Elisabeth Easther: Got the wandering hands

Elisabeth Easther bemoans the creeps who can spoil the travels of a lone female.
It can be tough for a woman to travel alone. Photo / 123RF
It can be tough for a woman to travel alone. Photo / 123RF

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I was all about backpacking. Often exploring alone, I made it my mission to travel far and wide, leaving few stones unturned. From Belize to Holland, Cuba to Thailand, the US to the UK, off I'd set armed with little more than a swimsuit, a sunhat, an airline blanket (they're just so handy) and a sense of adventure. I always found friends to travel with when I wanted company but, when it came to the crunch, I was on my own - which was great, because it meant I was in charge of my flight path.

Travelling with a tiny rucksack the size of a primary schooler's backpack, I was always ready to roll and, when interesting offers came my way, I was usually happy to change course.

But travelling as a sole female also has its drawbacks. In Guatemala, a country I heartily recommend visiting, I was walking to my Spanish class in the pretty little town of Antigua when a passing local reached out and grabbed one of my breasts. In broad daylight. Instinctively I lashed out, while yelling at the offender at the top of my lungs. The rest of the street stopped.

Sweet little Mayan women were clearly aghast, but at whom? Me or him? I couldn't tell and it felt like I was the one at fault.

Hurrying back to my guesthouse, I fumed for a spell before heading back to school, more alert than ever for unwanted attention.

Working in Turkey as a tour leader on small group adventure holidays, I was attacked in the port town of Fethiye. Walking back to my hotel along a path I'd walked many times before, a vile man on a bicycle made a series of attempts to physically assault me. Each time he failed, although interestingly, my arms turned to jelly during the attack, and I could barely push,let alone hit. I'd expected better of myself. Running as if I was on the moon, it was impossible to get any traction so I expect it was my deafening roar that sent him packing. As for the police, they were of little use, and I spent the rest of the night flicking through phonebook sized volumes of mug shots that looked as if they'd been taken in the 1970s.

Happily, no serious harm was done aside from a case of laryngitis that lasted a week and a dose of paranoia that lasted significantly longer.

Then there was the time the seemingly lovely pilot tried it on in Vanuatu. Having made myself at home for a spell on some far-flung island, I was delighted when a six-seater Cessna bumped down, unexpectedly, on the only flat part of the island. I hitched a ride back to Vila and the pilot invited me to stay on his yacht at the marina. I was leaving the next day so this was handy, although I made it abundantly clear I wasn't interested in romance but yes please, I would like to stay. Just friends? He assured me, hand on heart, that his intentions were pure. Yet at 1am he made his move and I had no choice but to gather my belongings and spend the night huddled in bushes, by a bank, to wait for sunrise. It was a very long night. The main street of Port Vila feels much less friendly at 3am than it is at 11am.

In the Middle East I contemplated donning a burka - perhaps that would make a woman less susceptible to lewd offers, groping, leering, men exposing themselves, that kind of thing. But, after speaking to a group of covered women in a market place, I learnt that they were much more likely to encounter unwelcome physical attention because local men knew it was very difficult for a Muslim woman to lay a complaint and not be deemed guilty herself.

Despite the risks though, I will always love exploring. I've learnt how to say "my husband is big like a house" in several different languages and I always wear a wedding ring to add weight to that charade. But, as my backpacking days drew to a close, I finally hit on the perfect solution to being hit on. Journeying through Egypt, a little bit pregnant with my son Theo, I was so delighted to be with child, I had to tell pretty much everyone my happy news. One mention of the unborn baby and frisky, flirty camel guides and carpet sellers backed right off.

The local men accepted that I was making the most of my last months of childlessness, even if it was deemed a little eccentric to be trotting about without my husband. When they noted his absence, I'd just laugh and explain that he was home making money to pay for said baby, which they also accepted.

So think about it ladies; next time you're travelling alone, somewhere exotic, how about using my pregnancy ruse to keep yourself safe on the road? Although, on second thoughts, wouldn't it be easier if men* just stopped being dicks?

*The author would like to state that she knows not all men are dicks, in fact most of them are decent humans, but it's the grabby groping creepy ones who give the rest of them a bad name. And for readers who think females travelling alone are foolhardy, interestingly no one accuses people of "asking for it" when they're injured in a motor vehicle accident, despite the statistics. Just saying.

- NZ Herald

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