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A Close Call in Istanbul, Turkey

When you are reading blog posts and tips on solo travel and safety, the number one rule is “exercise caution and common sense”. The truth is, sometimes you don’t do that. It seems like a pretty easy rule but whatever it is that takes over our brains when we are travelling is not the same chemicals as when we read about safety and common sense.

First things first, I’m not proud of this story but it happened and It’s the truth. I was a young and nieve traveller. I had travelled alone before but Turkey, that was a new chapter for 24-year-old solo traveller me. I loved Turkey and I found Istanbul to be incredible. However, perhaps I should have watched myself and I wouldn’t have ended up in such a sticky situation.

Hürrem Sultan Fountain, Istanbul TurkeyWalking around Istanbul on my own as a women with a map, yes a paper map! was an easy way to spark attention. At every turn I was asked where I was going, who I was with and did I need direction, tea, a scarf or a carpet! I can assure you, I needed none of those!

I can still remember, I was walking around getting lost, looking for food and a “nice man” came and offered me directions. He was happy to walk to directly to wherever it was I was going until he said to me “are you here alone?” and I had heard that question about 15 times so this time I said “no I’m meeting my boyfriend and another friend there” He suddenly didn’t feel like walking me directly there anymore.

You see, by this point, I was starting to get a little clued into the way things worked. This was my last day in Istanbul before taking a few days off to Cappadocia. 2 men stopped me to chat, they both looked around my age and were dressed with western fashion (normally it’s the older ones on the prowl with non-western fashion) and they spoke fantastic English. I talked back. That was my first mistake, but understand that when I’m alone for a long time, I get desperate to talk to people.

female in front of the Hürrem Sultan Fountain, Istanbul Turkey

One of them lived in Japan. I got a good vibe off him, he talked about his Japanese girlfriend and seemed like a cool guy. The other one starred at me a little bit more then I liked. They asked if I wanted to go for some tea and I said “no thanks, I’m hungry and going to get some food”. They directed me to a good “local” place that I could get a bite to eat. I enjoyed my meal and when I left I happened to run into them again. That should have been alarm bells but nieve me thought it was quite the coincidence and to be honest, the company was kind of nice. I like meeting locals in different countries.

Like I said, I was young, alone and hadn’t talked to anyone properly in some time. I enjoyed talking to the guy who lived in Japan as I knew he didn’t want anything from me. We chatted away and I guess its just that they were my age and with good English that I said yes when they asked me if I’ll come to their uncle’s carpet shop for some tea.

I said hello to their uncle and since the shop was open, in the main tourist district and seemed harmless I was okay. What could a simple tea do? But the tea wasn’t out in the open. It was in the upstairs area. A part of me thought “what would your parents say right now” following two Turkish men into their house. Two strangers, I didn’t know and I was alone.

I didn’t want to be rude so I just kept my guard. (NEVER WORRY ABOUT BEING RUDE) I got good vibes from Mr Japan and we talked about travel and Turkish culture and it was great. His friend would shuffle a little too close to me on the couch and stare a little too intently. Their uncle seemed nice and invited me for food. He had more interest in conducting business then me but he was very polite. He paid a small kid to run and get the food, it was like a Turkish banquet in the carpet shop, it was very cool. I enjoyed every bit of this, and saw it as a cool culture experience having dinner with a Turkish family in a carpet shop.

Isle in the Grand Bazar, Istanbul

I was told all about the carpet industry and looked through the shop items and everything seemed fine. The boys invited me to come drinking with them on the other side of Istanbul. I didn’t have my bearings and I didn’t really know what or where the other side was. I didn’t have too much interest in the nightlife of Istanbul, I had been travelling for a few weeks and was partied out. Although I had read that its a thriving cosmopolitan city so a part of me wanted to go. I felt like I trusted these guys a little more.

After some persistence, I agreed to go. I was told how easy it would be, a simple taxi ride and he would pay for all my drinks and take me to the bets places only the locals knew. How could I refuse such an offer.

We were downstairs again in the open shop, my guard was down and I do like a drink and dance here and there. So I said yes. Suddenly, the guy who clearly liked me had a little chat with his cousin (the kind I wasn’t meant to hear or understand – I imagine something like “you’re cramping my style”) and instantly his cousin wasn’t too keen to come along. OH! now I didn’t feel too comfortable. I had nothing to really chat about with this guy and I knew he was interested in more then travel talk. So I had to come up with an excuse.

The guy who was keen on me said okay let’s go upstairs quickly and then we will go or something like that I can’t remember what he said but he got me back upstairs again and that’s when I found out his cousin wasn’t coming. (What I should have said around this time was “oh are you not coming? Then I’m not going either. I should have been honest and more assertive and showed more power. But this is what I know now, not then).

changing of the guard istanbulThis time it was just me and him upstairs. Something I wasn’t so comfortable with. He would put his arm around me and kept coming closer. Being upstairs and alone with him, he was getting too creepy and comfortable for my liking. Moving in for the kiss, telling me how beautiful I was. It was at this point I said “You know, I have an early bus tomorrow, I’m pretty tired. I don’t think I’ll go out tonight” I didn’t want it to seem like this is the last chance he had to try and get me so I said “why don’t I take your number and when I come back from Cappadocia I’ll call you and we can go out then” He seemed okay with this and I felt like I had made the pass into freedom.

Leaving the building, I secretly slapped myself because at the end of the day I was in a situation where if he was a bad guy, things could have gone badly.

Now at this point, maybe you think I’m stupid for every going into their house. Maybe you think I’m just being a bit paranoid, nothing happened. I thought both of those things. But I mostly thought, well – I got to hang with locals and drink Turkish tea in a carpet shop and eat food brought over by a local kid. I had a local experience. (I like to keep positive).

I went to Cappadocia and had an amazing time. I got back to Istanbul with no intentions of calling him. But I did run into him. How Istanbul can be such a small place is beyond me. He asked why I didn’t call and I said I had just been busy. By this point, he clearly knew I wasn’t interested so he would look around and tell me how beautiful all these other girls are. I had no interest in being polite at this point because he was just coming off as creepy now and I wasn’t in his house. That is when he said to me “you know if I wanted you I could have had you”.

At first, It didn’t click what he meant. I just thought he meant he could have swooned me over, put some romantic moves on and made me fall for him. It wasn’t until telling a friend this that she made me realise he could have possibly meant he could have forced himself onto me.

inside the hagia sophia

I still think about that day when I’m reminiscing. I still wonder what could of happened or how things could have gone wrong. I do that in a way to remind myself that I need to be smarter about choosing my local experiences. That I need to show more power when in male company that I don’t feel so comfortable with.

“Is solo travel safe?” is one of the most asked questions. I think it’s safe. I think its the best thing you can do. I wouldn’t have created this travel community for female travellers if I didn’t think that.

I also think that when we travel young or even for the first time, we can be nieve. We have lessons to learn and situations to get out of. Perhaps things could have been different for me. I heard my instincts and I didn’t listen to them as much as I should have. It was a silly thing to do and a lesson I learnt from.

I’m writing this story not because I want people to know how nieve I was or gloat about my local experience or how I made it safe. I’m not trying to paint a bad picture of Turkey or of men. But I want women to know that sometimes you will be nieve and you shouldn’t be made to feel bad about it. Always trust your instincts and be alert.

I also want women to know that you are allowed to be selfish and say no and you are allowed to be rude and not reply to men talking to you randomly on the street. Chances are they want your body or your wallet – its very rare they just want to talk. You are within your rights to ignore them every time.

tourist in Istanbul

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  1. Ninga says:

    Actually been to turkey several times and I’ve come to be weary of Turkish men. They are all polite but some can be quite “thirsty”….. Smile and move on….you’ll be glad you did.. Say no when ur personal space is invaded and be firm….I am rather large chested and African… I chalked the staring to either my skin color or the ” girls” went into a shop to buy a nag and was almost groped by the owner because I smile when I say no….its a culture thing where I come from….being courteous even when u deny someone something….when I caught on….I switched to my RBF and that saved me.

  2. Margarita says:

    I agree about not being afraid to offend and to be rude. Especially once your gut is telling you that you don’t want to be in the given situation.

    I had a small run-in with scammers in Istanbul too, when I got lost in a more remote part of the city. Your first reaction is always being polite, but when you are alone in a foreign country, your top priority should always be your own safety.

  3. Pau says:

    Agree with being OK to offend or be rude. That’s also scary though… So I guess we just need to be careful with both approaches.

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