Young Women Traveling Alone

Now before I get accused for being a misogynistic bimbo and flogged for giving into archaic gender roles, let me just make a general statement to anyone who thinks I’m doing that or that this post will be such: Don’t be this crevice in my arm.

Now. Back to business.

As a young woman, fairly savvy, well-educated, and, pardon me here, but it beckons, aherm, one tough cookie, I feel that it is my duty to address that living in this real world, traveling its streets, eating its food, and getting to know its locals comes with a degree of danger. I, like a lot of tough young women, demand my independence and stubbornly walk home alone, wear high heels, and keep over due library books to prove it. But I here in Istanbul ((or anywhere) and it probably would have happened anywhere), for the first time on my own (meaning without a relative or old friend on every corner), probably for my own safety, should go about my fiercely determined independence differently and more cautiously. Especially after my little scare today.

But before we get to that let me treat you to the breathtaking view that I get to see each morning:

The Bosphorus is LITERALLY RIGHT HERE. I mean, over the cat, under the house, but only a few feet away from that...

The Bosphorus is LITERALLY RIGHT HERE. I mean, over the cat, under the house, but only a few feet away from that…

So back to this morning.

I like to run. I like to run in the cold. I like to run in the sun. I like to run in the street. I like to run with stinky feet. When asked what would be the first thing I’d do in Istanbul I almost immediately said running (okay, the first was to stuff my face with Baklava and Turkish Delight. YOU CAUGHT ME.) But jet lag is a darn rascal and the first thing I did was sleep…for 16 hours…and then some more…

But this morning, finally, I decided to run. I had a light Turkish breakfast, made my bed, got on my shoes, and headed out the door.

Even before I came to Turkey I thought about running. I researched about the city and was expecting not a lot of room on the cobble stone side walks. I anticipated the crazy taxi drivers and the rampant street cats. I even harassed my family into getting me pants. Running pants. I don’t wear pants while running. If I could, most days I’d not wear pants. But I kept reading about how women should wear pants while running in some conservative countries. I thought at first that that would probably be respectful to the conservative Muslim population and that I could respect that. I thought later that maybe I should just wear what I normally wear (respectable, breathable, slightly above the knee and roomy shorts) because I am a young and modern woman with the right, power, and confidence to wear whatever. I had a small Gollum moment debating this issue. I brought pants anyways. I was grateful. They are warm.

Pants aside (figuratively) the run started off really nice.

What kind of freak takes a camera with them running, you ask? Me.

What kind of freak takes a camera with them running, you ask? Me.

Like everywhere else I have run, the route was sprinkled with cat calls and beeping horns. And despite having the disposition of cat-with-laser, I have taught myself to mostly ignore and not look around when cars pass. But to you single young women traveling, I say look around and keep an eye on your surroundings and the people you pass and the cars that drive by. Remember the route you took and how to get back, keep an eye out for suspicious behavior, and just be alert.

A friend of mine who is a security guard and who could probably kill you with her pinky, once told me that women who are distracted or have tunnel vision are those who are targeted. This makes sense to me. It also makes sense for anyone who has ever been pick pocketed. So look around and leave the ground staring for chumps. Also, staring at the ground is bad running form in general.

So, here I am. Running along, being alert, being low-key in my comfy pants. So what happened, you ask? Well, now that I’m calm and retelling the story it sounds really, kinda lame. But it’s my story so, ahem.

I wanted to enjoy the view of the Bosphorus so I started to walk and I came up to where a car was parked on the side walk. I saw that there was a man inside the vehicle. He looked at me on the side walk and I walked past breaking our brief eye contact. But then the car started to back up in reverse. Okay, makes sense, he needs to get back onto the street. Parallel parking is a lot of fun. Oh wait. There was no car behind him…I continued walking, but faster. He sped up and matched my pace while in reverse. I started shaking and I looked around at the empty sidewalk for a safe place to cross the street. He followed behind me and drove  backwards for about 50 feet, until I could cross the street safely. I  made sure that he didn’t leave his car and walked into a grassy park.

I’ve rewritten that story a few times to make it sound less scary and also to make it sound less lame. I didn’t want to freak out my mother and I didn’t want to sound like a huge baby. But I write the TRUTH (I’m an Amurican!) so here’s the point no matter how lame or how scary it sounds: It scared me out of my wits.

And that fear completely ruined the run. So I marched back home. I was literally too scared and too tired to run anymore. Which actually is problematic because I’ve always counted on that as defensive maneuver number one.

I’ve since calmed down. I’ve been sitting and thinking about all of the ways that I’ve been taught how to defend myself and ways to avoid trouble. I’ve thought about all the humorous experiences I’ve had in Seattle with hobos. I’ve thought about real near misses. Nothing, ever, has legitimately scared me like this. And even though it was a minor incident and nothing really happened I attribute my absolute terror this afternoon to 1. being in a completely unfamiliar place 2. trivializing dangerous situations and 3. realizing that I am a lone traveler.

But I did think about what what I did, could have, and should have done. And maybe this will be a benefit to you and piece of mind to me the next time I go out.

1. Take a buddy. I’ve been referenced via Facebook and trusted mutual friend to a few women in Istanbul who hopefully will become my new best friends. Sometimes that’s not possible, but I saw a lot of women on the way and few of them were alone. I had the idea that I wanted to take pictures on the route but I couldn’t bring myself to abandon my safety for the sake of journalism (there goes my foreign news correspondent dream). When you have a friend it makes it easier to enjoy your surroundings because someone has your back. Which brings me to my next point.

With friends like these, who needs anemones!

With friends like these, who needs anemones!

2. Don’t be distracted. Phones, cameras, pretty shiny things on the ground. I made a note of each person and car I passed which I generally always do to be able to identify my surroundings later. Be aware. It makes you less of a target and helps you make decisions like…

3. Cross the street and change up your route a lot if you think you’re being followed. Go into public places. I like to run towards incoming traffic and on small roads, but as you can see, one creep ruined that for me.

4. Look into parked cars. I saw the guy in the car before he started following me. He did it anyways but if he was just sitting there noticing a distracted girl I could have easily been grabbed while passing. I crossed the street whenever I came across a parked van or saw someone sitting inside. Paranoid, maybe. Safe, yes.

5. Keep an eye out for passing cars. I like to memorize license plates. Especially if I see the same one over and over again.

6. Look around. Watch people, suspicious behavior, sketchy places, the road ahead, etc. I really wanted to take a picture of these sketch guys just sitting on a rail but something kept me from that choice.

Take a picture of the many cats of Istanbul. Christiane Amanpour I am NOT.

Take a picture of the many cats of Istanbul. Christiane Amanpour I am NOT.

7. Go with your gut. Your safety comes first no matter how weird you think you look.

This sketchy alley is not so sketchy. It was the heavenly one leading home.

This sketchy alley is not so sketchy. It was the heavenly one leading home.

8. If you’re international and in a foreign speaking country, know the number for English-speaking emergency numbers.

What cha gonna do? Who ya gonna call?

What cha gonna do? Who ya gonna call?

9. Be low key (wear pants if you need to) and don’t bring unneeded attention to yourself if you are nervous about traveling. Be cool. Today I was grateful to have pants. Most people say don’t wear flashy jewelry because you’ll get targeted for pick pocketing.

10. When I was flying by myself I really wished that İ had brought less as far as my carry-ons went. I felt weighed down as I navigated an unfamiliar airport with tons of new things to see on top of being as nervous as I was. This is more practical advice, I wish I could have observed more than be worried about my things.

Anyways, there it is. My tips from an honest experience of being really scared, no matter how lame it really was. I did really want my mommy. But I’m safe now and I’ll be ready for another adventure tomorrow.

And as always, I am hardly an expert so if you have insight, additional advice, stories, or hate mail, please comment.

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7 thoughts on “Young Women Traveling Alone

  1. So much great and useful content! Scary stuff like that can happen anywhere, so thanks for all the tips. I hope all of your future runs are safe and enjoyable and I look forward to creeping on your blog! 🙂

  2. When I was your age, I had a ring that I wore to make it look like I was married. I made it just a bit easier. I remember having a guy try and pick me up in the San Francisco Airport, I always wore the ring after that.
    Having a ring means, you might not be alone. Sorry for the rough start to the day. In some countries, direct eye contact can mean you are being suggestive. Check on subtle cues like that, you may have seemed to be offering something when you weren’t intending to.

  3. First off: Yay Psych reference! Second: I’m so glad you’re ok, and good luck with all your future adventures! Lovely to see you remembering CK’s old motto- have safe and be fun 🙂

  4. Cooks! I totally know how you feel! When I first got to Italy, I was super conscious of everything going on and aware of my surroundings. I wouldn’t even walk from Aaron’s apartment to mine alone (1 block) because of all the scary American girl in Europe snatching/mugging/taken stories I had heard. I always had an eye on my purse (okay this part never went away, even when I was back home in the states) and would over cautiously go to the other side of the street if I saw anyone vaguely sketchy if I was alone.

    After a while I started getting comfortable in Torino and began to be way less cautious. It helped my peace of mind, but eventually I wouldn’t think twice about taking the metro home from downtown after going out for aperitivo and walking to my apartment alone late at night, or heading over to the local pub on my own at 11.

    THEN… around the 3rd month I was in Torino one of the girls told me the scariest story ever… She was walking to class, at 11 IN THE MORNING, down the street that I live on. This street has lots of shops and pedestrians, not deserted at all. This guy comes up to her and starts talking to her in Italian, harassing her and what not. She tried to tell him to go away but he kept going and eventually started touching her hair and grabbed her butt- so she started running down the street. He chased down the street, meanwhile she is yelling and asking for help- no one stops to help her. Luckily, the school was only a few blocks away and once she reached the school he stopped chasing her.

    Moral of the story: sketch stuff can happen everywhere, and our American accents can definitely make us a target. It’s an amazing feeling to finally start to feel comfortable when one is abroad, and traveling is NOT as scary and dangerous as a lot of people think – but its important to realize that Americans often times are targets, especially women, and we need to be cautious of that- no matter how much you grow to love your new neighborhood.

    • Gah! Leave my butt alone! Erm. Thanks Emily, you’re so right, it happens everywhere and I’m glad I can still be optimistic and enjoy my time. Thanks for sharing, I would have done the same thing, running away. Hopefully I can have a better time running with some friends (if you wanted to stop by on your way home from Thailand…)

      Oh and ONE IMPORTANT THING. Like I said, this kind of thing could happen anywhere to anyone. In no way do I think this creep represents Istanbul, its people or its culture. I think it’s important to always 1. be alert 2. Have at least a plan and 3. Be cool. Keep your cool and continue to enjoy life, people, and the beautiful places you get to see. I won’t let one creep ruin my experience 🙂

  5. hey cookie not to scare you anymore than you already are but i happened to come across your article right after i read another article written by another american on the very same topic. here’s the link: http://www.todayszaman.com/news-289916-women-act-against-harassers-take-back-istanbuls-streets.html (she actually has many more articles like this discussing the problems women face in Turkey). i too think that scary stuff like this may be faced with everywhere in the world and it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you wear or how you act. what i usually do is that i hide the fact that i’m scared if a scary person comes along my way. there are men who enjoy harrasing girls just to feel superior by seeing their scared actions (can it get anymore pathological than this?!) another thing that i do, mostly when i’m using a taxi to get home in the evening is to pretend to call my dad and give the licence plate number. i know that’s pretty paranoid but it just gives the driver the idea that there’s an over protective men at home waiting for me that he would not wanna mess with 😀

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