Women Must Travel Alone

soloI am a female traveler. This is a key distinction and it isn’t. Sometimes it feels as though my femininity is a raging purple elephant in the room, like the other night in the Gok when a budding ajoessi spoke entirely to my boyfriend about me, in front of me. Oh, very pretty. Oh, when will you get married? Sometimes it feels like a pass to places forbidden to men. Sometimes it feels like it’s not even present. Sometimes it feels like I can’t shake it for the life of me.

I am a solo female traveler. I’ve visited so many countries in the past five years that the Indian Embassy’s website cut me off on my visa application. I’ve moved to three different countries in that time span, and each time I went alone. I’ve logged literally thousands of miles of solo travel, most of it out of my own country.

I’m also a feminist. This is not a dirty word.

Assisi, 2009

Assisi, 2009

There’s your background on myself, for context. In a few places online, the last week brought a torrent of comments about solo female travelers. Due to the tragic death of a woman traveling alone in Turkey this month, some are saying that women have no business traveling alone. Especially if they happen to be a mother. Especially in the so-called Muslim World. Especially “third world” countries. Some choice comments:

  • “Another Darwin award winner. Young female traveling alone in the Islamic world. And a mother of two at that. What was she thinking?”
  • “Forget about the mother,why did the husband let his wife travel ALONE!Foolish as hell.Dumbmove”
  • “I don’t think women ought to travel alone period, mothers or not.Specially not to 3rd world Islamic countries, where we all know they have little regard for women’s lives.”
  • ” I think maybe it’s a good idea for any women wishing to travel alone be required to call in to a loved once an hour during the time she’s away so everyone knows she’s safe.”
  • “Her passion for photography ended her life. It’s unfortunate but you never know how things work in other countries; no matter how much research you do. It’s not like the US, people have their own agendas, and how dare us come to these countries as tourists, naive and trusting. It’s just a setup for a bad outcome.”
  • “If the companion for this lady traveler (my emphasis) canceled, sadly, this was the signal that this woman should have canceled the entire travel plan.”

Mothers should never travel. Women should have permission of their husband to travel. Women should never travel unaccompanied. Women should not even have passions like photography. Well, helllooooo, Saudi Arabia! I didn’t realize that the US had imported your views on women’s mobility! It’s codswolloppy victim-blaming at its finest.

Swiss Alps, 2009

Swiss Alps, 2009

To be a traveler, as I define it, is to put up with everyone insisting they know better than you. People inevitably tell you to avoid the country to which you are moving at all costs. They think it’s their business to butt into your bathroom habits and tell you just how little toilet paper they found in Korea. They tie up a Skype conversation by asking when you will “get a real job” and “get serious.” They tell you that the food sucks. They tell you you’ll get robbed. They tell you to stop looking for yourself and settle down.

As tragic as the situation for Sarai Sierra and her family, I really didn’t need an extra reason for people to criticize my lifestyle. Whenever I am back home for an extended period of time, the subject comes up and someone gets a case of the can’t-shut-ups about traveling alone as a woman.

I remember the very first time that I ever traveled alone. I was 19, and I lost my lunch into the bin just out of sight of security after saying goodbye to my parents in DIA. I forgot my favorite belt of all time in the process. But I’ve come a long way since then. Here are my best pieces of advice and stories from the solo female traveler road.

Stolen seat on an Eurostar train, 2009

Stolen seat on an Eurostar train, 2009

Ignore Ignore Ignore Ignore

Is someone speaking to you on the street? Ignore. In English? Ignore more. Pretend you’re deaf and keep your face neutral. I lived in the heartland of the catcall (Italy) as a 6-foot-tall, blonde haired, blue-eyed woman with considerable, um…assets. I don’t think I even made it out of the US before I got my first Italian whistle getting on the plane. I accepted the constant chatter so well that by the time I made it back to the US I became depressed after nary a “ciao bella!” in a week of walking around Boulder.

I’ve also had the second tier of street harassment. If someone grabs you, calmly slip away. Avoid confrontation. Resist the urge to slap him and plant a “Motherfucking cocksucker!” on him at top volume, especially if he has buddies around him. Once a man grabbed me by the braid in front of the Napoli train station. He turned my head toward him and caressed my cheek. I avoided eye contact, calmly removed his hand, and walked away without a word. I could hear his friends laughing at my rejection, but I was safer than if I’d tried to start a fight.

Yes, it's 11,000,000 degrees and 1000% humidity. But my shoulders and neck are covered. --2012

Yes, it’s 11,000,000 degrees and 1000% humidity. But my shoulders and neck are covered. –2012

Dress

In certain situations, a bit of separation can do you good. I often wear sunglasses when walking about alone abroad, because they pull triple duty obscuring my face, covering my blue eyes, and making my expressions hard to read. In Bologna I was desperately lost in the summer of 2010, and I wandered into an underpass in the city frequented by heroin addicts. My sunglasses kept me covered and separated, and no one could see my tears of frustration and fear.

Another blogger recently said that when abroad, she dresses to observe rather than to be observed. Better advice about dressing might not be possible, but I also add that I tend to wear neutral colors and baggy clothing. Modesty is important. You may believe, as I certainly do, that a woman’s body is hers to do whatever she wants with. You may believe that men do not have a right to harass women who don’t dress modestly. You may believe that a woman in the 21st century should be able to show as much skin as she wants. Hard truth: you’re not liberating anyone by breaking rules in a society that is not yours to “liberate.” You aren’t doing yourself any favors, either.

Whenever I travel to a new country, I observe the women keenly and adopt a lot of their customs when it comes to dressing and acting. If women in Korea never show more than an inch of their necks (even in 35 degree heat), neither do I. If Chilean women insist on absolutely no wrinkles in clothing, so do I. If Italian women wear knee-length skirts and cover their shoulders, me too. I am about to travel to India, and I intend to dress as Indian women do (and probably die of heat). The illusion of propriety does wonders.

Geneva, 2009 (The WHO declared a global pandemic of H1N1 that morning!)

Geneva, 2009 (The WHO declared a global pandemic of H1N1 that morning!)

Get a buddy 

I often began the journey alone. I almost never ended it that way. Finding people to travel with is one of the best tactics of solo travelers. You have to have a certain amount of faith in the human race combined with an equal amount of faith in yourself to choose the right people. A few times, I made friends in hostels and went places that I wouldn’t have walked to alone. I reached out to friends and pulled them into my travels. I found companions, male and female, with whom I remain close to this day.

Russell is also a traveler and he said that he attracted a fair share of solo female travel buddies as a generally non-offensive and non-creepy man who also happened to be traveling alone in South America. Being tall and a jiu jitsu practitioner probably also helped his case, and I certainly feel a bit more comfortable traveling to India with him.

Let me be clear. I’m not calling for chaperones, male protectors, or saying that women should never travel without a buddy. Almost any buddy, male or female, will help watch your back and give you confidence. This is a bonus, not an essential.

Santiago de Chile, 2011

Santiago de Chile, 2011

Be aware

“It’s fine now, but when the shit goes down, I’ll tell you,” says the man with the biggest scars I’ve ever laid eyes on, a minute after I mmm-mmm’ed a response to drinks against my lips.  From heroin addicts.  In Santiago de Chile. At about 11 o’clock at night.

Yeah, I’m not certain how exactly I allowed myself into that situation. It was sketchy enough before the obviously-doctored drinks because of an open-air heroin deal right next to us a few minutes before. My companions were two other Americans, seemingly oblivious to the sketchface situation unraveling around us.

October 2011

October 2011

Don’t ignore the feeling that you should leave, especially in favor of an “authentic” experience. I got up to leave two minutes later, having heard enough from my kind scar-faced friend. Travel buddies? They were dancing and leaving their purses out. I’d already been robbed once that week, and I wasn’t looking to be drugged and god-knows-what-ed. I bolted. They whined. We got home unrobbed and unraped.

This awareness goes for national and international news as well. Try to read the local news as much as possible, and stay up to date on the goings on of the world. Political demonstrations are a no no, and certain sporting events can be a bit more dangerous for women due to the gender ratio (at times 10 or even 50 to 1). Know where to avoid, and keep your wits on you at all times.

Atrani, 2010

Atrani, 2010

If I’d never traveled alone, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today. It’s given me confidence, skills, and languages that would have been completely out of reach. If I was hung up on always having someone to tag along with, I’d have never been on the trip to Seoraksan last May that led to me meeting Russell. If I had lacked independence, we’d have never ended up sitting next to one another on that bus ride and falling for one another over copious soju.

Women can travel alone, that’s certain. I take it one step further.

Women should travel alone.

Nothing that someone spouts on a soap-box commenting forum will ever deter me. May it be the same for you.

Chile versus Korea: The TEFL Showdown

Unfortunately, this is what happens when I give my students a creative task. It's a blood zombie.

Unfortunately, this is what happens when I give my students a creative task. It’s a blood zombie.

An hour before the flight, I asked a South Korean how to open the triangle kimbap I had just purchased. In Spanish. My last act in the Región de Magallanes y de la Antártica Chilena, where I’d lived for six months teaching English in a public school, was to eat a Korean staple food. I didn’t know it as we drove a red pickup truck along the Strait of Magellan to the airport, but that kimbap had sealed my fate.

At this point in my life, I’ve taught English in three different ways and on three different continents. The experience of being a volunteer English tutor for a Saudi Arabian student in my final year of university was the precursor to two years spent chasing TEFL around the world. My walks through Chile and Korea were coupled together from their very beginnings. The visas for Chile and South Korea face one another in my passport, their validity overlapping by three months. Remarkably, given the 18,000 km distance between Puerto Natales and Suwon-si, similarities between the two wildly different experiences exist. The differences are far more apparent.

Don't be fooled, this was taken after school let out for winter break. These halls know true chaos.

Don’t be fooled, this was taken after school let out for winter break. These halls know true chaos.

My current school is literally a world away from the high-risk public school in which I worked in Chile, volunteering as a full-time English teacher through the English Opens Doors program. We were fighting every day to keep my students in school. The dropout rate was high, despite laws to the contrary. Students (and occasionally teachers) did not seem to see the point of being in school. After about two weeks, I abandoned the textbooks issued by the MINEDUC because they were far beyond the grasp of my students. I taught 27 contact hours and also managed an after school English Club.

They really do deserve those stickers!

They really do deserve those stickers!

Now I work in a private academy (hagwon) in South Korea. My students come to me after a full day in public school. The hagwon in which I work is definitely a business first, and an educational venture second. We’ve been told not to try to be “real teachers” during trainings, and while we struggle to keep students in classes it is not an attempt to keep them from a life without education but to keep the revenue stream going. On the upside, I have far fewer contact hours per week and a lot of downtime to plan lessons. The set curriculum is somewhat rigid but allows for my own interpretation. I teach TOEFL to ten year olds, whereas in Chile my students were learning weather and how to say, “How are you?” In Chile, I had a reputation as a hard-ass teacher. In Korea, I’ve been called a pushover.

The differences between teaching in Korea and teaching in Chile go deeper. In my school in Chile, many of the parents had never completed high school. Some had never completed 8th grade. A few were illiterate. There were students with developmental and intellectual disabilities in my classes, something that I had no experience with before I volunteered with the EOD program. Halfway through my time in Puerto Natales, nationwide protests over the cost and quality of education in Chile ripped through the country from tip to tip. I participated in two national strikes, although I would have prefered to be with my students in class. The current revolution that the Chilean educational system is undergoing in rooted in the massive educational gains in the last 20-30 years. Seven out of ten university students are the first in their families to reach higher education. In my town in Patagonia, the populace is going from barely-literate to college-educated in the span of two generations, sometimes one.

Tia Coleen, with my students on July 8th, 2011

Tia Coleen, with my students on July 8th, 2011

In Korea, education is a central focus. Children are in school from morning until night from a very young age. The implementation of the hagwon system has a lot to do with this, but the intense competition for perfect grades is more likely the true root. I’ve had students tell me that if they miss even one question on their elementary school finals, they will have failed. 100% or nothing. The pressure causes more than a few to crack, and South Korea currently has the highest youth suicide rate in the world (340 in 2011, or nearly one per day *every day*). It is impossible not to see the ways that education culture affects my students. They are often exhausted and hungry, with little family time and not a lot of direct parental supervision. I can happily say that I never once had a parent in Chile complain that their child did not have enough homework.

Gyspy Pirate Fortune Teller Teacher, Halloween 2012

Gyspy Pirate Fortune Teller Teacher, Halloween 2012

And yet with all these differences and their depth, there are remarkable similarities between teaching in Chile and in South Korea. In terms of history, both countries are in the process of recovering from decades of rule by leaders that I would call dictators (even though some still consider Pinochet and Park Chun-He to be beloved presidents). Chile is currently the fastest-developing country in South America, and Korea has outpaced most of its neighbors for years to become the 11th largest world economy. Both governments have put a huge emphasis on the acquisition of English in their young people, through government programs like EOD and EPIK (public school placements in Korea). It is relatively easy to get a placement as an English teacher in both Korea and Chile, and the general requirements are the same: a degree from an university, a clean criminal record, HIV- status (despite the obvious discrimination), and the ability to move to another country and adapt to life there.

Three different kinds of ID, lined up from three different adventures

Three different kinds of ID, lined up from three different adventures

Another striking similarity is the massive gap between the rich and the poor in terms of access to and quality of education in both South Korea and Chile. My students are almost all from highly-affluent families, and their lives are very different from my students in Chile who occasionally struggled to have enough to eat. They see their attendance at an English hagwon as a burden, but their classmates in public schools simply do not have the same chance on an exam if their families cannot afford the tuition. The hagwon system in Korea perpetuates educational inequality, but in Chile the private and semi-private schools do the same.

This is how we did parades in Chile. A favorite photo of mine.

This is how we did parades in Chile. A favorite photo of mine.

This is how they do parades in Korea.

This is how they do parades in Korea.

The behavior of students is relatively different, but in both countries I occasionally have problems because my students do not see me as a real teacher, or perhaps even as a real person, because I am neither Chilean nor Korean. In both countries, I had to assert my authority as a teacher and win over students in spite of my readily-apparent Otherness. It usually works, and in both Chile and Korea I’ve found students who are happy to see me each time I walk into a classroom.

I miss the outdoors desperately in Korea, but generally things are great in both countries!

I miss the outdoors desperately in Korea, but generally things are great in both countries!

That last one may reveal the biggest similarity between teaching English in South Korea and teaching it in Chilean Patagonia. The children are precious and mostly willing to learn in both countries. Despite all the major cultural and linguistic differences, the day-to-day experience in my classroom is largely the same. Perhaps the thing tying the two vastly different experiences is simply that I am in both places, and that my teaching style is similar in both. In Korea I have infinitely more resources than I did in Chile, but it’s not possible to decorate the classrooms the way that I did in Chile. I felt more like a teacher in Chile, but I believe that I teach more here in Korea. My day-to-day life was more rugged in Chile, but my attempts to broach the cultural and linguistic divides in Korea were less successful.

I highly recommend TEFL in Chile. I highly recommend TEFL in South Korea. The two countries and their mirrored experiences continue to shape me, and certainly will as the next steps of my life become less foggy. If you have to choose between the two, know this: you cannot make a bad choice!

DMZ Day Part One: Torres del Paine Rears Its Head

This is the first of many blogs from the most eventful day I’ve had in Korea, in nearly eight months since moving here. October 6, 2012…you were a beast of a day.

First glimpse at the checkpoint. Totally not supposed to have taken this picture.

It begins, far earlier than I would have liked, in the dark. The morning in not even close yet. The chill of autumn in the air has not thought of releasing its grip on the night, at 4:30 AM. We fell asleep at about 1:30, but I was awake the whole night. The slightest movement or beep and I thought it must be time to go.

The walk to Gojan Station reveals which of the 24-hour restaurants actually live up to their name, lights blazing even at this hour. The first train of the morning is full of people half-drunk, half-asleep. Some appear to be going to work on a Saturday. Most are fighting sleep. A man across the aisle falls asleep heavily on the woman next to him, and her insistent poking cannot rouse him. It’s a hilarious scene to watch.

There’s no amount of caffeine that could rouse me, especially after an hour on the subway. We wander through an unfamiliar part of Seoul to the USO, unsuccessfully finding an open coffee shop. I forgot. Coffee in Korea is for the evening, not the morning rush. Damn you, Holly’s Coffee. Damn you for being part of the Land of the Morning Calm.

Inside the USO we meet the first of several passport checks, and signed posters of Toby Keith and Montgomery County. They have marvelously comfortable recliners in the living room of the place, with a flat screen TV playing incessant Fox News. It feels…cheap. Cheaply American. Like a distilled version that leaves out all the diversity.

But they have coffee. Weak, and shitty. The box tells me that if I’m not active-duty military, I’d better cough up a donation. I scrounge up 1500 won, the 10,000 note not lost on me as my paltry coins clonk on the bottom of the box. Look, it’s the week before payday, and this tour cost 96,000 KRW. I’m not swimming in cash.

Soon enough, it’s time for the bus and another passport check. Then we’re out over the Han on the airborne beltway of Seoul, rocketing toward the DMZ at 65 mph. The city melts away and I find myself staring out the window, the military embankments growing more and more prevalent the closer we get. The haze is unlike anything I’ve seen in Korea, but that may simply be due to the fact that I work second shift and rarely wake up before ten o’clock.

The city dissolves into the haze, into the razorwire, into the countryside. Korea is a country of razorwire. It surrounds the apartment buildings in my neighborhood. It protects the sea from wanderers in Oido. It encircles the Han river as we go North, with sniper’s nests growing in frequency. Are we truly going toward a De-Militarized Zone, or to the most militarized zone on Earth?

I’m feeling jumpy. One doesn’t set foot in hostile North Korea every day. Despite the fact that thousands go on this tour without any problem, there is always the possibility. An international intrigue at the border both excites and terrifies me. I try to focus on my notebook, on my impressions.

To calm my nerves, I turn on my ipod. This little piece of technology has followed me on four continents, through the roughest and the most amazing parts of the last five years, following me across trains and buses and airplanes and sustaining me through all those transitions. I’d just bought Babel, the new Mumford and Sons album. Their first major album carried me, quite literally, through Chile and Patagonia. It was my constant companion through that crucible, that furnace…the changes and the moments that defined who I am, on this bus heading for the border in October 2012.

“Keep the Earth below my feet…”

Just remember, that soil is no different than anywhere else. It’s claimed under some random assignment of territory, but North Korea is still just the Earth below our feet. Remember that. Just earth.

The first glimpse of the border is remarkably similar to some of those checkpoints through which I passed in Chile and Peru, the ones with “NO ORINAR HAY CAMERA” emblazoned on the wall, which everyone pissed in front of anyway. Except with more guns. Way more guns. And just like that, we’re in the DMZ.

I fumble with the ipod as it’s battery beeps to tell me it’s failing. Accidentally, I click through to the “notes” section. Before me, a spontaneous account of another travel day, the first trip to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, seventeen months ago. “Rainbows follow us everywhere…” I wrote to myself, listening to Mumford and Sons first album. “Magic and rain and change.”

Which was the greater adventure, the DMZ of Korea or the far-flung park of Patagonia? From the safety and comfort of this air-conditioned and Gangnam-style bus, I know the true answer. It lies 20,000 km to the South…silent and monolithic as ever.

The bigger advenutre

Korea By Way Of Patagonia

 

Started: September 23, 2011. Obtained: January 19, 2012.

118 days of legwork to get this sticker in my passport. Enough time to allow me to learn the Korean (Hanguel) alphabet and be able to sound out the words on it. Enough time to take two semesters worth of intensive French classes. Enough time to have eight skype and phone interviews. Make amazing new friends. Turn 24. Cut my hair off. Get two jobs. Run up a huge credit card bill. Pay it off. Twice.

That damn sticker is the gateway to a beautiful year in Suwon.

The visa for Korea is on the page of my passport facing the visa for Chile, incidentally still valid until May. It’s the beginning of the opposition of my two teaching abroad experiences, face-to-face, mano-a-mano. Wildly different countries. Languages. Histories. And yet some odd opposing overlap.

It doesn’t feel real yet, and probably won’t until I’m wheels up and rocketing West to go East a couple weeks from now. Each time I move to a country without ever setting foot within it, blind to the culture and language like a newborn, over my head in every sense of the phrase…it gets easier. So easy that by now, I’m not really worried at all. Not normal for my high-strung, catastrophist self.

This is despite reading a whole mess of Expat/TEFL/Whatever blogs from those who’ve gone before me, recounting the horrors of non-enclosed showers and crazed motorists. Warning me that my Hagwon will work me to the bone, never pay on time, and possibly even kill me. My apartment will be moldy and unclean when I move in. The food is disgusting and Koreans eat KimChi with everything. And worst of all, deodorant won’t be used!

Please.

It’s as if some of these teachers moving abroad never lived in another country. Most likely, they hadn’t. That’s awesome! So brave! But it’s tougher to make the transition if you have few cross-cultural adaptation skills and think that eating Outback is sampling local cuisine in Seoul.

I studied abroad three times. I lived abroad five times, once in one of the most remote regions of the world. My other career is advising university students on Study Abroad, on almost 400 programs in 71 countries. I’ve had five years of international education training. I’m motivated to learn the language.

I’m kind of a culture ninja. Plus I’ve learned not to trust the long, crazed-sounding, plaintive reviews that students and TEFL teachers alike write when their selections simply weren’t right for them (or larger issues were afoot–the “Hagwon Killing” above was the result of alcoholism on the teacher’s part). I know that 3% of my experience will be circumstances thrust on me, and 97% will be my chosen reaction to them.

This is certainly not to say that all will be easy when I move to Korea. It won’t. Things will go wrong. I will make mistakes. There will be days of homesickness. I’ll probably have at least one binge session on online Telenovelas. And there will be days when I question why I moved there in the first place.

The difference is, I can already predict those things. The process is familiar, even cozy. Transition is home to me.

My plan was always to go to Chile, return, and go to Korea. Even though the Chilean Adventure was at times overwhelming, shocking, aggravating, and/or terrifying…it was worth it to work with my kids and see 2% of what my lesson was attempting to teach actually sinking in. Those kids taught me more than I ever taught them. 

I’d carried this necklace around my neck at all times since my last day at Escuela 5 in Puerto Natales, but I took it off about two weeks ago. The special education teacher, a saint, gave it to me.

“A little something to remind you that you will always be in the children’s hearts…”

She left me to open it in my classroom, amongst all my posters and games and scavenged scrap paper. I cried when I pulled it out of the bag. She fastened it around my neck.

“Bien hecho, Maestra.”

That private moment of recognition should have been what I held onto from the six months in Chile, but the encroaching darkness and stress crept in and blinded me. By the time I reached my last night in Magallanes, I was a teary, makeup smeared mess sitting on the floor of the bathroom in the Punta Arenas casino’s Skybar, looking out over the lights of the city and cursing the day I ever decided to move there. Frankly, some of my friendships didn’t survive that night. It was a dark moment.

But a tiny glimmer of hope snuck in almost undetected the next morning, a little coincidental cosmic wink to remind me that all was not lost. My last meal in the region was with a Korean immigrant, a seaweed-wrapped rice ball.

I’d tried to take a break from thinking about Chile and remove the burden of the necklace from me while I focused on other things. But these two chapters of my life are already inextricably linked. They were before I even left. And all that happens/happened with one place will guide me through the other.

The necklace is back on.

Give Me Mate and A Bombilla, and I Will Get Through Anything

What The Water Gave Me: Florence + The Machine

 

 

 

 

I haven’t done a Weekly Outfit in a very long time, in part because I was traveling and also because I got all activist and started writing about Occupy Wall Street. Staying true to my Consignment-Only Fashion roots and hand-picking elements from several trips this year, here is my outfit today. My Mate (pronounced mah-tay) from Ushuaia, the furthest-South city in the world, and my handmade earrings are the perfect accessories.

Jacket: Sisley (Italy in 2009)
Scarf: Handmade as a gift from Puerto Natales, Chile 
Orange shawl-thinger: Consignment (Buffalo Exchange Boulder)
Black Dress: Consignment (Common Threads Boulder)
Jeans: H&M (GIFT) 
Ass-Kicking Boots: Consignment (Common Threads Boulder)
Earrings with Feathers: Homemade