Frances Linzee Gordon
The Female Perspective
My first experience of independent travel was accidental. I had planned a trip around southeast Asia with a university friend at the age of 20. At the eleventh hour, however, my friend’s father decided that it was too dangerous a trip for two young women and forbade her from travelling. Faced with the choice of canceling also or going alone, I decided for the latter.
My miserable student budget dictated hotels with paper walls riddled with peep holes. ‘Hotel’ at this price I discovered was a local euphemism for knocking shop. At night, I undressed or took a shower wearing a sarong.
In some of the cities, my single status attracted mutterings from the men and unflinching stares. Harder to ignore were the fingers that fluttered on my hair and skin as I walked among crowds in the street. Offers to act as guides turned into whinnying declarations of love, or unabashed propositions.
I soon learnt to spot trouble, avoid compromising scenes, and work a situation to my advantage. I also learnt how to use my sex to my advantage. Appealing to a man’s sense of chivalry often seemed to defuse any ungentlemanly thoughts he himself might be harbouring.
I also found that invitations and kindnesses were far more forthcoming to me than to my fellow male travellers. Week by itinerant week, I became more confident, assertive and demanding. I began to relax and to enjoy my travels; I grew eventually to guard jealously my single status, making weak excuses when other travellers suggested joining forces.
Some twenty years later and travelling now as a profession, I am more convinced than ever of the advantages of travel as a solo woman. Many the time I have been granted interviews with presidents or princes, as well as visas, permits or special permissions denied flatly to my male counterparts. In East Africa a few years ago, I was collared furiously by the BBC correspondent at a cocktail party: for three and a half years he had been trying to secure an interview with the PM. I had secured one within two weeks of arrival.
Perhaps the greatest advantage and value of travelling as a woman is the universal access to society. Treated often as an honorary man by the society’s men, but welcomed warmly by the society’s ‘sisterhood’ and children, women travellers have a unique entry to communities.
I have shifted from smoking cigarettes around a fire with fearsome warriors, to sipping tea behind closed doors with their wives, as they gleefully make me privy to their age-old secrets of ‘how-to-please-your-husband’.
When it comes to getting that definitive travel shot, a man’s vanity seems often to be flattered when there’s a woman behind the lens, while women and children feel none of the embarrassment or threat that is sometimes posed by a man.
Seen through feminine eyes, that society is often also a very different place to that observed by a man. A woman’s power of observation, eye for detail or ear for a telling remark or local gossip often colours and enlivens a travel account in a way rarely found in a male-written narrative.
A travel tradition I have long admired of my aunt and uncle is their mutual keeping of travel diaries. When home and sitting out the long months of winter, they will chose upon a day and read out their respective entries. The different focus, interest and perspective causes many hours of laughter, interest and surprise.
Lillias Campbell Davidson talks in her Victorian Travel Manual Hints to Lady Travellers of: “...the power that has become the right of every woman...of becoming a lady traveller.”
Though penned at the end of the 19th century, this sentiment is remarkably resonant of the nineties and noughties cultural phenomenon known as ‘Girl Power’ and Third-wave Feminism. I have seen both in myself and in others the changes brought about by independent travel abroad: the new self-assurance and savvyness of a young girl recently returned, as well as the newly-found confidence and self-sufficiency in women recently divorced or widowed.
“If, by my endeavours, I have in any way assisted my sisters in their wanderings, or encouraged a single woman to join the path of travellers by land or sea, I shall feel that I have achieved the object of my labours, and that my task has, indeed, not been in vain.”
Thus ends Lillias Campbell Davidson’s book, summing up her remarkable aims at a time when the Suffragettes were barely known. With more women than ever travelling independently today, and record numbers of women students departing for gap years, it would seem her job has been well done.
- Hints to Lady Travellers by Lillias Campbell Davidson is available from this week. Visit www.localbookshops.co.uk to buy a copy from your nearest independent bookshop.
Frances Linzee Gordon’s passion for travel began following a school scholarship to Venice at the age of 17. Since then, she has travelled in around 100 countries, writing features, guidebooks and travel pictorials and narratives for international publications, as well as presenting and producing travel programmes and talking about the importance of travel around the world. She believes passionately in the benefits of travel both for the visitor and the country visited and sees her gender as a help not a hindrance when negotiating the hurdle of the road. Visit Frances' website at www.franceslinzeegordon.com.