Why being a woman is my biggest barrier to exploring the world

Trigger warning: This post acknowledges the existence of sexual assault.

Traveling is an incredible privilege and adventure, but it’s not always easy. Especially as a woman. 

When I was preparing for my first trip to India, many people expressed concern for my safety, and some even urged me to reconsider. At the time, there were a number of high-profile, terrible cases of sexual assault in the news, and I’ll admit that they did make me feel a bit uneasy. Fortunately, I was also aware of a psychological phenomenon called accessibility bias—the fact that recent events are easier to recall and therefore seem more common (and more scary) than they actually are—so I tried to put these horrible events into perspective. I also knew (and know) that, unfortunately, sexual assault happens everywhere, and in a country with over a billion people there are going to be more assaults, and likely more high-profile assaults. 

While this logic helped me reason my way into greater confidence, I knew very well that the risk was real. I wasn’t naive to the fact that India in general has different views on women than I’m used to in Canada, and that a number of cultural practices continue to objectify women and define the boundaries of their lives very narrowly. 

Fortunately, the vast majority of this trip and my last were great, without major incidents. However, I’ve experienced ogling, despite my conservative dress (though, unfortunately, that happens everywhere), and had a few incidents of being grabbed or touched in busy crowds or traffic. There were only two times on my last trip when I was properly scared about what might happen, both in Mumbai. 

In 2013, on one of my last days in India, I was eating lunch in a small restaurant and having a conversation with the guy who was serving me. It was an awkward time of day (around 2 or 3pm), and I was the only one in the restaurant. After having what I would call a normal conversation, he randomly leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. I was very, very freaked out. I was suddenly extremely aware of the fact that he and I were alone in this restaurant and I had to get out immediately. In exactly the way I was socialized to do, I tried to act like a stranger kissing me uninvited wasn’t a big deal. With my body language I tried to communicate a balance of “that wasn’t ok” with “don’t get mad that I don’t want you”, and asked for the bill. He seemed to suddenly realize that what he’d done wasn’t ok and apologized. “No, no, it’s ok,” I said, hoping not to anger or offend him in any way. I paid, didn’t wait for my change, and quickly exited. 

Generally, I think western women (usually thought of as white women in India) are viewed as loose and available. Early on in my first trip to India, I was sitting in a tuk tuk (a small taxi) with the guy I was seeing at the time. The driver asked if we were married, and we said no. He then made some inappropriate remark about me being a loose woman.

Just two days ago in Kathmandu I was sitting in my hostel’s rooftop lounge where a bunch of fellow travelers were hanging out. Two Indian guys (not to pick on India), walked across the room and asked if they could sit with me. Glancing around I noticed that there were a couple other tables they could’ve chosen. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, and I wanted to be a somewhat friendly fellow traveler. Since I was busy working on something anyway, I said that they could join me at my table but that I didn’t want to talk. They sat down and didn’t bother me for a few minutes. Then one of them looked over and offered me some of his beer, to which I said, no thanks. He asked again, and I repeated my answer. He reluctantly turned and started talking to the group of western guys sitting in the corner, and quickly directed the conversation to his current perdicament: he needed a girlfriend. More specifically, he wanted to lose his virginity to a white girl. Presumably out of amusement, curiosity and insensitivity, the western guys played along. The Indian guy insisted that the western guys could get him a girlfriend, and started asking for tips on how to get a white girl. Soon, two white girls from England sat down nearby. He noticed them, and as he called to them across the room I tried to give a signal that they might want to avoid him. But it was dark, and they were nice, and so they started talking. 

I wondered to myself if I was overreacting—what’s the big deal if he wants to talk to them? But after a few minutes it was clear they wanted out of the conversation. Again, in a way that was typical to the way women are socialized to behave, they said they were going to bed, opting to remove themselves from a situation that could’ve otherwise been enjoyable in an attempt to protect this guy’s ego. He, rather unbelievably, suggested that he go with them. To bed. They responded with nervous laughter, acting like what he’d said had been a joke, and left. 

He immediately turned to the western guys in the corner and started complaining that the white girls had left. They suggested he be more subtle. So he turned, again, to me and asked where I was from. I told him Canada, and he asked another question. At this, I looked at him directly and said, “you should probably give up on me. I’ve heard your whole conversation. I know you just want to sleep with someone, and I’m not interested. Also, I have a boyfriend.” (Having a boyfriend is not a necessary excuse for not being interested, but often helps to give weight to my “no”). He asked me if I could find him a girlfriend, and I said I didn’t have any extras. He insisted that if I wanted to give him one I could, making it clear that my earlier “no” had been rejected. At this point I just stopped responding to his questions, choosing to potentially come off as rude in front of this room full of travelers rather than let this guy think that this conversation was acceptable.

He eventually gave up on me, and started a conversation with the western guys about how much a woman would “cost”. Again, they humoured him, talking about the challenges of finding women in Nepal as compared to a place like Thailand. I found myself hoping that this guy was not in my mixed gender dorm room. Thankfully, he wasn’t.

Obviously, there are a lot of problems with this scenario. Of course, most guys aren’t like this. And it might be easy to dismiss what he was doing as part of a harmless pursuit of sex. There’s nothing wrong with trying to hook up with someone, but the approach he took clearly demonstrated that he saw (white) women as interchangeable objects of desire, rather than humans with lives and preferences, worthy of being treating with dignity. Worse than that, his aggressiveness and inability or unwillingness to pick up on social cues and listen to an outright “no” was scary. And I bet you any money that he had no idea he was scaring anyone. 

The second problem with this scenario is that the western guys, a group of five or six, decided to humour him in his actions. This is not ok. In an age where “locker room talk” by Donald Trump had no obvious effect on his eligibility for president, it’s more important than ever to stand up to inappropriate behaviour, especially if you’re the guy the creepy dude turns to for validation (ya, Billy Bush, that’s why you got fired). The parts of our culture that make sexual assault possible and permissible are more often subtle than they are overt. You may think you’d never take part in a sexual assault, but we’d all do better (as men and women) to consider how we might be enabling rape culture through our permissive bystander behaviour. 

The above examples are exactly why I’ve said that being a woman is my biggest barrier to really experiencing the world. But while safety is a major concern, cultural differences between myself and well-intentioned, nice guys can also be a challenge. This is where I struggle to balance my feminism (and self-worth) with my desire to experience and enjoy other cultures.

For example, I just got back from an eight-day trek. It was supposed to be me, three others and our trekking guide. Instead, it was just two of us and our guide when we set out, and the the other trekker went back to Kathmandu on the morning of day four because he was sick. Spending more than a week straight with another person can be really frustrating if you’re not well-matched, and indeed, by a few days in, I was starting to feel irritated. The thing is, my guide was objectively incredibly nice. He offered to do things for me like get me water or carry my bag. Like most Nepali people, he prided himself on “treating his guests like gods”. Sounds nice, right? 

Problem is, I’ve never wanted to be treated like a princess. If you know me, you know that I insist on carrying my own bag, opening my own door, and generally being treated with the assumption that I can do whatever a man can do. More importantly, I expect you to listen to me when I tell you that I can do something myself. In fact, listen to me in general. Yes, I’m sure. I’ve said no three times. No means no, every time. Here are some things I said and thought over the course of eight days:

  • No, I don’t want to stop for a break. No, really. Really. 
  • Yes, I want my own room rather than sharing a private room with a man I barely know. Don’t look disappointed.  
  • If you wouldn’t mind, stop coddling and micromanaging me. 
  • Oh, I get it, you’re manipulating me.
  • Look at me with respect, goddammit. 
  • I’d like to understand what’s going on rather than just being told what to do. 
  • Stop looking at me like you’re waiting for me to just give in and make this easy for you. 
  • No, I don’t want you to tell me I’m beautiful. 

Now, I’m used to shit like men taking up more space, and making myself small on public transit, and, let’s face it, in general. But the small aggressions that make me feel less valuable, capable and respected because I’m a woman can be crazy-making. Especially because most of these feel invisible, particularly to men, and it gets even more complicated when the intention is very likely hospitality and respect.

Typical. This happened on the bus ride to and from the trek with two different men.
To be clear, I don’t want to discourage any woman from taking on the world like the badass and/or debutante she is. You can absolutely do it, and you deserve that adventure just as much as any man. But unfortunately, it can be difficult out there, so my intention with this post is to tell you that, more than likely, you’re not crazy. If you feel unsure about a situation, there’s probably good reason. The morning after the incident with the creepy Indian dude and the western guys in my hostel, one of those western guys commended my spidey senses on responding to the Indian guy when he first asked to sit with me. “Thanks,” I said, “It’s a skill I’ve been working on my entire life.” 

But as many before me have argued, this is not just a women’s issue. (And of course, safety is a huge issue for transgender women and men, POCs, and other minorities, which I haven’t written about here specifically but definitely want to acknowledge.) This is also a call to action to those western dudes in my hostel and all other men to be more attentive to, and put an end to, conversations that belittle and objectify women. This is your problem too.

What do you think? Do you agree, or does this come off to you as being overly sensitive? Do you think it’s a traveler’s job to adapt to the culture they’re in, absorbing what feels like disrespect in an effort to be easygoing? 

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What makes someone a yogi?

Before coming to India for a yoga teacher training course, I hadn’t thought too much about what it means to be a “yogi”. I figured that if you like yoga and do yoga pretty regularly then feel free to call yourself a yogi (if you want). It doesn’t give you superpowers, nor the right to teach yoga or be superior; but if it helps you enjoy your practice and find other yogis to hang out with, then great! 

As you might expect, it turns out that being a “yogi” in India is a lot more intense, and the title is a lot more meaningful. To begin with, the study and practice of yoga is both more commonplace and far more spiritually significant in India. It seems to me that the title of yogi is a meaningful sign of expertise and dedication to one’s yoga practice. I should point out that, traditionally, yoga is much more than a physical practice. It’s a spiritual practice that gives guidelines about how to live, the goal of which is to control the mind so that one can reach enlightenment. (This is according to the practice of Ashtanga, or eight-limbed, yoga, which outlines eight elements of yoga, only one of which is the physical practice). So while there are many levels of yogi-hood, the great yogis are those who have reached what’s called samadhi, or enlightenment. 

I struggle with the concept of samadhi. One of our teachers (who considers himself a middle-of-the-pack yogi) describes the path to samadhi as one of detachment. (I’m about to get into some granola here so bare with me). Supposedly, most people spend their entire lives living in their first, second, third and, if they’re lucky, their fourth chakras. Chakras aren’t really my thing, but I’ll give a quick overview in case you aren’t familiar (feel free to skip the next paragraph if you already know this stuff). 

There are seven main chakras or energy centres, (though there are a bunch of smaller ones throughout your body). These chakras start at your tailbone and follow your spine up to the crown of your head. The first chakra, muladhara, is also called the root chakra because it’s located at your tailbone and relates to safety, survival, stability, food and other basic needs. The second, svadhishthana, is at your sacrum and relates to intellectual interests, emotions, relationships, pleasure and creativity. Manipura, the third chakra, is at your navel and relates to things like ego, power, respect and fear. The fourth chakra, anahata, is also called the heart chakra because it’s located at your heart and relates to compassion, unconditional love, passion and devotion. Vishuddhi, the fifth chakra, is located at the throat and governs communication, expression and relates to teaching. The sixth chakra, ajna, is also called the third-eye chakra because of its location just above and between the eyebrows. It relates to intuition (and even the ability to see the future), visualization, and balancing the inner and outer worlds. Last, sahasrara is located at the crown of the head and relates to samadhi (enlightenment), inner wisdom, a sense of oneness with the “universal consciousness”, and detachment from the body. 

My understanding is that one should generally aim to balance energy across all of the seven chakras, but that for just about everyone, their first, second, third and, if they’re lucky, fourth chakras are most active. Supposedly, most people want to expand their heart chakra (without knowing it), because they want to be happy, and value compassion, love, service, and helping others–all elements of an open or active heart chakra. 

Getting back to my point about yogis: apparently, a “true yogi” aims to move up into their fifth, sixth and seventh chakras, as they work toward enlightenment. A “true yogi” works to detach themselves from this world, which is why many people on this path become monks, giving up their belongings and families, perhaps eating the same simple food for the rest of their lives, and relying on the generosity of others to sustain them. This is because one can’t move into the upper chakras if one is distracted by the worldly desires and attachments of the lower chakras. “True yogis” even release their attachments to the heart chakra. They can show some compassion for others but, supposedly, they can’t busy themselves with helping others or changing the world if they’re ever going to reach enlightenment. 

The intention of moving into the upper chakras isn’t to deprive oneself of the things and people you’re attached to or enjoy, but rather that through one’s practice of pranayama (breathing exercises), meditation, and living in alignment with the yamas and niyamas (codes of social and personal conduct), one releases any attachment to worldly things like food, ego, family, and service. Eventually, a “true yogi” just becomes disinterested in the world, coming to reject their life as it was, and becoming a recluse. If they’re lucky, they release their attachment to their individuality and spend their time in samadhi, or oneness with the universal consciousness; coming to truly know that every single creature and thing in the universe is an individual drop of the same ocean. 

Now, I know I’m living it up in my first three or four chakras, but I’m having trouble with the idea that the goal of a yoga practice (according to Patanjali’s Ashtanga, or eight-limbed, yoga), is to detach completely from the world. In fact, I can’t help but think that the process of becoming disinterested in all of the pleasures and people that one used to enjoy, and becoming indifferent to life sounds an awful lot like depression. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for someone who’s reached samadhi to decide when they will leave this world, and kill themselves. 

When I asked about this, our teacher tried to distinguish depression from samadhi, saying that someone with depression is sad and feels stuck, whereas someone in samadhi is happy and free. I understand this for the most part, but I still don’t like the idea of becoming so disinterested in life that it would feel natural to leave this world rather than enjoy it. I suppose it makes sense that I feel this way–for now, I’m perfectly content to stick around in my first four chakras. Maybe one day, when I’m much older, it will feel perfectly natural to prepare myself for leaving this world by detaching in this way. 

Perhaps then I’ll be a “true yogi”. But in my opinion, being a yogi is like being a good person who does their best to live with intention and be happy. That’s certainly hard enough as it is, and it’s good enough for me. 

Dilemmas of a rolling stone, or Are we bound to settle down eventually?

Bittersweet doesn’t do this feeling justice.

In 23 days I’ll be on a plane to Barcelona. I know this because EasyJet keeps sending me reminders. I’ll meet up with my friend Sarah and we’ll end up in Istanbul, then to Mumbai and eventually I’ll be alone in Delhi where I’ll spend three or four months. This is the biggest adventure I’ve yet to undertake and I’m really excited about it. But it also means I won’t live in France anymore, and that thought breaks my heart more than a little bit.

I’ve become surprisingly attached to this place. Surprisingly only because I didn’t immediately connect with this city, maybe because it’s a city and not the southern French countryside and life in a city centre may not be for me. Starting my life over nearly from scratch definitely had something to do with it. I was beached on a bit of an emotional rock when I got here but that’s exactly what happens when you move somewhere alone and then promptly break up with your long-time boyfriend.

But now I love it. I have a small herd of reliable English-speaking friends, and a handful of French friends I’m proud to have made in the very grown-up fashion of actually participating in community events. I have favourite cafés, I’m a regular at a corner grocery store and at a bakery where the owners know my order, and my friends and I go dancing at clubs that have become habitually regrettable. I can give directions like a lyonnaise, I say “yes” when strangers ask if I live here, and I’ve come to do so quite comfortably in French. But there’s still so much of Lyon I don’t know. I haven’t come close to memorizing the Musée des Beaux Arts like I intended despite my free pass as a student, I still have loads of French to learn, and thanks to the ridiculous amount of holidays in May I’m continually finding new cafés and markets in corners of Vieux Lyon.

In short, I just don’t feel done here. But I suppose the question is, would I ever?

I spent four years in Kitchener-Waterloo doing my undergrad and even then I didn’t feel totally ready to leave. I don’t know if you can ever be ready to leave the people and places you’ve come to love. And yet it’s a position I’ve put myself in multiple times over the past year and it’s a position I’ll be in again as I start over yet again in India.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. On one hand, I absolutely adore travelling. I love it. I love exploring new places, meeting new people (when I’m not feeling overly introverted), immersing myself in new cultures and all that cliché tripe. And I’ve never been one to favour short stints of holiday visits to new places. If I’m going somewhere I go somewhere. I move there if I can help it. I can appreciate a week-long trip to Istanbul but I prefer three months in Delhi, if you catch my drift.

But inevitably, every time you move to a new adventure, you leave the previous one, and in my experience the exit is tear-filled and painful. On top of the difficulty of leaving, it’s no cakewalk to start up somewhere new. You don’t know anyone and you’ve literally left your comfort zone behind. (In an unconscious effort to find a universal comfort zone I often take to the bathroom; there’s something reliable and safe about a sink and a mirror and a bathtub, if you’re lucky. You can close the door, lock out the scary unfamiliar world, and no one will judge you for it–except maybe to think that you’re fighting off a bout of Delhi belly).

But even in the most comforting of bathrooms, feelings of loneliness can be downright overwhelming and I’ve found myself countless times questioning my own motives.

Why bother with all this? What am I trying to accomplish? Why go somewhere to build a life only to knock it down? Why don’t I just go home?

I’ve had this discussion with friends here and elsewhere who have or are currently facing the same situation of quasi-life abandonment. Most of them don’t seem nearly as concerned as I am, or at least they don’t let on that they are. The answers I get to my quarter-life crisis boil down to the same adage: live in the moment. Supposedly, if I just learn from what I’m doing, appreciate the people and environment around me while they’re there and grow as a person it’ll all be worth it.

But what if it’s not? Or at least, what if it’s no more worthwhile than living in the moment in one single place and skipping the heartbreak of travel all together?

Interestingly, the “live in the moment” advice is usually followed up by a complementary piece: Make the most of it, get it out of your system and then you can settle down somewhere [and really start your life].

But if the comfort comes from the solacing fact that I’ll eventually settle down–if the eventual goal is that I’ll be satisfied enough with the adventurous years of my youth that I won’t restlessly overturn my family life in a midlife crisis search for adventure–do these years of international displacements really serve anything more? If I could only come to these inspired moments of self-realization on my own could I skip the heartbreak and the adventure altogether? Could I settle down in Toronto, get a job, buy a house, have a family and a dog and just be happy?

When I think like this I immediately get a pang of pre-empive regret in my gut. Why do I feel like I’d be betraying myself to consider such a normal “end” to things for me? Why is it that I consider myself to have such an abnormally exciting destiny that Toronto seems insufficient, based on geography alone, regardless of what I might do there? (I can only hope that these pangs suggest high ambition rather than total self-righteousness).

But if I honestly consider the options, would it really solve anything if I settled down in London, Nice, Bangkok, or Madrid? Would moving across the globe every few years resolve it? Would a job where I travelled half the time do the trick? Or does my young and restless blood just need to chill out, grow up, and realize that at some point excitement in life comes from family, work and internal fulfilment rather than a plane ticket and recently updated vaccines?

I know that I can find my tribe pretty much wherever I station myself. There are interesting people everywhere and it might be true that “only boring people are bored“. But those interesting people are constantly in transition too. Life would move on around me even if I settled down. Perhaps that’s the lesson I’ve learned: everything changes, including myself. Everything is transient. Simultaneously, I am the only feature in my life that I will never escape. Wherever I go, there I’ll be, and I’ll be better off if I use this to my advantage; it’s myself who I have to rely on.

For now I’ll allow myself the silver lining to a pessimistic adage; if it’s true that we all die alone, you may as well see the sites.

I’m just not that into you, and I’m not sorry.

*Trigger warning: this post refers briefly to rape.

It’s possible that I’ve always been a feminist, at least as far as I’ve always responded to men’s offers to carry heavy bags and boxes for me by reminding them that I’m perfectly capable and stronger than they might think and that they shouldn’t underestimate me just because I’m a woman. I might’ve scared a few of them.

I’ll admit, though, that I definitely use the fact that I’m a woman to my advantage. (I still don’t know if this makes me more or less feminist). For example, I put myself in the middle of a yelling match/potential fist fight in high school, my confidence driven by the assumption that the other guy wouldn’t hit a girl. Luckily he didn’t.

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about this as I reflect on the risk to my own safety when I go to India, a concern founded completely on the fact that I’m a woman. I think about how conservatively I’ll need to dress, what kind of groping I’ll have to tolerate day to day, what kind of weapon I might be able to carry, how cheap a hotel or hostel we might be able to afford without being too much at risk of who knows what, whether or not we’ll be able to go anywhere after dark, how freely we’ll be able to befriend the men we meet.

Of course I believe that women shouldn’t have to actively avoid getting raped, that men need to step up and not rape. But in our current reality and in the foreseeable future a woman has to take it upon herself to ensure her own safety.

Along with these heavier issues, my feminism comes up often in my everyday.

For example, I went on a date the other day. It turns out I’m not interested in the guy. For some reason, I find it incredibly difficult to find the words that clearly say “I’m not interested, how ’bout we stay friends?” without offending him. So instead, I prioritized his comfort and self-esteem over my own and let him continue to find reasons to touch me here and there, all of it harmless: trying to hold my hand, standing close to me, putting his hand on my arm a few too many times. Things that I just didn’t want. Yet somehow it’s been engrained in me that until I can find a sensitive and inoffensive way to tell him I’m not interested I have to accept any interest he shows in me with kindness and grace.

[In relating this thought to feminism I’m not suggesting that this only ever happens to women, of course not. I’ve been on the other end of this too. It sucks. It just seems like being a woman plays into my overly complacent, people-pleasing inclination to prioritize his comfort over mine, and it’s important to consider how this plays into the larger question of consent.]

In standing up for my own value as an equal rather than responding as someone he got to pick out of a crowd, I planned my response (/rejection). First off, it does not make me presumptuous or self-centred to state (explicitly) that it seems that you like me, nor does it make me rude, ungrateful, or a bitch to say that I don’t feel the same way about you. And yet I’m inclined to start my rejection with “I’m sorry”. I don’t need to be sorry that I’m not into you. I’m just not. I don’t need an excuse, I don’t need to be leaving the country, I don’t need to already be “taken”. I’m just not that into you.

I am a woman, I am a person, and just because I show kindness to you and am interested in the conversation we’re having does not mean I’d like to pursue anything romantic (or not so romantic) with you. And just becuase you’ve broached the subject, that does not mean I’m obligated (however unspoken) to maintain your ego or confidence while wiggling myself out of the situation. I’ll be kind, I don’t want to hurt you, but it’s bound to happen when feelings are involved–I know that feeling too. But you should know that I’m not just waiting for you to swoop me up, hold the door for me or pay for my dinner. I’m a real person with real goals, a real personality, real boundaries, and real feelings. I’m not a collectable and I don’t owe you anything. I’m NOT signed, sealed, delivered. And I’m not sorry.

^ This, I am not.