Gender Bending / Culture Bending — Empty Nesters on a Global Trek, Part 2 “Hers”

Posted on 09/13/2016 ~ Categorized as Travel
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Peta Kaplan (South African / US artist) and Ben Sandzer-Bell (French / US strategist) are empty nesters on a green global trek (

Gender Bending / Culture Bending — Empty Nesters on a Global Trek, Part 2 “Hers”

Eight years into their (green) global trek that has taken them to 30 countries, she has seen her boyfriend/husband wear attires that she would not imagine him wearing with such comfort and ease. (See prior article “Gender Bending / Culture Bending (His) - Empty Nesters on a Global Trek).


She may in fact take some credit for this tendency to “go local”, as it is something they both gravitate toward.


Indonesia is a mostly Muslim country, so when in Indonesia, as Ben goes for the sarong,  Peta considers the Hijab. Hijab is the Arabic word for (head) cover.



There are several styles of hijab.  The Shayla, al-amira and the Khimar.


Indonesia, Yogyakarta - Peta with hijab wearing new friend and her husband


Indonesia, Yogyakarta - shayla wearing market vendor











Indonesia, Yogyakarta - hijab on display on mannequins


Indonesia, Yogyakarta - Indonesian tourists wearing high end hijabs












The Khimar is much longer and “heavier”.  This is the version that sometimes is worn with just the woman’s eyes showing.  There is a current wave of near-hysteria in the west, confounding a traditional muslim head dress that is accepted as the norm in a 1.2 Billion person global community of muslims, and the current widespread fear of terrorism.      Such is this xenophobic hysteria that communities in the west, France for instance, has started to prohibit the wearing of the so called burkini at the beach, or of the hijab in the classroom.


The “discomfort” with the hijab is mis-placed and merely reflects a broad lack of familiarity with a global population that numbers over 1.2 billion people.


Far from the constraints that westerners associate with the Hijab, every single encounter Peta has had with muslim women wearing different types of hijab has resulted in women describing that their choice of the head cover centers around modesty and personal comfort from prying eyes.


It is Peta’s turn to exhibit culture-bending… First the dress… then the hijab.


Indonesia, Yogyakarta - Peta selects long dress first step


Indonesia, Yogyakarta - women weigh in on Peta's transformation

This hijab looks a bit like a nun’s habit…


Indonesia, Yogyakarta - Peta shops for her first hijab

This one however is perfect!


Indonesia, Yogyakarta - Peta and hijab chic



Head covering is not a cultural feature of only muslim societies.  Peta observes, and adopts and adapts to a variant, in India’s Rajasthan region.


The sari of course, is the dress of choice -  including head covering called a ghoonghat”.


India, Rajasthan - nomadic gipsy woman wears yellow ghoonghat

Generally women use the loose end of a sari or a long scarf known as a “dupatta.”


India, Rajasthan - group of colorfully dressed gipsy women wears a dupatta

Peta’s wardrobe gradually transforms as we spend more time in India.  The color content and fabric volume goes up by many decibels.


India, Rajasthan - Peta dons a lilac dupatta



Peta’s challenge in terms of reducing the non-verbal barriers is of a different nature in Myanmar.  In Myanmar, women and girls use a natural paste made from the bark of a tree, as a sunblock and form of “beautification” known as thanaka.  To cross the non verbal border, it is not about changing clothes, it is about adopting the culture of the thanaka.


Myanmar, Yangoon - market seller with thanaka


Myanmar, Yangoon - pomelo seller with thanaka












Myanmar, Yangoon - never too early to start applying thanaka

When offered to have some thanaka applied to her face, Peta jumped at the opportunity to go local. 


Myanmar, Yangoon - Peta takes the thanaka plunge

If the effect of “going local” needs to be documented, the reaction by this Burmese  market woman to seeing a westerner adorn thanaka tells it all…


Myanmar, Yangoon - positive response to Peta's wearing thanaka



The convergence of our dress and our environment is not always purposeful or conscious.  In Luang Prabang, where a large population of orange-clad monks  intermingle with the lay population, Peta started to subconsciously turn to the ubiquitous orange hues.… No disrespect intended to the monks.


Laos, Luang Prabang - saffron robed monks with morning aims


Laos, Luang Prabang - Peta in saffron dress



Something similarly unintended and synchronistic happened in Bangkok… the bejeweled Buddhist temples seemed to resonate with Peta’s pants and shirt, and vice versa.


Thailand, Bangkok - jeweled Bangkok temples


Thailand, Bangkok - Peta chameleon outfit with Bangkok temples













Face masks in Viet Nam (as well as in other parts of Southeast Asia) are a noticeable part of mainstream culture, primarily worn to prevent skin darkening from the sun, and to a lesser degree for pollution from motorbikes.


Vietnam, Hoi An - passengers on the ferry boat


Vietnam, Hoi An - fish vendor wearing face mask


Vietnam, Hoi An - Peta and Ben wearing face masks


Vietnam, Hoi An - people almost alwyas wear face masks while riding motorcycles


Vietnam, Hoi An - Peta wears a fashionable facemask











From the sarong, the lungi, the dhoti and the kundara (his) to the shayla, ghoonghat, thanaka and vietnamese face mask (hers), we are consistently rewarded for a desire to express cultural “acceptance” and a willingness, before saying a single word, to value equally our global hosts’ cultures.


The warmth and welcome of strangers we have met during our eight years “on the road” contrasts oh so starkly with the arms length experience we have when we return to the U.S.  Whereas conversations between strangers flow freely at the market or on the streets, when we are in Asia, a more distant “don’t talk to me” attitude prevails from most of the folks we run into during our time in Chicago.  Different priorities, different concepts of time, different cultures, different economics, different values.



Peta and Ben are empty nesters on a green global trek - to follow their adventures, please see and sign up as a follower.

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