When I proudly announced that I was going to Turkey 2 months ago, I was met with a surprising amount of skepticism, worry and doubt, mostly from my family. Calmly reassuring everyone that Turkey is a very safe country and that I was going no matter what they said, I continued to plan and coordinate my dream trip.
Why couldn’t they just be happy for me?
A week later, the US embassy was bombed in Ankara. And a few days after that, the murdered body of Sarai Sierra, an woman from NYC traveling alone in Turkey was discovered in Istanbul.
How was I going to explain that to mom and dad?
Sarai Sierra (Photo: Derek Fahsbender via AP)
“You should cancel your trip.” “You are crazy to go to Turkey right now.” “I can’t believe you are going to Turkey alone, and as a woman too” were many of the oppositions I began to hear.
Selectively deaf to disagreements, especially of the travel variety, I continued planning my trip. I was going to discover the flavors of Istanbul; I was going to take to the skies in a hot air balloon in Cappadocia; I was going to explore ancient ruins in Ephesus. Nothing short of a revolution would keep me from going to Turkey. If I had learned anything from 6+ years of solo travel, it was that these sorts of mass hysterias were usually blown way out of proportion, especially about countries in the Middle East. If you take away anything from this post, remember to take your friend’s and family’s warnings and advice with a grain of salt.
Movies and news in the USA love to rave about the dangers of traveling to “Muslim” countries, stirring up fear and xenophobia which couldn’t be more WRONG. They paint the Middle East as a volatile time bomb waiting to explode and filled with dangerous Arabs who hate Americans and who want to kidnap little blond girls like me and eat them for breakfast.
I saw Taken 2 for the first time on the plane back from Istanbul (poor choice Lufhansa) and my mouth dropped open in astonishment. No wonder people had the totally wrong idea about Turkey when this garbage was in mainstream media.
To characterize the entire Middle East based on incidents in Iraq, Afghanistan or places that have had terrorist attacks in the past is akin to saying that the US is filled with gangsters with big guns OR with crazy young men who enjoying shooting children.
I was going to Istanbul not Baghdad. Of course there are dangerous places in the Middle East, but there are far more safe places to visit.
Culturally the US and countries like Turkey are very different, but why should we be scared of something different? Isn’t that why we love travel? To go explore unknown places, meet new people and experience different cultures? To lump them all together as dangerous “Arabs” is both simpleminded and appallingly racist.
It is true that women in the US enjoy a considerable amount of freedom compared with other countries around the world, but does that mean because I am a young American woman who enjoys traveling, I always need to travel with people by my side? Or worse, can I only feel safe traveling when I have a man beside me? Should I be frightened to travel alone? Or is it ok to travel alone as long as I am not going to “Muslim” countries?
Believe it or not, but I have heard all of the above multiple times, more often than not from people who are very close to me. Nothing bothers me more when people make sweeping generalizations about a place they’ve never been to and probably can’t even name the capital of.
I firmly trust in the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Turkey may be in the Middle East (actually, its location baffles me: Middle East? Asia? Europe? Eurasia?) but from what I’d heard from fellow travelers and travel bloggers, Turkey’s nothing like its neighbors. Everyone had nothing but nice things to say about it. I survived two weeks in Egypt right after the revolution; I seriously doubted that Turkey would even remotely test my patience like Cairo or Luxor did.
Why is Turkey “dangerous?” Because they’re Muslim? Because they share a border with Syria and Iran? Because one American woman was murdered there. How many people are murdered in America every god damn day? Every time I turn on the news, some one else has died here. Someone pulled a gun in a school. Someone shot up a movie theater. Someone has gone missing. Someone was raped. According to NOW, on average 3 women a day are murdered in the United States by a partner AT HOME. As much as we love to preach safety and superiority over the rest of the world, the United States is a pretty scary place.
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. America, you have absolutely NO RIGHT to be calling other countries dangerous. Nothing galls me more than hearing other Americans condemn another country based on stereotypes propagated by the media and movies.
This fact was brutally reaffirmed yesterday when the Boston marathon was bombed. Downtown Boston. Bombed. In the United States. In a very nice area. People died on sidewalks I’ve walked on. How can you NOT question if you are living in a safe place?
And today? The anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting, you know, where my mom, brother, one of my best friends and half my high school went to college.
In my short 24 years on this planet, I have had to call close friends and family three different times during major tragedies. When I was 12 years old and my dad was working in DC during 9/11. When I was 18 years old in the spring of my first year of college, some nutcase killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. And again yesterday when the Boston marathon was bombed – I went to school in MA, and most of my friends are still up there.
24 years old, and I’ve already had to make that phone call asking “are you ok?” praying to god that certain people in my life were still alive 3 separate times. How fucked up is that?
But go on, tell me Turkey is dangerous. Tell me traveling as a woman is dangerous.
If you don’t believe me, the statistics don’t lie.
Think about it.
While the death of Sarai Sierra is tragic, unfortunate, and breaks my heart to read about, the fact that she was traveling alone in Turkey had nothing to do with it. Like many homicides, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Statistically speaking, she was far more likely to be killed at home in NYC than in Istanbul. But to use her death as an platform to both criticize the safety of Turkey for Americans and to question women who chose to travel alone is shallow and wrong.
In a post on NBC News announcing Sarai Sierra’s murder, there are thousands of comments that make me want to scream and bang my head against the wall. Actually I only got through page one before I wanted to weep for humanity.
In fact, I learned 3 important lessons from that article: 60% of NBC news readers can’t spell and are grammatically retarded (yes, I said the “r” word, move on), way more people than you would think are racist trolls, and NBC should disable comment threads on controversial articles.
Here are some of the more spectacular comments and my reaction via GIF’s.
“There is no place safe for a single American to be traveling east of Italy. I would imagine the Turkish police will get to the heart of the issue very soon and they are not afraid to execute anyone they decide is responsible for this murder.”
“If you are looking for justice in a Muslim country then forget it if a man killed her and he is married then his wife will go to prison for his deeds. his punishment will be her shame. it works for them!”
“Sadly, any American, male or female, traveling anywhere on the planet, especially the Middle-East, is not safe.. This woman, while I admire the fact that she wanted to get her photography career going, should NEVER have gone to Turkey, be it with a friend or alone, but especially not alone! Men over there have absolutely no respect for women in their own country much less foreign woman. To them, Sierra being alone was an invitation to harm her, whether they meant to murder her or not, who can say right now.Without a cadre of close friends surrounding a women, she is better off staying away from such dangerous places as the Middle-East or, if she must go there, she should NEVER go out by herself.”
“Makes no sense to me why a woman, even a pair would go to a middle eastern country knowing or should know the conditions women & young children are treated.”
“Then go ahead and travel to Iran and say “Hey dude, I’m your friend.” They’ll scream “infidel” at you and chop your head to pieces.”
“Why in the hell would anyone go to Turkey on vacation?”
Sigh. And that was just page 1. Of 16.
This all goes back to my main question – is Turkey safe for solo female travelers?
Yes, yes it is.
Not only is my answer yes, I also believe that Turkey is a great destination for solo female travelers and a perfect introduction to the Middle East. Why?
Pressing issue aside, Istanbul is considered to be one of the safest big cities in the world. It has a much lower crime rate than the rest of Europe, especially big cities like London, Paris and Berlin. Over the past few months I have scoured the internet for articles about crime in Turkey, and one fact that always stuck out for me was the fact that almost every police officer in Turkey holds a university degree, while many more have masters or PhDs. Educated law enforcement, what a novel idea.
It’s not your typical “Muslim” country. That isn’t to say that other Muslim countries are dangerous, something I do not believe is true in the slightest, but for example the harassment I dealt with in Egypt was a thousand times worse than anything I experienced in Turkey. Traveling alone, I was never followed, never pinched or poked, never hassled or oggled. Only once did a get hit on big time – walking home at night, I heard someone yell out to me “Miss you dropped something,” and I turned around to see a young guy on his knees holding his chest and said, “my heart.” And let’s be honest, I was totally fine with that!
Turkey is a very east-meets-west country, with many girls dressing the same way as Europeans, working and living just like you or me. Did you know that up until recently, women were banned from entering university wearing a headscarf in Turkey? But it is also undeniably a Muslim country, and there is a new wave of conservatism in the government. Turkey is in the midst of a transformation and it’s really fascinating to watch; almost everyone I talked to was willing to talk with me about religion, and they were more than happy to share their strong opinions with me. Men and women socialize, hang out, study, work even drink, but they won’t touch bacon. Fascinating!
Apart from that, I think what impressed me most about Turkey was the unfailing kindness and generosity of everyone I met. With 30 countries under my belt, Turkey definitely has some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. To hear someone who’s most likely never been there categorize as a deadly place for Americans, especially women makes me want to scream!
So I think what we need to ask ourselves is NOT whether or not Turkey is a safe destination for women wanting to travel alone, but rather what can we do to improve violence against women around the world? How can you protect yourself when traveling alone, home or abroad?
I think the second part of the issue is that the United States desperately needs to reevaluate its perception of the rest of the world, starting with the Middle East and Islamic countries. I, for one, will be doing my part to show people that the world is much safer than you realize; no more making excuses.
My 5 tips for solo female travelers in Turkey
1. Don’t be a dumbass
This one does seem fairly obvious, but unfortunately it bears repeating. Be smart. Over the years, and after many trips and mess-ups around the world, you learn. So if this is your first solo trip as a woman outside the US (like it was for Sarai), maybe you should pick a less challenging destination. Like Spain. Not only will you not be harassed, you will most likely also be ignored. Over time you will learn caution, and learn to read situations better while traveling that can keep you from getting into danger. This takes time and experience
If a situation makes you feel uncomfortable, get the hell out of there as fast as you can. Run. Scream. Don’t be polite. I’ve read many articles about Sarai Sierra’s death, and she was caught on tape in plenty of places I wouldn’t have ventured to alone. Walking along random railroad tracks at dusk? Not a good idea in most of the world. Carrying your iPad out in the middle of a local mall? Also not a good idea.
If you are concerned about being alone, then don’t be alone. Stay in a hostel and make friends, join a day tour or research group activities. There are plenty of ways to be with people when you are traveling alone.
Also, buy travel insurance. You’ve more chance of hurting yourself than suffering at the hands of someone else! I use World Nomads Travel Insurance, who offer all kinds of different policies specifically geared towards travelers. Each one is customizable AND affordable.
2. Don’t stay somewhere sketchy
Again fairly obvious but often forgotten. Research where you will stay. Read the reviews, ask other people who have been there for suggestions. Don’t sacrifice saving a few dollars to stay in a shithole in a bad area. When you check in, think about what the area will be like after dark and if you have to walk back alone. Unless you’re in Pamplona for San Fermin, there will always be somewhere to stay and you can always change locations. Talking with locals in Istanbul, I found out Sarai Sierra was staying in an Air BNB apartment in quite possibly the worst area of town. Not smart. Especially when you are alone and in a unfamiliar place for the first time.
When I booked my hotels in Turkey, I did a lot of research and carefully chose ones that were perfect for women traveling alone: Hotel Empress Zoe in Istanbul (run by two American sisters) and the Kelebek Cave Hotel in Cappadocia. In Izmir I stayed at a place called the Olimpiyat Hotel which I recommend avoid at all costs.
3. Bring a door stop
Ever since I started backpacking in 2007, I’ve always carried a small rubber doorstop to jam under my hotel and private hostel room doors. Some places have really flimsy doors and you never know who might also have a key. With a door stop, it makes it so much harder to ninja-kick a door in, and let’s say, rob, stab or rape a girl. I also avoid staying on ground floors where someone could come through a window easily and I don’t leave easily accessed windows open. Common sense really.
4. Blend in
Given how I look, I am almost never mistaken for a local, unless I am in the mother country: Poland. But when I am traveling, I always walk around with an air of confidence, and never with a map in hand. Yes, I sometimes get lost, but then I pop in a doorway or in a shop and pull out a map that I have folded, or ask for directions. But I never walk down the street or stop with an open map. Act like you belong, even when you’re lost until you can find a comfortable place to ask for directions.
And as much as I disagree with it, if you are in a conservative country, cover up ladies. No cleavage. No skimpy legs. No flirty dresses. Istanbul is very modern, so you see local women dress very western and since there are so many tourists, even in summer, I don’t think you’d have much of an issue wearing shorts or a t-shirt. The Turkish coastline is very famous for cruise stops and beach holidays, so likewise, I doubt you’d have many problems dressing like you would back home in summer.
5. Avoid eye contact
This is not just for Turkey, but for many places, even in the US, eye contact can mean an invitation or flirting. This was something I never did until this trip, always staring people down and smiling at everyone. I can’t help it, I’m a smiler. But I tried it in the markets in Istanbul and it worked phenomenally. Just stare straight ahead. Works like a charm.
The same goes for conversations with shopkeepers or men in general. Be aware of your tone so you don’t sound flirty. This also really helps. This all goes back to number one and learning to read situations through experience. I am hesitant to say never talk or my eye contact with locals because that means missing out on truly authentic and fun travel experiences. A huge part of my trips come from meeting people from where I am going. But over the years I have learned to read people very well, and the instant I feel uncomfortable or threatened, I’m out of there.
For more thoughts, ramblings and tips on solo female travel, check out my Solo Female Traveler’s Manifesto Guide and/or my 10 Solo Female Travel Tips From Almost a Decade of Travel.
Do you travel alone? Are you a solo female traveler? What precautions do you take? Have you ever been to Turkey?