International Women’s Day

Jodi Ettenberg March 8, 2012 1
International Women’s Day

After years of long-term travel, certain things become constants in your life. The farm animals on a bus in Central or South America, the smiles from street food vendors in Asia, the fact that there appears to be an exponential relationship between cuteness of children and distance from home. But of all the recurrences, one stands out above the others: my encounters with women around the globe.

with Pa-O tribeswomen in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

There’s an understandable wariness when people hear I travel alone, and a concern about safety. But no matter where I am or how conservative a place it might be, the women reach out. As Audrey, another Wanderer in Residence, eloquently noted in a post about Iran: “There seems to be an unspoken rule in this part of the world (and by this part of the world, I mean Central Asia, the Caucasus and the greater Middle East) that if you are a female traveler, local women – especially older women – will seek you out and make certain you are taken care of.” And it is so true. I’ve formed some beautiful friendships – some temporary and some lasting – with women around the globe, by virtue of my own friendliness but in large part because they were looking out for me.

This woman guided me through the busy market in Meknes and then invited me back to her place for tea and snacks.

They’ve shared their stories, their heartache and their ambitions, and through them I’ve grown to see the world we live in as a much more connected places, with threads of consistency throughout. From the woman on a bus in Laos who only wanted to talk about business strategies for women, to the young women in Bolivia who peppered me with questions about how cute the men were in Montreal, to the hardworking street vendors in Muang Ngoi, Laos who wanted to talk tourism and growth – I feel immeasurably lucky to be briefly a part of their lives.

Spring roll vendor in Northern Laos.

Throughout the world, I’ve seen hardworking women using their hands to create, to continue traditions to bring sustenance to their communities. In the remotest of places, and in the most bustling cities, these hands are small snapshots into the important leadership roles women fill in family, business and society.

Nuns gather at Golden Rock, in Myanmar

The lesson in all of this is that as you travel you can merely be passenger, or you can reach out and connect with locals as you go. As a woman myself, making these connections with others of my gender has allowed me to participate in local enterprises and to learn firsthand about challenges women face. And I’ve been fortunate enough to attend weddings and funerals alike in a variety of places, each ceremony different from the other and steeped in its own respect for the local customs. I’m grateful for the interactions I’ve had with women, young and old, and my time with them has reframed the way I see my own life and my place in this world.

So on this International Woman’s Day, I’d love travelers to go out and talk to a woman on their journey. Ask about her story, how she ended up doing what she does and what makes her smile. See where life’s twists and turns have taken her. And remember through it all, we’re not so different, each of us – no matter how foreign we seem to one another when we first meet.

Me with Mrs. Pa, the woman behind Chiang Mai’s best smoothie cart

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