Corinne Whitney cartoon

My Life As An IJ

MY LIFE AS AN IJ is a running personal commentary and observational journal by Corinne Whitney during BikeAbout-the Mediterranean. In this and other postings -- past and future -- you can expect healthy portions of sarcasm, all sorts of pointless ponderings, and some good old-fashioned soul searching to be revealed during these, my ever-sacred spare moments I'm sharing with you, our faithful readers. -- Corinne

Post-Morocco 10/20/97

Leaving Morocco, I knew I had only a portion of the impressions one can get from such a large and diverse country -- and we had only been to the north. Language barriers made it hard to speak with anyone local who wasn't a hustler or government spokesperson, and connecting with women was next to impossible. The women, young and old, seemed very wary of us, with our exposed white skin, super short haircuts, riding bicycles or typing on computers. Even walking down the street they seemed oddly suspicious or even frightened -- though come to think of it bike touring in the US is not such a popular thing that people don't stare too, 'cause they do. But I did feel that I had only my own personal reactions to go on, and no real inside scoop.

Also, it was a huge relief to return to the Spanish-held sections of North Africa, as well as France (of all places), and I was really disappointed in my own clinging to the familiar. It's not that I was looking forward to it -- it was just part of the route to Tunisia -- but rather I was bowled over by my own response. Even on the road there, as the cat-calls screamed from cars and trucks and loiterers changed from the insanity builder, "Hola, chEEk-AH!" to "Ey, senora! Que pasa?", I found myself welcoming the opportunity to revert to an old annoyance! Of course the leering and laughing continued, but there was considerably less reaching, grabbing, and throwing of various items -- including sticks and stones. I'm not kidding about that, either. Throughout Morocco, it was a very trying endeavor each time we biked past a group of boys or men, each with an unknown outcome. I immediately noticed seeing fewer stray dogs, sick cats, and street children in the European cities, and again found my leaning toward the want of a happy ending really pathetic. What had made me so desperate for this small amount of safety, I wondered.

Early on in the trip it was evident that women biking alone in Muslim areas wasn't the wisest idea. But with andrEa stopping for photographs (how often do you get a chance at taking shots like these?) and my general slowness on the bike compared to the boys, who had developed a confusing race mentality, women biking alone was now part of our reality. The question of fear came up pretty often between andrEa and myself, and we had to be as realistic as possible. One day as Ethan began to pass me up a hill, he asked me to give a rating of the "actual threat" I perceived biking alone. What a question. I had to think about it. He mentioned that he was feeling a little intimidated sometimes, by the way men here treat other men with physical aggression. He said he thought that they were "lighter" on the women. Interesting concept. I answered that I weighed each situation separately, and silently noted a young man ahead, carrying a large stick, walking toward us. I explained to Ethan that any confrontation can bring any outcome -- in my opinion and experience in life, and thus far on the journey.

A small or large group of boys or men might smile and wave, or they might yell and throw things -- we never knew for sure. I don't think he regarded that as an answer, but it was all I had. By then the young man with the stick was about 5 meters away, and I stared ahead at the road, concentrating my periphery on the stick, which was raised in his arm, and could easily be thrown, or used to strike either of us. Paranoia? Maybe. There was nothing in his gait that made me worry all that much, but I was braced, as always. Once we passed him I asked Ethan if he felt threatened by that young man. He answered, "No, why?" I said I thought the stick was of concern, and he said he didn't even see the stick, "I was looking at the guy's face." "That's your privilege," I thought. If a woman so much as acknowledges any of these guys' existence, it's regarded as an invitation for harassment. That was too much to explain, though, and the road was only getting steeper. I just let Ethan bike ahead of me instead.

Back in Europe I felt I could finally look around again, at the buildings, the people, walking freely and at my own pace in Spain and France. It's not that we expected to be the exception to the rule in Morocco, and be left alone to go about our business whether on the road biking, or walking down the street, but we had no idea how seriously it could wear the nerves. For instance, the men at the barbershop across the way from our hotel in Nador, sitting on the narrow sidewalk staring up as I hung our washing. Maybe they were waiting for that white chicka to hang still yet more laundry so they could hoot and holler and hiss some more. Sorry fellas, my laundry is DONE, and hadn't they ever seen a female before? I mean, what was the problem here?

At first no one bothered to tell either andrEa or I about the fact that this hotel was kind of "funny". We just thought we were lucky the bathroom -- a single room with two holes in the floor, one for shower water to drain, and one for the squat toilet -- was just cleaned by someone having just taken a shower inside whenever we used them. So after seeing the same women wandering the halls in, um, "less than traditional" garb, and noticing the odd and general influx of foot traffic on the staircase right next to our door, I started wondering. andrEa also noticed the men gawking more than usual as we'd come and go from the hotel, or pop down to the caf&&.

This was common in the mountains, where no women are allowed out -- much less in trousers or (gasp) shorts -- and we were a serious anomaly, but we expected a minor difference in the city, especially in these touristy coastal towns. I suggested their look of surprise was more curiosity than interest (both of us with buzz cuts -- maybe they think we're gay?), but didn't notice it so much myself since I never bother giving them the satisfaction of acknowledging their comments, gestures, or leering. I walk like a solider past them, stiff and focused. She was bothered and I was confused, so finally I asked, and feeling like total fools, we started putting the pieces together.

Apparently, this hotel was one of very few in the neighborhood which actually distinguished the first floor rooms from the rest of the floors, where prostitution takes place. The problem was that there was a real, live WAITING ROOM just across the hall from our room, and ALL the showers were forever in use. (Yes, in desperation at one point I did check the bathrooms on other floors, but those bathrooms were also occupied.) It seems a shower is included in the fee paid by visitors, and these women are smart enough to shower frequently during the day as well, which means that the toilets are rarely available unless your timing is just right. So as we waited in line for the bathrooms, or walked past the crowded staring masses at the tables off the sidewalk door, it was us who looked increasingly disturbed, rather than the men.

The real trouble is that we can't simply feel sorry for these women, or the struggling people of Morocco, or any of the people in the less developed nations that we visit during this journey. And I can't simply judge the men who all did their part in demolishing my self-confidence for those few weeks, making me edgy and under constant threat. We can only hope that the general mission of sharing information about places brings down a few of the walls of ignorance, possibly creating enough curiosity to foster further learning. And I can only attempt a decision to be somehow stronger and not let that kind of sexism effect me so dramatically again. In a lot of ways we're planting seeds -- both in the minds of the Internet interested here in the Mediterranean, as well as the folks back home and elsewhere who may have only limited information about anything having to do with these countries. I want to offer balanced information about the countries and the people, but I'm not sure it's possible given our run-and-gun schedule and the fact that we are outsiders looking in.

At the very start of the trip, we met two women from the south, but we had no real opportunity to get to know them, much less find out about how they see the situation of women in their country. They both wore jeans and were highly educated, and were as friendly as they could be despite the difficulty in communications, but we never really talked, unfortunately. And with the various logistical madness we as a group were constantly facing, bringing up the subject of women, men and society never really made its way into the few conversations that included the BikeAbout women anyway. Neither andrEa nor I speak French, and this instantly excluded us from discussions about pretty much anything, unless we wanted to annoy the hell out of Ethan or Anthony to translate, which they made it clear they weren't interested in doing. So we were in the dark about so many things, including how to react, how to feel, and even how to look at what might be causing the BikeAbout boys' change in behavior. It was a very strange thing, and I don't have any answers or even analyses for it. We're all of us figuring it out as we go along.

There's so much to be learned about ourselves and each other through these experiences. Hopefully we're all able to find the time for reflective moments between our many visits, appearances, hours of research and writing, and -- oh, I guess we spend ample time on our bikes, don't we? Simple survival in terms of finding food, water and lodging is a challenge for us because we don't know the territory or can't change money because banks are scarce, but not for lack of means (though funds are quite limited) or effort. But it just doesn't compare to the basic realization that we make daily: we're just passing through these places, where people live a life of struggle not temporarily, as we are. The question becomes, what will each of us do with this knowledge? The next country is Tunisia -- its own whole world -- and we'll see what it holds.

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