What Hitch-hiking Alone in Latin America Taught Me About Male Privilege

The patriarchy takes a road trip.
 
“But it’s easy for a pretty girl like you, to travel. You think people would stop for a big dark man like me?” asked the driver that was giving me and my friend a ride to the city of David in Panama. There were five people in the car: the driver, two acquaintances of his (also burly local men), my friend Siracha and myself. The question was a complex one. Whether he was aware of the terminology or not, the man was talking about privilege, and identifying race and gender as factors that might give someone an advantage or disadvantage when travelling. In some ways, he was right: it is easier to get people to stop for you as a (cis) female hitch-hiker. So I agreed with him that, yes, travelling was easier for me. I was biting my tongue: for one thing, because the conversation was in Spanish and it’s difficult to convey feminist concepts in a language you’re not fluent in. The other reason was because I already felt uneasy in the presence of these three big men, one of whom persistently touched my arm and incessantly asked of mine and Siracha’s relationship status, and I didn’t want to say anything that might upset them and threaten our physical safety.
 
It was a situation I had gotten used to whilst travelling: I’ve been on the road eight months at this point. From Guatemala to central Panama I paid for transportation only a handful of times as I covered nearly all the ground by hitch-hiking. I was mostly with various people along the way, but hitched alone for short distances in Mexico and long distances in El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama. And in these countries, female drivers are like a rare gem lost in a pebble beach. In other words, if you’re hitch-hiking in Central America, you’re almost always getting into a car, taxi, truck, lorry, boat or police car with a male driver.

I didn’t want to say anything that might upset them and threaten our physical safety.

 
But before I begin to express my experience of gender bias in travel, let me return to the assertion made by the Panamanian driver, particularly when he was referring to race as a factor influencing how smooth someone’s travels are. Privilege is a real thing: able-bodiedness, race, sexuality, gender, nationality and socioeconomic background all play their part in shaping and influencing people’s experiences. You only have to take a quick look round a backpacker hostel to see the demographic of the clientele and realise the role privilege plays – there is an obvious lack of an ethnic minority and queer presence, for example. If you’re able-bodied you don’t have to plan your trip in the same way that a wheelchair user must – which I imagine is extremely challenging. Having a passport from a Western country helps too, in facilitating easier passage. It’s the shameful truth that when you travel you really feel the ominous shadow of colonialism: for one thing, it’s so much easier to cross borders into countries that your passport’s nation once ruled over.
 
So, yes, I absolutely benefit from privilege, and in a multiplicity of ways. Of this I am aware, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to travel as I do. But for (cis) men to claim hitch-hiking is easier for women on account of our sex and attractiveness is an alarming misconception – and is harmful because it overlooks the struggle female travelers face as a direct result of patriarchal gender stereotypes.
 

The author on one of her many hitch-hiking adventures.
The author on one of her many hitch-hiking adventures.

 
The fact is, a male driver who pulls over for female hitchers but not for their male counterparts is stopping for one of the following reasons: 1) he is sexually attracted to her, 2) he sees her as a fragile and vulnerable female he must save. Now many men I have spoken to about this subject claim, adamantly, that the reason probably is that: 3) the male driver wants to help people out but is hesitant to take male hitchers because they might be dangerous whereas female hitchers seem to be harmless. This could well be true – but is this not the same, really, as reason 2? Hitch-hiking is different for men and women because of the gender stereotypes that exist, and it’s the same one-sided view of women being non-threatening and harmless that  makes people both fear women less than men and see them as weak. (Many male hitchers have also told me that if they were driving, they would be more likely to pick up a female hitcher than a guy because they would be worried a guy would rob them or harm them. Are these people not doing themselves a disservice?) And so, I return to the former two reasons, because many drivers have admitted this to me in some form or another during the ride. In Panama, out of the male drivers who picked me up when there was no other woman in the car, 100% called me a variation of ‘beautiful’ or ‘sexy’, and a good half or so warned me to be careful because ‘it’s dangerous out there’ and ‘there are bad men out there. Not everyone’s a good guy like me.’ Almost all asked my relationship status, and a big proportion asked if I was scared travelling alone (I would reply, as confidently as I could: “No, I know how to use a machete, I’m not scared,” to put them off if they were thinking of trying anything).
 
Now let me just state that the majority of these men did seem to be nice, genuine people and I have made it this far unscathed and safe. The people I describe didn’t necessarily have bad intentions, nor acted inappropriately. But their words and actions highlight how hitching alone as a woman is a different experience to hitching as a man (or even as a woman with a man). As women, we are already subject to harassment in our everyday lives; however, I’ve found the harassment I’ve experienced while travelling to be suffocating because I have no home to go back to and some days nobody who shares my language, literally and metaphorically, to empathise with the feeling of putting up with patriarchy’s shit. And I’m one of the privileged ones.
 
The kind of travelling I’ve been doing obviously involves risk and potentially feeling unsafe for anyone who participates in this lifestyle. But it’s the specific risk that comes with being a woman that has eroded some faith in the world with me – and, paradoxically, has indirectly empowered me, because I have been daring to do what everyone has told me isn’t possible, or is too dangerous. During this journey I’ve had to move dorm rooms in a hostel because an older man was harassing me; I’ve gotten out of a car because the driver made me question his motives; I’ve put up with being followed, stared at, wolf whistles, honks, catcalls and gestures of fellatio; people trying to touch me; people taking photos of me without my consent. When you are a budget traveller, you relinquish the privilege of being able to control where you sleep and rebuild for the next day’s trials.
 
Additionally, one thing I must point out is that getting rides is not necessarily synonymous with travel being easy. So while being offered a place to stay or a ride might be easier as a woman, the risk of sexual violence is proportionally higher. As are other risks – once a very friendly, gun-toting racist who picked up a female friend and I, played the ‘you’re lucky I’m a nice guy’ card and warned that someone of worse nature would pick us up and sell us into white slavery – followed by him jokingly adding, ‘I’d buy you!’
 

the people that stop for me just because I’m a woman are not the kind of people I want to get in a car with

 
Of course, it’s mostly fine or we wouldn’t do it. You learn how to assess situations, read the driver’s body language, plan an escape route for if things turn sour, and only get into cars with people you trust won’t harm you. It’s a huge lesson in trusting your own judgement and I find hitching alone to be a profoundly empowering experience. Hitch-hiking in general is one of the best ways to travel: it’s environmentally friendly, you get off the beaten track, you interact with more locals. But as a female solo traveller, it’s not always easy. To all the men who tell me, enviously, that it’s easy, because you’re a woman, I say: the people that stop for me just because I’m a woman are not the kind of people I want to get in a car with. And for that reason, I am so much more selective about whom my ride is with when hitching alone that it usually takes longer. Furthermore, having to exude confidence during car rides (because showing vulnerability makes you more likely to be seen and treated like a victim) can be extremely draining. So for all the people out there who’ve told me about how lucky I am, yet never had to experience everything I’ve mentioned, I would respectfully suggest you go check your privilege.

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8 Comments on “What Hitch-hiking Alone in Latin America Taught Me About Male Privilege

  1. Dear Liss, first of all I would like to thank you for taking the time to write your experience and for sharing them. I am 55 years old and I have travelled to many countries and I fully relate with everything you mention. Traveling the way you describe which is similar to the ways I have travelled isn’t easy and at times it irritated me, however I still consider myself privileged purely from an economical perspective. You wrote a brilliant article. Thank you.

  2. you are so right on this, sometimes a girl or woman tells me with pride she has travelled and hitched across a continent and she conveniently ”forgets” that she has done that with her boyfriend? I mean there are females who hitch hike only with boyfriend (or girlfriend) and later on claim they are heroes cause they hitched a big distance never mentioning they did it with the safety of a friend always by side. (especially if the friend is a male)
    Two women can also never compare with a man and a girl, but there have been cases that women travelling together have been assaulted, so it looks like a man equals 2-3 women in terms of safety.
    By all means, girls travelling solo should do what you advise from your experience: ALWAYS LOOK AS IF YOU ARE VERY TOUGH MINDED, some lessons in self-defense usually help build a psychological attitude, and an avid hitch hiker (female) iknow advises that when you hitch, wear your worst ‘manly’ clothes, do not look like a sexy girl. When you arrive at your destination, then you can change into your girly clothes. (im talking about women/girls hitching solo now, apparently if you do it with a friend, you can forget this clothing rule).
    SOLO TRAVEL IS AMAZING, NOT ONLY MEN ARE PRIVILEDGED TO DO IT, BUT STAY SAFE AND BE AWARE OF WHAT IS GOING ON AROUND YOU … XXX THE BEST!

  3. Good article.
    I always find women who have experience in hitch hiking to be great judges of character and be great characters themselves.
    As a guy, I have always found hitch hiking surprisingly easy, in that a lift always seems to come quite quickly. I have only found it difficult in more developed countries like Scotland (where it is unusal), France(where there aholes anyway). Spain is developed and it’s easy, Tibet where they risk their life it was even easy!
    I would pick anyone up unless they looked like racist nationalist type!
    Trying it in S America , I think is the most risky, but I have not been and i’m sure I would try it.
    Good for you on doing it, but did you get robbed at all?

    1. Hi John,
      Thanks for your comment. I agree it’s easier in most places than people make out. I think it’s mainly about sussing out the energy of the place and if you feel safe you’ll probably be safe.
      Luckily, no, I’ve never been robbed. That said, I don’t own many valuables (no camera, no phone). I know a lot of people who have been robbed, but never whilst hitch-hiking. Most people who I know who’ve been robbed had things stolen from them by other travellers, by the police, or left their belongings unattended in public areas.
      Liss

  4. Hey Liss,
    while I was traveling, I also had to face different treatment or situations in comparison to my male friends. I’m totally agree with the points you are mentioning and always got pissed when guys full of envy told me how easy it has to be, to travel as a pretty girl. This, what you described very apting, is the one side. Another side that left more and more a nasty feeling in my mind is the dynamic inside the traveller community itself. Cause beside being white, wealthy and westen dominated, the majority of travellers is mostly also male. From that left female part, probably a half is also traveling with their boyfriends, so girls who are traveling by themselfs are quite rarely too. And solo traveling girls get always another treatment. While guys who arrive in a traveller’s community are the dude, mate, bro or whatever you wanna call it from the first moment on, solo traveling girls are always seen as a potential target for the looove-seeking solo traveller guys. A long, akward dance of conveying that you are not interested in a as subtle way as possible to not break the chance of buddyhood with the maybe actually cool person is going to follow. Males and females should be also able to be buddies from the first time without the duty to justify why you don’t want to sleep with someone. If there is something, it will come from itself.
    Well, anyway, I wish I coul read more articles like yours instead of articles about romantic-boheme-gypsie style, to create a bigger awareness about gender related topics related to traveling. Cause there’s a lot to talk about! Cheers!

    1. @Jule,
      yes I see men share a brotherhood (across racial profiles even) when in hostels and communities but its not the same with us girls, we bitch each other more and we dont see ourselves really as a ‘sisterhood’.

      Then sometimes we cannot blame men for our misfortunes. We dont stick for each other they way they do, and then we complain about a ‘man-ruled’ world.

      And because some feminists have done more harm than good, I think its good to forget the word feminism. This isnt about proving men are less than women. Its about being EQUALS (if possible), at least ina traveller community ideally and basically….

      In hostels especially when I was younger, I never managed to make male friend. When younger I was naive and i thought that in the hostels’ kitchen or laundry when a guy chitchat me is just because he is interested into killing some time with talk. But at least 50% of those innocent chats ended up in him making a verbal move to me, like if i want to go out with him for a drink:/

      Now im much older and uglier and fatter, and I dont have such phenomena. The only good thing about getting older and still travelling solo :)))))

      Because im right now travelling (solo again) and i had a nasty question in a taxi cab in Thessaloniki Greece at midnight hours (yes I took a taxi at midnight hours), I feel like starting a blog, or writing scripts for online mags about female travel. Our experiences must be told. I am convinced in disgust that the taxi driver actually thought I will find it flattering that he, someone I entrust my safety for transfer in midnight out of the airport, and into the city, thinks I am ‘game’ for his low desires. Ok that totally contradicts what I said about old age, but there are guys out there (guys around my age, 40 that is) for whom I am still ‘game’. So the shit never ends;)) Maybe when I hit 80? But then…some pervs….

      1. Hi Anie,

        I have to disagree – I would say there IS a sense of sisterhood between female travellers. If you are looking for a female support network there are Facebook groups like Feminist Explorers and Go Wonder-Girls Travel.

        Regarding what Jule said, I also have to respond: I feel like there is more than one backpacker community. There’s the tourist community in hotels and hostels, your backpacker community in hostels, and a more hippie long term travelling community who live in the nature. I found in the first two there is just as many solo female travellers as male (in Europe, SE Asia and Latin America at least). In the latter less so and yes I’ve experienced the issue of travelling or socialising with men who just want to sleep with me.

        However I do think there is solidarity among women. I also think it’s not feminism itself that has done so much harm, but how people (and the media) react to it. I think the word feminism has been dragged through the mud, yes, but ultimately it’s got the ‘fem’ in there to make a point: we want women’s voices to be acknowledged and heard. Feminism is not about blaming men for our misfortunes, but about critically examining the patriarchal system and saying that it’s not OK. Patriarchy is harmful to both men and women (all genders, actually).

        Thanks for sharing your experiences. You’re right, we need to speak out about sexism on the road. Wishing you safe and happy travels!

        Liss

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