Africa, Travel Stories

The sacrifice of anonymity

I’m sitting at an outdoor cafe in Marrakech watching the traffic whiz noisily by and wishing I were anywhere else. I’m the only woman sitting here, surrounded by old men drinking their espresso and reading the newspaper. As the tears stream down my dusty cheeks, they eye me curiously out of the corner of their eyes, noticing the white lady who’s on her third cigarette and second coffee, and still can’t stop crying.

I feel the worst kind of alone. I’m surrounded by strangers when all I crave is the familiar arms I’ve just left and the privacy to mourn another loss. I want to curl up into a ball and cry the heaving sobs my heart needs to cry to forget. I want to disappear for a moment and let it all out, elephant-like nose blows and all. Instead, I let the silent tears fall and think of his thumb, gently brushing my wet eyelashes before he closed the car door and waved me off.

I sigh and try to avoid making eye contact as I lift my backpack on my shoulders and move on, heart lagging behind. TheBarefootBeat Marrakech, Morocco 2013

These moments are always hard for me. There are times when the lack of privacy and anonymity on the road force me to deal with private emotions and feelings in a very public place. As a traveler, my entire life is on display for everyone, all the time. I can’t disguise my 68L backpack any more than I can hide the fact that I’m a white woman traveling alone in a sea of African men. Blending in is simply not an option, and I’m okay with that. Sometimes, however, I’d just like a moment to remember what it’s like to be another pebble on the beach rather than a bright shiny piece of glass that stands out for miles away. TheBarefootBeat Somedays I long to just melt into the beautiful landscape. San Sebastien, Spain 2013

“Obruni, obruni!” I hear the same chorus of voices greeting me from all sides on the walk to school every morning. I do not know all of their faces, but I’ve come to recognize  these words, and respond with automatic waves and a smile. I was in Ghana for almost three weeks before I saw another white person, so I can’t really blame them for pointing out the fact that I’m a “foreigner” here. Most days the attention is harmless and even humorous. Small children often come up to me and touch my arm, wondering at the paleness, laughing at the strangeness. The other day a girl I’d never met saw me from a distance and ran towards me at full speed, flinging her tiny arms around my legs and squeezing me tight. 

TheBarefootBeat Sometimes the points and stares can be overwhelming.
Teiman, Ghana 2013

Still, there are times when I’d like to go unnoticed. There are mornings when I haven’t slept well and the hot Ghanian sun already feels unbearable and I don’t feel like smiling at anyone. There are nights when I’d like to walk home in peace without someone asking me for an invitation to the United States or hearing people shout, “Obruni, we like money, we like money!”

Sometimes I need to crawl inside of myself and take a look around without being stared at or asked to make small talk. Sometimes I just need space and privacy to process the volume of experiences I’m having. Sometimes I need parts of me to remain hidden instead of constantly wearing my foreignness on my sleeve. TheBarefootBeatEven when I am hiding behind the camera lens, I am still noticed. 
Essaouira, Morocco 2013

The truth is, there are certain things about me I’m not ready to expose, and my vulnerability and humanness is one of them. I’m not used to letting others witness me lose my temper and utter tired curse words when I’m tired of being harassed by men and I’ve had the last straw. I’d prefer if most people didn’t see me pee in public, and I’d rather the entire village didn’t discover the fact that once in a while, I need to have a cigarette. I’d especially like it if I could hand wash my own underwear and take out my own trash without someone going through it and sorting it first, but these things are just par for the course. TheBarefootBeat“Airing your dirty laundry” takes on a whole new meaning on the road.
Istanbul, Turkey 2011

Because of the way I’m choosing to travel, I very rarely have a sacred place of retreat or refuge for those tired moments I need to just be, instead of being seen. Private moments are often interrupted by strangers and finding comfort in the solitude of a large crowd is impossible. Conversations are cut short by people wanting to take your photo, and just walking through the market can be an exercise in self defense.

In some ways, traveling is forcing me to live a more wholly present life. There is no quiet place of escape, so I can’t compartmentalize my emotions and experiences. I can’t save how I really feel for a phone call to my mother, I can’t bury my feelings or hide the ugly parts away from public view. I’m confronted with my own humanness daily, reminded of the implications of my gender and nationality moment by moment. I carry all of me everywhere I go, the good, bad, and embarrassing. TheBarefootBeat My dirty hiking boots don’t exactly match the beauty of Seville. Oh well.
Seville, Spain 2013

While some days I mourn the loss of anonymity, I don’t think this lack of privacy has been a completely negative thing. I’ve stopped apologizing for who I am and I no longer make excuses for how I feel. I can’t hide, so I’ve stopped trying. I’m no longer ashamed of being American, and I don’t pretend that I’m not a woman traveling alone. I can’t wait until I’m alone to feel more comfortable or get what I really need, so I’ve learned to express myself more openly. I’ll admit it freely when I just need to drink a cold beer after a long day; If I’m hungry, or tired, or need to stop somewhere and pee, I say so.

Instead of feeling like a sore thumb, living a more transparent life actually makes me feel less alien. In some ways, this is a huge relief. I don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not, stronger than I am, or found when I am lost. I’m free to be exactly who I am in each moment, vulnerable, flawed, human. In this way I have something in common with everyone around me, in spite of my foreignness. This is worth every sacrifice of anonymity. TheBarefootBeat This might’ve been the only time I blended in with my surroundings in Mexico. I’m starting to realize it doesn’t matter that much anymore.
Monte Alban, Mexico 2013

Do you ever wish to be anonymous while traveling and find it difficult? What do you do to get alone time? How do you deal with constantly standing out in the crowd?

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  • Reply Agness November 11, 2013 at 12:30 am

    Sweetie, I can absolutely relate to your post and what you are feeling right now. There were few moments during my travels when I also felt so lonely and missed my family and friends so badly. There is nothing worse than being surrounded by strangers and wanting to just go home. Stay positive and keep exploring the new places and you will be fine!!!! x Sending my love from China! <3

    • Reply Mariah November 11, 2013 at 12:38 am

      Thank you for your kind words and support Agness! Sending love back to you from Ghana! 🙂

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