Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Woman Alone - Part 1

Two days ago...
When I first let people know that I was going on a solo trip to Kenya to go on a safari one of the comments I frequently heard was that I was ‘so brave’.  The first day of my safari the married woman in my van asked how I liked travelling alone.  I told her it was my first real big trip alone so I wasn’t sure.

I tried to mitigate the dangers as much as possible.  I decided against finding my own accommodation in Nairobi and tootling around on my own for a few days and instead had my tour company pick me up from the airport and bring me to their preferred hotel.  It was a lot more expensive, but more safe and less stressful.

While on safari, the only thought I had to being brave and safe was making sure I stored my money, passport and cameras in the safe while I was sleeping at night.  During the day, my camera bag with my cash and documents was with me at all times.  Who’s going to take it while sitting in a jeep in the middle of a game reserve?  Well, the babboons might, but they won’t commit credit card fraud.

The hotels were in the middle of nowhere and the staff were highly educated people (a job requirement, apparently).  There were porters and security all over the place.  At night, we would get escorted to our rooms because it was dark and you never knew if a hyena was lingering on the grounds.  (As an aside, I went to two hyena feedings and none showed up.  The only hyenas I saw were in the middle of the day, basking in the sunshine sleeping the day away.)

But in Bamburi (North Mombassa), I often question what is being brave?  Is it being out in a dangerous place?  Is it interacting with the locals?  Is it accepting and overcoming cultural differences?

Kenyans love to barter.  I hate it – mostly because I am very bad at it.  I feel guilty offering half of what they are asking.  The guide books say that they will give a price based on what they think they can get out of you.  Our safari driver/guide said if the ask for 1500 shillings, offer them 750 and then go from there.  I’m still not very good at it, but have now done it a few times. 
When I walk along the beach and the hawkers call out to me, I pretend I don’t hear them and keep walking.  Or if they come right up to me I say ‘no, thank you’.  And occasionally I actually have a conversation with them. 

They start by asking where I am from.  Is this my first time to Kenya?  Did I go on safari?  Would I like to go on safari?  And I become more wary when they ask if I am married, how many children I have, how many siblings. 

This happened while on safari, too.  I’d be sitting outside my hut working on my laptop before supper and one of the employees came by to turn on the lights in front of each hut as sunset was nearing.  He stopped and visited for about 10 minutes asking similar questions.  One of the ladies I shared my van with later said I was being hit on.  Perhaps.  But what motivation did he have in asking these questions?  What could he get from me?  Nothing.  He seemed genuinely interested and we had a good discussion about marriage and families.  In Kenya, he told me, men only get married to have children.  What happens if you don’t have children, I ask.  Then we both go to doctor to fix it so we can have children.

I find asking them personal questions back certainly helps curb some of their questions.  One of the fellows on the boat today asked if I was married.  I said no.  I asked him if he was.  No, he said, Kenyan wives are very expensive.  Dowry, he adds.  So, in Masai Mara the man must give 10 cows for a dowry, I say.  If you live in the city and don’t have cows, what do you give for a dowry?  Money, he replies.  Lots of money.

I reason that if you’ve already paid for something, the questions tend to be harmless.  They are just interested.  However, if you haven’t bought anything, they are looking for a hook in which to draw you in.  Whether it be for an excursion, souveniers, or sex.  I was warned that in Mombassa, it is not safe for tourists to be out at night.  And if going from a restaurant to the hotel to get a cab.  I had also been warned that with all the tourists, it is a place where black men solicit white women for sex.  And black women do the same for men.  I haven’t been asked outright, but one of the waiters in my hotel’s restaurant informed me this morning (I spoke with him briefly yesterday about the dinner menu) that he had the evening off and perhaps we could go out and do something.  I declined.

It is taking a toll, and making me reluctant to explore much.  Having said that, I think I’ve found a way to get around it all.  The taxi driver who picked me up at the airport was very friendly and non-aggressive.  He and I had talked about different places to see here.  I said I had wanted to see a forest, and he offered to take me on two different excursions – about 80km away and costing over $100 each.  I told him I wanted something close and that someone recommended Haller Park which was very close to where I was staying.  I’d go there instead.  But we did agree for him to take me to Mombassa for the day tomorrow.  I’m paying $40 for a day’s taxi service and he will accompany me to all the sites I go to.  He isn’t allowed to be a tour guide for the city and I’d have to go without a guide or hire one. 

I’ve learned that once a Kenyan is beside me, the others don’t bother me.  So, $40 is a fair price to pay for not only the taxi but for the chance of not being bothered much.  I like that he can take me to where I want to go (like the post office, spice market and local museum) and not have to figure things out for myself.

Another bonus is when the men pester me on the beach to go on excursions, I can tell them that I am all booked up.  Every day is booked so I have no time for more.  Not quite true, but close enough.

So, where was I going with this?  Oh yes, how do I like travelling alone?  I think being alone makes me a bigger target in this environment, so in that way, I don’t like it.  But I don’t think it would be a problem in North America or Europe.

There was a guy in my safari van who was travelling alone.  He’s been to 70 countries and prefers travelling alone.  He doesn’t have to worry about other peoples’ likes and dislikes, and can go where he wants when he wants.  I should have asked him if the Kenyan women ask if he’s married and how many children he has.  He could afford 10 cows, I’m sure!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cheryl here...

I am glad you took steps to make travelling alone safer for you. I think a woman can travel alone safely if she is careful and takes steps to mitigate potential threats. I also believe there are places a woman can't safely travel and knowing where not to go is also necessary.