Life Skills, On the Road, Traveling

About a Girl

It will shock no one to know that the blog essay, “Don’t Date a Girl Who Travels,”  (originally posted in May 2013 and recently picked up by Huffington Post and Thought Catalog, among others) has been sent my way a number of times in the last few weeks. Always, the sender noted that s/he was thinking of me, out here wandering the world, living  out my own wildest dreams, and a few of theirs as well.

I kept it to myself that I find the essay totally offensive. After all, I was in Africa when it began arriving. Who cares about bad writing and publicity politics when there are cheetahs to track?

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Cheetahs that were tracked

Then I  was tagged in someone’s Facebook share of the article and a commenter included a link to a response that upgraded the original to something more than drivel. By that time, I was in a riad in Fes, only mildly interested to discover a hullabaloo on the internet about the original post, and a number of responses, many of which are equally superficial. Since the subject, via link, or comment, or email, has continued to come my way, I will take a solitary Madrid afternoon minute to tell you what I think.

How can I care about silly HuffPost politics when my riad room looks like this?!

How can I care about silly HuffPost politics when my riad room looks like this?!

If poor writing were the crux of the issue, I would snark and move on. But it isn’t, though that certainly led readers astray. Weak structure fails the satirical tone of the piece and readers are left unable to determine whether the author seriously thinks that a girl who travels, “doesn’t plan or have a permanent address…Chances are she can’t hold a steady job.” Or, as I think is her intent, does the author mean that someone who travels is independent, craves new experience, and prioritizes a travel opportunity over security?

Stephabroad.com addressed this in her rewrite, which took the original premise and turned it proactive, returning some ownership of the girl and her desires to the girl herself. Rather than focus on aging skin and instability, or try to convince a guy that it’s ok the traveler won’t go clubbing with him, Stephabroad notes how diligently the traveler seeks the world and what there is to learn in it, and how compatible that makes her with someone who shares these values, if not her habits. Written as it is, this version gives the girl credit for volition and experience.

And yet I still take umbrage:

This is not a girl about whom we speak. It is a woman. And we should all be less afraid of calling her such. She deserves it. In all versions of the piece, this protagonist makes her own money. She makes her own reservations. She carries her own pack and walks home at night down unfamiliar streets.

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A sort of dark and very unfamiliar street in Marrakech

On a regular basis, she makes decisions of calculated risk that would make a wall street trader cower. Her life is a gamble of safety and adventure, joy and sorrow, experience, loss, and gain. She who has hugged a foreign and likely filthy toilet bowl for a long night of purging the wrong market stall of food from her system, and survived to hop the next bus is no  longer a girl, she is a woman. She who holds her head high while a carpet dealer discusses the sharmouta who won’t buy, and lets that not dampen her opinion of the country she explores is not a girl, she is a woman. And she deserves the respect of being called such.

The semantic error – and our constant fear of addressing it – underlies a larger cultural issue with the piece: even when heralding the independence of a woman, the author can’t think of anything more original than a traditional gender paradigm (dating) to evaluate the worth of her gender. She is trying to convince men not to be afraid of her, and her ‘shortcomings’ which may make her slightly less palatable in traditional roles.

Are you kidding me with this?

Here’s a piece of news for you: the chick who travels doesn’t give a shit whether you want to date her. You don’t get to make this choice on her behalf. She already knows that, if you need convincing, you aren’t the one she wants. This life she lives is about the choices she makes, the work she puts in, the desires she chases. It’s not about convincing a traditional world to figure out how to accept her. The original writer knows this – she is a former corporate employee who took a career break and is now a surfer and yoga teacher. She just isn’t able to write it.

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The chick who travels, chasing her desires above the cloud cover in the High Atlas (photo credit: Paul Allen)

Unlike that original writer, I don’t speak for all women who travel. I speak for no one but myself, and here is my response: I am a woman, and I don’t want to be dated. I want to be adventured with. I want a man who can see the way the blue of an iceberg nuzzling against the shore of a lake in Torres del Paine thrills me to wondered stillness, and respect that being my moment of reflection. Sometimes, we will share these moments of awe. And sometimes, we will mutually appreciate them afterwards, in a warm pub over beer, and they will be no less valued. Awe, travel experience, and love can all be separate and equal.

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Iceberg blue in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

This article fails to recognize that part of the impetus to explore the world stems in part from dissatisfaction with the roles available to one at home. It isn’t just in countries where shariah prevails over women to wrap their hair in scarves that opportunity lacks. In the US and in many developed countries, social paradigms and their resulting power structures fail to recognize that women aren’t paperdoll cut-outs. Women who travel refuse to be tab-folded and dressed in outfits suitable for a  given occasion. (Although, like a paper doll, I have about six outfits in my wardrobe right now…) And so we take a chance to look around the world first-hand and see what our other options may be.

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Looking around (and under) the world for options (photo credit: Sander den Haring)

When I was young, my father used to tell me, “a girl without freckles is like a night without stars.” It is a sweet sentiment, when you are young. Now that I am on the night side of 40, I am endeared to the saying out of nostalgia, but the language, like that article, is problematic, because I am not a girl, and I don’t want to be evaluated on the basis of my face. My aged face, full of freckles, is in fact like a night sky full of stars, lit from within by a fire that started burning long ago, both fed and drained by travel across time and space. Its origin may be long gone, may be darkened by forces we won’t see in this lifetime, but in its present, it is brilliant and magical and strong enough to navigate oceans.

I am a woman, and this fact is more than just the failed semantics of a Huffpost article. It is a lifetime in the making. A lifetime of experience, of love, of adventure and heartbreak and bruises and bad train rides and good break ups and difficult jobs and random rewarding encounters. It is hard work and joyful leisure to be a woman, and regardless of who may or may not want to date me, regardless of who wants my journey for his own, I have my soul full of fires, lit over a lifetime. You can take that, or leave it, you decide. I’ll decide whether you are worth dating – or reading. Right now, I have a plane to catch.

Creating bruises

Creating a day of adventure and bruises.

5 thoughts on “About a Girl

  1. What? Since I haven’t seen this, (the Algorithmic Gods must have deemed me unlikely-to-read in my current life) I’m not understanding. But I do agree with your post and will now read the other.

  2. gary

    Touche’ Jena, touche’…..well said. Enjoyed catching up on a few blogs. Sounds like you are having fun, living life and doing well.

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