Turkey diary: A stranger in a strange land
A middle-aged man with a lit cigarette in his mouth, the owner of a 5-Euro a night hostel in the middle of central Turkey, led me up a set of stone stairs and opened up a door revealing a dim-lit room with six twin beds.
"This is where you sleep," he told me, closing the door and leaving me alone in the room where one of two flies buzzed over my head. I dumped my backpack, sat on the squeaky bed that would surely collapse under my weight, and asked myself the same question for the hundredth time: "How in the world could I possibly think this was a good idea?"Peace and Conflict studies class from the University of Toronto, on an academic trip to apply the concepts of our international security course to one of the most important and interesting countries in the 21st century. The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of meetings with NGOs, Turkish government officials, and sight-seeing, all with my 14 other classmates and Professor.
However, as the "academic" portion of the trip came to an end and my classmates quickly dispersed in various directions around the world to begin their summer vacations, I decided to stay put in Turkey for a bit. By myself. I was called both brave and foolish. I think I was a little bit of both.
Now, this might not be a big deal to you adventure-folks that routinely pack up your bags and land in various countries and cities around the world by yourself. But for me, this is the first time that I would be truly traveling by myself, in a country on the other side of the world.
For various reasons, namely being young, female, somewhat introverted and timid, and having had a bad experience with a mugging on a school trip to Namibia two summers ago, traveling by myself absolutely terrified me. I could have easily came back to Toronto and slid back into my comfortable life of reality-show watching before I officially started my internship at the Star in June.
However for some reason, I thought it might be a good idea to "stretch" myself, overcome fears from that one summer I was mugged, and try traveling by myself, for isn't that what intrepid would-be journalists are supposed to be able to handle?
The second that I departed from my classmates and set out to explore Turkey on my own, I suddenly felt exposed and vulnerable. The city of Istanbul, which I had become quite familiar with in my time with my classmates, suddenly took on an almost terrifying quality. The noise, the hustle and bustle of the streets, cat-calls from vendors and stares from locals that I had disregarded before suddenly set off the depths of my fearful imagination that every brush of the shoulder with a stranger and every stare-down from a man across the street would lead to a mugging, rape, or scam.
During those first days alone I lamented, in my hotel room alone too scared to venture far, the unfairness of being a woman in our world, and the limitations and dangers that I would forever face no matter where I went in the world simply because I was born female.
I quickly moved out of the city of Istanbul to a small town in central Turkey, Göreme, located in Cappadocia, thinking that the small-town setting would help me alleviate my fears of being by myself and help me to face the challenges that traveling alone brings. It's been barely week since I've been on my own, and I feel that I've already traveled a month, considering the height of emotion and the long hours of solitude that traveling by yourself inevitably brings.
The loneliness factor is not to be discounted, though I wasn't quite prepared for it. Especially as I wistfully gaze at couples and groups of friends all around me and feel like I'm the only one in the world who has decided to travel by myself, I am sometimes reminded of what I might be missing had I shared this experience with a friend or family member.
I remember thinking this exact thought as I sat on top of a hill overlooking the city of Göreme, and watched the sun set on the beautiful mountains the city is known for turning them into various shades of pink, purple and blue. It was a beautiful moment, but one enjoyed alone.
I am reminded of my solitude certainly every time I tire of taking landscape shots and try to insert myself into the photo by clumsily attempting a self-shot with my camera, only to have only my forehead appear in the picture (I'm occasionally saved of such terrible photographs by kind couples who pity me, such as the one taken by a Russian couple posted in this blog).
Eliminating the usual noise from my life, I realize how utter solitude is in itself, when I have no one to share my simplest thoughts with, can indeed be overwhelming.
Safety is always a factor. Having been traumatized in the past, and having my mother's vigilant warnings and her own fears over my head, I am constantly assessing the safety factor of my situation every 10 minutes or so. I find myself asking the questions, "How many other females are in this restaurant, on the street, in this cab?" "How many hours do I have until the sun sets?" "Does this guy believe my story of my fake friend or fake boyfriend who is back at the hotel to avoid suspicion and danger due to my solitary presence?"
This experience is making me come face to face with all the fears and anxieties that I have faced in my life, with no support or cushion of others to fall back on, like I have for most of my life. So far, I've found myself opening myself a bit, attempting new and experiences that I may not have done otherwise traveling in a group (such as horseback riding - who knew I so capable?).
I see myself trusting a little bit more, mainly out of sheer necessity, that not every man is a rapist, mugger or scammer. And indeed, I'm starting to find joy in the simple things, such as getting free entrance into a museum because I was by myself, or waking up every morning deciding how my day will go, with no one to consult, compromise or negotiate with.
Traveling alone is a strange and different experience. Especially as a young female, there are many risks and dangers to be had every step of the way from the moment you last depart your friends or family members. However, I hope by the end of it all I can view this experience as a positive one, and agree that I was both brave and foolish to do it, but better for it.
Jasmeet Sidhu is a graduate of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto and is currently in Turkey for a month. She previously worked for the Star in the radio room last summer, and writes a blog for the Star on climate change, where she covered the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen. In mid-June she will join the Star's summer intern program. Follow Jasmeet on Twitter.