by Lynnell Mickelsen
We spent our last two days in Jordan on the Red Sea, snorkeling off the beach about 8 miles south of Aqaba. I love the beach. I love to swim, but I’m an extremely pale person who sunburns easily. So I pour on the sunscreen, but still have to spend a lot of time swathed in long sleeves and pants to avoid sun poisoning while everyone else freely cavorts around in swimsuits.
So I can’t tell you how great it was to finally be on a beach where where all the women were as covered up as I am….if not more so! Which means, for once, I wasn’t the lone freak.
Except I still sort of was. As a person with blonde hair and blue eyes, I’ve been a novelty in Morocco, India, Egypt and Jordan. Nearly every day, for the last four months, people have stopped, stared, pulled out their cameras and insisted on taking selfies with me.
I don’t get it. Yes, we’re independent travelers. Yes we can get a bit off the tourist track, but not that far off. So I think surely these lovely people in these lovely countries have seen plenty of blondes before. Plus, I’m almost 60, and most of the people who want to take my picture are under 30. I mean, it’s just weird.
But yet, as a traveler, I like to take photos of local people. So fair is fair. Grin and bear it.
On the Red Sea, I wanted to take pictures of Jordanian women on the beach, but I was feeling shy because many Muslim women really are modest and do not want their photos taken by any Westerners. I was trying to work up the courage to ask, but it turns out, I didn’t need it because pretty soon, a young woman came up and asked to take a selfie of the two of us. Then another woman came up. And then another.
Taking photos with women and kids is almost always cool, but I’ve learned to be somewhat wary of taking photos with men because too often they can pull me in a little too close and hold on a little too long and a few of times, I’ve gotten groped. Of course, this is nothing compared to what younger solo women travelers put up with. But still. It’s gross.
None of the women on the beach spoke English. I don’t speak Arabic. But they were all very nice and after taking photos, each of them motioned me over to meet their friends or families and drink tea. I declined because I was feeling shy and because John was snorkeling off by himself in the ocean with high winds and a strong current, so I was walking along the beach acting as his lifeguard.
But on other days, I’ve gotten tired of being a novelty. In India and Egypt, especially, the photo requests could be unrelenting. A few weeks ago, in Alexandria, Egypt, I was standing by myself along an ancient fortress wall, waiting for John to buy entry tickets to the site, when a young woman, who had been staring at me for while, came up laughing and said, in heavily accented, broken English, “My friends and I want to put you in the zoo.”
I felt a flash of irritation. Enough, people! I wanted to say. Yes, I look different, but hey, talking about putting me in a zoo really crosses a line. But I don’t speak Arabic and even if I did, as Minnesotan, I’ve been long-socialized to stuff my anger and channel it into passive-aggressive brooding. So instead I just scowled at her.
She hesitated and then said the same thing, covering her mouth and giggling some more. I rolled my eyes. And then I realized she was actually saying, “My friends and I want to take our picture with you.” And she was giggling because she felt so nervous.
Okay, Okay, I said. So we took the these photos and by the end, they were all so sweet and happy and goofy, my irritation evaporated. This ain’t profound, but one of my takeaways from this year of travel is that most people around the world are actually really nice if you just relax and hang out with them.