Photo: Colin Heinrich
I didn’t get around to waxing my mustache for around two months in India, and it certainly wasn’t doing me any favors. There is, lamentably, no socially acceptable equivalent of a backpacker beard for women.
We have a lot of hair. Everywhere. And it doesn’t clean or remove itself, either, yet there is an infuriatingly global expectation that we ladies will keep things clean. And moisturized. And, of course, hairless. Which means we have to tackle a litany of products to pack and carry (and that shit ain’t light) and rituals to maintain abroad (daily showers, anyone? Hair washing?).
We envy guys’ travel toiletry kits that contain no more than a toothbrush and a bar of soap in a plastic bag, and have to weigh the benefits of lugging bottles of shampoo and conditioner against having a dull mat of dreadlocks on the backs of our heads.
When I got on the back of a motorcycle taxi in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and the driver took an alternate route through the countryside to my hostel on the beach, I wasn’t admiring the scenery. I was worrying he was kidnapping me. Was this it, my end? On an overnight train in the lowest class from Varkala to Mangalore (sans A/C), the guard on board told me to keep my window closed, no matter how much I thought I would smother. Otherwise, men who prowl the stations outside would grab me. In Dharamsala, a fellow backpacker told me about a local friend he made, who took him on a tour of the countryside on his motorbike then drinking in town; my interactions with locals was largely limited to fighting off their groping hands.
Women traverse a different world than men do. Finding the balance between being a savvy traveler and an alarmist individual is tricky. Following a local we just met home to meet his family could be just that—or not. We don’t want to put ourselves in sketchy situations… but we don’t want to miss out on any valuable experiences. There are far too many cautionary tales too ignore reality — but we’re also not going to hole ourselves up out of fear, either.
It’s not cynical for us to guard our actions or withhold our trust; it’s smart. This isn’t to say men don’t have to worry about their safety while abroad, but women are more vulnerable. Our vulnerability permeates nearly every aspect of traveling — much more so if we’re traveling solo, and the dangers range from pickpocketing to gang rape and murder. Something as simple and routine as the sun setting has the potential to transform an exciting new city into a hostile environment.
When I traveled with a friend of the opposite sex in Turkey, we had to pretend we were married in order to avoid offending the proprietor of whatever establishment we found ourselves in; I followed the same protocol in parts of Sri Lanka and Mongolia. Foreign attitudes toward women can seem less than hospitable, especially when we’re used to a certain level of respect and equality back home (even there, it’s not perfect).
In milder cases, we’re met with shock that we do the same things and demand the same treatment that men do, or we’re ignored when there are men waiting to be served, regardless of how long we’ve been waiting before them. At the other end of the spectrum, we’re viewed as outright inferior or as sexual objects.
Wearing long sleeves and pants in 103-degree weather in Varanasi isn’t ideal, but is necessary in order to uphold cultural sensitivity. Being labeled as ignorant or slutty rankles when all we women have done is bare our ankles. So we have to be especially conscious of what respectable attire is.
Baring one’s belly in India is totally fine, but shoulders and knees are scandalous. Men should adhere to a similar dress code at temples and monasteries, though they’re far more easily forgiven if they miss the memo. Women often have to carry extra clothing because of this: what we find comfortable and wish to travel in, and what we should put on in more traditional settings.
This one became apparent to us from a young age on family road trips: Dad can casually pull over to “check the air in the tires” at regular intervals, but we’re met with a carful of groans when we mention we have to go. The subsequent detour to some janky truck-stop bathroom throws the entire schedule off.
Traveling internationally takes this inconvenience to a new level. Toilet paper is a largely Western commodity, and many foreign cities charge to use the restroom (and no, they don’t have change for that euro). Bathroom stops on long bus rides consist of pulling over on the side of a major highway. It’s all well and good if we’re in a rural area in traditional dress — we can pop a squat pretty much anywhere in places like Mongolia and India if we’re wearing enough material to cover up all our business, but forget it if we’re in a city or wearing anything but a long bulky skirt.
No one really wants to talk about it, but the fact remains that every 28 days or so, regardless of where in the world we are, we will be bleeding out of our crotches (hopefully!) and trying to not make a big mess of it. It’s not a horrendous affair in regular life, but becomes a bit of a nuisance as soon as we leave home base, whether it’s a weekend at a friend’s place or a vacation with the family. For extended round-the-world traveling, periods can be a logistical nightmare.
I wasn’t about to lug dozens of tampons around in my already-oversized backpack when I left for my several-months long trip through Asia, and the chances of finding the kinds of feminine products I’m used to there were slim. I purchased a Diva Cup to circumnavigate the tampon-hustling, but that was far from ideal when toilets consisted of a hole in the ground and no place to wash up after. Yuck.
Then there are all the fun symptoms that come with that time of the month: cramps, bloating, upset stomachs, and, yeah, sometimes raging anger, that make periods a pain in the ass even in the comfort of home—and a special kind of torture abroad. But we women are tough: periods aren’t going anywhere, and they’ve never kept us from pursuing our adventures before. None of this has.