Observations after my first experience with women travel writers
After concluding my first sampling of women travel writers, I have noted a distinct difference in writing style. I often felt I was seeing the experience through the eyes of a woman, whereas I never thought much of seeing male writers as men. I took it for granted.
Some authors may enable this feeling, more than others. Rosemary Mahoney, in her Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff
constantly finds herself discussing sex and the role of women in Egyptian culture. This may be because of her purpose (she hopes to row herself up the Nile) and its being seen as an outrageous adventure to attempt- especially for a woman, alone. It may also be due to her environment. Egypt’s religious and ethnic culture has crafted the role of women to be far more inhibiting and strict than what Mahoney and Americans are used to.
Naturally, as both a traveler and author, Mahoney is curious. These conversations allow the reader to enter the Egyptian culture through the eyes of a female. Mahoney, while in Aswan, recounts one her male interactions, which she becomes more and more annoyed with as time goes on. During this one, she is told that she is “beautiful”. Mahoney tells us this is the twelfth time she has heard this. She has heard it all in the short time she has been in Egypt, and she is tired of it. The attempts at flattery, if they can even be called that elicit “boredom” and “apprehension”.
Throughout this conversation, and during many similar ones, Mahoney consistently walks away annoyed and frustrated with Egyptian men and their preconceptions, and obsessions. But, she continues to give men chances. She entertains their questioning, albeit with caution as time goes on.
These conversations are enabled by her desire to make her trek up the Nile alone. Her lack of companionship allows men to approach her more freely. She is also viewed as less experienced. She has a hard time finding a boat because the Egyptian men don’t want to be responsible for any of her miscues. This is an insight into a view of women as unable to do “manly” things, especially not on their lonesome.
Another woman traveler who understands and appreciates the value of traveling on her own is Mary Morris. Morris moves to Mexico, without much notice, and void of plans. She has her typewriter, and she finds herself in San Miguel.
Morris evokes some Orwellian attitudes upon her arrival. She lives in a dirty house in the poor neighborhood of town, and has to walk great distances to get to the worthwhile parts of San Miguel. She is taken around town by her neighbor, Lupe, a woman who has had too many children to count and finds herself unmarried and impoverished. Morris sees San Miguel in this way, witnessing Mexican culture through Lupe’s eyes. Long walks to the market, shortcuts through the rich part of town, and having a rooster wake her up at dawn characterize Morris’ time in San Miguel.
Unlike Mahoney, Morris tells of an interaction with an American man, Trevor, whom she immediately dislikes. Otherwise, Morris shies away from male interaction at least at the outset. She tells of her experience at a bar in San Miguel where everyone is socializing, but she feels alienated- and no one comes to her rescue. This seems far different than Mahoney’s male interaction.
Morris’ time is not plagued by Mexican preconceptions, like Mahoney’s is. Morris often finds herself engaging in local activities. If anything, the poverty strikes her hardest. After walking for what seems like years to buy some flowers, Morris becomes saddened by the reality that her purchase could have fed Lupe’s family for a week.
At times though, her being a female traveling on her own does stand out on the page. When she reacts to the young boy drowning in a way so radically different than her friend Catherine, we enter into her emotional psyche. The male authors I have encountered thus far are much less willing to let this occur. It definitely adds to her writing, creating another dimension outside of the act of traveling.
Both writers craft their experiences as travel writers, and nothing else. Of course, their being female lends to new experiences, insights and interactions that would not be possible if they were men.
I view their desire to travel alone, though, with equal importance, because of its ability to also shape their writing and travels. Though this is hopefully becoming less and less the case, their being female and being alone does impact their journey.
At times it is almost as if the reality of their being alone in places that can be so prejudiced and willing to place these writers in a box, especially in Mahoney’s case, makes their story more intriguing and far less commonplace.