Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Traveling men versus traveling women

As much as I enjoy traveling, I am denied adventures available to men.

Like Paul Theroux. I could work out from now to the end of my days, and never have the upper body strength needed to paddle a kayak around the South Pacific as Theroux did in the Happy Isles of Oceania.

Or like my fellow countryman Charles Montgomery, in The Last Heathen. Even if I wanted to knock back a slurry of pre-masticated kava root, "no women were permitted in the nakamal" -- the kava drinking ceremony on Tanna, an island in Vanuatu.

Indeed, a solitary woman flirts with harassment should she sit in a bar of an evening, no matter if it's a neighbourhood pub at home or a strange one halfway around the world. As a woman, there are just some things I cannot or will not do.

There is one woman, whose name escapes me, who traveled 'like a man'. Some years ago, I read her account of her trip in Mongolia. All alone, she paddled a kayak along rivers crusted with morning ice, drank hairy, buttery yak milk in yurts along the way, and then wrote a book about it. I was, and still am, filled with awe and admiration.

But there is a large up side to being a solo female traveler: Other women talk to me, whereas they wouldn't approach a man (Well, there are exceptions, but we are talking travel here, not 'profession'.) I am thinking of an older woman who started chatting while we were waiting to buy tickets for a Parramatta boat to the Olympic site in Sydney. In a few minutes, she told me her spouse -- high school sweetheart, second marriage for them both -- had been driving her crazy, and as soon as they got back to the States, she was divorcing him.

Or the gentle Srilankan lady who kept me company outside a dance show in Kandy. She had traveled from a smaller town for surgery. I learned much about the medical system and family life in that half hour. She kept shaking her head in response to my comments, a bit disconcerting at first, as her words conveyed agreement. It took me a few minutes to remember that Srilankan head nodding for 'yes' and 'no' is opposite from ours. I can only imagine what she thought of my own thoughtful nods.

These conversations happen often, and add much to my experience of a place, and for this especially, I am glad I am a woman.