Forfeiting Civility in the Age of #METOO: Confrontation Abroad

As much as we’d like to believe in “safe” places, those don’t exist....
Calle Obispo is one of Havana's most traveled streets in the municipality of Habana Vieja. Photo Credit, J.Thurston

Calle Obispo is one of Havana's most traveled streets in the municipality of Habana Vieja. Photo Credit, J.Thurston

 

The world is fraught with perils seen and unseen. As much as we’d like to believe in “safe” places, those don’t exist. Craziness and crazy people are everywhere--in your city, at your job, sitting several pews away at church, in schools with your children, and walking past you on a daily basis. If the converse were true, you wouldn't lock your car or exercise other daily precautions.  No matter how cautious you are, craziness can and will still find you.  I’ve noticed the reluctance of travelers to share stories of strange, weird, or frightening experiences—understandably so--but I believe transparency in travel is necessary as safety is a concern for many who travel and those who are looking to start traveling.  In truth, travel isn't always seamless, nor does it come without its perils......

In my travels to 20+ countries, I've twice judged my safety to have been threatened--once in Cuba, and again during a recent visit to the United Kingdom. While neither instance was an immediate threat to my life, I felt it imperative to dissuade further interaction between myself and the pursuing individual. Whenever you are the "foreigner" in a home that isn't your own, you become the object of curiosities that sometimes border sick obsessions, especially if you are a woman or a person of color whose mere presence disrupts the norm of predominantly white locales.  People are curious about you, who you are, where you came from, and why you are there. And sometimes, you're seen as a prize to be won.  In my experience, I've found that many men in other countries will not hesitate to interrupt you--no matter what you're doing--in effort to engage in an exchange that leads to aggressive dinner invitations, drink invites, showing you around, etc. ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS use best judgment when interacting with others. While I believe engaging with those I encounter in other countries and always strive to be grace and loveliness personified in those interactions, I have my own rules of engagement.......

 
Taken a few hours before thrashing a man in one of Havana's cafes....."No" means NO. Photo credit, J. Thurston

Taken a few hours before thrashing a man in one of Havana's cafes....."No" means NO. Photo credit, J. Thurston

 

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT:

Whether the sun is shining or torrents of rain are falling, I ALWAYS wear shades....and it's NOT to keep the sun's rays out of my eyes. I wear them so that I can covertly watch others. Eye contact is powerful and its role and implication varies across countries and cultures. In Western cultures, lack of eye contact is insulting and implies a lack of confidence or dishonesty;  In some Middle Eastern cultures, eye contact is considered to be less appropriate.  In some Asian, African, and Latin cultures, eye contact--especially if intense--can be considered aggressive and disrespectful. My personal rule for eye contact and interacting with people in the U.S. or abroad is as follows: "If you didn't see the browns of my eyes meet yours, we have nothing to talk about, and if you decide to approach, you'll most likely be ignored."

 

....his response to “No” was calling me 50 kinds of “B*TCH, and as if I didn’t understand it in English, he said it in Spanish....”

CONFRONTATION IN CUBA

Unfortunately, there are people in all cultures who feel entitled to your attention and your response, ignoring the fact that you've ignored them, and consequently, believe persistence pays off. In many countries, women are regularly trafficked, assaulted, raped, and harassed and it's, unfortunately,  considered to be "normal".  In the U.S., the #MeToo and #NeverAgain movements have brought the issue of sexual harassment and assault to the forefront of both national and international discourse, resulting in the public firings of renown figures across industries. It is my hope that the liberating work of these movements continues to send the message that "NO" means NO!

 While in Cuba, one guy took the liberty of walking up to me while I was walking back to my lodging and continued to walk with me for 15-ish seconds while detailing how he could show me to a restaurant. After kindly telling him, "No thank you" he continued to walk beside me becoming more aggressive in his invitations.  Annoyed, I turned lifting my sunshades and firmly asserted, "I SAID NO THANK YOU. GOODNIGHT!"  His response to the coup de grâce of my dismissal was calling me 50 kinds of “B*TCH” as he walked away, and as if I didn't understand what he said in English, he then began to spew his rage in Spanish. After he departed, I continued on my way but would occasionally look over my shoulder to ensure I wasn't being followed.

The expletive wasn't the problem. Who hasn't been called out of their name for not complying with the wishes of another? The issue was that he ended up following me into a restaurant two blocks away from my hostel.  After ordering my food, striking up conversation with my waitress, and beginning to eat after my food was brought to my table, he walks in and with the fauxest of concerns says, “Ohhhh, I’m glad you found a place to eat!” Listen, while I wholeheartedly believe in being a lady of grace and poise, if I judge you to have overstepped your boundaries beyond reason—in that moment--my regard for you, your feelings, and anything else to do with you goes out of the window WITHOUT warning and you've effectively forfeited my civility.  

 

I have no memory of taking my pearl-earrings off....I just remember bum-rushing him across the room...

My polite “No thank you” followed by a second “No thanks” WAS the warning. In my opinion, when a person imposes on your safety, they forfeit the privilege of your civility.  The deal that I made with myself and family is quite simple: No matter the destination, at the end of the day and trip, I’m returning to the U.S. If that means doing whatever I need to do to someone whom I believe has unreasonably imposed on my safety, that’s exactly what I will do. I ALWAYS carry hard objects (steel selfie stick, anyone?) with me and will shamelessly employ its use. For this guy and situation, employed it was!  I have no memory of taking my pearl-earrings off.  I just remember asking him why he followed me, and without giving him time to answer, bum-rushed him across the room, and the rest was history. The live music came to a screeching halt and someone's silverware dropped after a gasp.  In a plea that came much too late, the guy tried reasoning that he didn't want trouble, and then escaped subsequent blows by quickly scampering out of the restaurant.  I straightened the evening dress I was in and apologized to the aghast onlookers saying, "Sorry. I promise I'm a princess." Needless to say, I left the restaurant fine but not before calling the police and the U.S. Embassy in Cuba.

I believe he followed me and feigned concern in an effort to intimidate me, not knowing that I would cause a scene and take several aggressive actions that were worthy of an Oscar award—or at least a nomination! What was most upsetting is that he preyed on me, a solo female traveller, erroneously assuming that I'd comply with his wishes out of fear......
       
 As a reminder, before trotting off to anyone’s country, familiarize yourself with the laws and sentiments towards women.  In some countries women have no rights, nor can they legally defend themselves as there are no protections against domestic violence of any form. 
 

..Before trotting off to anyone’s country, familiarize yourself with the laws and sentiments towards women....
A Coco Taxi in Cuba. Photo Credit, J. Thurston

A Coco Taxi in Cuba. Photo Credit, J. Thurston

 

DON’Ts

  • NEVER pursue ANYone in effort to confront them.  If you have to confront or respond to a person, let it be because they’ve moved into your personal space and you no longer have the option of not engaging.
  • NEVER freeze. The flight or fight response is real but what you should NEVER do is freeze and do nothing. Pick one.

DO’s

  • Always let the U.S. Embassy in the respective country know of your visit
  • Become acquainted with the manager or desk clerk at your hotel or hostel; Save their numbers in your phone and ensure you know how to reach them if you need to
  • CAUSE A SCENE—scream, yell, summon the anger of a 1,000 angry ancestors and GO OFF. Whatever it takes to draw attention to yourself, do it and do it well. All of heaven needs to hear you. In my experience, even though I was the one assailing my assailant, I made everyone believe I was dying....and it worked! Everybody froze. 
  • After you have ensured your safety, IMMEDIATELY call the police, the U.S. Embassy, and finally your hotel. If you are in a public location, stay there and request someone see that you get back to your hotel—taxi, escort, etc.

 

ALWAYS remember: Wherever you go, the obligation that you have to yourself is to return home, wherever that may be.  That should forever and always be the end goal of your explorations.
 

Stay Safe & Travel Well,
Jasmine