Sometimes I get this false notion that if I continue to educate myself on injustices such as oppression that these things will not happen to me. That knowledge is my shield of armor wrapped around protecting me. Perhaps this grows from the subconscious societal view that girls must take precautions x,y,z in order to prevent these experiences- or maybe its my own ignorance. I know this inequality still exists- that it permeates our culture in subtle and at times profound ways.
I’m a part of a girls travel group which is a supportive network of females of all ages, cultures, and walks of life who share a passion for travel. This forum is firing 24/7 with a variety of posts: travel tips, questions, group meetups, packing advice, love stories, debates of ethical tourism, the list goes on. Every day I see multiple posts of girls opening up about their experiences with oppression- sexual harassment, date rape, assault, manipulation. By locals, by friends, by travel partners, by strangers. These are the stories your mother warns you about when you announce you’ll be taking off on this journey. The reasons so many fear solo travel. This group is a community where girls feel safe enough to share their stories without judgement. It’s a space where individuals rally together to support one of their own when they find themselves in these situations. This group is what gave me the strength to start this solo travel journey and the courage to break away from a travel partner who sexually assaulted me (this is another story in itself which I am not ready to share). This is a group which the admin posted anonymously on my behalf to find girls close by to me- and over 200 girls responded within an hour with offers for places to stay and an ear to listen. It’s important to acknowledge the good that is happening. But here’s the thing- I make this point NOT AT ALL to discourage travel but to show a pattern of how this is happening across the world. Everywhere- even our own backyards, our cities, our streets. I will put it this way- even including these unfortunate recent experiences- I have not felt any more nor any less safe than I did in my own home country. To me traveling is just the context these things have occurred within not what caused them. The next thing I need to be transparent on is that my experiences do not reflect a whole culture, group of people, and especially not a whole destination in any way. All three incidents involved men from different countries (Peru, Laos, France). These incidents occur everywhere. But what this does reflect is an ongoing societal issue that females face worldwide on varying degrees.
We sat on the local bus from the shopping mall making our way out of the city towards Buddha Park. There were smiles from locals, coos from the baby in front, and a quiet hum of the engine. I though to myself- how easy this experience is compared to the Asian sleeper buses I was now accustomed to. Thirty minutes in my guard went up a bit when I saw Friendship Bridge Border Crossing outside my window. Were we on the wrong bus? Crossing the border into Thailand without passports? A few clicks of my iPhone and a quick check in with the grandmother in front and we were assured it was just a stop on the way.
With anticipation for my tension to go down I felt the air suddenly shift behind my back. “Hellooo” a raspy voice loomed down my neck. I twisted around to find two men towering over our heads. My spine stiffened. My gut felt like it was turning inside out and it was clear there was nothing casual or well intentioned about to occur. Ignore. Face forward. Livia and I darted our eyes together and moved as forward as possible in unison. One continued from behind as the other moved parallel to me, as if to box us in like a game of chess. They continued to close in on what felt like no more space to close in on. Shuffling their moves with out any reservations. The man to my right spread himself across the aisle his camouflage legs nearly on my seat. “American. American. American” he snickered. His eyes bared in on every inch of my skin. He spoke in laughter in Lao to his accomplice leaving me to wonder what was coming next. When looking wasn’t enough for him he reached out to touch my bare legs.
“NO. Stop it.”
Hugging my bag close to my body I shifted my knees closer towards Livia beside me. Thankfully I was not in this alone.
“Stop. You- stop! You look away. Look over there.”
She was firm. Hand gestures cleared up any language barrier though body language was loud enough for them to know. He laughed and sneered. High off of his power. His friend threw in a new dynamic. Tapping my shoulders, “he bad”, shaking his head. Pointing his finger behind his friends back. As if to form an alliance with me. Chuckling- like we had some common joke over tea. Somewhere in the mix the sleezeball next to me decided to direct his attention elsewhere. He reached over the seat ahead of him to grab the plastic shopping bags of the two local girls. Instinctively I yelled out “hey!” and both girls grabbed their bags and scooted their bottoms to the edge of the seats; they were already in the first row of the bus with no where else to go. More laughter- this game was fun to him- watching us squirm at his finger tips. I kept my eyes on the horizon counting minutes but I could feel his eyes on my skin. Simultaneously he spoke casually with the driver, the grandmother, and smiled towards the small grandchild now fast asleep. As we sat frozen as stone too afraid to even take out our phones to check the location and time. As the two young girls ahead clutched their belongings and glanced back with fearful eyes.
I couldn’t help but notice the power he held. The acceptance of their behavior. How a man in charge of this bus- clearly a grandfather to this little sleeping girl- could stand by making conversation with men of this variety. How a grandmother could allow other females to be subjected to such behavior. How can she rationalize this as her young kin sleeps beside her? How the two girls in the front didn’t even dare speak up with words as if they know it will fall on deaf ears. Anger raged in me but the fear was more powerful than my ideas of standing up and demanding them both off the bus.
Finally Buddha Park rolled beside the window on the right. I held my ground in the aisle stiff as a board. Putting on a poker face- pretending to be brave- I told Livia to walk off first. I wanted to control the situation. I would not stand by and allow his dirty hands to touch my friend. Out the corner of my eye I can see his hands reaching out for my backside. His face doing what it does. Morphing with mocking bigotry. He is elated when I yell back.
“Don’t fucking touch me!! Fuck YOU! You’re so dirty.”
He lunges for me laughing at my reflex to cower away. The bus driver looks in my eyes which must look like fire now as I raise my palms up as to say “really is that all your going to do?” as he gestures me to the door. I’m raging and all I can do is yell at the bus. Fuck you. Pointing my middle finger to curse him and his filthy hands. As the bus pulls away he sticks his head out the window with sick laughter throwing kisses at me. Raging. Why didn’t I spit in his putrid face? Why don’t I carry a knife or spray?
Livia and I don’t have many words to say to each other. I guess you can say it felt unbelievable. Just a mutual feeling of disgust and anger. We do what we know to do next- move on- order some mango and regroup in the shade. But as with each occurrence like this I can feel my barriers rising. I keep telling myself- unlucky that’s all. I’m exhausted and no where near present. But I still do the motions- the photos, the small talk, looking at the sights. I try to breath, even try to allow my feelings, acknowledging them like clouds and let them float on.
We make it back to the city- yes on the bus again. Though not thrilled- I would not let him deter me from public transit. I will not let him define the Lao people for me. And hell- I will not pay 100,000 kip more for a taxi because I’m afraid of other men like him.
We end up at a restaurant for an early dinner. Nothing but pizza sounds interesting to me. Really just laying my spine on my mattress and sleeping sounds appealing at this hour. We reflect quietly on our day. Liv comments that she’s never felt that unsafe in her own city back home. I’m surprised. I feel like this is just everywhere- every culture, city, country. Our conversation turns to a more positive note and the pizza arrives. An older French man is sitting at a table beside. I see him lurking- head lunging towards our table. I hear him mumbling but can’t make out what it is. I try to focus on our own conversation but his presence in our space can’t be ignored. I try to look quietly from the corner of my eyes. I hear the word pizza through his muffles. I smile and say sorry what was that? Anticipating another lonely grandfather aged tourist looking for someone to chat with.
He is rambling on. His eyebrows furrowed in anger. “You put all that shit in your body and you wonder why you are a fat bitch!”
I feel the lids of my eyeballs widen and jaw drops. My ears are ringing because I must have misheard. The look on Livia’s face tells me my hearing was on par. This type of blatant hate can’t be real… all in one day?
Honestly there is no way I could accurate transcript the rest of this interaction. Because my eyes glazed over and all I could see was his pathetic face. As he continued to berate us. I know I stared into his glossy alcohol transformed eyes and told him he must be so proud of himself. And he yelled back at me telling me that the real issue is us- yeah you guys- women. Women are the issue. The misogyny was so loud I couldn’t hear the rest.
I know I hit my breaking point. Because I slammed my pizza knife on the table towards my friend and buried my eyes into my palms. The core of my body was shaking. I won’t go into details of what my rage looked like in my mind because it’s unpleasant. But lucky for him we moved seats. He continued his antics. As he left the establishment the hostess bowed and thanked him; to which he reached his trembling hand towards her. She bowed again in respect declining his invitation. I saw his face grow sour and his hand trembling reaching to grab her front private area. In total disbelief I couldn’t help but think back to the now “leader” of my country who is for “grabbing pussy.” In this moment I feel so depleted of hope. The poor woman is able to dodge him. He stumbles to the entry way. His eyes lock with mine and I am spewing hate under my breathe. I can see his chest rising and his teeth grinding seething with anger towards me looking his oppression straight in the eyes.
I’m writing this because I hope for a day where it doesn’t need to be written. I write this to clarify that this isn’t a result of me being a solo traveler. I’m writing this for me- to release what I feel burdening inside my soul and because frankly I am so fed up with being silent about this. I’m writing this because my first instinct was to call my sisters or my best friend but something quieted me with doubt that maybe I was just being over reactive. I’m hoping for awareness and dialogue which can pave the way for change. But it’s going to take more than just awareness- because I see these stories on my newsfeed every day. I’ve seen women banding together- but frankly this is not just a women’s issue. So what more is it going to take? I’m not sure but I hope that my future daughters and students will have different stories to write.