Dangers of Turkish Travel

By Catherine Salter Bayar *
As a Californian clothing designer in my thirties, I’d traveled alone on business to at least 40 countries worldwide. When I announced that I intended to travel solo in Turkey in 1998, however, I was bombarded with warnings from concerned friends about the danger inherent in my plan.
I had been to İstanbul once before, and it had enthralled me.  The city seemed to be San Francisco’s geographic twin with its proximity to the water, tall narrow wooden houses, precariously inclined streets, and modern bridges spanning windblown water. Opulent Ottoman palaces and mosques commanded the view, a sea of diverse faces bustled in colorful open air markets, and the ethereal call to prayer floated overhead while the beat of traffic pulsated on the streets.

Visiting ancient landmarks, wandering narrow streets of the historic Sultanahmet neighborhood still nestled within crumbling Byzantine walls, I glimpsed the multitude of civilizations, the richness of cultures and the variety of people that had occupied this land bridging Europe and Asia. I felt compelled to return to İstanbul to explore both this former capital of empires, and the rest of Turkey which lay beyond in Anatolia, the peninsula of Asia Minor.

So when I had the time to return to explore more of Turkey years later, I planned a month-long journey: arriving in İstanbul, but heading first to Konya, the origin of the Whirling Dervishes and burial place of Sufi poet Rumi, then farther south to the Mediterranean resort town of Antalya, and the nearby Taurus Mountains.  There I would visit the legendary home of the Greek gods, a mountain once known as Olympus, before following the white cliffs of Pamukkale to the Aegean coast’s ancient Greco-Roman sites of Didyma, Ephesus, and Troy. Finally I’d travel though Bursa, center of the Ottoman Empire’s silk production, leaving a week to reacquaint myself with İstanbul.

This was the plan everyone objected to. None of these advisors had ever been to Turkey; the people who’d shared my business trips all longed to return. Misinformed friends who now urgently offered advice had seldom voiced concern about my trips alone to other countries; they’d only commented how lucky I was to explore all those “exotic” places. Turkey, however, evoked strong judgments.

The prevailing opinion was that a woman of any age traveling alone to a Muslim country was asking for trouble.

“You’ll have to wear a headscarf, and it’s best to cover yourself up entirely,” I was told repeatedly.
“There are Islamic terrorists everywhere looking for Western hostages.”
Or, “The Kurdish situation is likely to cause all sorts of problems” and “Who knows when they’ll set off another bomb at a major tourist site.”

On and on the admonitions went, including warnings about the Turkish prison system. It seemed that everyone recalled the 1978 movie “Midnight Express”, the story of a young American male who was confined for years in a prison in İstanbul, suffering abuse from cruel guards and corrupt judges. Of course, my friends glossed over the fact that the jailed American was attempting to smuggle hashish, something
that I was unlikely to try.  I did plan to visit the prison though, since renovated to become a luxurious Four Seasons Hotel.  

The one concession I made to ease their worry was to dye my blond hair a deep auburn in an attempt to blend in, though I already knew that Turkish citizens varied in every color of hair, eyes and skin. Otherwise, I remained undaunted in my desire to see what Turkey was really like.

After several weeks of solo travel, I discovered that the perils of visiting Turkey are indeed many, and entirely unavoidable. Whenever I hear a foreign woman planning a trip to Turkey by herself, I give her the benefit of my experience, by telling her these things:

Beware Of Excessive Care And Pampering: My initial experience with Turkish hospitality came the first night of my trip. Heading by rail to Konya after midnight, jetlagged into exhaustion, I boarded the wrong train. After the train started moving, the conductor came by and gesticulated to my ticket, then the platform outside.  I understood from his agitated behavior that I had to get off the train. Suddenly, everyone in the car, men of all ages, gathered around us in boisterous discussion about what to do with me, or so I presumed since it was completely in Turkish. I realized with a shock that there were no other women in the train car. How could I have put myself in such a precarious situation within just a few hours of arriving? Dismal images crossed my mind while I watched the men, on guard to defend myself if any made a wrong move.

After a harrowing half hour, the train slowed for the next stop, and the men motioned for me to go with the conductor. I gathered my bag and followed, exhaustion replaced with adrenaline-induced wariness.

I needn’t have been so worried. Instead of doing something dire to the foolish foreign woman, the conductor made it his responsibility to escort me to the station manager, instructing him with great concern on his face to put me on the correct train when it arrived. In turn the elderly manager kindly ensured that I was fed and comfortable, doing a gallant job despite a total lack of English. We spent a hilarious hour going through my Turkish phrase book, attempting to communicate details about his large family and my life in the U.S.  A potentially dangerous situation led to an enjoyable conversation and short detour in my plans, but a favorable first impression. I wondered if a woman traveling solo would get that reception anywhere in America. Contrary to the suspicions of my countrymen, being a woman alone provoked a protective reaction among most Turkish citizens, as if I were an honorary daughter or sister to be looked after.    

Guard Against Gastronomic Exorbitance: Everywhere I went, I was offered copious amounts of Turkish tea, simple or elaborate meals with families whose homes I passed: stuffed grape leaves, vegetable casseroles, steaming rice pilav and green beans… Farmers would pick fruit off their trees to offer me as I walked by. Guarding my waistline became one of my biggest problems, because it was impossible to say no.

Avoid Becoming Bankrupted By Baubles: As my friends had warned me, my wallet was frequently in danger. Not from pickpockets, mind you, but from me, charging the richly-woven carpets, intricate gold jewelry, hand painted ceramics, rustic copper kitchenware and fragrant spices. Persistent and witty shop touts immediately honed in on my weakness for kilims, carpets and handmade textiles, making it impossible for me resist a purchase. Every region of Turkey has distinct, age-old patterns and motifs decorating the textile handicrafts that women have been weaving for centuries. Each town became a minefield as I tried to avoid buying more; only the threat of overweight luggage charges was finally able to stop me.

Prepare For Cordial Inquisitions: Always interested in engaging me, Turkish women were curious about my life, and how it differed from theirs. They would inquire about my marital status and whether I had children. Unlike in India, where the local women had warned me to stay in my hotel and not wander around, Turkish women wanted to trade family stories and were proud to show off their children and their homes. Everyone was full of questions for me and asked for details that in my own culture were deemed personal or even taboo. They started with “Where are you from?” as an icebreaker, but “How much do you make?” “What did your camera cost?” or even “Is that your natural hair color?” quickly followed. Seeing me as an honorary daughter meant that there were no formal boundaries between us that would make such questions inappropriate.

The Turks I met were interested to know what I thought of their country and their culture, wanting to share opinions on everything from politics to religion. Conversation and social interaction, foundations of daily Turkish life, were the hallmarks of my travels, unlike my own American culture where too much time is spent alone in cars or avoiding strangers.

Watch for Threats to Your Dignity and Reserve:  I was the center of attention in many situations. Not only was I forced to talk about myself, but Turkey roused other out-of-character behavior. Losing my inhibitions was one of them. In the Aegean town of Selçuk, I was invited to a Kurdish wedding one evening by a carpet seller I had befriended. Hundreds of people gathered in a huge open park in front of the bride’s home. The women were dressed in bright, glittery dresses, and the men were dancing to amplified folk music in long spiraling lines. I was the only foreigner present, and the only woman not in a group of women. So I would not feel left out, someone grabbed my hand and put me a line of several women who had joined the men’s dance. Figuring out the steps while trying not to trip others and myself was only embarrassing for a moment, until the rhythm of the music, the motion of the dancers and their encouraging smiles made me forget myself.

Resist Being Mesmerized Or Risk Your Life: By the end of my trip, the dangers I had been warned about in America seemed opposite to what I encountered, though the actual ‘pitfalls’ of Turkey proved more hazardous for me. I was so enamored of Turkish life that coming back to my “real” life was disappointing. The amiable human exchanges I had experienced had tainted my perspective to the point that I just had to return. Within seven months of my journey, I changed my entire life for the chance to live in Turkey.  That was nine years ago and I’m still in Turkey today.

Now I feel it’s my duty to warn fellow foreign women interested in Turkish travel of its dangers.  I tell them: be prepared to say goodbye to your old life, where strangers on the street avoid your gaze, where getting to know your neighbors may take years, where you might spend a lifetime only talking to the people you already know, where television replaces human interaction.  Because once a woman experiences Turkey’s warm people and embracing culture, it’s hard to go home again.

DANGERS OF TURKISH TRAVEL ©2007 by Catherine Salter Bayar. It first appeared in TALES FROM THE EXPAT HAREM: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey, ©2005 by Anastasia M. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gökmen. Published in English in Turkey (Dogan Kitap, 2005) and North America (Seal Press, 2006), this nonfiction anthology by expatriate women from 5 nations spans the entire country and the last four decades as scholars, artists, missionaries, journalists, entrepreneurs and Peace Corps volunteers assimilate into Turkish friendship, neighborhood, wifehood, and motherhood. www.expatharem.com

Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07