Ayúdame, Por Favor? I’m Lost and I’m a Girl

I spoke neither French nor Arabic, and the nice man in the booth was trying to explain something to me in a mix of the languages.  But it only took a minute or so of passionate pantomime for me to understand:  They only sold one-way tickets.  I would have to buy another one on my way back.

As I settled into my seat on the train from Casablanca, no less than 4 people – two men and two women – approached me to ask if I was ok. Did the man in the booth not give me the right change?  Did I know where I was going?  Did I need help?  Did I have enough money?

As I spent the week traveling with my friend Kim, I found it strange to be in a country where women were considered generally incapable.  Everywhere we went, people wanted to help us – everything from lifting our suitcases to steering us through the town.  And these weren’t people who were expecting anything in return – they didn’t ask for money or pressure us into visiting their stores.  It’s true that they were mostly men, but even so, young American women learn early on to tell the difference between men who pay undue attention to us (creepy) and men who want to watch over us and help us in a grandfatherly sort of way.  We were encountering the latter – everywhere.

And so this past week, when I went to Mexico with five girlfriends, I remembered the Morocco trip from a few years back, and I wondered how I would find it.  Traveling as a woman through such a patriarchal culture.

I found out the day I decided to go horseback riding in an adventure park just outside Cancun.  Getting there would necessitate a ferry, a cab, and a bus, but my Spanish is decent, and I wasn’t in any hurry.

Getting there and back was an all-day disaster, replete with missteps, wrong buses, and mislabeled signs.  And yet, every step of the way I encountered it – this overwhelming desire of the people to help a young girl find her way.  One of the owners of the park offered to drive me to the nearest bus stop so I wouldn’t have to walk in the heat.  He let me off on the side of the road, told me none of the buses came with any regularity, but just to wait here and surely someone would pick me up.  (See photo above.)

And so I waited at this bus stop, and when people stopped to offer me a ride, they literally drove out of their way to deliver me – hand to hand – to someone else who would help me get the rest of the way.  One person waited with me at one intersection for 40 minutes until another bus came along, when he sternly told the driver to make sure I got to my destination, as though I were an Unaccompanied Minor.

When you travel as a woman in a foreign country, particularly one in which you don’t speak the language fluently, you need to be very, very careful.  We’re taught this.  We’re taught that it’s the unfair reality that women are more vulnerable than men, and that we are at greater risk.  This is not untrue.

However, what is not spoken about as often is the privilege that women also enjoy.  If people think of you as vulnerable, you are also seen as incapable – helpless, hopeless, perpetually in need of a hand.   And I’ve started to realize that I experience this everywhere I go.

Men are always coming to my “rescue” – helping me with an especially heavy suitcase, pointing me in the right direction when I’m lost, telling me the time or giving me even unsolicited information.  Particularly if I am smiling and cutely stammering through an overly simplified vocabulary with a terrible Spanish accent . . . well, I can pretty much get all the help I want.

When I finally got back to my hotel, I stopped to wonder.

If I’d been a man instead of a woman, would people have been as willing to help me get home?  Is it socially permissible for men to shyly and cutely ask for that kind of help, or that kind of protection even, when traveling?  If I were to be attacked on the street, would people rush to my aid faster because they heard a woman – not a man – scream?

If women are seen as more vulnerable, are we also receiving more help and protection than men are?

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  • Mike

    “are we also receiving more help and protection than men are”… ABSOLUTELY. The common belief that women (especially young, cute, nice or at least approachable women) get more breaks (such as getting warnings instead of speeding tickets or having strangers help them) is common because it is true. Maybe it’s because they are perceived as less threatening and maybe it’s just hard-wired into the male psyche to help and protect women. The answer to your questions “Is it socially permissible for men to shyly and cutely ask for that kind of help, or that kind of protection even, when traveling?” is a resounding NO. Being of the male persuasion, I know that would be seen as a sign of weakness. Men can be friendly but the “cute” thing just wouldn’t work for us. I feel that strangers are less willing to help a male in need than the fairer gender. Let’s be honest. The risks of letting a strange guy into your car is a lot higher. I’m actually OK with this gender bias. It definitely doesn’t work in my favor but I understand it and act the same way myself without even really stopping to consider it. We all balance the risk versus reward equation automatically when we consider whether to stop and help someone or even accept that ride from an absolute stranger in a foreign country.

    It sounds like you had a great time. Glad you made it back safe and sound :).

  • Tony

    I have to ask – have you ever considered *not accepting* these seemingly unrelenting and allegedly unsolicited offers of help? Not trying to be rude, I’m just curious. I think the honest truth of the situation is that men, especially, won’t stop being eager to offer this type of assistance until women stop rewarding them for doing it, even if the reward amounts to nothing more than smiling, being effusively grateful and otherwise reinforcing their image of themselves as ‘big, strong men.’ It’s a simple case of positive reinforcement: men won’t stop doing it until they start consistently having the behavior negatively, rather than positively, reinforced.