“Excuse me, miss? Can I help you? Where are you from? Lady, please, allow me! Are you lost? Do you need anything? How are you? Would you like a coffee? A tea perhaps? Holland? Germany! Miss! Miss! Please, may I ask you a question?”
You have been cynically referring to this as The Trip Of Unwanted Male Attention. Between The Toucher, The Nipple Pincher, Spaso, random marriage proposals, and everything in the midst, you have assumed a permanently defensive posture and countenance. Defensive, but not timid, lest you invite trouble. No, you ward it away to the point where no one can get very close at all.
Tired of the sleazy hisses and cat calls, you had asked your host in Iraklion, Carolina, and her other CS guest, Mario (from Argentina and Guatamala, respectively) where you could travel as a solo conspicuous female—that is, a big giant blonde white girl—and not feel like fresh meat.
(You complain too much. In a few years, when your face is gone, you will miss it.)
The possibility of heading east was never in the running. You’d heard so much shit about “Turkish pigs” in Belgium and Holland, where there exists deep-seeded racism and resentment for the growing immigrant population. You’d been told that Turkish people think western women are all prostitutes, and well, after that Turkish guy tried to initiate a threesome with you and Alexis in exchange for a lift in Holland, you believed it. Add all this fear-mongering to your doubts about traveling alone in an Islamic country all by your lonesome!
“Watch out for sleazy Turkish truck drivers. There have been a lot of rapes recently.” That’s what people say, but you wonder which newspapers, which channels are actually broadcasting such information—or if it is just a few isolated incidents that were embellished to epidemic proportions.
It wasn’t until you met Dionysius and Tianake in Athens that Istanbul enetered your mind. “You have to go! One of the best cities in the world! You will be fine,” said Tianake.
Tianake… a dead-sexy, slightly-built, tall blonde chick from Estonia, had hitch-hiked to Istanbul in the past. You found her on the CS site after you spotted her picture—one of those beautiful profile pics that everyone finds too alluring to pass up. You read and found that she, too, was 27 (okay, youre not 27 yet, but have identified at that age ever since you burst into tears a couple months back—with the realization that your “late-twenties” were on the horizon), zany, spontaneous, talkative, adventurous, etc. You asked if she wanted to travel with you, imagining all the dents you could strike in the world as a twosome.
It was a shot in the dark—one that missed, as she was working as an au pair in Athens for next little while, but she was happy to spend a couple days with you and your host, Dionysius, a 40-year-old single man commencing a new chapter of his life after 20 dissatisfying years in the military, seperated from his children. Together, they infected you with the idea.
“What the fuck,” you said. “I’m going to do it. I’m going to Istanbul.” (Probably the best decision you have made on this trip so far).
Athens to Istanbul was a long journey that included a road trip through northern Greece, a two-night stop in Tesseloniki, and a 13-hour haul east. You broke your hitch hiking record and climbed into a total of 13 different vehicles, the most memorable of which was Harkan, the Turkish truck driver from whom you solicited a lift at the border.
The visa into Turkey was bullshit. Online, you were supposed to print a form, fill it out, include references, a photo, 20 bucks, and then wait a couple of weeks for authorization. Yet at the border, you just slide 15 Euros in cash to a guy in a booth and he passes you a little sticker. Spaso’s voice echoed in your mind, “Burn your American passport! Then you will know what a border really means.”
So Harkan… The first Turkish man you encountered. And he was busy. Busy buying 12 bottles of whiskey at the duty free shop. Busy as the passport control offices. Busy exchanging money. Busy getting dinner. Busy talking for hours on the phone. You immediately felt at ease with him because he was too busy to take much of an interest in you.
He also didn’t really speak English. You learned that a person can communicate effectively in English simply by knowing the word “problem.” When his phone calls are dropped, he points to the device, “Problem!” When he wants to eat, “Manger! No problem!” When he sees you resting your eyes, he puts his foot on the dash board and says, “No problem.” After you use his mobile to contact your host in Istanbul, he asks, “No problem?”
Only there was a problem there… Istanbul, with a population of as much as 20 million (depending on how you count) was enormous and he was definitely not parking his semi-truck at your front door. You heard him on the phone, “Americana. Auto-stopper. Istanbul.” And some gibberish. Harkan arranged for a car to pick you up from the truck stop and drive you to the metrobus, giving you 5 lira so you could buy a ticket.
It occurred to you that it might be cultural. That a lone woman, once under the care of a man, would remain in his care until he was sure she was safe. Of course, not all men have such a polite manner. You know very well that at least half of them who ask if you are okay will offer to wine and dine you, hoping for sex or even for a marriage to your American passport. And yet… they’re still so polite about it!
“Excuse me, Miss. Where are you from? What’s your name? Would you like to drink something with me? Come, I give you something to drink.”
“I can’t,” you said to one man. “I’m meeting someone in a few minutes.” Ozgur, another couch surfing host.
“Who is he? Is he Turkish?”
“What does he do?”
You shrugged, “He’s a DJ at a bar, or something.”
This particular man, middle-aged, portly, and on the sweaty side replied, “You don’t need to meet him. What kind of job is that? He cannot take care of you. Come, drink a coffee with me. Then later, perhaps we can go to dinner. We get to know each other. You will see. It will be good.”
Well, okaaay… this particular man was pretty irritating. After many attempts at diplomatic rejection, you growled, “No. I do not want to get coffee with you. Please stop asking. Please leave me alone.”
Unlike your experience in other countries, you have no problem meeting the locals here. Every 50 feet, another Turkish man tries to initiate a conversation and offer you a drink or a meal. You could literally live for free is Istanbul, eating and drinking and crashing with strangers (you receive around 15-20 couch surfing messages per day, with invitations to drinks and entertainment). It would require nothing but your time and some persistent “no thank you’s,” but you cannot bring yourself to exploit all that wishful thinking. (Okay, you have a couple of times, but you don’t make a practice of it.)
And anyway… you sort of already are eating and drinking for free. Ozgur, a 32-year-old DJ and manager of a bar in the heart of the Sultanahmet, the touristy district of Istanbul. You love him. Fun, relaxed, full of great party stories, and–in your opinion–fairly easy on the eyes. He lived in Holland for three years and talks with a dirty Dutch accent—congested with “shits” and “fucks”–that reminds you of your handful of days with Janneke in Amsterdam. You spend part of your days in Ozgur’s bar, shooting the shit, and enjoying food and drink on the house.