When standing in a mass of hot, sweaty human travelers at JFK in New York last October for an outbound flight to Seattle, I was verbally attacked. For being a woman.
Here’s what happened: That day I was traveling with my friend Jen, who I took as my assistant to do some fieldwork on killer whales in the Salish Sea up off Northern Washington State. The other passengers waiting to board our full flight at the terminal were packed together like partygoers in a mosh pit. So, we chose to stand just at the edge of the waiting area–out of the way of the incoming passengers of our plane, which had just arrived, but also not too far from the terminal so we could board on time.
Jen and I were talking about our game plan for the day when we reached Seattle: Rent a car, visit my friend Natasha for a few hours, catch a ferry to San Juan Island, check into our hotel, grab dinner. Suddenly, I noticed a tall, gray-haired man with a sour face staring and shaking his head in our direction. He stood cross-armed, next to his wife, just a few feet away from us, also at the terminal’s edge.
I turned to him and said, “Excuse me?”
“Do you not notice that you’re completely in the way of those people coming in?” the man sneered. His wife was silently looking away. “Way to have any common courtesy.” Then he turned on his heels to face his wife.
Jen tried to move even further from the terminal, but I grabbed her arm. “No,” I whispered. “We’re staying put. We’re not in anyone’s way.”
I took a deep breath to cool off. What he said–and that his wife stood idly by while her husband attacked two woman–really pissed me off. I was fuming. A few minutes passed. All the while the man kept giving us dirty looks for staying where we were. Finally, I marched straight up to him.
“Excuse me. Notice how you’re standing pretty much in exactly the same spot as us?” I said cooly. “How are we in the way while you are not? Is it because women are not allowed to stand here? If that’s the case, isn’t your wife also violating your nonsensical little rule? Anyway, as you have probably noticed, we have not moved and…wow! Look! The people appear to be getting off their flight and into the airport without incident.” I made a swooping gesture toward the terminal gate with my arms. “It’s a miracle! How on Earth they figured out a way to get around two women standing ‘in the way’ is unbelievable. Now I hope you have a great day! In the meantime, my friend and I will be careful not to get in anyone’s way!”
The man was PISSED. I felt better.
Normally, I wouldn’t seek justice in verbal attacks such as this one. I didn’t know that man, and he could have physically attacked me after I fought back with my words. But my justice-seeking reaction in this situation illustrates how I feel when I, or other women travelers I meet, recount sexism-based travel issues: I get angry.
Women shouldn’t have to feel on the defensive every time the go out the door. But sadly, this is often not the reality. Men may not realize it, but when we travel (or even just go walk around our own neighborhoods) we face: getting looked at, cat-called at, honked at, yelled at, stalked and more unpleasant things. Some men (not all, of course) say to women who complain of dealing with these issues, “Well don’t wear revealing clothes!” That attitude is demeaning. And untrue: In my experiences I’ve had these issues even when wearing my baggiest, grimiest sweatshirt and jeans.
Women, especially those who travel alone, face these and other hazards: pickpocketing and other theft, physical or sexual assault and other violence, extortion.
I’m a female traveler who often goes solo. For my work as a writer, I insert myself in sometimes risky situations with strangers that may compromise my safety. Examples: Sailing the Eastern Pacific Ocean with 8 strangers, 7 of which were from a different country and thus had a culture completely different than my own; flying to a tiny town in New Mexico to backpack across the desert looking for wolves with a complete stranger; driving my car up through small-town New York towns and couch-surfing friends of friends (whom I had never previously met).
I am fortunate to have avoided any serious incidents up to this point. I credit my street-smarts for keeping me safe. If you’re a woman who travels alone, there is always the possibility of danger. But remembering the following advice may help you avoid it, or even save your life:
- Look and act like a local: Blending in can go a long way in taking possibly prying eyes off of you. Research the local dress code (in some countries it’s offensive to wear or not wear certain articles of clothing). On the more benign end, I’ve been heckled as a foreign female traveler: A foreign merchant once tried to charge me twice the price he would sell a local a coconut. I know this because I had overheard the amount he charged a local while waiting in line at his market stall. (When I told him I’d buy a coconut elsewhere, he spontaneously dropped his price to the local price.) So be aware of that, and keep your eyes and ears open. Dress simply: Do not wear any fancy jewelry or clothes, and don’t carry expensive bags with you. Learn enough of the local language to get around: Hello, Goodbye, Thank you, Where is…, My name is…, Food, Water, Bathroom….etc, etc. Know the local emergency number and put it on speed dial on your phone. And know what police officers look like and where to find them.
- Keep valuables away: A simple, secure backpack, preferably a messenger bag you can keep one hand on (to keep potential pickpockets away), is preferable. Don’t take more than one pack out with you. Don’t keep valuables or money in your clothes pockets (a good place for paper money, I’ve found, is the good-old inside the shoe trick; or, a secure yet accessible pocket in your bag (it’s smart to keep your phone in this kind of pocket, too). Bury your passport and the majority of your money in the bottom of your bag if you’re carrying it on you. Never, ever put your bag down somewhere and leave it. Not even if you ask someone to “keep an eye on it.” If you take off your pack, make sure it’s close enough you can reach out a hand and grab it in the case someone else tries to.
- Know how to use your voice…and when not to: If someone ever tried to threaten your safety with a physical, sexual or violent assault yell as loudly as you can for help and run if you are able. A whistle is also helpful in these situations. Do not stop yelling until someone comes to your aid. In the case that someone verbally attacks you, as I was verbally attacked at JFK, fighting back isn’t the best strategy. Ignoring the person completely and simply walking away can better de-escalate the situation and keep you safe. I only fought back in that instance because I was in such a public place (and honestly I was really, really fuming mad).
- Be vigilant: Most people will tell you that profiling people isn’t a nice thing to do. I don’t 100% agree. Humans profile others based on first impressions for survival. I’m not condoning racial or gender profiling, but human profiling. We all know what bad vibes feel like. If you get them from a person, or if you notice someone eying you in a strange way, quickly walk away from them to a very public place–say, a coffeeshop or bookstore or museum–where you’ll be surrounded by people and can just kind of crash for a while to escape the creepy person. If the creepy person follows you in, alert the staff immediately and do not leave the place you sought shelter in. If you’re walking and notice a potentially dangerous person or situation–such as someone who is yelling profanities at another person–turn around and walk away quickly before you get too close.
- Talk to people–to a point: There are several different people and conversations you should have before and during your travels: First, before you leave, talk to friends and family and tell them where you’re going, how long you’ll be there, and how to best keep in touch (I like using WhatsApp when traveling overseas, you can use it with data or wifi). Second, ask them if they’ve ever been–or know someone who’s been–to the place you’re going. Talk to them about their experience and any tips. Once you arrive, talk–to a point–to people like your Airbnb hosts, taxi driver, coffeeshop barista and other trustworthy-looking people you encounter about things to do, travel tips and other important local information. Take notes so you don’t forget what they tell you. BUT be careful not to overshare. Never give away personal details that may put your safety at jeopardy, such as where you’re staying, whom you’re staying with, how long you’re staying, how much money you’re carrying, etc.…you get the idea. No TMI moments.
Travel, even solo travel, doesn’t have to be scary for women. We simply live in a world where women have to be extra-careful. You’ll be in for a safe and enjoyable trip if you just “Keep your wits about you,” as my mother tells me before each trip.