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’.

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Romeo is dead in the town of tantric bliss

I called them The John Travoltas. The skinny boys with greased down and perfectly centre-parted hair, dressed in hip-hugging flares and carefully tucked-in, ironed polyester wide-lapelled shirts. They were always hanging around the guesthouse reception and knocking on my door.

“Jas-see-car, you come motorbike ride?”

“Jas-see-car, come drink whiskey with me.”

“Jas-see-car, why you no liking us?”

“Jas-see-car, you making me ca-razy not talking to me!”

I’d come to Khajuraho to see its temples, famously adorned with graphic sexual depictions. But if the local boys had it their way I’d be starring in their own epic Bollywood Kama Sutra blockbuster before I left.

On the guesthouse rooftop I watched the daylight fade and the weak yellow illumination of the street lamps stamp their flickering glow across the alleyway below. I smelled him before I heard him. The cheap cologne radiated off his pores in a fruity chemical fug. He propped himself up next to me on the cement wall and invited me to a party. “A very merry party,” he explained. “Where, Jas-see-car, we will dance and dance until you are falling in love with me.” Then he launched himself off the wall and shimmied across the rooftop like a reed-thin Fred Astaire who, denied a dame, had developed a major hip-thrusting tick.

The light bulb in my room flickered and died just after 10pm as I was reading in bed. I scrambled for the candle and matches in my pack, cursing under my breath when I stubbed my toe on the edge of the bed frame. Just as I lit the candle there was a knock at the door. “Jas-see-car,” a sing-song voice said softly. “Maybe you are no liking the dark and need some company?”

Khajuraho was the first capital and then the cultural base of the Chandela Rajput Dynasty who ruled over a large swath of central India between the 10th and 12th centuries. Under the rule of King Dhangdev, King Gand and then King Vidyadhar, the town became a flourishing centre of Chandela artistry. Its ornately-decorated temple architecture was its crowning glory.

India has no shortage of temples to visit but Khajuraho’s are something special. Carved into every inch of temple exterior are thousands of exquisitely detailed scenes. Gods, Goddesses, musicians and maidens are all preserved, finely crafted, into stone. What have captured visitors’ imaginations though are the many facade scenes which depict sexual acts.

I stood craning my head upwards at the vast temple walls, staring at the open-air gallery of Medieval pornography. A local tour guide marched past jabbing his walking stick towards the temple. Following behind, was a straggling group of silver-haired tourists, flabby-skinned white knees poking out below billowing walking shorts, laden down with guidebooks and cameras. He turned towards them and raised the walking stick up into the air to rally his troops yelling “This way everybody, for the bestiality scenes.” The group quickened their pace to a shuffle. A few starchy-perm haired ladies tittered behind their hands.

When the British engineer T.S Burt thrashed through the jungle here in 1838, led to the Khajuraho temple complex by his local guides, he was scandalised by the artistic endeavours of the Chandela kings. In a typical display of buttoned-up Victorian hubris he vented his feelings about the discovery in the Journal of the Asiatic Society.

“I found in the ruins of Khajrao seven large diwallas, or Hindoo temples, most beautifully and exquisitely carved as to workmanship, but the sculptor had at times allowed his subject to grow rather warmer than there was any absolute  necessity for his doing; indeed, some of the sculptures here were extremely indecent and offensive…”

Archaeologist Alexander Cunningham brought the Khajuraho temple complex to the attention of the wider world after his survey of the complex carried out between 1852 and 1885. Intrepid Victorian travellers then purposely set off to see the temples with the intention to be outraged and titillated by the Chandela sculptures.

Not much seems to have changed in our view of the sexual content upon the temple walls. A male traveller would later confide to me that when visiting he’d kept looking over his shoulder, afraid to be caught staring too long at the displays of sexual antics. He explained he had felt like a teenager sneaking a furtive peek at his dad’s Playboy collection.

Nobody knows why the artisans here chose to create such a mind-boggling array of erotica. On the exterior of Khandariya-Mahadev Temple lustful groupings of wanton women are entangled with sensuous men in an orgy of positions. Known as mithuna, these scenes of love-making human couples were thought to ward off evil but scholars have been unable to answer why so many were portrayed. The sexual subject matter of the temple carvings has been the stimulus for many theories. One of the more plausible is that as the whole menagerie of daily life has been portrayed on the temple walls, sex, which leads to the creation of life itself, should be celebrated as well.  Whatever the Chandela architects’ reasoning, these are beautifully shaped scenes chiselled into stone with extraordinary skill, and it was all accomplished over a 100 year period of dazzling creativity that ended in AD 1050.

A soundtrack of birdsong and the soft staccato put-put of ceaseless water spray hoses followed me as I strolled between the temples. The western temple complex was a tranquil, green bubble complete with preening peacocks. Lush, manicured gardens were tended by a squadron of sweepers and grass cutters.  On exiting, I was tipped back out onto the drab, dusty streets of reality.

Touts besieged me as I wandered by their shops, shoving cheap plastic trinkets and ratty-edged Kama Sutra postcards under my nose. I headed back to the guesthouse where the John Travolta disciples were lounging around the lobby blasting Hindi Pop from the stereo. The rooms fizzed with unspent teenage energy. “Jas-see-car!” They yelled. “Now you are here we can dance.” A boy proudly showing off the first fluff of a moustache on his upper lip wiggled his way across the scuffed linoleum floor towards me wobbling his eyebrows and head up and down simultaneously. “Jas-see-car! Beautiful Jas-see-car!” The guy behind the reception desk cried while clapping his hands to the beat.

I escaped back outside and wandered out of town along the quiet back lanes. Sedate old lady cows joined me on their afternoon stroll. Two children whizzed by on an ancient bicycle, trilling the bike’s old fashioned bell as they passed. At the Jain temple enclosure the vivid sculptures decorating the Parsvanath Temple depicted snapshots of life’s mundane little moments yet still seemed endowed with a scent of sensuality. A young girl removed a thorn from her foot in one scene. Another hour-glassed ancient babe applied her kohl makeup. Big breasted and nubile apsara (female nymph figures of Buddhist and Hindu mythology) danced across the temple facade and wrapped their arms protectively around strong warrior men, looking longingly into their eyes. The long-gone artisans and inhabitants of Khajuraho seemed as obsessed with romance as my modern-day John Travolta wannabes.

As I paid my room bill that evening the guesthouse gang surrounded me in a circle at the reception table sporting pouting lips and slapstick jilted-lover looks. When I handed over the money, one rolled his eyes and fell back on the old sagging sofa stabbing at his chest with an imaginary dagger in his hand while plumes of dust rose up from the chair.

The parrots were the only other things awake when I left the next morning. Their squawking cacophony accompanied me as I crept out of the guesthouse, winding my way over the snoring bodies of John Travoltas wrapped up in blankets on the reception floor. On the alley corner I woke up a rickshaw driver snoozing in his cab and set off for the bus station. As we passed by the western enclosure the soft buttery-yellow sandstone of the temples seemed to glow in the early morning light.

I was about to board the bus when he turned up. One of the John Travoltas riding a battered motorbike came screeching to a halt right beside the bus door. “Jas-see-car!” he said. “You didn’t say goodbye.” Leaning on the bus, we smoked a cigarette together until the other passengers had all boarded and the bus driver beckoned me inside. When I got to my seat, I pushed open the window and waved. Sitting on his bike, with his hair still ruffled from sleep and not yet fought into that slick centre-part, he looked like an abandoned child.

As the engine rumbled into action he kicked the bike up to the side of the bus under my window and grabbed at his shirt with his fist. “Jas-see-car, my heart is being brokens into many little pieces.” I rolled my eyes and laughed as we rolled out of Khajuraho bus station and onto the road. In this town of ancient tantric temples, the modern day Romeos weren’t having much luck.

Shaman, Swami, Sadhu, Sham

The sadhu had been squatting in the shade of the courtyard archway since I woke up. It was my second morning in Orchha. I sat on the low stone wall, listening to the rumbling barks of the monkeys sheltering unseen in the trees overhead. Looming over the view, Raja Rudra Pratap’s over-decorated cake of a palace burst out of its forest wrapping. The umbrella-shaped palace domes glinted in the sun. The sadhu shuffled over to where I was sitting. His frayed lunghi, tied around a wasted frame, was the only scrap of clothing he wore. Thick, long and matted, his dreadlocks were knitted together with twigs and leaves.

Head half-cocked to the side, he perched on the wall casting darting, curiously bird-like glances in my direction. The smell of wood smoke and hay, peat and fecund earth vibrated off his skin. He drew the tiny satchel, tied around his body with a piece of twine, in front of him and brought out a crumpled beedi packet. It was empty. I offered him a cigarette. We sat in silence for a couple of minutes, just staring up at the palace.

“Where are you from then?” he said.

I turned around to stare him in the face. Trying to search out the English man buried under the dirt-encrusted surface.

“New Zealand,” I said.

“Ahh, never been there. I travelled everywhere, but everywhere was nowhere.” He sucked on the cigarette. “Have you been to South America?”

I nodded. He grinned. His teeth were smeared rusty brown from chewing betel nut.

“I went to Peru. I went to Brazil too. Wonderful. How about Mexico? Did you go?”

I nodded again.

“I went to Mexico once. Great drugs in Mexico. Fantastic parties back then. Wonderful.”

His name was Steve and he was from Wigan. He told me he’d been in India since about 1987.

“Have you ever left?”

“No.” He shook his head and laughed. “Why leave? Wonderful.” He stretched his arms out in front of him and waved his hands at the palace. The long threads of his veins bulged against his skin.

“Don’t you miss travelling to other places though?”

“I went to the underworld last year,” he said. “That wasn’t wonderful.” He drew the burnt down butt of the cigarette to his lips to suck out the last embers. “Not wonderful at all.”

Steve had slipped down the rabbit hole too far to ever come back up again. I’d noticed that India seemed to have a peculiar effect on some travellers. Before I finally got here myself, travellers I met on the road always treated it as if it were another planet, not just another country. “Indiaaaaah,” they sighed. It didn’t need any other embellishment if you’d been initiated into their private club.  “In India, anything is possible,” one guy tried to explain to me. But, I thought, wasn’t that the entire essence of why we travelled anyway.

Travelling was the un-chemically enhanced ecstasy of possibility. Like the last pill you swallowed late on Saturday night, and had given up on actually working, suddenly coming on with a fireball explosion in your brain as you waited for the night bus home from Brixton. Unlike ecstasy though, this buzz came without the downside of suddenly finding yourself sobbing over your computer for no good reason on Monday afternoon’s come-down. I tried to ask Steve about it as we sat together on the wall. “India is just…different,” he said. “It just is.”

I didn’t buy it. It wasn’t India that was different. It was the way travellers seemed to want to react to India. You could run into shaggy-haired dropouts and modern-day hoboes across the world but nothing like the flood of oddball pilgrims and seekers who seeped into India’s cracks and seemed to get stuck there. Here, it wasn’t enough for travellers just to come and see and touch and experience. They came specifically to transform; to mould themselves into better people. As if the country – the Indiaaaaah of their imagination – was itself the chrysalis from which they would be reborn.

India as a place of redemption and refuge had been hard-wired into our travelling consciousness by the hippies. Ever since The Beatles burst into Rishikesh in 1968, its lure of cheap drugs and eastern spirituality has kept up a steady flow of young western travellers into the country. They had flocked in with wide-open saucer eyes, dirty hair, and few possessions on the overland route from Europe. Many arrived on buses which stopped off in Istanbul, Kabul and Kandahar along the way. Ironically, this rag-tag army of dropouts were paving the first steps of the modern overland tourism industry, just with less organisation and way more drugs. India has never quite escaped from the perception the hippies stamped on it.

When I was in Kerala, every lost child, seeker, and hipster on Varkala beach seemed to have just strolled out of an ashram. With their Thai fisherman’s pants tied carefully at the perfect hip-line point, the younger travellers spent a lot of time trawling the cliff side shops for trinkets to decorate their newly put together bohemian-chic look. Toe rings to set off their Birkenstocks. Plastic bracelets layered over sunburnt arms. You weren’t cool in India unless you jingled as you walked. Strung-out, skinny hippies lounged in the cliff top cafes. Someone was always trying to strum Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here on their guitar. Everyone was signing up for yoga classes and Ayurvedic treatments. Snoozing on the sand during the day and flooding into the restaurants to watch pirate DVDs at night.

Swami Claude and Shaman Julie stayed at the same guesthouse as me just off Varkala cliff. Swami Claude’s room was across from mine and if I was in when he was going out I would hear the jiggling click, click, click, of the multiple strings of prayer beads looped around his neck as he walked down the hall. Over them he wore an open shirt which exposed a layer of crispy chicken tan. Women loved Swami Claude. They fell over each other to talk to him.

Every morning I’d wake up to his yoga class puffing their way through pranayama exercises. The low reverberating Om – exhale as slowly as possible, drawing out the ‘o’ as far as you can with your breath – rolled through my open window and I lay under the mosquito net listening to his soft French accent encouraging the yoga students to stretch into their pose.

When they got bored of yoga they could always sign up to Shaman Julie’s spirit guidance ritual. She was freshly pressed out of the Osho compound in Pune and before that she’d spent four months in the Peruvian Amazon guzzling Ayahuasca. The notice she’d stuck up in restaurants along the cliff face said she’d been initiated into the South American shamanistic tradition and was fully qualified to help you find your spirit animal guide. Over breakfast one morning she told me that my animal guide was probably an eagle which, I supposed, is better than having a chicken or a wombat to lead you through life but I never found out for sure because the rest of the information could only be revealed by signing up, and parting with my cash, to take part in one of the rituals.

After she left me and my toast alone, she’d sashayed through the restaurant, waving at various groups of backpackers, and then began performing a set of sun salutations between the tables. As I finished off my coffee Shaman Julie stretched her arms wide out above her head in a dramatic finish and shouted ‘Accha! Accha! Accha!” as she ran out of the restaurant and onto the cliff path.

In Varkala I ate fresh fruit on the beach, my hands sticky fly-traps of melon and mango juice becoming encrusted with sand. I read books while swinging on a hammock in the afternoon heat stupor and wandered the cliff path at dusk. It was an easy life and I knew it; a time-out from the hustle of India’s city streets where the rickshaws drove in knot loops to weave their way through the traffic weft lines, and crossing the road was a catch-me-if-you-can lesson in karma. Even the helium-voiced temple chanting seemed to blast out at a lower decibel here. I could understand how the hippies had seen India as nirvana, though they grumbled now about the tourists moving in on paradise.

Old-timers bemoaned the march of concrete which had gobbled up their old haunts of Goa and parts of Kerala. The pot-bellied package tourists, and their two week resort vacations, which had nothing to do with the Real India. They seemed unable to accept that they were the ones who’d set the tone for what was to come. When the hippies descended in a free-love swarm upon India they hadn’t cared about what the Indians thought about their open drug use and free-for-all attitude. They’d simply strolled in flaunting their bell-bottomed hedonism in India’s face.

Everyone I met seemed intent on searching for something. There was a pervading virus-like belief that India would cure all our ills with its plethora of religions and pantheon of gods. We shopped for spirituality with a greedy enthusiasm which confused most Indians. Just like the good consumers we’d been taught to be in the west. We had managed to turn it into a competitive sport. A spirituality Olympics where the gold medals were won by those who managed to memorise the most mantras, visit the most gurus, and perfect a no-wobble headstand. But the Indians themselves were shuffled onto the periphery of the India story; footnotes in their own country. They were the waiters, and hotel-boys, and souvenir touts; the crazy rickshaw driver who nearly killed you in Agra, the companions in your 2nd-class sleeper train carriage, and the people who lived in the dusty place outside of your ashram. We came to dredge India of its wisdom but ignored the Indians themselves.

Steve wasn’t a great talker. We sat on the wall in silence while I pondered the underworld that he’d been travelling to. He had hung up his backpack and found the trailhead onto the overgrown path of the inner-journey which so many travellers here seemed to be seeking. He cleared his throat, as I said goodbye and got up to go.

“Are you going to Khujaraho after here?” He asked.

“Yes maybe in a few days.”

“Not today? I’m trying to find someone to share a car.”

“Sorry, I’m going by bus from Jhansi anyway.”

“By bus? There are some French people who might be taking a car today. Maybe I’ll go see if I can tag along.” He slid off the wall and straightened himself up.

“How do you have money to afford to hire a driver?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m not going to pay. Maybe the French people will let me ride for free. Wonderful. The bus is awful. If you change your mind and decide to take a car let me know.”

“And I’d have to pay?”

“Sure. Wonderful.”

Steve pulled his pouch across his shoulders and walked across the courtyard out to the road on a mission to find the French people. If even wandering ascetics weren’t above wanting a comfortable seat on the road to enlightenment, what chance did the rest of us have?

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