A broad abroad

At a talk I gave about my travels, the male organiser pinned a map of the world on the wall behind me, and handed me a pen. He asked me to trace a line to demonstrate where I had travelled for the benefit of the audience. I made a dot. I hadn’t really travelled anywhere, not in that sense.

I don’t go on expeditions. The only journey I had taken was to get there; once I had arrived, I had stayed.

The Victorian traveller Mary Kingsley would have understood. Like many women, she refused to reveal she had travelled only 112km, a trek of a few days, in her bestselling book Travels in West Africa, published in 1897. She feared the lack of a long line across the map would diminish her reputation.

She might have compared herself to her contemporary Paul du Chaillu, who boasted of having made a 12 800km journey through the same area, in the course of which he shot 2 000 birds, 1 000 quadrupeds, and suffered 50 attacks of fever. Kingsley fell sick once.

When it comes to far-flung adventures, women have always travelled differently. We tend to hang out, chat, gossip (a much-maligned word) and get to know a certain spot and people well. Gertrude Benham, who travelled in Africa and Europe in the early 20th century, liked to swap embroidery and knitting with the locals.

Women dabble and linger, while men strike out, eager to reach the next camp. For these testosterone-fuelled travellers, kilometres covered are the measure of a journey’s worth. Long red lines across maps — the Cape-to-Cairo kick, or the increasingly popular Silk Road — tend to be drawn by breathy young men called Miles and Rupert in their gap year. Women do not clock up the pedometer in quite the same way.

Take recent travel books by men and women about exactly the same place — Louisa Waugh’s Hearing Birds Fly: A Year in a Mongolian Village, for example, and Tim Severin’s In Search of Genghis Khan: An Exhilarating Journey on Horseback Across the Steppes of Mongolia.

For the most extreme male, travel isn’t only about number-crunching but obstacle-conquering — mountains to be climbed, hostile terrain to be overcome. The “because it’s there” syndrome is common; every hillock is seen as an affront to masculinity. Not even the most adventurous women display quite the same senseless bravado.

Mountaineer Julie Tullis, who became the first woman to join the British Everest Expedition in 1985, and who died the following year climbing K2, said: “The challenge is to myself and not the mountain.”

It is not the landscape we seek to change, but ourselves. Even if it’s something as simple as being bronzed and bikinied on the beach (rather than besuited and sweater-wearing on an innercity street), becoming someone different is, for me, at the heart of foreign travel. At home, I may be someone’s mother, daughter and sister, and you can guess a great deal about me just from the way I dress and the sound of my voice. You could even have a good stab at guessing what sort of school I went to.

But abroad, all these signs and their attendant responsibilities count for nothing; only a very anglophile Spaniard will learn about me from my accent. And the further away I travel, the less all these signs indicate. By the time I reach Bhutan, I could claim to be living on a sink estate or a country estate (neither of which is true), and I doubt anyone would challenge me.

We can even look completely different. I once joined an Italian circus and toured Italy, donning a gold-sequinned G-string, a pair of putty-coloured fishnet tights, a huge white ostrich-feather headdress and not much else. But I could never have joined a British circus. It would have been far too embarrassing to be dressed like that in front of family and friends.

This transformation — the chance to be someone completely different — was particularly appealing to women whose life choices were far more restricted than my own.

Victorian women of some means abandoned their embroidery in a corner of a darkened parlour to take on a more powerful and fulfilling role. In 1886 Gertrude Bell was one of the first women to gain a place at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. But although she passed her final papers with first-class honours, she was not permitted to graduate.

In the Middle East, however, it was another story. There, her expertise in Arabic language and culture, which eventually led to her drawing the boundaries of modern-day Iraq, was recognised. With great excitement, she told her father, from Syria, “In this country they all think I was a Person!”

Later, she asked her cousin, “Are we the same people, when all our surroundings, associations, acquaintances are changed? Here that which is me, which, womanlike, is an empty jar that the passer-by fills at pleasure, is filled with such wine as in England I have never heard of.”

Women travellers may have had a small taste of Freedom (which Bell spelt with a capital “F”), but there were borders to their transgressions. They could change their clothes and learn a new language, but in other ways they must remain respectable middle-class, middle-aged spinsters. Male travellers were never corralled in the same way.

It was quite acceptable for a male traveller to have discreet intimate relations with local women (and occasionally men). From 19th-century explorer and translator of the Kama Sutra, Richard Burton, onwards, men who take a lover on their travels are objects of admiration. Shirley Valentines, however, are objects of pity.

Lady Jane Digby, forsaking her elderly husband Lord Ellenborough, wandered from lover to lover until, aged 50, she fell in love and married Sheik Abdul Medjuel el Mezrab, a Bedouin. She wrote to her mother in 1856, “I am different. How different I hardly realised.” Too different; she was effectively exiled from Britain for ever.

Things are not that different today. When I revealed a fling with an islander in my book on Pitcairn, it led a judge of the Thomas Cook travel book award to call for my disqualification. If such moral conditions were applied to male writers, you would always end up with all-female shortlists.

But there are bonuses to being a woman traveller. Writer Jan Morris, who had a sex change in Casablanca in the 1970s, says, “I have had the peculiar experience of travelling both as a man and as a woman, and I have reached the conclusion that the female traveller has had it easier than the male. Women generally offer no threat to anyone. Women are more likely to be helped. You have friends everywhere. You’re very rarely alone.”

Women have always been clear that the most reliable travelling companions are a pen and paper, on which long letters can be written to loved ones. “Wish you were here” is a useful phrase, if not always a sincere one.

When the Victorian traveller Isa-bella Bird married late in life, after crossing the Rockies on horseback and sailing to the Sandwich Islands, she made her terms clear. “It is an understanding that if I again need change, I am to be free for further outlandish travelling,” she told her publisher. When she was asked if she would like to go to New Guinea, she replied, yes, but that she was now married, and it was not a place one could take a man to. At the time, Bird was secretly planning her next trip, to Persia.

When her husband died a few years later she immediately set sail — alone. — Â

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