At 5 am, I climb onto the overcrowded bus and find my seat, only to have a guy shove his way over and give me the standard entrance interview for sexual harassment:
“What’s your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“Are you married?”
“Are you Muslim?”
Without really listening to the answers, he takes the opportunity to fondle my crotch as I try to squish myself against the window, away from him. Not exactly my favorite way to start a trip to remote northern Ethiopia.
New Year’s Eve in Harar, there’s a guy who stared at me all night and managed to get my number from another guy, then happened to be on the same bus to Addis the next morning. He continued to stare at me the entire 8 hours, and I avoided him by pretending to sleep. But then he wouldn’t leave me alone at the rest stop. “I’m a lawyer for SOS Harar, the orphanage. I care so much about the children,” he said to the area just south of my shoulders. When we got to Addis, he said, “You. Me. Bedroom?” More like, “Me disappear.” Which is exactly what I did.
And to top it all off:
It’s the end of my trip and I’m headed back to Somaliland. I’ve just done 18 hours of traveling across the country and it’s late at night. I had stopped quickly in Harar to buy some books for my school, and then had gotten on a bus to Jigjiga, in the Somali region, the last town before the Somaliland border. It has a edgy, out-there feel, exactly what you’d expect of the last town before the border of the fabulous failed state. Anyway, I learned I had missed the last bus to the border and would have to spend the night there, alone. Oh look, a guy is talking to me. Telling me in a hushed he’s part of the “Ethiopian Special Forces.” Yeah, right! Oh look, he’s following me upstairs to my hotel room. Now he’s begging me to go out somewhere. Please, I’m tired. I want to go to bed. He’s taking my hand, telling me he loves me. Moves closer. I pull myself away from him and tell him to get out. Something in my voice must have told him I was serious. Who knows? Maybe I’m “Special Forces” too. I get him out of my room and lock the door, only to realize that the bathroom is down the hall, and I haven’t brushed my teeth in two days. I creep out for all of two minutes, brush, and then scamper back. I lock the door and make as little noise as possible. Outside I can hear the rough men’s voices as they chew qat far into the night, speaking Somali, the language that sounds like rocks cracking together. I curl up on the little bed, fully dressed, and get a few hours of fitful sleep before waking up at 5 to leave.
Later, I met a Peace Corps volunteer who had done her assignment in Ethiopia. She said that while she was with the Peace Corps, she wasn’t allowed to go to Jigjiga because occasionally the rebel groups operating in the Ogaden have ties there. Yeah, I could see that. It’s a sketchy-ass place.
But I made it back in one piece. I left on the first bus to Wujale, and as we approached the border, they stopped at the last Ethiopian military checkpoint, pulled me off the bus, and after seeing my passport, the soldiers tried to rob me. They asked me to declare how much money I had in US dollars (I didn’t have much), then asked to see the bills, and then this big fat lady in a uniform ripped it out of my hand. I screamed at her in English to give it back (‘cuz ya know, there’s nothing more intimidating than that). But it must have worked, because she did, and I raced back to the bus and made it safely across the border.
As a female traveler, sexual harassment is one of the unique challenges that I face while my male counterparts travel through the world, blissfully unaware. While these challenges can sour any travel experience, there is absolutely no reason why we should miss out on the fun. If you are a woman traveler and you feel uncomfortable, here are some tips that I’ve learned on the road:
--bring an iPod. If you have to do a long bus ride alone and some pig won’t leave you alone, you can put in headphones and close your eyes a little to pretend to be asleep (but keeping one eye open a bit so you don’t miss the scenery!)
--wear a belt with a sharp and intimidating buckle
--if you’re going to drink, open your own beer (and don’t accept one that has been already opened)
--get good at saying ‘no.’ It’s a tiny word, you can do it!
--find a trusted a friend to travel with. The more, the merrier! Also, it’s nice to have someone to talk to on those epically long car/bus/minibus/train/plane rides.
--accept that some form of sexual harassment will happen to you at some time, but don’t let it stop you. That means they win.
--realize that it’s not your fault, and the guy is the one in the wrong. And anyone who says differently can suck it!
Keep on truckin’, Lady Adventurers!