Nile

This was a difficult post for me to write because I don’t want to paint an entire country/culture in a bad way.  But I also don’t want to pretend these things didn’t happen.  I don’t want to give the impression that this is a shameful secret, and I don’t want other women to be unaware of potential risks.  Sexual harassment, even sexual assault, are real dangers to stay vigilant against.

I dreamed of going to Egypt my whole life.  I wanted to be an Egyptologist (after I gave up on Paleontology).  I watched The Mummy on repeat and idolized Brendan Fraser and Oded Fehr.  I memorized the mythology.  I didn’t believe when people told me there was nothing left to discover because I knew I was going to discover the most famous tombs of all!

When I finally had the chance to go to Egypt myself, I was ecstatic.  It was the first stop on my 5 month around the world trip and I was meeting the boy I liked there (side note: we started dating in Egypt, yesss). The first time I saw the pyramids at Giza, my breath was stolen.  We were even able to go inside of one and explore; the weight of ancient emotions inside of a 4,000 year old tomb silenced my excited chatter.

In Egypt, we rode camels and raced horses across the desert.  We made papyrus and saw pure indigo.  We studied Arabic and played soccer with local boys and stood in the center of Tahrir Square.  But I will write about our experiences in Egypt in more detail in another post.  This post is about a more sensitive subject.

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We decided to ride a felucca down the Nile.  We happily haggled the price for an hour ride, pleased with ourselves for not accepting the initial price.  The captain of the felucca was young, maybe late 20s or early 30s, and we were eager to make friends with someone who lived in Cairo.

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The Nile was deep and calm.  The breeze ran fingers across its surface and kissed our faces with dewy lips.  We shuddered as we passed crocodile, watching us intensely, quietly.  The boat we rode was freshly white, and a black eye had been painted on each side of the prow.

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I was taking the ride with my boyfriend and our friend, also a young man, and the 3 of us laughed and took turns sitting at the front of the ship, letting the ancient water splash our toes.

The captain asked us if we wanted to try steering the boat.  We enthusiastically argued about who would go first; we each wanted the bragging rights of saying we had captained a ship on the Nile, no matter the details.  The captain pointed at me.  “Ladies first,” he said.  I smirked at the guys and walked up the steps to the wheel.

The captain stepped aside and pointed to where I should hold the wheel.  I gripped it with one hand and waved to my friends with the other.  They laughed and went back to the prow of the ship to wait their turns.  The captain stepped behind me.

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“Hold it firmly,” he said, and then he had his hands on my hips.  Still caught up in the exultation of  a new experience on the famous Nile river, for a moment I thought it was because he wanted to steady me against the rocking on the water.  He gripped my hips hard.  Surprised, I looked up behind me at his face.  He smiled.

Then he ground his crotch into my backside.  Then again. Hard. I was so shocked I froze.  I couldn’t believe what was happening.  It was my first experience with sexual assault and I was a deer in the headlights.

“Do you like that?” he asked me and I turned away.  I stared at my boyfriend and he stared back.  He couldn’t see what was happening but he could feel my intensity.  I was still frozen — in shock, in shame, in horror, I don’t know.  I was disgusted and felt like my voice was gone.  I stared and stared at my boyfriend, willing him to run over.  The captain ground himself against me one more time — finally, I gasped through my horror, “Stop!”

The captain let me go and laughed.  “Next person?” he said.  I ran to the front of the ship.  Our friend said, “My turn!” and ran to the wheel.  The captain didn’t step behind him, instead instructing him from where he was sitting against the ship’s side.  I sat at the prow and said nothing.  Part of me felt like we were at the captain’s mercy in the middle of the Nile, which now seemed infested with crocodiles.

The felucca ride ended.  I ran off the ship and didn’t speak through lunch.  When our friend went to the bathroom, I told my boyfriend, haltingly, what had happened.  I could barely describe it because I felt so confused and violated.  He felt ashamed that he had been so close and unable to help me.

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This can be a reality of being a woman traveler.  This was my first experience with sexual assault, but it was not my last, and it was not the worst.  I do not tell this story so that women will feel afraid of Egypt, or of traveling. or of felucca rides.  This was one bad man who did a bad thing to me.  I want women who travel to be aware that these things can happen.  Be aware.  Shout.  Shove.  Get attention, get help, call the police.  Just stay prepared and stay alert.

Egypt was a confusing place for me as I had many unique and difficult experiences being a woman there.  I will write those another time.  For now, I will focus on the memory that I sailed the same waters that the Pharaohs once did.

(PHOTO CREDIT in this post, except for the last one, goes to my boyfriend.)

“Feminine Hygiene”

If you are expecting to have your Aunt Flo in town, the dot at the end of the sentence, the monthly visitor (I enjoy rehashing phrases from middle school), your period (GASP!) while you are traveling, then I recommend that you plan ahead.

I did not know this before I started earnestly traveling, so I’m writing this to the people who might also not know: pads/tampons are different in every country.  I think I expected the brands to be different, but the general design and use to be the same.  Not so.  Their build and their absorbency vary country to country (sometimes city to city).  If you don’t want to deal with the changing varieties as you travel, then bring your own bulk.  When I traveled for 5 months straight, I brought about 100 pads, just fyi; that meant I was bringing extra, but I like to be prepared.

Some countries/cities sell cheaper knock-off brands of the Big Names.  Sometimes this means that they just feel funny when you wear them, not as comfy.  Sometimes this means they’re made with unhealthy materials to keep prices down.  This can mean that they’re actually not safe to wear; your body could have funny or dangerous reactions.  Just know that pads should not be dirt cheap, no matter what country you’re in.  There are also countries/cities/communities/cultures in which the women do not wear pads or tampons; if you are going to be in one of these communities, know that it will be difficult to get the goods you’re used to since the local women have their own methods.

On the other extreme of being too cheap, some pads/tampons are very expensive.  Knowing that recognizable brands are more desired, they are sold at extreme prices.  Sometimes it’s not worth it to spend your daily meal money on them!  There are always emergencies, of course.

There are also places where menstruation is shameful, and not talked about.  Sometimes pads are kept behind the counter or in the back room, hidden from view.  You may need to ask the person working the counter, or a manager, to grab them for you.  Just because you don’t see them on the shelves doesn’t necessarily mean the store doesn’t have them.  Research the country’s sale of pads before you go, in case the thought of asking a cashier to grab pads for you is embarrassing — but also so you can be respectful in the way you ask.

Also, try not to confuse pads with adult diapers.  I did, because I couldn’t read the writing on the bag.  Just saying, it can happen.

Also, ibuprofen isn’t a common drug in some countries, or is very expensive, or is only allowed to be sold in very small sizes, so bring your own stash* for the aches and pains.

If you are entering a country or doing the type of travel where you know it will be difficult to wash up, I recommend baby wipes, especially the kind that dissolve, are biodegradable, or can be flushed.

(*Also research if the drug is illegal to bring into a country, instead of buying inside the country.)

TL;DR: Periods happen.  Be prepared!  Generally bring your own stash of pads/tampons/medicine.  Some countries don’t sell them/use cheaper material/sell them at exorbitant prices/keep them hidden. Baby/body wipes are great.

6 Tips for Staying Safe as a Woman Traveler

 

Traveling as a woman varies person to person, and I don’t want to blanket statement what it’s like.  I want to avoid overgeneralizing or asserting opinions as facts.  I will, however, write what it was like for ME, as a woman, to travel.  And after speaking to multiple women traveler friends, I think it’s safe to say that many women have the same or similar experiences while traveling.

I’m not pinpointing any specific countries.  ALL countries have their wonderful and dangerous features; every single one.  The truth is, being a woman in this world, as it is currently set up, is hard and traveling as a woman has its own set of hardships.  I wish that weren’t true, and we can work to change that, but in the meantime, I want to put these statements out there.  There are things I wish people had told me, as a woman, before I traveled.

Again: this is in no way meant to scare or deter women from traveling.  OH MY GOSH, GO TRAVEL, PLEASE, IN THE NAME OF WHATEVER YOU LOVE, GO TRAVEL.  It enriches a life like nothing else ever can.  BUT….be aware.

  1. BE AWARE

There are certain dangers that you have to be extra aware of as a female traveler.  Be aware of who is staring at you.  Be aware of who has taken notice of you, for whatever reason.  Be aware of who is around you at all times.  “Be aware” is not meant to be the same as “Be paranoid” or “Be distrustful”.  Did you see the merchant staring at you long before your transaction started or long after it was over?  Be aware.  Do you notice that the women around you are covering their heads?  Perhaps you’ve wandered into a sacred space and not noticed; or perhaps its the custom of the country for women to cover their heads, and you are now standing out.  Can you see that a group of men are looking at you, maybe talking about you?  Maybe they’re just curious because you look different from people around you; maybe they like your shirt; maybe you should just stay alert.  Have you stepped into an alleyway?  Can you see who is looking at you from windows?  Is someone insisting on talking to you, even though you don’t want to talk to them?  Just…be aware.  Awareness can save lives.  It can tell you that you should step out of a situation.  It should tell you that you should try to find a more public space.  Don’t be unaware.

2. WALKING ALONE

It’s very hard for me to say, “don’t walk alone” because I’ve walked alone many times, in many countries.  But know that there have been women in the world that have been attacked because they were walking alone.  That doesn’t mean don’t do it: it means please respect that this happened to real people, and that you should stay aware (again!) of what or who is around you.  Or if suddenly no one is around you.  I would at least say try to avoid walking alone at night in a new country, especially if you don’t know the rules or culture yet — but again, it’s quite hard to make a blanket statement like that.  Just stay alert.  I carry pepper spray when I can.

3. EMERGENCY PHONE NUMBERS

Carry emergency phone numbers with you.  Write them on a piece of paper, on your arm, on a bracelet, in a phone (if you have one).  These are people or places you can call if you are hurt or in trouble.  These are also numbers that other people can call for you if there’s an emergency.  Don’t be stranded someone you’re not familiar with, with no way to contact help.  And unless you’ve got a memory like a steel trap (I know I don’t), you probably won’t be able to memorize the phone numbers, so write them down.

4. DON’T BE SCARED TO BE IMPOLITE

I am shocked on the daily the danger women are placed in because they were too worried about being impolite.  “Well, he said hi to me, I didn’t want to be mean.”  “He was being friendly, and I didn’t want to seem rude.”  This is a symptom of a deeper problem in society, I believe: that women must always seem agreeable, or sweet, or gentle, or else be seen as RUDE, MEAN, HORRIBLE, UNGRATEFUL.  No!  Those are lies!  If you are uncomfortable or feel unsafe, SAY SO.  You can be polite in asking someone to stop speaking to you; you can say that you’re busy, that you don’t have time, that people are waiting for you (yes, even if that’s not true, make people think that your absence will be noticed).  But you do NOT have to talk to someone just because they talked to you, if it makes you uncomfortable.  Too often my friends have said, “I didn’t like that guy/I felt kind of scared/It stressed me out/I wanted to leave….but I didn’t want to be rude.”  If politeness puts your life in danger, please be impolite.

If even after you have asked respectfully asked someone to leave you alone, alert the people around you to your situation.  If someone persists in making you uncomfortable, especially after you’ve made it clear that you are uncomfortable or even afraid, make a scene – people who want to hurt you do not want a scene.  They don’t want to draw other people’s attention to what they’re doing.  Protecting yourself is not being culturally insensitive.  You can generally tell the difference between someone who wants to build a friendship and someone who wants to make you vulnerable, or get you alone.

5. KNOW WHEN YOU’RE BEING LOUD

Don’t draw unnecessary attention to yourself.  Don’t be obnoxious or loud.  Don’t stand out and make a lot of people notice you, unless you are in a situation in which you feel safe or trust the people around you.  There are always exceptions to every rule, but generally, be able to identify if you are being brash, loud, rude.  You could be disturbing the people around you.  You could be setting a bad example.  You could be leaving a bad impression of people from your country.

Worse, and this is totally, completely unfair, if you are from a “Western” country (never liked that phrase…), there is an impression in the world that women are “morally loose” or promiscuous — not in the healthy, independent way, but in the “she’ll sleep with anyone so I’ll take advantage of her” way.  Being overly loud or being obnoxious is tied to this stereotype: she doesn’t care what kind of attention she gets.  It’s not fair, but it would be foolish to deny that some in the world see women this way.  There is no reason you should draw extra attention to yourself by being obnoxious.

6. LEARN SOME OF THE LANGUAGE

The truth is, I want to say, learn ALL of the language!  But that’s not practical or possible for every person.  But at least, learn some key phrases in the local language; things like, thank you, I’m sorry, Where is…, do you speak [insert native language].  Knowing these phrases can show that you are respectful of the culture you’re in, and aren’t expecting that everyone around you morph themselves to suit you and your language.  Why would you demand that everyone speak your native language, when you’re in their country?

Being seen as respectful can up your rates of “safety” as a woman traveler.  Also, thinking that you speak the language can deter criminals because you seem like less of a clueless foreigner, especially that you could call for help if you needed to.  In that sense, I recommend that you also learn phrases like, Help, Stop, police, I need…

For the most part in my travels, solo or with friends, the great majority of people I met were welcoming and gracious, and humbled me with their generosity of spirit.  But the sad truth is that our beautiful world is not always a safe one.  Take steps to stay aware of your surroundings, your behavior, and the behavior of those around you.  Don’t be afraid; be aware.