I’ve always been fairly lucky as a a female traveller. I’ve rarely encountered hostility or harassment as a result of being a woman with the audacity to travel without a male chaperone, and while women shouldn’t have to feel grateful for being left alone to go about their business…that’s not the world we live in. So I have always appreciated my good fortune.
But in Cuba, things were a little different. For a start, there was the catcalling. This happened to varying degrees depending on which city we were in, but at its worst it seemed that every corner we turned there was a new shout, and we hated feeling forced to look at the ground, to pull our jackets across our chests and make ourselves smaller. But there were also the more subtle things – the men in bars who would not take a hint, the unsolicited advice, the slightly incredulous “So it’s just the two of you?” comments. It wasn’t the majority by a long shot, but more so than anywhere else I’ve been I encountered men (‘not all men!’) who just didn’t seem to want to believe that two adult women could travel around without any help. For the first time in my life, I felt like travelling was a feminist act.
If you’re still not convinced, let me tell you a few little stories about my experience as a woman backpacking in Cuba. Cringes guaranteed.
The One with the Clueless Know-It-All
Between Trinidad and Camaguey my friend and I shared a collectivo with a German couple. The woman was in the back seat with us while her partner sat up front, and though she didn’t say much we got the distinct impression she was a bit irritated with him. By the end of the 4-hour trip, so were we. He spent most of the ride telling bullshit stories and treated us like we were absolutely clueless, trying to give us ‘advice’ on how to get around Cuba when as far as I could make out, we knew more than he did. The most perplexing part was that he warned us about jineteros (touts) in Camaguey, and then fell for the exact scam he’d been describing to us as soon as we arrived in the city. We tried to tell him, but predictably he wasn’t listening to us.
The One with the Angry Local
One night my friend and I were sat in a Casa de la Musica in Trinidad, watching the band and trying to ignore the fact that a man old enough to be our dad was staring intently at us from the next table. Not to be deterred, he suddenly stood up, pushed an empty chair into the space between us and sat down, interrupting our conversation and essentially isolating us on either side of him. Having learnt early on that the best way to deal with pushy Cuban men is to simply ignore them, we both turned to focus on the band and gave no more than one-word answers to his questions. Eventually he gave up and went away, but we attracted his attention again when two men came along and asked if they could take the spare seats at our table. Despite the fact that we barely spoke to these men either, the guy spent the next hour glaring at us and flipping us the finger every time we caught his eye. Charming.
The One with the Catcalling Mansplaining
The story above is not over. The two men who sat at our table seemed like an improvement on our first visitor in that they weren’t making obscene gestures at us across the bar, but they were pretty insistent on talking to us at a time when we really just wanted to keep to ourselves. The highlight of the conversation came when we were commenting on the street harassment we’d encountered around Cuba and one of the guys, who were both from New York, explained to us that they’d heard from Cuban men that Cuban women actually enjoy being catcalled, so we should just take it as a compliment. I rolled my eyes so hard I thought they were going to fall out of the back of my head.
Have you experienced any bad or strange reactions travelling alone as a woman? Let’s share the stories…