Ten Tips for Wandering Women

Stephanie Griest's 100 Places Every Woman Should Go, for wandering women

Stephanie Elizondo Griest has mingled with the Russian Mafiya, polished Chinese propaganda, and belly danced with Cuban rumba queens.

These adventures are the subject of her award-winning first book: Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana. An avid traveler, she has explored 25 countries and once spent a year driving 45,000 miles across the United States, documenting its history for a website for kids called The Odyssey.

The Top Ten Tips for Wandering Women

1. Networking. A month before your trip, send an email to everyone you know with your travel itinerary. You’ll probably be amazed at how many people have old friends/ex-lovers/third-cousins-twice-removed along your route.

Ask for their contact information and arrange to meet them for coffee (or chai, or nargileh ) when you arrive to get the scoop on their home turf. Any burning questions you have will likely be answered within 24 hours (if not minutes) there, and you can find travel partners as well.

2. Packing. Take only what you can carry half a mile at a dead run. This is the golden rule of foreign correspondents and should be adopted by travelers as well. Lay out everything you think you’ll need, then pack half of it and double the money.

A few things I never leave home without are a versatile pocket knife, a strong piece of nylon rope, a flashlight (or better yet, a headlamp), a combination padlock, a rain poncho, blank paper, pens, a journal, condoms, and a mountain of tampons. This leads us to Tip No. 3.

TIP! Menstrual Cup

3. Feminine Hygiene. A friend once traveled the developing world for nearly two years with a single device – a menstrual cup – and swears it is the greatest contribution to womankind. Simply insert it into your vagina and empty it a couple of times each day. No strings, no wings!

Another friend eliminates her menses altogether by taking Depo-Provera, a shot of progestin that can prevent ovulation for intervals of up to three months. Otherwise, pack O.B.s or other non-applicator tampons, which take half the space of regular tampons and are less likely to be tampered with by customs agents searching for drugs. Chances are, you’ll be able to buy tampons abroad, but if you’re picky or have a heavy cycle (as in, only super-absorbency-plus will suffice) bring your own.

4. Money Storage. Some travelers sew little pockets on the insides of their clothes; others stash emergency bills and contact information in their bras or shoes. I advocate spreading the wealth. I usually keep a copy of my passport, a couple of traveler’s checks, and some money in a hidden waist belt, then store the critical documents (passport, airline tickets, credit cards, bulk of money) in a hidden thigh pouch. If theft is a serious problem in your destination, carry a decoy purse – that is, something to hand over in case of a robbery.

Before you leave, give a trusted friend a folder containing your itinerary, contact information, and copies of your passport, visas, driver’s license, and credit cards. Save your passport number, 1-800 credit card replacement numbers, and pertinent contact information in a folder on your email account.

Male Repellent

5. Male Repellent. Some women wear fake wedding bands and carry photos of hulky men they call husbands to ward off advances. I try to learn key phrases in the local language. (“I’m meeting my boyfriend here. He is a lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps,” is a useful one.)

Public guilt/humiliation is the best way to deal with men who molest you on crowded buses or subways. Loudly and firmly, say: “How would you like it if someone treated your wife/daughter/sister like that?” or simply: “Shame on you!” Chances are, your fellow passengers will come to your rescue. (If you turn around and slug him, they likely will not.)

6. Safety. As a general rule, pensions, homestays, beds and breakfasts, and hostels are more “women-friendly” than hotels or motels. If that is all that’s available, abide by the following: use only a first initial when checking in. Request a room that is not on the main floor. Take the elevator instead of the stairs. And never leave your key where someone can see your room number.

7. What To Wear. Conforming to local gender roles/social customs can be a challenge sometimes. While foreign women might be forgiven or excused for pushing the limits of local dress codes, it is simply disrespectful to wear tank tops and shorts in conservative or religious societies.

Also, beware that many cultures take fashion seriously: my mud brown corduroys and hiking boots made me look and feel like an androgynous pauper in Eastern Europe, and my ripped jeans were crudely inappropriate. Flip through magazines and rent contemporary movies from your destination and pack accordingly.

8. Staying healthy. Parasites just love to hitchhike. Keep them away by avoiding the following, especially in the developing world: salads and other raw vegetables, unpasteurized products like milk and yogurt, iced drinks, cold meat and cheese platters in Soviet-era hotels (where it’s probably been sitting out for hours, if not days), and shellfish.

When choosing a restaurant, check out the bathroom first: if the Board of Health would condemn it, the same probably goes for the kitchen. Give your body time to adjust to local spices before hitting the street stalls, and only patronize the busiest ones when you do.

If you wind up somewhere even remotely sketchy, go vegetarian – or at the very least, avoid chicken and fish, as it goes bad fast. If you do get sick, drink Sprite and monitor your stool. If it turns yellow, bloody, or has pus in it, get to a doctor – fast.

Crying Can Work

9. Tears Work. While I hate to recommend that women rely on their perceived fragility or weakness to get by, there really is something about a lonesome foreign woman crying that magically opens the doors, wallets, and hearts of the people of this planet.

It is how I got all of my stolen documents replaced one miserable day in Turkey in record time, without penalty or rush fees. It is how my friend Daphne evaded costly traffic violations across Africa and literally stopped a departing airplane in Angola. Use only as a last resort, but if you’re going to do it, go all the way.

If seeking to avoid an exorbitant fine, jail, or getting thrown off the Trans-Siberian train in the middle of the night for not having your papers in order, think: Oscar. Drop to your knees. Convulse. Make such a scene, passersby get involved. If the situation is truly critical, consider fainting (but only if you’ve gotten enough sympathetic people involved that your oppressor can’t just toss your body off the train!).

Another strategy is pretending to get sick. I once read of an elderly ex-pat in China who never left home without his doctor’s business card. Whenever his cabbies hit 80 miles per hour, he would hand it over with an ominous “If I have a heart attack, drop me off here.” The cabbies promptly screeched to a halt. Younger travelers may have a harder time pulling that off, but if your taxi really needs to slow down, shout: “I’m getting carsick!” and heave.

10. Return the Good Sister Karma. Spread the love. Be nice to female travelers you encounter at home, and help out your local sisters abroad. Support female artisans, vendors, tour guides, and taxi drivers wherever you wander. Your money will almost certainly go where it is needed most.

Stephanie Greist

Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s last story for GoNOMAD was about traveling ‘Around the Bloc.’ Atria/Simon & Schuster will publish her memoirs from Mexico in 2008. She has also written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Latina Magazine, and numerous Travelers’ Tales anthologies. She has been a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University and is currently a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and a Board Member of the National Coalition Against Censorship. Visit her website at www.aroundthebloc.com.

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