marriage proposals that many of my travel buddies had to ward off and the catcalls that come part and parcel to being a woman in, well, anywhere, really. But they were never real threats to our safety.
The people I met in East Africa welcomed me wholeheartedly into their homes and always looked out for me. I felt that same feeling of community and family that reminded me of my original home in the Philippines, but that we so greatly lack in North America.
It was only there, in that hostel full of North Americans and Europeans in Mombasa—the very people I find myself most familiar and comfortable with—that I ever felt so unsafe during my travels in that region. The man who sexually assaulted me was not Kenyan or Ugandan or Rwandan. He was a Dane.
Now, I am not saying that rape or any kind of sexual harassment, assault, or violence is never perpetrated by East Africans. Nor am I saying that all men from Denmark are sexual offenders. Absolutely not. And this story is most definitely not meant to instill even more fear around women traveling to unfamiliar places. Rather, this is a call to challenge our assumptions and preconceptions of where “safe” is. It is a reminder not to put a blanket judgement on any particular ethnicity, culture, or country for such offenses.
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So prove them wrong.
Not just by doing your research before going abroad and practicing common sense safety practices, but, just as importantly, by sharing stories that go against the grain. Share stories that call into question common stereotypes of people and places, that defy our prejudiced expectations, and that create a more dynamic and nuanced perspective of the people and places we encounter on our travels.
Images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Justine Abigail Yu.