Flashback: My war with gawkers

Banner image of binoculars looking at the ocean.

As passionate as I am about cycle touring, there is one teensy-weensy part of it that I could do without. It’s more irritating than a punctured tire, more exasperating than bad directions, even more maddening than a headwind that just won’t quit.

I’m talking about gawkers.

They thrive wherever the concept of personal space doesn’t. With heads aslant and mouths agape, they stand three feet away from me and watch my every move. Whether I’m setting up my tent or eating a cheese sandwich on a park bench, gawkers never miss a moment.

At first the attention didn’t bother me. In fact, it was kind of flattering. Curiosity is an endearing quality and it was nice to think that my travels captivated people so completely. So I went with it – I let mobs of people crowd around my bike and stare as I squirted grease on the chain.

Then it stopped being fun. There were times when I was sick or dirty or just burned out after a long day on the road, and all I wanted was to be alone. Yet nothing I did could make the gawkers go away.

Ignoring the issue always backfired. In China, an old woman was so emboldened by my apparent aloofness that she turned her attention from my blonde hair to my skin. Before I knew what was happening she licked her finger and tried to wipe the white from my arm.

Subtle hints worked no better. When I turned away from people staring at me in Turkey, they simply got up and found another view. If I put my hood over my head, they sat on their haunches and looked up at my face.

I tried a more direct approach, but stopped when I discovered how entertaining I was when I said “Please leave me alone” in a foreign language. Far from its desired effect, it actually inspired more people to gawk at me.

A very few times I got downright aggressive with folks, which probably wasn’t a good idea in the interest of safety. After all, the only thing worse than 50 people who think you’re fascinating is 50 people who want to beat you up because they think you’re a dick.

In the end, the answer to my problem was obvious.

I had to be broad-minded and consider that gaping isn’t the least bit rude in many cultures. I had to learn to love strangers and embrace their unblinking interest in me. I had to accept that I was afraid, not of people looking at me, but at what they might see if I opened my heart wide.

Okay, not that obvious.

Truth be told, I started hanging out in cemeteries when I wanted some privacy. Why? Because staring annoys the fuck out of me, and everyone agrees you shouldn’t gawk in a graveyard.


I am currently off the road as I save funds for the next leg of my journey. Regular posts will continue, however. Each week I will publish a flashback – a story from my past travels that never found a home on this site. Enjoy, and please remember that your comments, likes and shares are always appreciated.

Header image based on “Binoculars” by Edith Soto, CC BY-SA 2.0.

11 responses to “Flashback: My war with gawkers

  1. Just had my first gawking incident yesterday – just a bunch of young boys who were interested (don’t think much happens in their little corner of Spain).

    Like you (to start with), I actually enjoyed the contact, despite being tired, dirty etc. But I can see how it’s likely to get a tad wearing after a while (and have been to places like India before, so have seen it without the bike).

    Top tip re graveyards is now filed away for the future – cheers!

    • Get used to it, especially if you tour the Middle East or southeast Asia. People never mean you any harm – they’re usually just kids, as you said – but it’s maddening when you want five minutes of privacy and they won’t let you have it.

      Smile at it when you can. Hit the bone yards when you can’t.

      Travel well, my friend.

  2. Well put Mike. Let’s remember we are self-invited guests when we travel. What we may consider rude could be accepted behaviour. Old Chinese proverb: “If you swim in the sea, don’t complain when you get wet.”

  3. Just had my first experience in Cairo with it, despite being dressed appropriately (shoulders and knees covered) there was no hiding my caucasianness. Only one person asked to take my picture but I can tell I’d struggle with Asia as I like to blend in and sometimes there is no blending and totally feeling like the outsider no matter how much you try to respect and follow local ways. Good on you for finding ways to cope.

    • Over time, I found that I had to be *really* good at hiding, because if even one person saw me and took a gawking interest, 20 more folks were sure to follow.

      I’ve often thought it is some sort of poetic justice. I grew up on the ultra-caucasian Canadian prairies, where anyone outside the norm was singled out – something I was blind to until I traveled to places where I was the only white guy in town. Lesson learned.

      Thanks for reading, and enjoy your travels in Egypt!

  4. So where did you grow up mike? Yup, the cemetery might be a good place. Especially a nice well tended park like cemetery. Toronto has a large one where a bike route goes through.

  5. China was TERRIBLE for gawkers. We did 2 overnight train rides…. and there was no doors to our bunks. So they’d stand right at the foot of our bed and video tape us in the middle of the night. CREEEEPPPYYYYY. Or they’d always try to sneak pictures of us. After awhile we got annoyed and decided to start taking pictures of them. They’d get pissed off and leave. Mission accomplished!.

    • Photo sneakers are horrible, horrible people. In China, they made me feel like an animal at the zoo. I tried taking pictures of them, but gave up after discovering the power of my middle finger and two short words. 😉

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