on traveling while female

The thing about cheap, long term travel is you’re constantly someone’s guest — hostels, friends, friends of friends, work exchanges. You have to navigate not making too much of an imprint, living out of a backpack and whatever space is provided to you. I’ve learned how to roll my clothes quickly, repurpose the same shirt, live with less.

As a perpetual guest, it’s also easy for me to fall into one of the many gendered aspects of being a female traveler: take up less space. I’m aware of how big my backpack is on the subway (a lean 22 pounds, if we’re being honest), how much of the floor I take up when I unpack and repack, how much I eat of the food I’m offered. It can be an exhausting feeling, doing the mental math of how much has been given to you and how much you owe. The calculation always ends with me owing something.

But, there’s a certain point you reach in long term travel when you start to give fewer fucks. And recently, I’ve learned to differentiate between what was given to me, and what was mine to take. My dear family friend’s guest room in Cambridge? Generously given. That leftover piece of pecan bourbon chocolate pie? Given. Those extra three inches of space on the subway, so I can not contort into human origami whilst holding my backpack? Those, those I can take.

The past few weeks, I’ve been the guest of people I know well, and some I’m beginning to know more. I slept on my dear friend’s bed in New York while she pulled a grad school all nighter; I slept on the rollout bed of my childhood best friend’s apartment; I blissfully sprawled my clothes across her husband’s parent’s guest room. When my friend’s dad told me to use the coffee machine whenever I wanted, I did. I didn’t ask 12 times or apologize repeatedly. I just made a cup of coffee.

My parents used to threaten they’d make me put a nickel in a jar for every time I said “I’m sorry” when I didn’t mean it. Until recently, I would say I’m sorry to people who ran into me on public transportation. Hell, after bodychecking people on the basketball court in high school (legitimately a thing I did regularly), I apologized profusely. It was my protective shield. I’m sorry I’m here.

Being on and off the road for the last 8 months has put me directly into situations where I just have to take up space. My backpack is probably going to brush your shoulder, sir. Que dijo el conductor del tren? (my sad attempt to use Spanish to speak to a broken down train car full of Italians) Why yes, an extra hand with my things would be pretty great in this torrential downpour. It’s nice to say yes sometimes. I’m also aware that as a blonde, college-educated, cis white lady, it’s usually safe for me to take up space. To draw awkward attention to myself. When I drop something, we’re told I’m someone who you should help. It’s a constant balance to be aware of that privilege but to not let it diminish you. To take up space, but make sure that leaning into that space doesn’t become leaning on someone of less privilege.

But, there are universal places and ways in which I’m committed to taking up space. I know that my body isn’t inherently more valuable the less space it takes up. I know that being a good guest can mean joyfully accepting what’s offered to you. I know that I can indeed bring my backpack into a crowded bus, and we’ll all be fine. I know that it’s OK if I bodycheck someone (just kidding, I don’t do that anymore). So much of this journey has been about saying yes to the unexpected. The last few weeks have also taught me to say yes to the most familiar things — the hospitality of friends, the giving spirit of the holidays. And that the only thing I owe to those things which are truly given is deep and abiding gratitude. So, I tossed green beans, tidied dishes, helped carry a 150 pound statue of St. Francis (it’s a long story). I absorbed the spaces and generosity given to me, so I could carry it with me. So I could take up space of my own. 

So, to my wondrous hosts these past few weeks, friends new and old: thank you, thank you, thank you. Onward I go, backpack in tow, ready to carve my place in this world.