In rural Ethiopia, women grease their hair with butter for extra healthy shine. That’s just what they do. What they do NOT do is open windows in buses. Someone told me that they are afraid of catching tuberculosis from the draught. I thought that if I could throw some corn in the hair of a lady in front of me it would actually pop. The smells and the sun had been driving me insane for quite a while by then, to the extent that it all seemed quite normal and natural that my set of conservative Muslim clothing drenched in sweat almost became part of my skin.
I had earphones in my ears to avoid human contact. In Ethiopia, where few people have communication issues and even fewer people have earphones, this didn’t stop any single man on the bus from asking me questions.
– Are you married?
– Yes, sure. My husband is from a country called Candy Mountain and we have 7 children.
– So where is he?
– He is slaving out so that I could afford this luxurious bus trip.
– No problem. You can have one husband there and one husband here, right?
That guy was not even attempting to be subtle. I put the earphones back in my ears. For about 15 seconds.
– Will you marry me?
– I just met you.
– No problem! – he started nodding and showing off the rows of yellow teeth stained with khat juice.
Is this the real life?
Or is this just fantasiiiii-eeeee?
– No, thank you.
– I am not Somali, I am Ethiopian! No problem!
– No, thank you.
– Is it because I am Ethiopian?
One of my CouchSurfing hosts, a female volunteer in Ethiopia, told me about the palm tickle.
– So when you meet a person you are supposed to shake hands, right? Then if the man wants to hint that he is interested in having sex with you he would tickle your palm with his middle finger…
And then she added:
– My boss here did it to me on my first day at the office.
A few months later I was in Sudan. I met quite a few fantastic people on the African route and was enjoying a conversation with a girl who was travelling in the direction I just came from – all the way from Europe to South Africa by hitchhiking.
Minutes before this, a human male approached me on the stairs and stared at me for a long while, then declared his love and told me he’d love to marry me. I politely left him standing outside and went to join my friends for tea.
Naturally, the human male came over to intervene into our conversation. He probably enjoyed listening to our talks of misty England and dusty Kenya. Now I think we should’ve switched the conversation to tampons or bacon. The human male soon brought over a friend, another human male, as these species seem to congregate together when trying to approach human females.
After a while I was just tired of being polite. I explicitly told the human males that my friend and I were not even remotely interested in their acquaintance.
– You do not respect my country, do not respect my tradition!
I liked Sudan for many of its weird and amazing things, but the mating traditions here seemed to include the ‘racism blackmail’, as in so many other African countries I’ve been to. The ‘you don’t wanna mate are you racist biatch’ style.
‘I never had any harassment problems while cycling from South Africa to Egypt!’ – admitted another amazing solo female traveller that I’d met in Sudan. – ‘Egypt was the first place where a motherfcker actually grabbed my ass while I was on the bicycle and kept riding his bike next to me!’
When I left the boat that brought us from Sudan to Egypt I started looking for a minibus that would bring me to town. A guy started following me, trying to ’show’ where the minibus is. He then stuck his hand into the window and ordered me to give him money for his ‘help’.
– Nah, – I shrugged.
He kept insisting for about 5 minutes, and the gentlemen around me on the bus didn’t seem to be bothered. I grabbed the guy’s hand, pulled it in and hit it against the seat, yelling my last ‘Piss off!’
He pulled out a knife, looked at me and ran the blade along his throat.
’Show it to your mum!’ I replied, an then the minibus started driving me away from the psycho.
A dude on the seat in front of me turned back and said apologetically:
‘I’m really sorry this is happening to you. I am not Egyptian, don’t worry, I’m Sudanese’.
Now, one of the most frequently asked questions is: ‘How come you are travelling alone?!’
I met quite a few girls who were roaming the roads of this world all on their own: hitching, cycling, sailing… Obviously, it takes some big hairy balls, a shot of feminism and an education to set on a journey across wild Asia or Africa without a ‘male companion’. So when people ask you about a ‘male companion’ to travel with they essentially mean a bodyguard rather than a soulmate. Otherwise, unless you can show a black belt in karate no one really believes that you are not going to be raped, robbed and killed.
Female travel narrative started around the time when male travel narrative turned into an endless conundrum of re-writing of what other dudes had written before, since Middle Ages. Female travel narrative branched out of religious writing, after a pilgrimage by Margery Kempe in the 15th century, who waved goodbye to her husband at the age of 40 in order to travel to the Holy Land, and then found a guy who would write down all her travels (since she was illiterate).
Then there was a brave Basque chick called Catalina de Erauso (early 17th century) that pretty much was cross-dressing all her life and wrote an autobiography of her life as a young man in South America (duels, unsolicited advances from ladies and killing a sibling included – think your average hispanic soap opera meets Don Quixote).
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (early 18th century) described the wonders of Ottoman empire, but just because she was posh enough to be married to a British ambassador in Turkey at the time.
Mary Kinsley (late 19th century) was 31, unmarried and could’t give a f*ck about missionaries, but took interest in tribal magic and cannibals in West Africa and wrote a book about it.
Young and pretty Jeanne Baré (18th century) didn’t write a thing but got a plant named after her, because she snuck onto an explorer’s ship to sail around the world dressed up as a man, following her lover.
Rose de Freycinet was 22 and circumnavigated the world with her husband in the 19th century, then wrote a book about it.
In the late 17th century a remarkable German-born Maria Sybilla Merien, entomologist and illustrator, was funded by the Dutch government to travel to Suriname and study butterflies.
Ida Pfeiffer, born in Austria, travelled around the world twice, visited Madagascar, wrote several books about her travels and collected bugs, molluscs and slugs from distant lands and oceans in the 19th century.
Isabelle Eberhardt in the early 20th century converted to Islam, was permanently broke, dressed as a male Muslim scholar, married an Algerian soldier and openly despised the French colonial rule in North Africa – she spoke 6 languages and left a book of travel notes and several fiction stories inspired by local folklore and legends.
Finally, there was such badass as Alexandra David-Neel, French-Belgian anarchist, who repeatedly ran away from home, was constantly broke, became the first foreign woman to sneak into Lhasa in 1924 and talk with Dalai Lama, wrote dozens of books on Eastern philosophy, spirituality and her travels, died at the age of 101 and made Kerouac and Ginsberg look like pussies.
Welcome to the 21st century. When women of Western world are emancipated, have all rights to vote, marry whoever they want or never marry, grow babies in a lab, travel the world and write about it. Hell well, they can even return home, open their backpack and find that their pair of shoes that had gotten soaked under the tropical rain and then wrapped into a plastic bag – is now covered in mould. Now that girls can wear socks as dirty as men’s and still be respected, true equality is finally here.
But still, ladies, however independent we deem ourselves, I realise with every new visited country that in so many things we must limit ourselves to what other people think.
In Africa, I came across three types of scammers who approach you in the street:
1 – those who want to screw you
2 – those who want to screw you over for money
3 – those who want to both screw you and then screw you over for money. The mere existence of the last proves that it actually works from time to time.
If I was a man I could go to Saudi Arabia, I could sleep anywhere on park benches instead of looking for accommodation for the night, I wouldn’t have to watch my back and be aware of where the men around me decide to put their hands, and I sure thing wouldn’t have to explain to some immigration officers that I ain’t got a degree in prostitution.
I think that years of travelling and meeting all sorts of folks builds some kind of social instinct in you that allows you to see through people and decide if you trust them or not at the very first glance. And I do trust some men that approach me in the street and offer help – so far this has only brought the most interesting travel experiences. But I feel that for us, traveller gals, the trust bar is waaay higher than for traveller boys, and this makes finding a travel companion as difficult as choosing your favourite Doctor.
Life is full of awesome dangers. Now you ask me, why am I travelling alone?