The exhaustion of travel in a world of male violence

I’ve often wondered about writing more on my experiences of fear and abuse while travelling. In the wake of the killing of Sarah Everard and the wave of grief expressed by women, what I most want is for men to take responsibility.

Men cannot continue their position as bystanders. In the exposures of #metoo and all that has followed, it is not enough for men to say they didn’t know how small their world makes us. You do know, and you have the right and the responsibility to make this world safe for everyone who lives in it. If you don’t understand why women feel the way we do, then you need to be curious. The onus is on you to relieve your ignorance.

What follows is an email I sent to my male friends on 6th April 2017, entitled ‘To my favourite boys’. It describes some of the cost that comes with being a woman in a patriarchal world – in this case the particular experience of a woman travelling alone. I hope it sheds some light on the hurt, the tiredness, and the internal conflict that comes from making women live in a world at war with us. A war we didn’t start and didn’t seek.

If any of this resonates with you, please can I ask you to donate to the #reclaimthesestreets fundraiser for women’s charities. Thank you.

To my favourite boys

Dearest male friends,

I’m writing to you from the edge of a paved and polluted lake in Hanoi, enjoying some balmy smog.

As you all know, I can be very slow on the uptake. A case in point: I recognise easily the importance of my female friendships, but am far slower to appreciate the importance of all of you in my life.

I’m here in Hanoi visiting my friend, Erin. I’m away for a month, mostly in the mountainous parts of Vietnam. This has sent my mind back to memories of South America.

This is the first time I’ve been able to reflect on that period of my life: a year that was gruelling, isolated and immersive in a way very little in life can be. I don’t think it’s possible to convey more than a superficial summary of such an experience, so I haven’t tried with anyone. I’m finding being here is the first real conversation and reflection I’ve had on it, even if I’m doing so just with myself. It’s been wonderful feeling memories coming back: the feeling of dirt; watching cold clouds rolling down over the road; wrapping up my travel for the day at the same time the farmers down their tools and head home.

It’s also reminded me of the hard stuff. Travelling so comfortably her, the contrast with my time in South America is stark. I can remember the heavy weight of responsibility, of health, of safety, of physicality, coping with raw nature and nothing to mediate it. It was amazing. The toughness and self reliance and many tears made it thrilling.

However, one moment here with Erin reminded me of the part that wasn’t just hard, but bad, bitter, exhausting, unfair. It was a concertina of unfolding shittiness that I went through daily: it was the way men treated me on my trip.

One tried to rape me in woodland when I was weak with sickness. That left me with PTSD (now thankfully past) manifest in panic attacks if I was ever alone in a room with a man I didn’t know (doctors). The eyes of the man who attacked me – black, piercing pupils – and the tight fierce intention of hate in his face…. as a woman you don’t forget these things, you add them to the cupboard of horrible memories. The best we can hope for is like my case – where the word rape is proceeded by the mitigating word attempted.

Other men groped me. I developed the habit of never walking within arms width of a man. Every time I cycled in and out of towns and cities in Colombia (and other countries) I was cat called. That’s hundreds of humiliations. The infuriating, disgusting absurdity of being diminished while I had the sheer bravery and power to cycle my way across a continent.

Many more men took the opportunity of my being alone to use snake their way around my trust, create situations I didn’t want, flat out lie to me to keep me to their advantage. Some of this I have written about before, other instances were just shoved in the cupboard.

All this was wearing. It’s not just the fear and the fact of being vulnerable, but everything that flows secondarily from that. It’s being made to be always suspicious, being forced to be rude, being treated like you’re not a person, being demeaned and reduced into some anonymous sexualised construct which is a complete erasure of your actual self, losing trust in my own judgement, the shock of subsequent panic attacks. Over the course of the year I cycled the experience of surround-sound fear and anger accumulated and changed me. It wasn’t change I sought but change thrust upon me by a male world that cannot bear to let women just be. I didn’t travel to make my world smaller but that’s what happened.

I can see how angry that’s left me, and how mistrustful. That stuff is in my bones now. It was so intense. This anger is sometimes overwhelming. It’s bitter. It’s a rot inside of me. I didn’t ask for it but it’s a result of survival, a result of absorbing the projections of hundreds and hundreds of men.

But. After all that shittiness, I got to come home to a group of men who are – each and every one of you – truly incredible people. You are the very opposite of all that shit. By having kind men in my life your friendships are saving me from deeper scarring which would make living in the world much harder. Knowing the goodness in you has diminished my hurt and fear.

I’m still mad at the patriarchy (Trump!) but because of you all I get to live alongside that anger without being overwhelmed by it. So thank you. I can expend my energies on happier – and more interesting – things.

And bigger than this, I always thank my female friends for how much I rely on them, but I don’t thank you all. In your idiosyncratic ways (read: on the spectrum) you are individually so kind, smart, witty. I’m very grateful to you all for being in my life, for all your support and confidence and for all the times we’ve shared. I could never have gone to South America in the first place if i didn’t feel the confidence and good wishes of friends.

So thanks for being so wonderful. Your friendships mean a huge amount to me, and I love you all very much