I have been thinking about whether to write this article for a while. It has been on the back of my mind for a bit and as I am getting more and more worrying wishes, where I know that people are very sincere when they wish me ‘Safe travels’ I decided to spill out the beans.
To be completely honest with you, I think, that being a white solo girl hitch-hiker from Europe is not so much a disadvantage when traveling as much as it is an advantage (or more like a privilege). Now, I am not talking about the privilege of having European passport, access to free health care or education (yes, it is kind of free in Czech Republic) and all that money-related matters, because those are things you can secure in most places although I admit it is much harder for some. However, your gender or colour of your skin is not something you work hard to get. You were born with it without really deserving it, no matter what you ‘got’.
I always try to convince my friends from all around the world to either join me or do whatever travel adventure on their own. I honestly believe that being exposed to different cultures, lifestyles and environment while being completely self-dependent and having to take the responsibility for one’s decisions is a great way to learn about ourselves – and it also helps to open the mindsets of people in places where you travel. Although I believe that your attitude makes a big difference on the experiences you have when you travel: being a YES-(wo)man or a detailed planner, trusting people or being overly careful, choosing comfort or choosing fun and new experience… I also realize that all the fun and unbelievable stories that I have so many, I partly experienced for reasons beyond my control.
Your gender and colour of your skin is what people see before you even (try to) make the first contact. Both (gender and colour of your skin) carry certain stereotype and is infused with expectations about you as a person. So, while for some those associations might play into their cards, other have to first prove them wrong before being able express themselves.
This is very subjective, as I am comparing something I cannot know from direct experience (I have never been a black guy trying to hitch-hike in Africa). However, I have talked to friends, stood next to other people hitch-hiking, travelled and hitch-hiked with many other people and talked to the drivers.
Being me gives me few privileges, each of them is an advantage on its own, and I am simply lucky I have all of them. I also did not do anything to deserve them.
Being a Woman
In all cultures, women are seen as the ‘weaker’ gender. They are to be protected, helped and cared for. Man, on the other hand, are expected to know, to be the strong ones and to be able to deal with harsher conditions. I would often get helped, because the drivers (be it a man, a woman, family or group of friends) feel the need to help me and to make sure that nobody hurts me. I am being protected from bad guys, while men hitch-hikers hardly ever get the same treatment. Men should be strong and they simply should figure out for themselves (our culture tells us). If I say I want to camp alone, everybody suddenly has three cousins in each city on the way, where I can stay overnight. I would often get lift for few extra kilometres to a ‘safer spot’, get some ‘snack on the road’ or get helped with backpack (I always refuse, I’ve been carrying my things for years, so I can surely manage this time too). When asked for directions, people would walk with me to make sure I find it, instead of just pointing the way. Yes, you can say it is like that for a reason, but I don’t think that all the men are rapist in the same way I expect them not to think that every woman is weak human being unable to defence herself, understand the map or carry her backpack.
Two Armenian Ladies invited us to their humble lovely home near Turkish borders. There were only 10 houses in the village.
I can see the difference also when traveling with a guy. There is still some familiarity, people are nice and helpful (most of them always are!) but it feels like in their eyes, I have somebody who will make sure I am fine and so this additional ‘protective measures’ are not there that much anymore. This type of conversation just moves to the guy (‘where are you guys camping? Oh, ok, do you have all that you need?’).
When standing on the same spot with other hitch-hikers (in Europe, Asia or Africa) I would always get the lift first. If I travel with a guy – the solo girl or two girls would go first. It is funny, but somehow everybody silently accepts this as given. I always wonder, how our 21st century society can still be based on those indoctrinated culturally imposed norms. You can say, that I should be happy as I am the one getting the benefits of easier travels, but it does get annoying. After all I travelled in around 60 countries, hitch-hiked across and between continents and yet, guys who haven’t left their small town and who probably cannot even build a tent will often give me talks about how dangerous it is and tips about how to take care of myself.
As sad and bad as it is, hardly ever people in Africa or Asia associate white travellers with danger. The fear and risk from the driver’s side is (in the driver’s mind!) reduced to nothing and the decision whether to take me or not is than based on other factors. Being black hitch-hiker (e.g. in South Africa) everything else being equal, is adding additional layer of fear (from the driver’s perspective). I don’t even know how many times somebody told me they never pick hitch-hikers and I was their first. Those were mainly white guys or families from Africa but also many Asians or black Africans. In general, nowadays people are afraid picking up hitch-hikers as there are stories about them stealing the car etc. People would never think I can do that (outside of Europe) and so there would never be afraid of picking me up.
When walking in streets people want to talk to me; either they see opportunity for business (as a tourist I might buy something), having a new friend (in many countries in Africa or Asia having a white friend even if just on Facebook is something cool – another very sad left-over from our Western cultural brainwashing) or they just see something new and interesting (if you see lost and confused Masai or native Indian in Europe you might also be curious about what he does here more than about fellow citizen who is in the city just for business). Many times, I ended up eating with the most random people in the streets, their offices or even being invited to their homes with their families. This is because with my light hair I will always stand up in Africa, Asia and many parts of Europe (Euro-Asia) and people will want to talk to me even if I am not lost or don’t need help.
The one disadvantage of this, is that I can hardly ever walk down the streets incognito – and unnoticed. However, I learnt few tricks to deal with that.
Being a Traveller
Just because you are a traveller you receive different treatment from the locals. Having backpack, exotic clothes, funny hats or not speaking the language (or speaking it with an accent). All this makes it easier for me not to pay for the ride when hitchhiking, even though comparatively I have more opportunities to earn money compare to locals in many countries (I don’t necessarily have more money than them 😊). People would pick me up, occasionally ask for money and often if I say I try not to pay, they found it funny and take me anyway. It is curiosity. They want to know why I travel without money, where I go, where I am from – it is all new and exotic for them. If Zimbabwean hitchhikes in Zimbabwe he would always be asked to contribute to petrol (this is very usual in many African and Asian countries, as transport can be scarce and people with car are form of a quick and reliable transport between cities).
Backpack also carries a lot of associations with and thus, black hitch-hikers with backpack will still have it much easier than those without it, those with accent (or non -locals) again, I believe have additional advantage. However, when you simply hitch next to the road, the three things you as a driver notice is gender, colour and backpack (or even signpost). Therefore, making yourself stand out is I believe the best way, to debunk the fears and associations connected to your gender, colour or religion as people’s curiosity will make them stop.
All this is not to say that people always act based on the three stereotypes or that unless you are a white blond chick you cannot have some good stories to tell. There are thousands of amazing people who see past the gender or colour of your skin. What I simply wanted to share is that I am lucky (and I am well aware of that) that I don’t have to debunk any myths or negative associations that people might have about me as a person without even knowing me. And I think more people should realize it, there is not much you can do about it, but ignoring the fact that unfortunately our society (maybe I should say the world) is still treating different groups and people differently will just create more conflicts. The only way to change people’s mindsets about this, is I believe, for more diverse travellers to hit the roads. Because only through positive direct experience will people let go the stereotypes.
So, girls – don’t be afraid to travel solo, as it will probably be the best time of your lives. Guys, don’t expect that all the girls need your protection, not once I helped a fellow traveller with food, directions, tips or other emergency measures. Thump-up everyone!