On the ‘dangers’ of female travel

This could just be a story about countries deemed dangerous for women to travel to. But it’s more than that. This is a story about our perception of danger and how we’re told time and time again that the unfamiliar and the foreign are more dangerous to us than what is on our own doorstep.

A couple of months back, British tabloid the Daily Mail ran a story in their travel section titled ‘Sex attacks, muggings, and harassment: World’s most dangerous holiday destinations for women (and some of them may surprise you)’. The top ten list declared India; Brazil; Turkey; Thailand; Egypt; Colombia; South Africa; Morocco; Mexico; and Kenya to be the most dangerous countries for female travellers.

We’ll get back to that shortly.  First I want to tell you about a strange encounter I had in Medellin, Colombia in 2001.

After a hard couple of days travelling, I was lounging around at the backpacker hostel for the afternoon when the film ‘A Cry in the Dark’ about the famous Australian dingo-baby-stealing case came on the television (you know, the one with Meryl Streep doing that Australian accent). With nothing else planned, I sat down with the hostel staff to watch it. As the film credits rolled at the end, one of the hostel staff shook their head and quite seriously announced they would never visit Australia. ‘Dingoes steal babies! The police are bad and try to pin crimes on you! And you go to jail!’

So sitting in Medellin, once known as the most violent city on earth, and still tainted with an insalubrious reputation for gang crime during 2001, a local was telling me they would be too scared to holiday in the land of kangaroos and beach barbeques. It was pretty funny.

More seriously though, this is the type of knee-jerk reaction which the Daily Mail attempts to feed on when it splashes a story about female travel safety across its pages. They’re playing on our basic instinct of safety in familiarity and the fear of what is foreign. Note the countries they chose for the list. There’s not a so-called ‘western’ country among them. They’re all in the developing world: Africa, Asia and Latin America. There’s nothing surprising about the list – despite the article title saying so – because it’s the same tired naming and shaming that has been done copious times before to these countries by the travel media.

Despite not considering myself particularly brave, I’ve travelled extensively through nine of the countries above (just South Africa to go) and lived in both Egypt and Turkey for several years. I’d be the first to admit that travelling as a woman is not a walk in the park. It can be frustrating, angering and simply fucking exhausting at certain times. But how are the Daily Mail qualifying the countries above as the world’s most dangerous destinations for women travellers?

If you read the article you’ll see that each country on the list gets a short paragraph of scary statistics on dangers in country. Number one on the list is India which the Daily Mail qualifies for its winning position by stating that ‘gang rapes of local women and tourists have reached worrying levels in parts of the country with reports suggesting that a sexual assault is reported every twenty minutes.’

I don’t want to downplay India’s dismal statistics on sexual harassment and rape. Anyone who has seen Leslee Udwin’s documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ about the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh knows that India has a long path to walk in changing ingrained male attitudes towards women. But I wondered how some other countries, which definitely didn’t make the Daily Mail’s list, would fare if I gave them the same treatment.

So using the Daily Mail’s style this is what happens when we apply it to Great Britain:

Millions of female tourists holiday in Great Britain every year but rapes and sexual assaults of women in the country are at a sky-high level with an October 2014 report issued by the Office of National Statistics stating that 22,106 incidences of rape had been reported to police that year by June. An official crime analysis estimates that one in five women over the age of 16 has been a victim of sexual assault in England and Wales.

Drink-spiking with date-rape drugs ketamine, Rohypnol and GHB has become a serious issue at clubs and bars in recent years with a 2014 survey suggesting that one in ten Brits may have been the victim of drink-spiking. Women visiting the capital London should be particularly vigilant about their personal safety, especially while taking transport home at night. Using unlicensed minicabs is particularly dangerous; more than 10 sexual assaults are reported every month in the capital.

And now let’s apply the same treatment to the USA.

Street harassment for women continues to be a serious problem for women in the USA, particularly in large cities such as New York, as shown in the video ‘10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman‘. Rape and gender-based violence is a major issue with the latest figures from the FBI’s crime report stating a staggering 79,770 rapes reported in 2013 – which works out on average to one rape, every six minutes.

Due to lax gun control laws, there is a high incidence of gunpoint robberies and other gun crime throughout the country. Female travellers should remain vigilant at all times, particularly if using public transport and walking at night.

And now let’s stop here for a minute and consider that whopping 79,770 rape statistic because I know my jaw dropped to the ground when I read it for the first time.

Let’s make one thing clear. I’m not saying that India; Brazil; Turkey; Thailand; Egypt; Colombia; South Africa; Morocco; Mexico; and Kenya don’t have a problem with gender-based violence. I’m saying that in reality, gender-based violence is a world-wide issue, not confined to the countries above.

The Daily Mail (and plenty of other media outlets) are simply using people’s fear of the unknown when they select which countries make their grade of ‘most dangerous’ for women travellers. Otherwise why would a country like Spain – where in the popular package tourist resort of Magaluf a series of highly publicised gang-rapes and sexual assaults on tourists have taken place in recent years – not make the list? Because Spain is European and familiar, and just like us.

Over the past 20 years of my travelling life I’ve been called by various people brave, bonkers, fearless, idiotic and stupidly reckless just because of the places I’ve chosen to travel to. Yet, gender-based violence and harassment is as much a problem for women in the western world from Melbourne to Madrid and London to Los Angeles. So should we all just cower at home instead? Fuck that.

Travelling as a female is always going to have certain extra risk factors that male travellers simply don’t need to contend with or worry about but you know what, they’re the same risks and dangers women face everywhere simply by stepping out of their house. So, spare us the scaremongering. The question female travellers should be asking is not ‘which countries should I avoid to be safe’, but instead ‘why the fuck in 2015 am I still more likely than a man to be a victim of violence anywhere’.

On our traveller perception of a place & finding alternate stories

It was mango season in Egypt. The stall-holders of Souq al-Tawfiqiyya swatted flies away from the fruit piles with colourful feather whisks while spraying jets of water onto the fruit so that the mangoes’ blush-tinged skin glistened slickly. The heat within the narrow street market was nearly unbearable despite it nearing dusk. The fecund tang of over ripe produce hung in the still air. Cairo’s summer temperatures cocooned the entire city like a blanket, smothering us into a fug of indolence and idle loitering. We shopped in slow motion; picking mangoes up, smelling them, putting them down lazily, and waddling to the next stall to feel and prod again. Even the haggling was a half-hearted show, me and the vendor sighing as we carried out the pricing-battle to keep up the appearance of caring.

We were all waiting for the dark when the ripple effect of the Nile’s cooling breeze, like some ancient form of natural Prozac, would lift us out of apathy and restore us to our senses making us sigh in relief that another day in the furnace was finished with. Then the stall-holders at Souq al-Tawfiqiyya would smile at you when you picked up their fruit rather than frown and the thin alleyway, lit up by fairy lights, would thrum with a crowd of people pushing and shoving their way through while trying to manoeuvre past motorbikes and donkeys and carts. Now it was fairly quiet and easy to navigate. As long as you didn’t mind cranky vendors and the slightly off-putting smell, it was the easiest time to come here.

“There are no women here at all,” Louisa said.
I turned around just as she raised a camera to her face and snapped a couple of photos of women buying mangoes.
“What?”
“There are no women on this street.” She checked her last shots back on the digital viewfinder and then raised her camera again. “It’s absolutely bizarre.”
The camera whirred and clicked.
“It’s an entire city without any bloody women.”
I walked the few paces back to her and yanked her camera down from her face. Then I started pointing out women.
“Look there are two there, one in the bright orange floral headscarf and the taller lady beside her with the brown headscarf. You just took a photo of them. Here, a lady has just walked in front of us. She’s practically just barged into you because we’re standing still – the one in the black abbeya. There’s another one just there, with all the plastic shopping bags. Here,” I pointed. “And here, and here, and here.”
“Oh,” she said. “I must have only been looking at the fruit sellers. Well there aren’t any female fruit sellers are there?”
“No Louisa.” I said. “Market work is typically a man’s job in the Arab world.”
She shrugged and took another photo.

I gathered my tour group together and continued the walk through the souq. Later, we’d go back to the hotel swinging a bag of perfectly ripe mangoes and when we sliced them open we’d suck out the sunshine-yellow flesh, peeling it straight off the skin so that our hands were sticky fly-traps and delicate strings of mango fibre hung from our chins. That’s what Louisa would remember from the walk through Souq al-Tawfiqiyya on the first day of her three week tour of the Middle East. I’d remember her words though.

“There are no women here at all.”

And I would wonder how the hell we all became so blind.

The second time I arrived in the Middle East it was to live. I’d been hired as a tour leader for an adventure travel company with a job based in Cairo. At the interview the tour company were vague about what destinations needed new leaders. Initially I applied hoping for India. Nobody was more surprised than me when they rung me up to ask if I’d be interested in the Middle East and I said yes. Returning to Egypt had never been the plan.

The first time I departed Egypt it was by Nuweiba’s tortuously slow ferry. The crossing took five rolling and pitching hours across the Red Sea to Aqaba in Jordan and when I went to use the toilet someone had left a shit on the floor and on top of the toilet seat. At the time I thought it was a fitting final full stop to a nation I was glad to see the back of.

I had found Egypt unfathomable. It threw contradictions at you dart-speed and I had spent much of my initial 2004 journey there ducking for cover from my own muddled perceptions. Within my first five minutes in Egypt, on the Amsaad border crossing from Libya, I had found myself in the middle of a rock-throwing fight between the Egyptian border officials and a bunch of cross-border smugglers who were trying to jump the fence. In the packed immigration shed a fight broke out between two men standing directly in front of me and I had to be pulled out of the way to safety. In Luxor a man trailed behind me as I walked down the street alternating a hopeful hissing sales pitch of ‘sex’ and ‘hash’ with every step. In Aswan a child threw a rock at me. Everywhere I went I was besieged by perfume and papyrus sellers. By the time I got to Dahab in the Sinai, I was exhausted. I sat back on the cushions beside the Red Sea and talked to other travellers, drinking bottles of vodka labelled ‘Finlandia – Product of Cairo’. We were told drinking the local spirits would make us blind but it only ever succeeded in inducing hammering headaches.

One evening a bunch of us had gone dancing and the waiters from the beach-side restaurant we spent most of our time in turned up at the bar as well. They barged onto the dance floor; shimmying up behind us and rubbing their stiff penises up against our backs. Shoving them away didn’t help. They just came back and did it again so that in the end we just gave up trying to dance. One of the guys who worked at the beach camp where we were all staying told a girl to come up to the roof terrace to look at the stars. When they got up there he dropped his pants and told her to give him a blow job. When she ran back down stairs and told us what had happened, all we could think to do was laugh because hey, we said to each other, that was just what happened in Egypt.

Six weeks later, on my first day in Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri and 22 other people were blown up by a terrorist bomb along Beirut’s corniche. That same day I wandered down to the street where it had happened. My shoes crunched on thousands of fragments of broken glass underfoot. Up above hotel curtains flapped freely out of window frames. A crowd had gathered around the small cordoned off section which the police were guarding and a group of young guys wearing skin-tight jeans and bandannas tied around their heads revved past waving the yellow Hezbollah flag. Flicking through the satellite channels on the television that night in the hostel I found that there were twenty channels of porn and at least as many channels devoted to religious readings of the Qur’an. I travelled down to Tyre and took a taxi to Al-Khiam Prison which would later be bombed by the Israelis during 2006’s July War. When I visited Hezbollah were operating it as a macabre museum, with tours led by ex-prisoners who showed you around the tiny cells and explained the torture methods that had been dished out by Israel’s proxy army the SLA when Israel had occupied this chunk of Lebanon. When the tour finished they asked you to make a donation to Hezbollah and then took you to their souvenir shop where you could purchase Hezbollah key rings and miniature Hezbollah flags.

The Middle East, I had decided right there and then, was too confusing. You had to peel back onion layers of history just to attempt to fathom a single answer, and then, when you thought you understood, something would happen that would turn it all upside down again. After a particularly hard day I crashed out in front of the hostel television to watch the international news. There was a report about a woman’s refuge centre in Egypt. The centre was battling to stay open due to a lack of women using it. This wasn’t because Egypt lacked battered wives, the reporter explained, but because the cultural shame of airing your marriage problems in public in Egypt meant that women were unlikely to use it. To highlight the problem the journalist interviewed one of the women staying there whose father had berated her for seeking shelter at the refuge. “Why are you bringing shame on the family by coming here?” He had asked. “I beat your mother every night and you don’t see her running away.”

I’d had enough. On a cold March morning with snow lightly dusting the palm trees of Sultanahmet Park in Istanbul I flew out of the region and washed my hands of the Middle East. It wasn’t a place I expected to ever see again.

But then I came back. And as I settled into life there I began to feel the region had something to teach me. Lessons that took more time than a nomadic romp around its edges could ever unfurl. A couple of years ago it could have easily been me making Louisa’s throwaway remark about not seeing any women in the souq when in fact she was surrounded by them.

We all arrive in the Middle East with a particular concept of what it is already ingrained in our minds. After all, we’ve been fed the same story over and over again until it has become the only story. Blinded by our own perceptions, we choose not to seek out any alternative narrative to our own.

The second time I arrived in Cairo, I had a feeling that I had come full circle. This mark on the map had drawn a line around me for some reason and I was caught within its curvature. The ancient Egyptians had understood the power of circles. Long before they began worshipping the great sun god Ra they had deified the tiny scarab beetle which scuttled along the desert sands. Observing these little black beetles, as they laid their larva into dung and then industriously rolled the balls across the ground, the Egyptians saw that the dung balls were circular like the sun and also like the sun they would bring forth life when the scarab beetle larva sprung forth from them. They named Kephri as god of the scarab beetle and imagined the sun too was slowly being pushed by a beetle across the sky bringing light and darkness in a circular cycle of death and rebirth. Later the cult of Ra assimilated itself into the older legends but the god Kephri lived on as the dawn incarnation of Ra merging with this new impostor. Scarab beetle effigies were placed in tombs as a reminder to the dead that only half their journey had been fulfilled and they had yet to journey full circle to resurrection in the afterlife.

On that second arrival I got a taxi from the airport and drove into the centre. Above, the sky was a sludgy smear of low hanging grey glowering over the city. The springs in the back seat of the car had long ago given up hope and when I sat down I sunk into the seat and failed to rise back up again. Pieces of sponge fought to be set free from the fake leather upholstery, rising up out of the ripped fabric in little yellow geysers of foam.

The front dashboard was covered with a candy-pink fake fur rug and had been decorated with glittering talismans to ward off accidents, or at least provide a disco atmosphere in the event of one. Stickers portraying seductive eyes, laden with kohl, stared down at me from the windscreen. Christmas tinsel snaked across the pink fur. Multiple bands of amber and cherry-red plastic prayer beads were wrapped around the gear stick. Both wing mirrors had been smashed in some previous road altercation but Ahmed the taxi driver had made up for that by installing an oversized rear view mirror which stretched three quarters of the way across the windshield. Hanging down from this, was a collection of silvery baubles and a miniature Qur’an.

Ahmed caught my eye in the mirror as I stared at it and waggled his eyebrows.
“Welcome to Egypt” He grinned. “What kind of music do you like? I like western music.”
“Really? Who do you like?”
“I like Eminem and Celine Dion.”
“Ahmed you can’t like both Eminem and Celine Dion.”
“Why not?” He turned around and the car veered lazily off to the left. The car behind that had been trying to overtake us swerved to miss us and the driver beeped his horn. Ahmed beeped back and waved him on with a dismissive flick of his thin wrist. “You don’t like Eminem and Celine Dion?” He scrabbled around the dashboard to retrieve a homemade mix tape. “My favourite songs are Stan and My Heart Will Go On,” he announced. “Very beautiful.”

The mix tape crackled into life. We wound down the windows – Ahmed had to pass the communal window winder back to me as they had all fallen off the doors – and he pumped up the volume so it blared out onto the street as we sped down the highway. He kept one hand on the steering wheel and waved his other out the window in time to the music in between drags on a cigarette. The entire car shook as we picked up more speed and Ahmed turned the volume up to maximum so we could hear it over the rattling drone of the engine. We passed a highway sign pointing the way to ‘Dwon Twon’.

A maverick seat spring dug into my thigh as I leant near the window and breathed in the sharp, acrid smell peculiar to Cairo. It’s the petrol-tinged perfume of a city where two million cars fight for space on the roads every day; the exhaust fumes mixing with the desert sand which scrapes against your skin. When I swallowed I tasted metal.

I didn’t know it then but it was the start of a love affair with the Middle East and with Egypt; a tempestuous one at times, but a love affair all the same. Surviving the first summer – the summer of mangoes and of Louisa’s comment – was the real turning point. Time seemed to stagnate in Egypt in summer. You could hear resignation in the shudders of the air conditioning units as they groaned and wheezed their way through another day when the temperatures hit 40 degrees and their water overload dripped down on you as you walked down the street. Traffic ground to a halt downtown amid a symphony of car horns. In Cairo, people looked to the past as a way of coping with the city infrastructure’s slow but steady decline into chaos.

“We were once a great nation,” my friend Aisha summed up for me as she sucked on a shisha pipe. “And now we sell papyrus to the tourists.”
She blew the smoke out through her nose and it rose in curling plumes up into the night.
“Oh well. At least we have the pyramids.”

In the evenings that summer I’d walk down the streets near my flat in Zamalek, scuffing up the scattered petal confetti from the Jacaranda trees across the dingy asphalt. A petal drift clogged the potholes and piled up at the curbs. One morning, not long after I had first moved into the flat an abandoned toilet appeared on the corner of my street. It sat there all through summer, slowly gathering a layer of dirt and grime. Enterprising passers-by began using the bowl as a make-shift rubbish bin.

What’s Egypt like to live in? A friend wrote and asked me. It’s hot, I replied. There’s a toilet bowl sitting in my street. If I lean over my balcony on tip-toe I can see the Nile.

When the light began to fade I’d stand out on the flat’s balcony and listen to the local mosque’s microphone click on with a hiss of static and a muffled cough before the muezzin began the song of faith. I’d gather my washing in, dried stiffly in the crisp sun and breathe in the Cairo freshly laundered smell of diesel, desert, and faint whiff of laundry powder. Afterwards, I’d sit out there on the creaky chair as the neighbouring buildings became silhouettes under the eerie yellow tinge of the street lamps and wonder if I’d ever understand this country.

Five years later when I finally left Cairo a friend would muse that people who were attracted to the Middle East were attracted in some way to conflict. But I couldn’t agree with that analogy. Because the Middle East wasn’t just the conflict and chaos that clogged up the news channels to me any more. And it wasn’t the macho world where women were kept cowed at home that Louisa had assumed. It was a place, just like any other, full of different stories and the wonder of every day surprises. Egypt was an unfathomable mystery with an ancient stillness that resonated at the most unlikely moments and I would never completely unravel it. And that was ok because life didn’t run on straight linear lines here. It bent and wobbled. It curved. Like a circle.

And I’d remember when Ahmed the taxi driver had dropped me off in downtown Cairo at the end of the first day of my second arrival in Egypt. It had started to rain; a steady drizzle which turned the sidewalk dust to oozing mud. Egyptians ran between shops with newspapers held high over their heads to protect them from getting wet and tried to avoid the growing litany of puddles which were slowly filling the pavement potholes. He retrieved my pack from the boot and handed it to me. I paid him and said goodbye but just as I was starting to walk away he yelled for me to stop. When I turned around he was scrabbling around amid the pink furry dashboard.

“Here!” He said with a smile and put a little stone into my palm. “Ahlan wa Sahlan. Ahlan wa Sahlan Misr.”
Hello and welcome to Egypt.

When I opened my palm I saw a tiny blue stone scarab beetle.

Turn off, plug out, drop in

A hotel owner friend of mine is frustrated.

“If I see one more person sitting on the terrace with their eyes glued to their bloody iPhone instead of our amazing view, I’ll throw their iPhone off the terrace.”

She’s written this on Facebook – kind of ironic when complaining about technology – but she has a point.

Like many over-35s, I remember an era of travelling when laptops were still too expensive, and heavy, to lug around in a backpack and if you wanted to contact home you used a public phone box. On my first extended backpacking trip I didn’t even know what the internet was. Even by the time email had been integrated into my travel experience, using it required the patience of a saint to search out the one internet cafe in town with a decent dial-up connection and then the ability to type fast enough to send a message before the next power-cut sharply switched the clunky computer screens back to black.

Surrounded by younger travellers in a hostel recently I came face-to-face with a new style of travelling. The young guy beside me leaned over his tablet-screen chatting to friends back home. A girl with a notebook computer the size of a wallet scrolled through TripAdvisor restaurant reviews. Across the room, a couple slouched into chairs opposite each other with eyes glued to their smartphones. They reminded me of an elderly married couple who used to be regulars at a bar I once worked in. Every night they would come into the bar together, order two pints, and then sit in silence facing each other across the scratched veneer of the table while drinking their beer. As if the long years of living together had sucked their conversation dry. There must have been nine travellers in that room but you could have heard a pin drop. The clacketty-clack of keyboard typing was only finally broken by the lone voice of a head-phoned British boy on Skype talking to his mother.

“I’m back in the hostel…Yeah did you see the photos I put up on Facebook? Can you put some more money in my bank account? I’m running out. Don’t forget to say hi to Dad.”

This new tech-heavy era of gadgetry has fundamentally shifted how we travel but I can’t help feeling ambivalence about the convenience it now provides us. If you know what the phrase Poste Restante¹ means, ever made three precious mix-tapes² to keep you going on the road, and once lugged wads of travellers’ cheques³ around your waist in a money belt, this brave new world of high-tech travel may stir the same mix of fascination and unease in you as well.

This is a travel world of tangled cords and chargers in your backpack and never enough power sockets in your hotel room. A travelling life where you’re no longer forced to read that one rubbish crime novel left on the shelf of the hotel book-exchange because your favourite books, music, film and TV programs can follow you wherever you go. Perhaps more significant to this shift in how we now travel is it’s also a world where family and friends can keep tabs on you, wherever you are, at all times.

It’s kind of like you never left home.

New technology has always played its role in changing and moulding our experiences across the years and this isn’t meant as a diatribe against the modern conveniences of travel. Neither is it a starry-eyed remembrance of the ‘good-old-days’ that never were. I don’t want to sound like a backpacker version of Monty Python’s famous ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ skit:

Backpacker one, “Eh, in my day we had to carry rolls of film around with us if we wanted to take a photo and we only had a guidebook to help with planning.”
Backpacker two, “Luxury! We didn’t even have cameras. We had to sketch pictures if we wanted memories of our trip and the only information we got when arriving in a new town was from a one-eyed mute at the train station.”
Backpacker three, “You were lucky to have a one-eyed mute. We got up each morning and chiselled each landscape into a stone tablet that we then had to lug around in our backpacks and the only travel tips we got came from a donkey tethered in the bazaar.”
Backpacker four, “And you try and tell the young people of today that and they won’t believe you.”

But I do worry if our whole sense of wonder and discovery – the sheer joy of being somewhere completely different and not knowing what the hell comes next – is being crushed by the very technology that now makes our travel lives easier.

It’s harder to get properly lost when your smartphone’s Google Maps app can lead you directly to the main sights. It’s more difficult to feel that excited, but slightly bewildered, sense of being very far away and disconnected from normal life when Facebook and Skype allow instant access to your world back home.

And if we’re so intent on bringing home along with us on this ride into the unknown, are we simply relegating the act of travel to a list of sights we can pose ourselves in front of to prove we’ve been?

In Pico Iyer’s 1988 travel masterpiece ‘Video Night in Kathmandu’ he writes “Abroad, we are not ourselves; and as the normal and the novel are transposed, the very things we might shun at home are touched with the glamour of the exotic.”

But if we deny ourselves the pleasure of flinging off our normal home existence in the first place – remain so thoroughly plugged into the world we left behind – we’ll never give ourselves that opportunity to experience the exhilarating, befuddled brilliance that happens when the unfamiliar smacks us in the face. The serendipitous chance encounters and astounding fuck ups we can make when we’re left to flounder and find our way by ourselves out on the road. The sensory overload of India doesn’t have quite the same overwhelming and visceral sense of awe when you can finish the day in your hotel room watching Homeland on your laptop and scrolling through your Facebook news feed to find out Uncle Mike’s going back to the gym this week and your best friend Claire is cooking spaghetti for tea.

I’m not suggesting we should all strike out on the road like Rimbaud; thoroughly doing a disappearing act on our past life to reinvent ourselves anew. But just to switch off from the chattering drone coming out of ‘back there’ for at least a little while. To give ourselves the opportunity and space to become a part of these new landscapes we’re travelling in and capture more than just photos to post on our blog and Facebook page.

By venturing out from normalcy – shrugging off the ropes of everyday chores and career – we’re already allowing ourselves the first step towards experiencing something new. But by taking that further, bigger – scarier – step in opening ourselves up to a time-out from all we know at home, to be fully connected to where we are right now, that experience could become something incredible, something insane, even something profound.

So lower your camera from your face for awhile and just sit and survey the scene. Go get lost in the traffic-jammed chaos of the city streets and wander aimlessly without a map. If on these wanderings you walk past a restaurant that’s packed with locals go in and eat a meal, even if that place is not recommended by 700 other travellers on TripAdvisor. Stop. Checking. Facebook. Every five minutes. And for God’s sake if you go to my friend’s hotel can you please put down your smartphone for a second and appreciate the view.

It’s when we immerse ourselves fully in the moments along the way that you realise why you left the humdrum roundabout of home behind; the sheer, undiluted thrill of being unmoored from life. Cast adrift into a world unknown and full of possibility. There’s not an app for that. Yet.

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¹An archaic form of receiving correspondence from your loved ones when you had no permanent address. Using paper and a pen, people would write a letter and then mail it to a post office address you had given to them in the hope that you would, at some stage of your travels, be passing near that post office. The post office, if it did indeed receive the letter that had been posted, would then hold it for you for two months. If the happy coincidence of you passing by that same post office occurred in the same time frame of the letter being held there you were able to collect it and receive news from home. Please Note, often this didn’t actually work out.

²A compilation of your favourite songs copied onto a blank cassette tape and played on a portable stereo known as a walkman. Mix-tapes provided a solution to the impracticalities of trying to carry your entire collection of music cassettes around with you in a backpack. Sadly the act of repetitively hearing the same 20-odd songs over and over again also usually caused any love or sentimental value held for said songs to disintegrate completely long before the time you got home.

³An extremely popular form of safely carrying your travel funds before international-linked ATMs became common place. Travellers exchanged hard cash for travellers’ cheques which could then be exchanged for money in the local currency at banks and money-exchange offices throughout the world. The main benefit being that if lost or stolen, the cheque-issuing company would give a full refund if provided with the original purchasing slip. Unfortunately most banks in more far-flung countries demanded that you show them the original purchasing slip while you were exchanging cheques. Thus meaning that many travellers kept their purchasing slip and cheques together for convenience annulling any possibility of claiming a refund if they were indeed robbed.

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This story was first published by Peregrine Magazine.

On why I don’t have a bucket list

In 2008 I led a one-off tour that started in Cairo and then stretched west across North Africa, meandering all the way to Casablanca in Morocco. Back on a minibus, after an exhausting wait on Egypt’s Sallum border post into Libya, I overheard my elderly tour passenger crow to her husband, “number 66 and another one off the bucket list.”

“Hey Jess,” her husband shouted. “This is our 66th country. How many countries have you been to?”

Here’s a secret.

I don’t have a bucket list.

There. I’ve said it. I have committed the sin of the modern day traveller. I don’t have a top 50 things to do before I die or even a top 20 places to see before I turn 40. When I was 20 I didn’t have a top 100 destinations to tick off a list before I turned 30 either. And when I did turn 30 I wasn’t exactly sure how many countries or bucket-listy places I’d actually been to.

Not long after that tour finished, a friend got me to write down all the countries I’d visited to see who came out on top. After presenting him with the list he pointed out that despite the fact we were living in Cairo and my job had me constantly travelling across the Middle East and North Africa I had managed to forget to write down every single North African and Middle Eastern country, including the one I lived in. I guess I wasn’t made for tick box tourism.

The way my passenger couple had gloated that they’d now been to 66 countries when we’d only been in number 66 for a total of five minutes sums up the bucket list problem to me. It reduces the very act of travelling to a simple list of must-sees and must-dos that we can later brag about. Of course I want to see a country’s most famed monuments and attractions (and you can read more about my attitude towards the travel-snobs who avoid the major sites here) but it always seems to me that it’s the things in between all those must-sees that provide the best and most memorable travel experiences.

In 2004 I went to Libya for the first time (sans passengers) and yes, the grand Roman ruins of Leptis Magna blew me away and I thought the winding lanes of the Sahara Caravan city of Ghadarmes was one of the most enchanting place I’d ever seen but they are not the things that first spring to mind when someone asks me about Libya.

Instead I usually tell them about the shopkeeper in Khoms (the town beside the ruined Roman city) who was so gobsmacked at seeing an independent traveller that he wouldn’t let me pay for my groceries. Or I tell them about the oil engineer in Tobruq who bumped into me on the street and took the day off work to give me a private tour of the WWII cemeteries. His tour culminated in a tea drinking session with Tobruq’s Minister for Tourism who earnestly asked me how they could attract more travellers to town and then, jangling a set of keys before me, opened up Rommel’s operation bunker just for me. I tell them about being held in the Ghadarmes police station for hours because they knew I wasn’t supposed to be here (independent travel was illegal in Libya at this time) but they didn’t know what to do with me (they decided ignoring the issue was the best option and let me go). And I tell them about bizarre bus trips, about hitching rides in dodgy minibuses with even dodgier drivers, and getting lost everywhere because the guidebook maps were so out of date none of them made sense. Mostly though the things I remember from that trip are the people and you can’t put people on a bucket list.

It’s not that I think bucket lists are wrong. Just sometimes they seem to narrow our perspective so we don’t see the bigger picture. If we’re so busy concentrating on ticking off the next country or getting to the next star attraction we tend to miss what’s going on right in front of our noses and it’s sometimes these things that end up being the most amazingly memorable parts to a trip.

On that same Cairo to Casablanca trip in 2008 we were held up for four hours on the Tunisia/Algeria border. By the time everyone was stamped through the Tunisian side the group were a bedraggled and tired mess who just wanted to get to a hotel with a clean-ish toilet. We entered the no-man’s land between Tunisia and Algeria (my passengers’ no 68) under one of those tour group black clouds that threaten to turn into a tour leader nightmare of in-group bickering. The no-man’s land between the frontier posts stretched on in a desolate plain of dirty desert sand for four kilometres up to the shack that served as Algeria’s immigration building. I had no idea about transport here and guessed we were going to have to walk. And then, out of the desert nothingness in the distance a plume of sand rose in the air. We watched and waited as the sound of the thrumping engine got closer until Muhammad pulled up beside us in his car and threw open the passenger door which then theatrically fell off the car body completely to land in the sand beside our feet.

I squeezed people and luggage into the car. Muhammad threw open the bonnet and fixed something with a rubber band. He pushed me into the passenger seat and handed me the door to hang on to. We broke down three times on the short trip between the border posts making what should have been a five minute drive into a half hour circus which starred a hammer, a piece of rope and a copious number of rubber bands (which I began to have a whole new respect for afterwards). In a cloud of dust we arrived in front of Algerian immigration. As we climbed out, the car gave an audible sigh and something exploded in the engine. We entered Algeria laughing hysterically all signs of grumpiness gone.

You can’t put Muhammad and his border transport on a bucket list. It’s just one of those odd moments that can occur on a journey and make you love travelling even more. While bucket lists would have us condense travel to a simple series of tick box sights, it’s moments like these that remind us that travel is more than a wish list of things we must see. It’s also about the bonkers shit that happens along the way. So much of modern life is buried under lists with career goals and five year plans and achievements we should aim for. Let’s not spoil our travel time the same way.

On the good, the bad, and the just plain dumb of Trip Advisor

Back in December 2000 when I was stuck without a bed amid a torrential downpour in Cusco, I would have loved a Trip Advisor-style service to suddenly burst onto the internet scene. Instead, with all the hotels listed in the guidebooks full and the scribbled names of places passed on from other travellers also booked solid, I trudged wet and miserable through the back alleys of Cusco for five hours, with my backpack, trying to find a room.

Travelling days like this seem to now be a thing of the past. Trip Advisor has been at the forefront of a new travel industry wave – giving travellers more easy access and choice than ever before. It’s not surprising that travellers have responded enthusiastically and joined in; rating restaurants, hotels, activities and sights in a free-for-all reviewing frenzy.

I’ve got no beef to grind with the internet’s tourism giant. I don’t think it’s anywhere near a guidebook replacement but I do think it can be a useful medium for people to use in conjunction with one. Unlike a guidebook, hindered by page count restraints and publishing schedules, Trip Advisor has space for every hotel and restaurant in town to be featured. And thanks to the right-up-to-the-minute wonder of the Internet all those new hotels and restaurants manage to start building reputations long before the next guidebook author is due in town.  It should be a win-win situation for all sides.

But it’s not.

Of course everyone realises that many hotels and restaurants often post fake positive reviews on their Trip Advisor sites. But there’s a far more insidious and damaging side to the Trip Advisor fake review game.

In a town I know well, one person is making good money by creating fake Trip Advisor reviews and forum posts for local hotels and restaurants. For the princely sum of US$165 this person will not only post fake positive reviews and forum posts about their client’s business, but also nastily post fake negative reviews on the sites of three of their major competitors.  This is a small town which lives and breathes tourism. It’s the main industry there and competition between hotels and restaurants is already ridiculously high. So what happened when this Trip Advisor entrepreneur started broadcasting their services for sale? Well Hotel A used this service and got more positive reviews meaning that their Trip Advisor rating shot up. They also managed to make their main competition Hotel B have a lower rating than them because of the fake negative reviews this person posted.

Now Hotel B and Hotel C, D, E and F then got wind of this new service and felt like they had no choice but to join in. Otherwise maybe Hotel G, H, I and J were going to use it and go up higher in the Trip Advisor ratings than them. So this person made (and is making) a killing after feeding paranoia to Hotels A through to Z.

Not nice is it. But it does explain how in this town, a fairly new hotel has managed to get over 100 reviews despite being open less than a year while another hotel (who hasn’t yet used this service) has fewer than 100 reviews but has been open for five years.

I guarantee that this isn’t the only town across the world this is happening in. You put a tool like Trip Advisor out into the world and there’s always going to be someone who tries to cheat the system. The trouble is that Trip Advisor doesn’t police their site sturdily enough for people playing the system like this to get caught. Anyone can create a few different user names, log in and begin writing a bunch of bullshit. And some people, with unscrupulous morals, are going to start charging for it.

On a funnier note there’s another reason why travellers shouldn’t take everything on Trip Advisor at face value. This is a REAL review for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Göreme National Park by Trip Advisor Senior Reviewer Marcia58 (note the fact that she’s what is called a ‘senior reviewer’ hence supposedly more trustworthy with her reviews) :

“This is disappointing to hike. What seems to be the best areas are closed to the public. There are some nice views if you have a car. I took one short hike and turned back due to flies and nothing much to see. I’d skip it.”

Yeah Marcia58, I agree. It really is terribly disappointing:

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On the fact that we’re all more similar than we first think

The weather had turned up to Cairo-boil. A sweet and sticky fug of heat settled across the city like a blanket. It was so hot it hurt to breathe. I dreamt of air conditioning at night as I listened to the ancient, wobbling ceiling fan wheezing and shuddering through its circular rhythm to try and whip up a breeze.

On the street, sweaty and frizz-hindered, I looked like a straw-haired scarecrow compared to the Cairo girls. Me in my loosest cotton tops and baggiest pants with forehead damp from sweat while the Cairo girls were all turned out in shiny patent heels and carefully applied eye makeup that never seemed to run.

No matter what the thermometer said, the lycra top ruled the street-fashion of Cairo. A glance around any busy road proved it was the favoured female clothing option. This body-hugging, long-sleeved and clingy top seemed a completely impractical choice for summer in the city to me.

“Aren’t you hot?” I asked Aisha.

“Yes, too hot!”

“Well why don’t you wear something less tight?” I fanned myself with the reference book I was supposed to be using to teach her English. It was too hot to work.

“I love fashion. I adore it.” She said.

I taught her the word ‘shopaholic’ and she rolled it around her mouth with glee. Then she grabbed my hands and clicked her tongue at my unvarnished nails. I’d never be Cairo-cool.

The trouble was to be fashionable in Cairo and still manage to obey the Islamic tenets of modest dress, the stiflingly hot skin-tight lycra top had become an essential wardrobe staple. It is high-necked and long-sleeved which meant that any of the spaghetti-strapped, scooped-backed tops of Western fashion could be layered over it easily. But I couldn’t even imagine how mummifying it would feel to have body hugging lycra next to my skin when the temperature roared to over 40 degrees.

Walking home from the college I remembered my clubbing days in London. Even in mid-winter we would stand shivering in the entry queues, hugging our jackets around us to try and generate warmth because despite the sleety rain and ice-fingered wind we were wearing the most ridiculously skin-exposing, thin-fabric outfits underneath. It didn’t seem to matter what culture or religion we came from. Women will always find a way to lock ourselves in a fashion-cage.

On the joy of snail-paced travel

I have always had a knack for enjoying doing nothing. Give me a hammock, a book, and sunlight dappling through from a palm-thatched roof – or a window seat on a long train journey – and I’m perfectly happy. I came to the realisation long ago in my travelling life that I am not a person who tears down walls for something to do. Some of my happiest travel memories revolve around the simple pleasure of people watching. Sipping chai on a hotel balcony while watching the dhobi wallahs scrub clean mountains of laundry in the river below. Sitting at a pavement cafe observing the world go by. It’s when travelling creaks down a few paces to a crawl that I feel the most alive.

Because of this, it was with a large dollop of trepidation that I first became a tour leader. My style of travel had always been slow. Involving six month stints or longer upon the road. There was nothing I adored more than having the luxury of time to spend a month in one place if the mood beckoned me. Travelling on a tour had never attracted me for a variety of reasons. Mostly because the idea of someone else telling me what to do is my ultimate nightmare, but also because they just seemed…a little…quick. Blink and you miss them. Organised tours take the hassle out of your travel plans. Useful if you have one of those things called a career-path and can’t spend a longer time on the road. But how much culture and history can you absorb in a three week jaunt through the Middle East?

For over four years I travelled at lightning bolt speed; the tortoise masquerading as the hare. Employed by one of the world’s largest adventure travel companies, for nine months of every year, it was my job to buzz tourists through an itinerary that covered Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey in the constricted space of 21 days. We hardly had time to catch our breath let alone sit down and smell the flowers. You can’t do the Middle East in three weeks, I’d warn my passengers at the initial group meeting. But I could get them to the major highlights.

It was a life carried out in fast speed. Every ruin or tumbling panoramic view was serenaded with the buzz and click of camera shutters. There wasn’t time to spend all afternoon sitting on a fallen Roman column, just surveying the scene. There was only time for photos. By the end of the second week fatigue would be etched over faces as the get-on-the-bus, get-off-the-bus, endless packing and repacking began to have an effect. On day 21 we’d stagger exhausted into Istanbul, backpacks on weary backs.

Finish a trip. Say goodbye to my passengers. Fly back to Cairo. A couple of days off only if I was lucky. Start another trip. I never unpacked properly because I rarely stayed anywhere longer than two nights. It was travelling on steroids. In the end it began to suck the joy of travelling out of me. My life had become a tour leader hamster wheel.

The afternoon after I resigned I went to visit Ibn Tulun Mosque in Islamic Cairo. Despite living in the city for four years I’d shamefully never got around to going there before. I wandered around its vast airy corridors that framed the dazzling white paving of the courtyard. I stood transfixed while gazing up at the intricate calligraphy which adorned its arches. I sat. For hours; just breathing in the atmosphere of quiet contemplation before climbing the spiral of stairs to the top of the minaret where the helter-skelter view of pigeon coops and satellite dishes which grace Cairo’s rooftops, greeted me at the top.

Having the luxury of slowing down while travelling is something of a frowned upon treat. In a world so obsessed with possessing stuff – where we graduate from needing to own ipod and plasma-screen TV, to mortgage and kids – it’s seen a little naughty to be so lavish with wasting time. Maybe that’s why I love it so much. Having seen the other side of tourism up close, slow travel is a luxury worth wanting. 

On the line between tourist and local

I am slowly going deaf.  There is a tell-tale ringing in my ears and a new-found tendency to shout; definite symptoms of graduating from tourist to local.  Most foreigners only last a few days here and leave with nerves rubbed raw by the never-ending noise.  I have been in Cairo long enough to develop hearing loss.  This city is adopting me. 

My taxi has ground to a halt amid downtown’s traffic grid-lock.  Looming above this pandemonium are the architectural relics of a bygone, quieter era.  Khedive Ismail’s ornate baroque facades now slouch under the weight of years of grime.  My taxi driver lets out his frustration in the only way he knows how. He makes noise. Two million cars fight for space on Cairo’s woefully inadequate roads every day and all of their drivers have their hand firmly placed on their car’s horn.  The city’s relentless soundtrack is a cacophonous symphony of bass honks and baritone beeps that ring out from the overcrowded streets.

Up in front of us a panic-stricken police officer, cheeks flushed from blowing a piercing whistle, attempts to be heard above the racket.  It is a hopeless task.  Ambient noise levels in Cairo were recently revealed to average 85 decibels; comparable to standing 15 metres away from a freight train, and the same level that causes hearing loss with extended exposure.  We are all sinking into deafness in this city.  My driver turns up the volume of a scratchy Om Kalthoum tape to drown out the drone.

“Masnoon,” he mutters under his breath.

“Kuula masnoon,” I agree. 

Yes it is totally crazy – a perfect summation of this traffic Babel.

Outside an avalanche of rubbish slowly bakes in the sun.  With the window wound down the cab reeks of the city’s petrol-tinged perfume.  A group of shopkeepers are laying down make-shift mats of cardboard on the street corner.  They stand quietly reverent, while the traffic howls beside them.   It is nearing time to pray.

The mosque’s microphone clicks on with a hiss of static and a muffled cough before the muezzin begins the song of faith.  The first notes reverberate in the air and in the distance another muezzin joins in, and then another, and another.  Soon a hundred voices seem to be duelling above the streets of the city; blending together into a distorted roar that drowns out the clamour of the cars below. 

Even in prayer Cairo is deafening.

As the call to prayer reaches its dizzying crescendo I realise that the unrelenting din of this brash city no longer jangles my nerves.  Cairo broadcasts its frustrations, anger and even its faith at top volume, and I am slowly learning to survive amid the surrounding uproar. 

Traffic is still grid-locked, and my driver slams his hand onto the steering wheel in frustration.  

“You need a louder horn,” I say. 

“Aywa,” he nods in agreement.  Yes. 

I sit back in my seat and smile.  I have begun to belong.

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This post was first published as part of the World Nomad’s travel writing competition in 2009 and a much shorter version also appeared in the UK Independent as part of their ‘On The Road’ Footprint Guidebook author blog.

On the purpose of tourism: from the front line of the industry

One of my favourite places for leading tours was always Damascus. With the slumping architecture bearing down upon us amid the labyrinth alleyways, I would begin my group’s introduction to the Old City by taking the winding path that leads to the Shi’a pilgrimage site of Saida Ruqqiyeh Mosque. Invariably, as we threaded our way through the medieval streets, we’d become caught up in the great tide of Iranian pilgrims who were all heading that way as well.

For many in my group it was an uncomfortable situation where we would end up separated from each other; thrown to the mercy of the crowd as it surged forwards, and backwards, and to either side in relentless waves of people. When we finally washed up at the end of the street outside the mosque my group would be sweating, slightly frazzled and usually all looking a bit dazed after this very Damascene version of crowd surfing.

What they didn’t know was that I could have avoided the crowds quite easily by taking another route but had deliberately guided them into the chaos. I didn’t want my clients just to see pretty monuments and nice museums. I didn’t want to keep them swaddled from reality in cotton wool but rather I wanted them to be able to get in there and smell the sweat of the crowds; to become part of a place, if only for an instant.

Cheaper, faster, now…

Like most people who’ve worked on the front line of tourism as a tour leader or guide, I have developed a healthy disrespect for the industry’s marketing jargon. For years there has been a very obvious disconnect between the tourism industry’s love affair with hyperbole and how it actually operates on the ground. The fluffy throwaway phrases in the glossy brochures offering clients ‘once in a lifetime adventures’, ‘off the beaten track experiences’ and the ubiquitous ‘responsible travel’ become hard to swallow when every year you see the trips get cheaper, more ‘extras’ squeezed out, and the itineraries grow ever more homogenized in the quest for competitive pricing.

The industry has been feeding the same line of ‘cheaper, faster, now’, for so long that we seem to have bred a style of tick-list tourism where clients demand more but pay less and see everything but experience nothing. On returning home a tourist may be able to reel off an impressively long list of sights they saw but did they stick around long enough to be able to describe to you the uncomfortable sensation of the layer of gritty sand that sandpapered their sun-parched skin in the desert. They can walk through an ancient, bustling souq but are so busy documenting their visit so that they can remember it later – their camera permanently glued to their face – that they fail to see the stall-vendor in the corner beckoning to them to come drink syrupy tea. Is this the style of tourism we want to be involved in? And more importantly, is this what clients want? I seriously don’t believe so.

As those involved at the top of the tourism tree become more and more focussed on pricing and marketing it’s now more important than ever for those down at the roots of the industry to realise the role we can each play in promoting a different ideal; an approach that, for me, is the true purpose of tourism. Seeking connections between people, places and cultures so that the tourist is no longer just a spectator peeping through the window into an exotic ‘other’ land but part of that world, if only for a minute, themselves.

By their very nature of packing in as much as possible in the least amount of time, it is difficult to do little more than scratch the surface of a destination on a tour. But a good guide or leader can make all the difference in helping to lift the lid off a place and allow tourists to travel not just further but deeper.

We need to foster a sense of inclusion where it’s not ‘us’ against ‘them’. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve overheard guides tell their clients to not talk to anyone in markets and at sights and on the street. If you dive into the market and are comfortable chatting to the vendors, your clients will feel that they can do this too. If you just walk through simply giving a spiel on the history along the way and ignoring everyone, that’s the way your passengers will act as well. For our groups we are the benchmark for how to behave and by using this responsibility wisely we can inspire our clients to go out and make local connections themselves.

Hello Iran…

There was this one time trapped amid the flow of pilgrims in Damascus, when a car insanely tried to navigate down the road and caused the crowd to suddenly tip madly to the side. An elderly Iranian woman, shielding her face from view by clutching the corner of her black shroud in her teeth, lost her footing and grabbed the wrist of one of my female clients in an attempt to regain her balance. This then caused my client to stumble and she in turn reached out and grabbed the shoulder of the tiny Iranian lady in front of her until it looked like it could turn into a domino effect of tourists and pilgrims tumbling endlessly down the street.

I heaved them all onto the narrow ledge of a shop front where I’d managed to shelter the rest of my group until the car to blame for all this chaos finished manoeuvring through the street. We all looked at each other and burst out laughing. There was no ‘us’ and ‘them’. No strange line drawn by different clothing or eye colour, religion or politics. We were simply some people who’d all nearly ended up face-down on the ground.

When the car finally managed to grumble past the Iranian ladies patted my client’s hand to say thank you. Then some young men pushed towards us through the crowd. The ladies waved excitedly back and beckoned them over and suddenly we were all waving madly into their video camera and shouting ‘Hello Iran!’ with the Iranian ladies beside us grinning broadly. We were no longer observers. Just fellow actors in this crazy carnival called the world.

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The above article was first published as part of the ‘Tourism: What’s The Point?’ debate on the Conscious Tourism Blog.

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