One of these things is not like the others

Old Havana street

“Psst! Amiga! Amiga! Pretty lady, where you from?”

It’s something any female traveller – especially one who travels solo – has experienced and, for the most part, gotten used to. It just comes with the territory of being a woman abroad (you could say it comes with the territory of being a woman, period – just ask any female who’s walked past a group of guys on Toronto’s King West on a Saturday night).

I confess I’m not very good at handling such catcalls. I never know when to engage or ignore. My defences go up when I’m in unfamiliar surroundings, so ignoring often feels easier, but I also genuinely enjoy talking to the locals in any place I visit. Often, what starts out as flirtatious calling leads to interesting and insightful conversations and I never want to miss out on an opportunity to interact with a new person. But unfortunately, more often than not, such exchanges end up sounding something similar to what I experienced in Havana a few weeks ago. He started following me through the streets of the old city and as we walked, we chatted about my life in Toronto and his in Havana. After a bit, I told him I had to head back to my hotel. He said, “Great, I’ll go with you. I’m headed that same way.” To which my guard went up full force again and I replied that I hadn’t told him which hotel I was staying at or what direction I was going, so how did he know? He scurried away.

Some people may think I’m naïve for always trying to initiate conversation when someone calls out to me. But I’m polite (it’s that Canadian thing, eh?) and hate to ignore people. And, more importantly, I’m a journalist and don’t want to risk missing out on a possible story lead. But at the same time, every time I hear someone call out to me, I wish that I could just blend in a little more easily. I always wish that I didn’t look quite so much like a tourist.

I’m not talking about walking around with a guidebook in my face and fanny pack on my waist, like the clichéd tourist. I’m talking about the traits I can’t easily hide that give me away as someone not from there. Because I’m fairly tall by female standards, with blonde hair and fair skin, I easily stand out as a foreigner in places such as Cuba. And when I’ve attempted to use my French in places like Quebec and New Brunswick, my Anglophone accent comes through so thick that I’m either met with blank stares or responded to in English, killing my meagre attempts to practice and improve my français.

It’s a strange contradiction. The very reason I love to travel so much is that it opens my eyes to the differences around the world. I love being in places where the food, the language and the culture is unfamiliar. I love being whisked out of my comfort zone and planted into something completely foreign. Yet at the same time, I constantly want to blend in when I’m abroad.

I remember several years ago when I was travelling through Australia with some girlfriends. We rented a car to drive the Great Ocean Road and as we drove the streets of Melbourne, navigating our way out of the city, my friend squealed in delight, “We look Australian!” She was practically giddy at the thought that our ability to manoeuvre left-hand drive made us blend in with an entire population. It’s that same yearning to fit in that I constantly feel when I’m abroad. I don’t want to seem like an outsider. But with travel, you’re always an outsider. And that’s the very appeal of it.

Travel makes me appreciate the beauty that lives in our differences. Now I just need to learn to appreciate my own differences when I’m abroad.

What about you? Do you try to blend in when you travel?

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6 thoughts on “One of these things is not like the others

  1. i also like to blend. it’s hard when u don’t speak the language. you are correct in assuming a spot near other women in a foreign country. it’s like sisterhood trumps all else…..99% of the time. cheers!

  2. I have never seriously thought of blending in. I have so far travelled to what I thought ‘safe’ destinations-big cities, used public transport, got to my hostel before dark, wore sensible clothes. But I understand form your post why some females are put off from travel alone. That’s a shame.

  3. Suzanne, I totally agree that sisterhood can always win out on the road. I actually wrote about such an experience while I was in Havana! http://www.travelandescape.ca/2012/03/havanas-other-hemingway-hangout/

    Ele, I don’t think I’m put off of travelling alone because I’m female, but I agree that many women are. It definitely adds a layer to the experience that men don’t seem to encounter. I think it comes down a lot to basic street smarts and being comfortable in your own ability to stay alert and aware while in a foreign place.

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