Have Y Chromosome, Will Travel

December 6, 2008

in Entertainment, Online Media, Travel

This Just In published an interesting interview with Alex Boylan, star of the upcoming show Around the World for Free.  Boylan earned his fame and travel cred as the winner of the U.S. reality television show The Amazing Race 2.  Please go read the interview, (watch this clip, if you choose,) then come back and join in the following discussion.

In principle, I agree with much of Boylan’s hard-earned advice and offer in many ways a less extreme version of the same ethos here on this blog.

At the same time, this project (and other travel experiences/blogs like it) lead me to reflect on how gendered travel can be.  How many of these places and experiences were open to them simply because they were two young men rather than two young women undertaking this journey?

This is not to imply that women *couldn’t* do this trip or that women *shouldn’t* travel anywhere these men did, or that we are somehow inherently more fragile or weak than male travelers.  But at the same time, women do consider the risks of rides or offers of accommodation from strange men, traveling in areas of unrest and even being out after dark differently from their male counterparts.  Further, female travelers are harrassed and targeted in ways that men on the road are not.  I’m sure it’s not possible to quantify the difference that this confidence and access makes, but I believe more effort should be made to note it.

I don’t pretend to represent all female travelers and would love to open a discussion on this subject.  While I hope you will take my lead and leave your thoughtful comments primarily on this topic below, there are two more points I think are worth making. 

As an anthropologist, I wonder to what degree the camera influenced their interactions with their subjects.  Boylan touches on this only slightly in this excerpt and doesn’t reflect on how the camera affected his own behavior either.

Relatedly, does travel lose some of its transformative power when your home audience is so immediate?  My college Russian professor thought we were spoiled because we had the internet while studying abroad; when he studied behind the Iron Curtain, the only contact with home came during 3-minute phone calls placed from the central telephone office.  Now students can (and do) twitter and vlogcast their experiences just like Boylan did.  But do we  — in broadening the horizons of our friends, family and interested audiences “traveling along” with us – sacrifice our own deeper understanding, preventing full immersion by surrounding ourselves in a protective bubble of interaction with the familiar?  Is there not something meaningful in unfettered escape from home?

Thanks in advance for your comments.

Related post:  Traveling (Solo) Safely

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sean 12.06.08 at 10:39 pm


2 Zach 12.07.08 at 5:52 pm

A few years ago I was in Istanbul by myself. One day, however, I spent with a female traveler I met at the hostel. The local rug salesmen were much more aggressive towards us than they were towards just me.

3 Algernon 12.07.08 at 11:34 pm

The question of whether the internet detracts from the foreign immersion experience reminds me of a similar question that split the Amish community long ago: do telephones help the family by facilitating contact, or do they hurt by being a distraction from family life?

Personally, I like telephones, Skype, facebook, etc. Living abroad means immersion almost 24/7. A status update on twitter or the occasional blog lets me feel free to travel longer without placing an undue burden on my family.

4 Nomadic Matt 12.08.08 at 7:58 am

grab a friend and go do it!!! then make a show. I think you could do it for free!!

5 BodyinMotion 12.08.08 at 8:45 am

A few thoughts:

- Free travel is only free for the traveller, not the host who provides you with food, transport, entertainment. Is it fair or just to travel through the DR, Kenya and India, relying on people with less means to pay your way?

- I agree that the risks for women traveling along are much higher than men, but then I’ve done it and survived – not that I’m recommending it.

- Boyland says ” Take Survivor. I was hooked from first season because it was so real.” If he thinks Survivor is real, he hasn’t really ‘gotten’ anyone he’s met on his travels who lives with daily striffe and struggle.

I say, Boyland – get real.

6 poetloverrebelspy 12.08.08 at 12:48 pm

BodyinMotion, I wouldn’t discourage any woman from traveling alone (it would make me, among other things, the biggest hypocrite in the world), because I believe as Boylan does that the world and its people are inherently good and that far more benefit is to be derived from getting even closer to others. There is a big difference between “fear of the unknown” and “fear of this dangerous situation,” however.

I think most women, especially those who have spent time in a big city, have developed a sense about safety that can usually be trusted when traveling. At the same time, when faced with a risky choice, women are more likely to err on the side of caution.

The example of the long ride to the Maasai settlement is telling — with its hitchhiking with an unknown man, its distance from the city and its lack of alternative escape, I think that is an amazing experience I probably would have passed on.

I believe I was made more sensitive to this after reading, of all things, that prostate cancer blog in the NYTimes. His hormone treatments allow him to a certain degree to step into a woman’s feelings, which take him (but not his female readers) by surprise.

7 Michael from Minnesota 12.08.08 at 6:27 pm

Threads from the original and poetloverrebelspy that resonated: ask local, get off the beaten path, does the camera influence the interaction, definitely a gender bias when a woman/women contemplate the same itinerary. A website I bookmarked about 2 years ago came to mind when reading the comments…I don’t know if it’s still active, but I found it thought-provoking and thought you might too:



8 pam 12.09.08 at 2:25 am

For a while there, it seemed like every new travel book or movie I encountered was about some guy off on a junket to somewhere, a thinly disguised bender, maybe, or some transformative experience where they learn about blah blah blah yawn. A-hem. Not that I don’t envy them something fierce.

I’ve done my share of solo travel and mostly, I loved it and mostly, I felt safe. But sadly, in many places in the world, women are second class citizens and as such, those places are just not open for their exploration the way they would be for men. Saudi Arabia comes to mind immediately, Pakistan and Afghanistan. And when I traveled in Israel as a much younger person, it seemed like sexual harassment was a much a part of the culture as felafel and sunflower seeds.

Joe Jackson wrote a song and I don’t think he was talking about travel but “don’t you know that it’s different for girls?” It is.

It would be interesting to get an answer from Girl Solo in Arabia on this.

9 Kim@Galavanting 12.09.08 at 2:39 am

I’ve experienced a lot of difference while filming our travels, for instance:”will you be able to carry that bag down the waterfall, shouldn’t a man do it??” (even though he had no experience rappelling and was scared sh*tless). Um, no thanks.

And I agree that I think all these fellas hosting travel shows miss a lot of stuff that women viewers would like to see (especially on the travel channel — and though I swoon for Bourdain — my opinion stands). I saw one episode of a travel show recently where a dude hosting briefly showed a gorgeous handmade dowry rug in Turkey and proceeded to briefly ask some GUY about the woman who made it then went on to talk about pretty much, guy stuff.

But don’t think I’ll stand idly by and watch…I agree with Matt and we’re, well, doing that… We started in Costa Rica, are doing some Europe this springs. Then in June we’re headed there to film an entire tour of Istanbul of handmade dowry rugs and the stories behind them…

Am glad to have found you, am off to check out some of your budget travel tips!

10 poetloverrebelspy 12.09.08 at 2:58 am

Pam, I hotlinked her page above and sent an email, so here’s hoping she responds!

11 Eva 12.09.08 at 4:14 am

I think Pam was getting at this too – for me, it’s not so much a concern about safety that makes me envy male travelers or consider that there’s a substantive difference between my experiences and theirs.

It’s more about the ways in which cultural considerations can tend to cut me off from people: the reality is that in many parts of the world, locals (men) are far more likely to talk to / take seriously / engage with / open up to male travelers than to females, while other locals (women) are often inaccessible (how many women did I see on the streets in India, relative to the men??) and reluctant to open up to anyone at all.

Whenever I read about men having amazing experiences in Iran, or Pakistan, or wherever (Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between is a great example) I get this twinge of ‘Wow, I could never do that.’ And it has nothing to do with being brave or scared of the dark or anything – there are simply massive cultural barriers to male-female dialogue in parts of the world.

12 Elizabeth Boese 12.12.08 at 5:04 am

Well I’m a female traveler who’s now visited 64 countries and half the time I was traveling solo. I’ve been to every continent and even traveled through the Middle East on my own (pre 9/11). Women can do it – and have amazing experiences, sometimes even better than solo men have.

For example, many times I was invited into peoples’ homes, but that was because I was a woman and therefore they felt less threatened than asking some solo male traveler.

I’ve also had many conversations with locals simply because I was sitting in a restaurant or cafe by myself. You’re much more approachable to others. I don’t even speak other languages! I use what I call “meta-language” to communicate.

Of course, I’ve had my share of trials and scams too, which I explore in my book “Dare to Go Solo” if you’re interested in them.

The camera following is certainly a huge issue – of course it changes everything. Geeze you could probably get anything you want in the US too if someone thinks they’re going to be put on TV for it. Now a true way to have the show is to use hidden cameras, but of course that’s inconceivable as they need everyone to sign waivers.

Anyway, travel is an amazing experience, for whatever it is you want out of it. I travel for about 2 months every summer, and spent 7 months traveling the globe many moons ago. And yes, if a naive female like I can do it, then so can you. How? Well I compiled all my advice into my book, so go read it and it will well-equip you for the road.

-Elizabeth Sugar Boese

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