I stepped out of the taxi into the blistering midday heat, my skin screaming for fresh air beneath my compulsory long sleeves and trousers. I dutifully handed over my money to the driver before he slunk bank into the air-conditioned vehicle and disappeared around the corner.
Then I was alone.
I stood for a while, my backpack loosely thrown over one shoulder, and contemplated the last twelve hours; my first solo flight, my arrival in Istanbul, my shuttle journey from the Asian side of the city to the European side, and… now. There was so much to take in that my body seemed to have rooted itself to the spot, my mind unable or unwilling to move my limbs.
My growling stomach summoned some lucidity and I swept my tired eyes over my surroundings; a narrow alleyway – cobbled underfoot – and the hum of city life in the distance. My hostel sat straight ahead, plonked uncomfortably between two scaffold-ridden buildings. Great.
I shuffled inside, relieved to be out of the soaring summer temperature and checked in to what, at the time, was the worst hostel I had set foot in (but that’s a whole other story).
Not wanting to spend too long in my cave of a room, I changed and ventured out not knowing what to expect of a young, single female in Istanbul. I’d heard stories of what the men were like before I set foot in the country so it’s safe to say I was a little apprehensive. Plus, it was the first time I had travelled alone. Ever. But I had to remind myself they were just that – stories.
I needn’t have worried though.
Finding a café on the main road, I took a seat out the front and ordered a coffee.
“Alone?” The waiter raised his eyebrows at me and hinted towards the glaringly empty seat opposite me.
I smiled. “Yes.” His face seemed to soften and he lowered the menu he was holding, waving at another of the waiters to see to a couple who had arrived wanting a table.
“Whereabouts?” Did single words count as sentences now?
“Oh… Brighton,” then, like I always say, “not far from London.”
“I know it. I know it!” What followed was completely unexpected. Whilst I sat and sipped my coffee, interjecting every now and again to offer my two cents, the waiter gushed on and on about Canterbury, a place he had lived for a while and the city where I had gone to university. He spoke passionately about the cathedral town and its people, stopping in an embarrassed fashion every now again to check his English (which was pretty much perfect).
After a while he stopped and looked around.
“Sorry. I have spoken for too long.”
“No, not at all! I think it’s very interesting.” I had spent the past twelve hours or more on my own with only myself for company, so it was nice to have a conversation with someone who wasn’t checking my passport or scanning my luggage.
“I just miss it sometimes.”
I smiled as he walked off to greet some other customers but it wasn’t long before there was someone else hovering over my table, essentially jumping into his grave. Another waiter.
“Hello.” He smiled a semi-toothless grin and folded his hands behind his back in that way that waiters do.
I greeted him back, almost out of coffee to distract myself with.
“I like to practice my English,” his accent was stilted and, when he told me his name, I didn’t understand a word of it. I still have no idea what it is.
We spoke awkwardly about where I was going next, why I was in Istanbul, and where he wanted to travel to. I thought it was going well, then…
“Tomorrow, I do not work. I show you round? We have fun.”
I’d already told him I was leaving Istanbul the next day. I reiterated this to him.
“But you could stay for me? I will wait here for you tomorrow morning to show you around.” He winked then, summoned by the Canterbury-enthusiast, headed back inside the café. I downed the dregs of my coffee, paid the bill and pushed my chair back. As I stood up, waiter-number-two-whose-name-I-can’t-remember hurried back out.
“Bye-bye, I will see you tomorrow.” I had given up trying to correct him at this stage. It seemed he was having none of my negative response anyway so my protesting was pointless. I smiled, picked up my bag, and merged into the crowds.
I wandered for a while before seeking some shade in a small park just off the main road. Following the lead of others around me, I pulled my book out of my bag, although it was mainly a prop to distract passersby from my people-watching.
This didn’t deter some people.
Briefly looking up, I spotted a man walking purposefully towards me carrying a massive roll of bubble-wrap. He ignored all the other people around and made a beeline for me. I quickly shoved my head back in my book but his shadow inevitably crawled its way across the pages.
“Hello.” He plonked the bubble-wrap down next to him and brushed his hands together. Ignoring him was now out of the question.
I closed my book and met his gaze. “Hi.”
He moved closer, standing over me. Much too close for my liking.
“You English?” Apparently Turkish men have an English radar which forces them towards unsuspecting subjects. It’s as if they can’t help it.
“Yep, I’m English.”
Cue conversation about where in England I was from, why I was in Istanbul on my own, where I was going next – the usual. Then…
“I show you around? Istanbul is great city and I would like to show you around?”
My mum’s worried face swam around in my head. What was I supposed to say? I was busy? I obviously wasn’t as I was clearly chilling out doing nothing important. Luckily, he threw me a lifeline. Whether it was intentional or not, I’ll never know.
“Let me take this” – he indicated to our eavesdropper, the bubble-wrap – “back to my work and I will come and find you afterwards. Then we have fun.” There was that word again. Fun. Did his definition of it differ from mine?
Before I could answer, he had heaved his load over his shoulder and marched on through the park, stopping once to turn and wave at me.
Two dogs lying side by side in the shade of a nearby tree distracted me for a moment. They looked so peaceful. Then my head snapped back into reality.
I was in Istanbul. On my own. Travelling solo for the first time ever. What was I doing? Was I willing to take this risk? I had only just got to the city and the people have proved themselves to be more than welcoming but, sadly, after hearing and reading so much about Istanbul, I was sceptical. Surely it was too good to be true. Did I want to be that naïve solo female traveller plastered all over the papers the next day? Extreme, I know, but it’s impossible to stop these thoughts from crossing your mind.
So I’m ashamed to say I ran.
I gathered up my stuff and walked right out of the park, again disappearing into the crowds on the main road.
It could have been a great opportunity to see the city with a knowledgeable guide. I’m almost positive that these men were merely trying to be nice, but I think it is our own responsibility to risk assess each scenario as it presents itself. I may have acted differently had it not been the first time I had travelled alone or if I had been in Istanbul longer than a day or if I was with another person.
The point is, I made my decision. Whether it was the right or wrong decision, I will never know.
Have you ever experienced an encounter that left you having to make a decision?
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About the author: Lizzie is a full time marketing assistant and part-time travel blogger promoting the ways to get the most out of grab-it-when-you-can travel. She spends her time creatively thinking of ways to plan trips around her job and advocating the idea that you don’t have to be ‘homeless’ to enjoy the perks of frequent travel. Aside from this, Lizzie likes questioning why people travel and the psychology behind it, watching crap American TV programmes, and drinking too much tea (cider). You can find out more about Lizzie here (go on – I know you want to see what’s behind the melon…)