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On our way toward Dingle, Ireland we stopped in Castlegregory for the opportunity to take a surfing lesson. Yes, surfing. In Ireland. It was a dreary, disgusting day, and I was not surprised that only three of us wanted to go--my brother, one half of a nice young couple who got stuck traveling with us, and me. Luckily, our traveling companions were more than happy to cheer us on from shore and take pictures. Even in the cold, Brandon Bay in County Kerry is a lovely place to spend a few hours. It was cold and rainy, and I have a feeling we were warmer than them in our wet suits and booties.
Our instructor, Jamie Knox of Jamie Knox Water Sports, was very understanding with my brother's and my status as complete beginners. He went over safety rules and explained a few different technique we would use, and focused on getting us in the water early and often, to make the most of our lesson. Both my brother and I have terrible vision (I clock in at -8.00) and I can't imagine that helps us in our aquatic adventures. Kevin was flying blind, and I wore some outdated contacts. There were several times when Jamie would be gesturing and we just looked at each other and shrugged because we had no clue what he was trying to say, but nobody got hurt so I guess it turned out fine.
We were given foam boards to practice on, because obviously we would be smacking ourselves in the heads quite a few times, so we may as well get hit with foam. We learned the basics of timing and actually catching a wave on our stomachs.
I had a ton of fun pulling myself up on the board and learning to steer and control my own speed. It was pretty easy and it felt amazing to glide along the water so quickly. We were called out of the water to learn how to stand on the board. My brother Kevin and I shared a look like hey, this is wicked fun, why ruin a good thing? Plus, that looks really hard.
And it was really hard. I am quite a bit smaller than the other two, and I spent most of my time getting tossed around and trying to get back on my feet and be in some sort of a position to actually catch a wave. By the last half hour or so, my arms were so tired that I could barely pull myself to the front of the board, nevermind paddle. Luckily, our instructor could see my struggle and would help launch me so I could keep trying to stand up on the board.
I did finally get up standing on the board, on my very last run of the day. Of course, our audience had gotten bored, and one of the downsides of being the only single person on a trip is that no one is particularly invested in photos or videos of you, so there is sadly no proof of my triumph. I can't wait to try surfing again, although I think I need to seriously improve my arm strength if I plan to be out there for more than a couple of hours.
2-hour beginner surf lessons are €35 per person for adults, € 25 for under 18s, and includes rental of board, wetsuit, booties and hood. If you find cheaper surf lessons in Co. Kerry, they'll match the price. They also offer windsurfing and stand up paddle boarding as well as surf camps for youngsters and family packages.
On Monday, my laptop, external hard drive, and ipod were all stolen from my office at my new job. It happened in the middle of the day, while other people were in our suite, which is tucked away in a rarely-visited corner. I was only gone for about half an hour. Luckily no one else lost anything, no one got hurt, and I had my phone and wallet with me. I kept hoping there was some other explanation--that I had left my laptop at home, or a coworker had moved my ipod. Yes, I did everything I was supposed to do, from filing a report to changing my passwords. I know people mean well, but I'm not all that interested in advice that would require time travel for me to carry it out.
It's so strange to not have a "when it happened" moment. I have been robbed before, but in this instance there was no action, just a realization that I didn't have my things and it wasn't a mistake. There's also some irony in that these objects have been with me all over the world, and yet they were taken from my posh new job at home. I keep hoping that maybe the thief will see the laptop is a pc, and ditch it. Or that they'll have a heart when they see the hard drive is just a terabyte of images, and will turn it in as though they found it. I would honestly let them keep the stuff if they offered to give back the data. But I know none of that is realistic. As the cop said, my things are gone forever.
I'm honestly not that bothered by losing the stuff. They are just things, and while I'd rather not drop $1,000 or so to replace them, they are replaceable. What breaks my heart is all the data that cannot be recovered, especially the photos. Conservatively, it's at least 50,000 images. Basically every image I took from 2012-2014 is now gone forever, which includes almost every image I shot on my dSLR, and basically all of the photos that were any good. Ireland, India, most of Cuba, everything that happened in Boston last April, as well as thousands of family photos and quite a few events are all gone. What I can recover is mostly not RAW files, meaning they are lower quality and completely useless for some purposes. The ten posts about Ireland that were queued up to have images added and be posted over the next three or four weeks now seem sad and boring, a little reminder of what I do not have.
I know I have some things backed up on the cloud, and older stuff (like Benin, Egypt, and my first three months in Cuba) on my other hard drive, but to be honest I don't even have the heart to look and see what I have left. I really just don't feel like remembering again of what is lost. I spent a whole day fixated on the hard drive and therefore thinking that at least I still had my India pictures, and then I remembered that my laptop was also taken, and India is gone too. Every couple of minutes I remember again that it's all gone, and the idea of setting about to pick up the pieces holds no appeal.
I certainly have a lot of regrets, like not separating my backup from my originals, not uploading the images to the Ireland posts this past weekend, not having everything on the cloud, and not locking my door in what I thought was a safe office suite. I wish I had just eaten the lunch I brought from home, and of course I wish the two office guard dogs had been there to scare the thief away. But mostly I'm just sad. I think of all the memories that are gone, images, writing and songs going back to high school and in some cases middle school. I think of the years of hard work, all the hundreds of hours that went into those thousands and thousands of images. It's all gone, and I don't think I have it in me to start again.
The top photo is one of the few India photos that was sitting in the cloud, albeit in a crappy, overly-small jpeg. It's also a picture of trust, trust that no one will take your shoes while you go inside the temple, and sometimes it's nice to remember that.
One of the things the drew us to Vagabond Tours was the kayaking option in Dingle. We are an outdoorsy crew, owning two canoes and a kayak back home. We knew we were going to be kayaking this trip, come hell or high water. It was also one of the keys to a successful family trip--you are who you are, no matter where in the world you go.
Irish Adventures was right on the waterfront in downtown Dingle. Our guide, Noel, was funny and informative. He also took some great images, although he didn't seem to understand why it would pain me not to be able to take them myself. Someday, I would love to have a camera or rig that can survive kayaking, but this was not that day.
A few people were in tandem kayaks, but most were solo. There was a quick lesson and continued instruction for those brand new to kayaking. Michelle was a compete newcomer to it but she was able to learn the techniques quickly from Noel and had no problem with the paddle. We paddled along the bay in search of the famed Fungi the Dolphin. I had read about him ahead of time and my bullshit detector lead me to believe there were a few dolphins off the coast and on the rare occasion one was spotted, they were called Fungi. Or that Fungi was a bit like the Dread Pirate Roberts or a child's goldfish, secretly replaced every time he passed on. It turns out there was no need for the cynicism--Fungi is the rare lone dolphin, and he has been alive for over 20 years. Like all Irish folks, he is quite friendly and regularly gets close to passing boats, including kayaks. The closest we got was about 50 yards away, which was a bummer for myself and the other animal loved on the trip, but it was still pretty cool..
After the excitement of Fungi, we got to explore the nuances of the Dingle Peninsula's photogenic coast. We even paddled through a few caves getting a chance to see the aquatic wildlife in the clear water. Starfish, sea anemones and various fish were everywhere. We had been in Ireland for about a week already, but this was the first time we were seeing cliffs up close, and from water level. We also learned more about the area's history and some of the local creatures of the land and air as well.
The paddle back was against the wind and tide, and also the day after Kev and I went surfing. Unless you've got Michelle Obama arms, I do not recommend so many arm-straining activities in quick succession. But such is life for a world traveler I absolutely recommend Irish Adventures to anybody from a newbie to experienced kayaker. It's a great way to see something different. Noel was a great guide and the experience of exploring sea caves was unlike any other view of Ireland.
There are half-day (3 hours) and full-day tours available. Half-day tours like mine are 3 hours and available to paddlers age 12+ of all levels. Cost €50 adult, €45 teenagers, €40 under 12’s. Full day paddles are from €85 to €100. They are categorized as Medium (5+ hours, open to all 14+) and Hard (5-6 hours, age 16+.) You will need to bring swimwear and a towel. Wet suits and all other equipment are provided.
All photos courtesy of Irish Adventures.
It's rare for people to write about Ganvie, or really any part of Benin, but when they do it churns my stomach. Romantic, they write. Mystical, inviting, the Venice of Africa.
None of this is what I saw in Ganvie.
We got to the stilt village in the middle of Nokué Lake, not far from Cotonou, Moving in a pair of long motorboats we passed fish farms and what looked like the invasive species water hyacinth along the way. Because we were a human services group, someone asked the obvious question of whether the men who brought us there were from the community, and the answer was hand-waved away with a probably. When we arrived, we got out to find a small, angry monkey chained to a post, setting the tone for our visit.
Reasons given for the existence of the village are varied, from the villagers themselves as well as the internet. Some claim it started 400 years ago, others say the 16th or 17th century. The Tofinu people were running from enslavement by either the Fon or Dahomey tribe. Or was it the Portuguese? Some claim it's the only one in the world, or perhaps the biggest.
Everything felt uneasy there.
A woman screamed at us in a tribal language as we came to a shop. Throughout the day, children and adults would curse, yell and point at us as they passed on their completely non-mechanized boats. Even for those who didn't speak French, it still had a chilling effect. We found ourselves lowering or hiding our cameras, not meeting each other's eyes or theirs.
After I made my purchases I was tired of being pressed further, so I went to the porch to watch some kids splash around. They were all quite small and in various states of undress, but were too engrossed n their play to bother with another bunch of yovos. I took a couple of pictures, as did some others, but one of our flashes went off and a little boy put his hand over his genitals. In French he yelled that he would only remove it for money, which horrified us. Then he said we should really pay so we can have National Geographic pictures, and I was horrified for a different reason. This kid knew our number, knew the number of everyone who pays a boat to take them out there. We wanted something gritty, graphic, exotic and strange. Something that looked like a poor, primeval stereotype of Africa.
We were brought from one building to the next, and it quickly became clear that there would be no talk on the history or culture of Ganvie. Just a lot of wooden statues, wind chimes, and toy cars for sale.
Some students began to get seasick from getting in and out of the boats so often, and others were nervous about a couple of the buildings that seemed to bounce and sway a little too much, where we could see the water beneath our feet through the cracks and holes in the floor. A chatty group, we got more sullen and silent in the face of a strange and incredibly un-fun shopping trip. The less we bought, the more agitated the shopkeepers, boat captains and other locals would get. Some people tried to explain that every shop sold the same thing, or that we were but poor students, but there was little sympathy to be found.
Someone in charge heavily insinuated that it was an obligation to buy things, since we had shown up as voyeuristic little tourists, never mind that these same people in charge brought us here with little warning and no option to stay behind. We came to wonder if the men who brought us there were from the community, how the community felt about our presence (though I think we knew) and who actually owned those motorboats.
Sometimes I think of Ganvie, and it always makes me uncomfortable. It's one of those places I hardly ever discuss. It felt wrong to be there, but also wrong to take away the much-needed tourism dollars. It was disappointing not to learn more about the logistics of their way of life, but it seems entitled to be disappointed that strangers don't take time out of their day to entertain me and answer my questions. Some people complain that the locals are too unfriendly--how dare they not smile for us, not open up their homes for us. Most of all, I think about how young the naked boy must have been to already understand exactly how the world sees him, and what it expects of him. He didn't do anything wrong--in fact he was being a clever entrepreneur. It's just so unsettling that his venture is successful.
Like walking into a guide book, we ran into "domesticated" elephants several times now in Kerala, always completely by accident. Well, by accident or unknowing on our part. But the two times when we saw elephants at or near hotels were certainly no accident. I quote the word domesticated because I'm not convinced that such an animal can be domesticated. And if it can, surely this cannot happen over the course of one lifetime--isn't true domestication a multi-generation process, a form of contrived evolution?
According to EleAid, India has some of the strictest laws in Asia governing domesticated elephants, but the laws aren't enforced. City life is completely unsuited to what elephants need, and some elephants used in tourism or in temples are known for being chained to one spot their whole life or completely over-worked.
As a person who loves animals (and used to spend quite a bit of time with science), I find myself pulled between two poles: I want to both be with animals and see them able to live their lives naturally. As interesting as it was to spot a bear on a neighbor's porch in Maine, for example, it was sad to realize that this animal had acquired a taste for human food and was bold enough to walk up to someone's house and take it. This means that it is likely that bear will someday die because of something it eats or because it
On our seventh official day of the Kerala Blog Express, we got to take a boat ride in the Periyar Tiger Reserve (*Tigers not Guaranteed.) This area is only accessible by boat, and is the first place I've seen in India with zero trash. The animals have substantial protected acreage at their disposal, and their lives appear to transpire without human interference, other than boats that watch from a safe distance. To me, this is how nature was meant to be observed: from a safe distance, in a respectful way, and in controlled numbers (of humans.)
We were able to see elephants again in Wayanad by driving through Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. We were not permitted to drive through the rest of the sanctuary as planned because the weather was making the animals nervous. I was glad to hear that we were not being allowed to do something that would jeopardize our (and in turn the animals') well-being. To me, the surest sign of a good sanctuary or preserve is that they use the word 'no.' There should not be a dollar amount that will assuage concerns for the animals' well being.
As much as we love the magic and intensity (and let's not forget the profile pics and blog posts) of witnessing a wild animal at close range, it isn't natural. They aren't meant to bend to our will, to eat our food, or to carry us around. They need space, not chains, and reputable research and preservation organizations need our money more than sketchy places that drug or otherwise abuse the animals do. It's not satisfying and it won't boost my page views, but participating in the mistreatment of animals is not what's best for those animals. Neither is going on an elephant ride (or playing with tiger cubs), getting the cool photos, and then writing a contrite, hand-wringing post after the fact to retroactively atone for our participation. Unfortunately that seems to be the preferred route for travelers with a conscience, myself included: get the snaps, then talk about how messed up it is afterwards.
Beyond the ethics of it, animals are far more interesting when they are behaving as they choose. As fellow member of the Kerala Blog Express Daniel said on Instagram, seeing a mother and baby elephant interacting in the wild is far better than watching one perform for us on paved city streets. It was amazing to see a small herd of elephants quietly going about their business this afternoon, not bothered by our presence, not decorated by anything other than mud and their own skin, and completely free of chains.
I hope that governments and tourists alike will help make it easier for letting animals be wild to be an easy choice, one that is rewarded with good publicity and plenty of business. I hope that consumers become more aware of the power of their dollars, their presence and their photos, and wield them accordingly. I hope elephants and other, less PR-friendly animals are still around in the wild for generations to come.
Want to learn more about how to help animals and make humane decisions? Try some of these resources below.
- 3 reputable elephant sanctuaries in Thailand (Nomadic Matt went to one of them) via Matador.
- Students in Hong Kong work to combat ivory trafficking.
- The Clinton Global Initiative's Partnership to Save Africa's Elephants (can we get some Asia action over here?)
- How Tourists Can Help from Humane Advisor.
- The RIGHT Tourism Getting it RIGHT list of partners.
- The Animal Friendly Tourism Guide from the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
- The Indian Government's Project Elephant, started in 1992, lays out their plan for protection.
Disclaimer: I was in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism. They gave no input on my posts or their subject. The views contained are completely my own. I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail email@example.com
I was hoping to post something on Wednesday with my thoughts on the marathon a year out, but Tuesday night's events left me exhausted in more ways than one. I'm glad no one got hurt and that there was no actual potential for violence, and I hope he finds the help that he needs. I also hope his family gets some privacy and the support that they surely need as well. There's a lot out there on the marathon, some better than others. Here's a round-up of some of my favorite marathon-related things hanging around the internet.
Jeff Bauman, seen by many as the face (along with Carlos Arredondo, he of the cowboy hat) of the Boston Marathon survivors wrote a great piece at the Guardian explaining how he feels about the famous wheelchair photo, and how he hopes we'll view it. I think it's incredibly powerful for him to take charge of his own narrative and of this devastating thing that was inflicted upon him. It's also fascinating from the standpoint of photography and journalism to think about whether taking this photo was a good idea, and to hear Jeff's thoughts about the image and the man responsible. If you didn't see the coverage at the time, you'll also note that most people who weren't on twitter at the time or actively seeking it out haven't seen the complete image, in a self-imposed censorship similar to the images of people jumping from the twin towers. The images are seen as too much, and too damaging a way for a loved one to get bad news (as Jeff's parents did) and too inescapable to be fair to those who suffered. If you enjoy Jeff's perspective, check out his book Stronger, out now.
I'm a big fan of charity that harnesses the consumerism of the US. It's not going away, so at least let's harness it for good. These bracelets, made of last year's marathon street banners benefit the One Fund and can also lend a sense of solidarity. A shout out to John Hancock for covering the administrative and production costs of the bracelets, so 100% of the cost goes to the fund. Over $30,000 has been raised so far, but you can only get the bracelets until Sunday at 6 pm.
I have to mention that the Boston Globe won a Pulitzer for their coverage last year. There was a lot of terrible coverage ("It's almost as if a bomb went off..."--someone on CNN) so I'm glad they were recognized for not falling for conspiracy theories (what's up, Anonymous's completely inaccurate reporting, say hi to your mother for me), racism, or just blaming random people. Congratulations, and thank you.
The great image at the top of this post was designed by Northeastern alums and good friends of mine Jack and Kate of Union Jack Creative. You can support local art and a local small business by purchasing the poster online, and charity runners get a discount, in honor of Kate's two years as a Boston Marathon charity runner for the Boston Debate League, a great organization teaching inner city kids about debate and inspiring confidence and academic improvement everywhere they go.
Fellow NU grad, traveler, and partner in crime Kade Krichko was able to interview fellow Reading resident Mark Fucarile, survivor, about his experience getting back to skiing after he lost his right leg above the knee. I love stories showing people with hindered physical or mental abilities living full lives, not being held back. You may recognize Fucarile from the stories about his fantastic all-expenses paid Fenway Park wedding to his long-time girlfriend. They arrived via blue and yellow duckboats, because Boston.
If you have the time, check out WBUR's Oral History Project on the Marathon. It's a mix of famous and not so famous storytellers sharing their experience. In a similar and somewhat-connected, Northeastern University is collecting a digital archive, including some of my images from NUPR's special online edition. It's called "Our Marathon" and can be seen in part through May 2nd in International Village, which is behind Ruggles and next to the police station. You can contribute to Our Marathon or the Oral History Project online.
The afternoon memorial was lovely, and I think Patrick Downes had the best speech of the day. It must be hard on a bunch o regular people, who did not lead public lives, to suddenly be thrust in the spotlight. People suddenly want them to make speeches, write books, even comfort them, regardless of the fact that they don't necessarily have any training in any of these areas. Patrick makes what must have been a very emotional day look grateful and easy.
If you're looking to contribute to a charity runner, I personally know 3 who are running for great causes, with amazing stories. Jordyn Parsons is my former roommate and a Northeastern student, and she's running for the Melanoma Foundation of New England. She currently needs a little less than $2,000 to reach her goal of $7,500.
Elizabeth Shea, who is from my home town went to Mass General's Pediatric Oncology Center with hystiocytosis. Someone ran the marathon in her honor as part of the patient-partner program. It meant so much to her that once she was healthy, she wanted to pay it forward. Her dad was also inspired, and ran four Boston Marathons in her name, raising thousands of dollars for childhood cancer research. She ran the marathon last year with her father but was stopped at mile 25.5, and is looking to complete the journey on Monday. Donate to her efforts here.
Laura Williams went to high school and college with me, as did her older brother Chris, who passed away from Cystic Fibrosis three years ago. She is running in his honor for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and she needs to raise just under $1,000 to meet her goal of $10,000. You can also buy a shirt to benefit her efforts.
What's your favorite coverage of the one year anniversary? Feel free to share links, images, or your own stories and experiences in the comments.
See you on race day.
In photography, people often dismiss great shots by attributing them to luck or other outside factors. That person just happened to be there at the right time, they have nicer equipment, that shot is easier because the subject itself is so interesting, colorful or rare. But as Andrea, one of my favorite photography professors, reminds me, photographers make their own luck. Yes, that may be a lucky shot, but you're not seeing all the other shots that didn't work out. You don't see how many hours they waited in that location for something good to happen in that frame, how much research they did to find the right location, or how much time they invested getting their subjects to trust them and feel comfortable. You're also not seeing how much time they spend practicing being creative and getting to know their own equipment, so when the time comes they can see something more interesting than what everyone else is seeing, and capture the image quickly.
During my two summers in Cuba as a TA to Northeastern University's photography program, the students with the best collection of images were the ones who created their own luck. They went back to the same locations over and over again, getting to know people and becoming an accepted presence in their midst as opposed to an intruder existing outside the action. They learned the necessary background information to find the potential for great shots, and learned when the variables could possibly line up. Eventually, this hard work paid off with gorgeous, insightful, authentic views of their subjects in their own environs. Like a musician or actor who is an "overnight success," luck is just a downplayed misnomer for the reality of their success: hard work and patience.
In travel we have a similar opportunity to make our own luck. It's why I got the large passport, the ten year, multiple-entry visa instead of the single-use one. It's why I go to travel meet-ups, and include my travel as part of my professional image. It takes a million small decisions of setting yourself up for success, going the extra mile, and keeping an eye out for opportunity disguised as risk to make your luck. Of course, not everyone has the privilege to take advantage of these opportunities, and that is nothing to sneeze at. Nor is it due to any negligence or shortcoming on their part. I feel strongly about making travel more accessible for all, as well as publicizing cost-effective opportunities. When I talk about people who don't make their own luck, I do not refer to people without a realistic ability to take advantage of opportunities. Rather, I'm speaking about people with the ability to take advantage of opportunities (which other people would kill for) who choose not to go for it because they're too tired, it's too much work, it's too far out of their comfort zone or they're too easily distracted. I'm speaking about people who haven't prioritized an attainable goal they say they want, and then are surprised when they don't reach it.
People say I'm lucky to have gone to Cuba three times, twice in a work capacity. But those opportunities never would have existed if I didn't put in the hard work of applying and then making it through the three month Cuba program I did in 2010. I took a risk of being homesick, unhappy, missing out on everything back home, and losing a precarious relationship in order to go on what I knew would be a strange and challenging adventure. I didn't know yet all the ways it could pay off, but that hard work and risk is still making me "lucky" to this day. I didn't plan for employers to google me or to win a contest, but since 2009 I've been writing online, putting in the time and effort. I've been told I was lucky to win a spot on the Kerala Blog Express, but most of the people who say that could never have even entered the contest, because they have never put in the work of writing a blog and cultivating an online presence. That's not a bad thing, but the difference between me and the people who didn't win isn't just luck, it's years of hard work.
Another huge difference is a willingness to take risks. Most of he people I know who are jealous of my Cuba trips wouldn't have the guts to go if they were presented with the opportunity, never mind the guts to go on a longer trip when it was an unproven, unknown quantity. Many people would never have entered a contest because it seemed sketchy or too good to be true. They wouldn't have lobbied their contacts for votes, and they wouldn't have committed to buying a plane ticket to the other side of the planet, still a little unsure if it was all a scam.
If we consistently work hard, take risks and set ourselves up to be able to take advantage of opportunities, we'll find ourselves stumbling into a whole lot of luck. So get up early, pound the pavement, separate yourself from the crowd of long lenses, talk to some strangers, and make your luck happen.
Everyone has a lot to say about women travelers, especially if they're solo, especially if they go somewhere in the Global South. And really, everyone has a lot to say about women. Some of the advice is good, like researching backup plans ahead of time so you don't get stuck staying somewhere that makes you uncomfortable. It's pretty obvious and rather good advice for everyone, but at least it's not bad. There's also a lot fo bad advice out there, ranging from racist to victim-blaming, restrictive to non-sensical. Some people just can't seem to stop themselves from sharing this advice, even if I don't ask. Even if they've never been where I'm going. All of the advice essentially boils down to one premise: as a woman, you are vulnerable and it is therefore your responsibility to alter your behavior in every way imaginable in order to prevent other people from harming you. If you fail in this, you will be judged for your poor safety efforts and it will be used as an excuse to make blanket statements about what women travelers should or should not do. Its for your own good, honey.
Thankfully, there was very little street harassment directed my way on my trip to Kerala, India, contrary to the typical American view of the country. Some of us were discussing possible reasons for this, with the most obvious being that we spent very little time on actual streets. We were generally in our bus, and when we walked we tended to be on the grounds of a hotel or other attraction where the only people we see are staff. Not that staffers never harass customers, but it is in their best interest to treat us right, even more so considering we are travel bloggers. I was very rarely alone, and the group had gender parity (for the bloggers. On the staff side, Rutavi was holding it down for team XX by herself) so it was rare for me to walk somewhere without someone who presents as a man nearby. And of course, I do not speak Malayalam or Hindi, so it's possible I missed some things.
I did enjoy one little insight into the minds of my male compatriots. One night, 7 or 8 of us went out to buy alcohol. There were only two women, myself and another blogger. To buy alcohol in Kerala, a person needs to stand in a line at a small storefront and ask the clerk for what they want, then pay. All of these stores seem to perpetually have a line, and line culture in India involves a bit more jockeying for position and a lot less personal space than an American is used to. I took one look at the situation and knew that we didn't all need to wait in line and that I was definitely not going to be one of the people who did. It didn't look scary, and if I needed to I could have, but it just seemed obvious to me that if I could avoid being the only woman in close quarters with a lot of men trying to buy alcohol (and some who had clearly already had their fill), than I should avoid it. One of the guys must have had the same thought because right away he said that the two women would wait here. Another guy was confused by this, which is how most guys I have traveled with would react. It simply doesn't occur to them--they have never had to think that way. The idea of a man considering a woman's safety without being told to (or assuming it's either exaggeration or an excuse to completely restrict her behavior) is a rare quality indeed, and it immediately raised my positive opinion of him. Of course, for every helpful precaution there is an annoying bit of paternalism, and one of the men came walking back to us instead of toward the store. He was nominated on the sly to babysit us women. I called him on it immediately, and he begrudgingly admitted it. I didn't mind the company of course, and the sentiment was frustrating but understandable. It was just weird that it seemed somewhat covert.
In that story we were in one of the few populated areas where we were able to wander off. We spent a lot of our walking around time in more rural areas, which offer fewer opportunities for harassment from a purely numeric perspective, though harassment in all forms occurs everywhere. We are also foreigners, and while that attracts a different sort of attention, it also can cause people in the service industry to be overly deferential and more careful how they behave around us. Sometimes that extends to average people in the country, out of a sense of hospitality or awareness of the importance of the tourism industry, or a mix of the two.
It's imperative to remember that my experience here is not universal, and that Kerala is not all of India. Those with different perceived gender identities and sexual orientations, skin tones, ethnic groups, socioeconomic status, castes, and physical and mental ability levels could all be treated much differently than I. There is the biggest difference that is often overlooked by travelers: those who are local likely experience their own communities in a completely different way than I do. All this is to say that just because I have barely been harassed doesn't mean other travelers or Indians won't be. Moreover, the State of Kerala is very different from other parts of India, which have their own, often more intense, histories with gender-based violence. This is not to say Kerala doesn't also have a problem with gender-based violence (it does; everywhere does) but it does not tend to make the headlines the way Delhi has.
When we discuss street harassment abroad, we must remember that this is not a foreign behavior, or one unique to a certain climate, region, language, religion, or culture. It looks different from one place to the next, but street harassment happens all over the world so it should be combated all over the world. Relegating terrible behavior to certain places or types of people lets those who harass but do not fit our mold off the hook. It can also leave people feeling singled out instead of supported, as evidenced by some of the backlash from the story of a white American study abroad student in India this past year.
At the same time, I feel it is important for those who experience street harassment to find ways of bringing the behavior into the light no matter where they live or who perpetrates harassment. Many women who travel downplay street harassment abroad in order to keep from worrying loved ones, to minimize racist responses from listeners, to distance themselves from upsetting memories, or because they're so used to others minimizing their experiences. However, when we stay silent it can feel like being victimized again. Personally, my best tool for dealing with street harassment isn't fighting back or preventative measures. It's discussing my experiences with fellow female travelers. I have mostly given up talking about it with male travelers because their responses range from neutral to disappointing to extremely upsetting, but when they do get it, as in the story above, it brings a feeling of relief. On the other side of things, I love it when I am able to discuss street harassment with local women in order to learn more about their experience. Sharing these stories reminds me that this behavior is real, it is not okay, it is not my fault, and I am not alone in experiencing it. It can also minimize the level of daily stress that street harassment piles on.
LGBTQ and women travelers receive a lot of advice from all directions, all of whom are completely confident that they know what is best. It is a complicated mix of contradicting and often insulting or victim-blaming information. I'm a big believer in the Hollaback! model for dealing with mistreatment of women and LGBTQ folks worldwide, which is that local communities are experts on their own experiences, and that however a person feels most safe and empowered is the right choice for them. Translated to international travel, this means it can be the best decision for one person to travel solo, while for another it is better to arrange to travel with companions. Or, more realistically, the same traveler could arrive at varying conclusions depending on many factors, including their comfort level with independent travel, their assessment of their own safety, and their preference. I am equally sick of hearing women being shamed and blamed for solo travel as when they are bullied as less-than for opting to go a safer, more comfortable route such as traveling with a package tour, a touring group, friends, family, or a partner. We really don't need more people telling women what to do. However you manage to feel safe and comfortable while traveling is what you should do, because I firmly believe we need to make travel more accessible, not less.
What's your experience of street harassment, at home or abroad? Does it match what others who live or travel to there experience? How do you feel about all the advice people constantly give women?