Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Travelling and identity; some more thoughts

'Easy decisions take no courage at all. Most of us grow into our identities as easily as acorns do to oaks - rarely questioning, resisting or protesting those events that do not appear to affect us directly. It is the difficult decisions, the ones that have consequences, challenge orthodoxies, bear risk and threaten status that take real courage'
Gary Younge in Who Are We - And Should It Matter in the 21st Century?

Two of the books that I've been reading since I've been away - the above quoted book by Gary Younge and Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman - concern themselves in different ways with the whole idea of identity. Identity is something I've been thinking about as I travel. You have to shift and change how you think about yourself depending on where you are.

As a traveller, being in three different countries in two weeks, there are the basics - cultural rules to observe about behaviour and dress, how to say 'Hello' and 'Thank you' in the various languages, how and whether to haggle over prices and, in the case of in Hanoi, how to cross the bleeding road. I call these the 'basics' but I've observed that some other travellers don't bother. And I suppose this is where travelling alone comes in. Those in couples (as most people I've encountered are) or in groups  seem to find it easier to not concern themselves so much with the local norms and are somehow protected by their numbers from the foreign environs they're in. As a solo traveller you don't have this protection.

Something else all of us travellers must deal with, as I discussed with my sister Hannah the other day, is the fact of just how generic we are. No matter who we are and how we conceptualise ourselves as  individuals at home, in the eyes of the locals we are just another tourist.

In his book, Gary Younge makes the point again and again that when people are in positions of power, they don't conceive of themselves as having an 'identity' as such. Life is easy, the choices that you make throughout your life are seamless, you are the absolute. When you are removed from this position, however, things change, and this is what happens to some extent when you find yourself in a different culture (although there is a degree of choice in this - those carrying on as they would at home, blundering on in English regardless and ignoring local rules and customs make a different choice). Of course, power is complicated and on one level, as a Westerner in Asia I am powerful and wealthy (as I discussed briefly in my last post). The economies of the countries where I am travelling depend on people like me for income. This is especially true in somewhere like Laos, which is very much a poor, developing country and which relies heavily on the income from tourism. If I bargained with a tuk tuk driver in Luang Prabang, it was ultimately me that had the upper hand, especially in low season as it was when I was there.

But on another level, in an unfamiliar country you are vulnerable. You don't know your way around, you have to get your head around the local currency and ultimately to resign yourself to the fact that the waiters in the restaurant you're in may be having a bit of a laugh at you in their language, or that street vendors may well be charging you a little bit more than they should for a bottle of water or a cigarette lighter. These things are largely surmountable, but initially they can make you feel a bit uneasy.

And then there's the matter of not only being a solo traveller but a female solo traveller. When I first arrived in Bangkok and was getting my head round what was a pretty massive culture shock, I was reading Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman. I chose this book as I thought it'd be breezy and engaging and a good way to easy myself into my holiday reading. As it turned out, it got on my nerves quite heavily and as I sat reading it, a woman on my own, anxious and self-conscious in various bars and cafes in Bangkok, it struck me what a limited version of 'how to be a woman' Caitlin Moran actually offers. The frame of reference for this 'how-to' guide seems to be women who are pretty much exactly like her. It certainly didn't tell me much about how to be a woman, alone, in a chaotic and unfamiliar city. Perhaps I'm missing the point of her book, but I did feel that Moran's account was pretty lazy - a bit like one long lifestyle column made into a book - and that the whole question of how to be a woman is much more complicated than she presents.

I am aware that I am on what essentially amounts to a long holiday, but I'm in a completely different culture, far away from all my friends, my family and my boyfriend, all of whom I periodically really miss. It's all very challenging (mostly in an exciting sort of way) and it's made me think about what it means to be a woman differently than how I would at home.My being female is something I can never forget about. Before I get to a new place I read the 'Women Travellers' section of the Lonely Planet for advice, checking what dangers and annoyances I must be  prepared for, reading that 'most Vietnamese women don't drink in bars on their own' and that I must be wary of unwanted advances, or that in Thailand 'extra caution needs to be exercised at night'. In many places, if I sit in a restaurant or a cafe alone  I am aware that I am a slight oddity. Other people notice me - those in groups or in couples, restaurant staff. The other backpackers I've met, I can see, aren't quite sure what to make of me as I tell them that I'm travelling alone (When i tell them I'm going to meet my boyfriend in India in a few weeks I can sometimes see a change in their expressions, as if they are thinking 'Ah, now she makes sense to us') I am certainly not the only one, though, and I've met several other women travelling solo, ranging from twenty something students to retired women in their sixties. Invariably, however, the conversation will turn to the question 'How are you finding travelling on your own?'. None of us can ignore it.

It does, however, all get easier and I'm now getting used to it. As long as you're sensible, you're safe and there comes a point where you have to stop worrying and just relax. The two older women I befriended in Luang Prabang - one of whom had been travelling in the region for 9 months - were an immense help and inspiration on this front. (One of them helped me calm my restlessness, telling me 'It's ok to sometimes not do anything and to just sit in a cafe reading'). After I arrived in Hanoi last night I went to eat something in one of the restaurants near my hotel, a Lonely Planet recommendation (which, I am learning, are generally not to be trusted). It was a tad more formal than I was expecting and I was the only person dining alone. Two weeks ago this would have made me extremely uneasy, but last night I just thought 'fuck it' and sat and ate my food. Like i say, identity changes and shifts.

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