Emily Heist Moss prefers to look at the kindness of strangers rather than worry about men as sketchy stereotypes.
I prefer to travel alone. I spend an hour in front of one El Greco painting, and then breeze right past every other wonder the Museo del Prado has to offer. I stop and sit in a park for half a day pretending to read while scoping out the local population. I meet strangers and make friends more easily alone, encounters that usually top any tourist adventure I might find in my Lonely Planet guide. I’m at my most selfish and self-indulgent when I fly solo.
I also feel at my most vulnerable. I’m in unfamiliar places, navigating in languages I barely speak, if at all. Sometimes, I go to countries where the presence of a wandering single white woman is an attraction in and of itself. There are probably at least a hundred Indians with surreptitious cell phone pictures of me; apparently I was just that photogenic. Are there moments of discomfort? Of course; I view them as the price of admission to the parts of the world I want to see. Do I feel in danger? Very rarely. Are my fears misplaced? Am I demonizing foreign men when I should be celebrating the kindness of strangers?
* * * * *
A few years ago, I was working my way from the north of Spain to Gibraltar. One evening in Barcelona, I went to watch a light and water show at a city fountain. Late by my American standards, the Spaniards were still enjoying dinner at 11pm. A group of businessmen chatted me up by the fountain; they seemed harmless, if flirtatious. As I walked back to my hostel, I realized one of the men was trailing me.
He approached me, and said something in Catalan I didn’t understand. I responded in Spanish, telling him to have a good night, and waving him away. For a block, he hovered just a few feet over my shoulder. He approached again, lightly grabbing my elbow. Though the precise language of his proposition was lost on me, the gist was clear: American girls all have a price, what was mine?
I waved him off more forcefully, telling him clearly and loudly to leave me alone. I ducked into a KFC to regroup, hoping he would scuttle off. I had a few Euros and a hostel key, no cell phone and no one to call. My lurker made figure-eights in front of the restaurant, periodically checking to see that I was still there. Behind the counter, a pimply 16-year-old lounged with his coworkers. I looked at this kid, and then out at the man on the sidewalk, and decided I had to trust someone and it might as well be this teenager. I told him, as best I could, that there was a bad man outside and I needed help. He walked out with me where I pointed out the stalker, still pacing and eying me. My teenaged helper shielded me from view, protectively held my elbow, and flagged a cab. He told the driver to take me as far as my remaining Euros would get me. I cried in the backseat and told the non-English-speaking cabbie the whole story. He promptly took me all the way to the hostel, shortage of Euros be damned.
You can listen to this story and extrapolate that Spanish men are aggressive, sexist, rude horndogs. Some of them certainly are. When I tell this story, I focus on the creep and my audience usually launches into their own variations on this experience. Unfortunately it isn’t uncommon for single women to find themselves followed, touched, catcalled or harassed while traveling. You could also listen to this story and see two regular Spanish men, a fast food employee and a cabdriver, who helped me out of a sticky situation.
I’ve been telling the story all wrong. I’ve been calling it “that time I was stalked by the creepy guy” instead of “that time I was rescued by the kindness of strangers.” It’s unfair of me to emphasize the stalker when the KFC guy and driver played equal, and better, parts in this play. It focuses on the salacious, scandalous stereotype instead of the decency of ordinary people. I’ll tell it differently next time.
The truth is, I have exponentially more kindness-of-stranger stories than sketchy-foreigner stories. A man on a train platform in Morocco shared his tea at the end of a Ramadan fast and told me how much he loved America. At a hotel without room phones or wake-up calls, an employee came and knocked on my door at the crack of dawn so I wouldn’t miss my flight. At the airport in Delhi, two English-speaking Indian men offered me their phones while I waited for my delayed friends. If they didn’t arrive, the men assured me, I could come to the wedding they were attending. Every time I have asked for help, and many times I haven’t, it’s been offered generously and respectfully.
* * * * *
When my mother brags about me to neighbors in the supermarket, she often includes my latest adventure. “Alone?” they ask, appalled, “You let her go alone?” Set aside the fact that there’s no “letting” to be done anymore; the neighbors are clearly concerned for my safety. What they don’t realize is that the places I go are no more or less dangerous than the city I walk through every day. There are certainly different risks when traveling alone and I don’t mean to minimize them. People are people everywhere, however, and no matter where you are the vast majority are good and kind and wish to help.
I could focus on the anomalous man who made me feel unsafe and uncomfortable, or I could focus on the surprising and spontaneous kindness of strangers. I think I’ll take the latter. It’s not as exciting a tale, but it’s the truth.
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photo: puuikibeach / flickr