Walking the Line as a Woman in Istanbul
“Did it hurt when you fell from heaven, baby?”
“Come take a ride with me. It’ll be fun!”
“How much, beautiful?”
Walking down the streets of Istanbul, I’d never felt more verbally harassed in my entire life. I was spending my holidays in Turkey with my college roomie. We’d arrived there after island hopping on the Greek ferry.
We loved Turkey — the food, the sights, the tea — but hated the constant bombardment of cat calls and ridiculous pick-up lines that followed us wherever we went. And mind you, we were just coming off of four months living in France and Italy. We had fairly low standards.
The invitations were infinite: come for a drive, look at our rugs, eat dinner with me, or enjoy some apple tea. We politely (and eventually, not so politely) declined each and every invitation.
When you’re traveling as a woman, it’s hard to walk the line between safety and risk.
You can be overly cautious, and thus miss out on some great experiences. Or you can be overly risky, and get caught somewhere you don’t want to be. I’ve fallen on both sides of the line, and neither is fun. Of course, I definitely err on the side of caution and would recommend that you do, too. (For more of my tips, read this article about traveling solo in Egypt.)
But my roomie and I didn’t want to miss out on everything. We wanted to talk to some Turkish people. We wanted to learn about their lives and culture. Though we’d never discussed it, I knew she traveled like I did and was feeling the same way. After all, isn’t that what travel is all about?
Near the end of our days in Istanblul, we were sitting on a bench eating ice cream (typical), when a shopkeeper invited us into his store for some apple tea. We automatically said, “No, thank you,” as we had with all 452 previous guys who had said the same thing. When he asked a second time, however, we both looked at each other.
“Want to go in?” I asked.
“Sure,” said my roomie.
Who knows why we decided to say yes to shopkeeper #453. Maybe it was our sugar high, or his friendly, non-sleazy demeanor, or the fact that his shop was in the middle of a busy street and that it was broad daylight.
Whatever it was, we went in. We smoked hookah. We drank apple tea. We chatted. His friends came in, and we chatted some more. I don’t remember a single thing we talked about, but it felt good. We were interacting with a real live TURKISH person.
He showed us various items from his shop, with one item in particular catching my attention. It was a puzzle ring. They’re everywhere in Istanbul, and I’d been interested in buying one. I just had been waiting for the right one.
A puzzle ring is a several rings that are locked together. Only if you put it together in a certain way is it wearable. Over and over, he showed me how to put it together. Then I practiced it about a dozen times.
In that moment, I really thought that I’d remember forever. A few months later, I took it apart to “test myself”… and couldn’t get it back together. Today, it sits in my jewelry box. Though it’s unwearable, I still smile every time I see it.
Yes, the shopkeeper got what he wanted: I bought something. But, for me, it was an even exchange. He earned a few extra lira — and my roomie and I got a memory that will last us a lifetime.
I often think about that experience as an example of how travel should be: an exchange. Give and receive.
As a woman, especially when traveling solo, it’s definitely harder to have exchanges that are both meaningful and safe. My best advice is to follow your gut. Use your judgment, and never enter a situation that doesn’t feel right. At the same time, don’t stay in your hostel the whole time because you’re scared. Go to locations that you’ll feel comfortable in, and/or try to find a buddy at your hostel to explore with.
Find the good exchanges, and enjoy.
I still have no idea how to put that puzzle ring back together, but it doesn’t matter. Maybe I’ll just have to go back to Istanbul someday.
This post was written by me, brought to you by Thomas Cook travel.