When I wrote last week's piece, it was before the mysterious disappearance of a female American tourist in İstanbul. As more and more details emerge and speculation grows as to what could have happened to her, it has caused everyone to reflect on better ways to stay safe while going about our daily lives. Despite the disappearance, I still believe that Istanbul is a much safer city than any I lived in while in the US. Last week I discussed some general tips; this week I will focus more on walking and getting around safely on foot.
The worst safety headaches in İstanbul in my experience are the excessive traffic and high petty theft, or pickpocketing. Whichever way I navigate the city, I have to make sure to be alert for any kind of situation, including harassment. I love to discover Istanbul on foot. It keeps me out of traffic, is great exercise and gives me the chance to explore. I usually walk alone. Here are some tips that help me continue to discover the city safely when walking.
First, wear comfortable shoes. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it does help. I usually walk fast, not for safety reasons but for exercise. Inadvertently, this could make me less of a target for harassment or theft. Streets like İstiklal in Taksim and Bağdat on the Asian side are nightmares for me because of how crowded the street is and how slow people walk in these areas. More on what to do in those situations below.
Second, know where you are going by landmarks, not by street names. If you do not know Turkish, write them out on a piece of paper so you can show someone when you ask. Most people do not know common street names in Istanbul, and streets are not clearly marked. Know popular landmarks for your route, so if you get lost you can easily get in a taxi or ask someone for directions comfortably. When I lived in Kadiköy and got lost, I would just ask where the bull statue was (boğa heykeli), or the ferry station (Kadıköy iskelesi). From there I could easily navigate my way home.
Third, explore safely. I love quaint streets and discovering new neighborhoods, even after living here for 10 years. But, I don't go down streets that lack a business or other place that is open. If I ever feel uncomfortable or that I am being followed, I rely on these small shops (called bakkal) to safely duck into. I usually pop in, browse for a bit, buy a water or something and wait until I feel comfortable enough to head back out. What makes me feel uncomfortable? Someone walking behind me and getting too close. In Turkey the idea of personal space is very different than that in America. It's hard for me to re-program to the Turkish way, so I tend to seek exits from situations where I feel uncomfortable but which may not be intended to be that way. By ducking into a store or shop, I let the other person pass me, and am able to assess the situation better. This varies from person to person, which is why I recommend only exploring streets with businesses like pharmacies, shops or grocers that you can easily step into for a few moments to reset if you feel uncomfortable. If you are in a very bad situation and feel you are being followed, report that to the shopkeeper and do not venture back out alone. On one occasion, the shopkeeper called his son who lived upstairs. The kid was only about sixteen, but insisted on walking me the rest of the way to my destination. Whoever was following me stopped, even though the kid was a lot shorter than my pursuer. It was kind of funny, but it worked.
Last but not least, don't hesitate to ask for help. Crowded places are the most dangerous: not just a blow to any exercise regimen, but also a safety hazard. I find that in crowded places where people are walking slowly, it is easier to be pickpocketed or harassed. I am most alert in these areas. If I am alone, I usually walk next to or near a couple, preferably older. I make it seem like I am walking with them, then break off when the crowd thins out or I perceive a threat has passed. I used to have to take the dolmuş (shared taxi) regularly from Taksim to Bakırköy, and it required me to walk past a not-so-great part of Taksim square. I was verbally harassed once, and that was enough for me. From then onwards, I would pause in a nearby shop until I saw a couple my age or older headed in the direction I needed to go. I would ask them if they would allow me to walk with them across the square. No one, in the ten years I have lived in Istanbul, ever refused to let me walk with them. In fact, they all insisted on walking me the rest of the way to the dolmuş stop. Just like the shopkeeper above, when asked, help was immediately forthcoming. I first started doing this when I did not speak Turkish, using English and hand gestures. As my Turkish improved, I was able to better make my request clearer. I use this tactic in many different situations, knowing that for every bad person who might harass me there are 50 or more people who are willing to take a slight detour from their route to help me safely reach mine. This matters a great deal. In Turkey, the main complaint by foreigners is that Turks are very “nosy” and everyone is in everyone else's business. So, I reason, why not turn that to your advantage? It is a small gesture that provides great peace of mind and enables me to navigate the city alone. I learned this trick when I first moved to Istanbul from a Turkish female friend who lives and works here.
These tips have generally worked for me, but are not failsafe. In the district of Sultanahmet 10 years ago, harassment was a nightmare and so frequent I avoided that lovely district like the plague. Over the years, it has become much safer. If you are verbally harassed in Sultanahmet now, which includes men trying any and all tactics to lure you into their shop or hotel, know that it is illegal. You should say to that person you are going to the tourist police to report them and their place of business. They will usually shut up and leave you alone, suddenly realizing that you know the new rules. If the harassment is bad enough, find a policeman and report the incident, or go to the police station located near the Basilica Cistern and report it there (Emniyet Müdürlüğü Turizm Şube Müdürlüğü Yerebatan Cad. No: 6 Sultanahmet -- İstanbul). It is now taken very seriously. To report any problems, you can reach the tourism police from any phone within Turkey by calling 155 or (212) 527 45 03. Finally, after 10 years, I can enjoy Sultanahmet in relative peace. Exploring the city by foot is my favorite way to see İstanbul. It is safe with just a little bit of preparation, alertness and the ability to know when to ask for help if needed.
Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer, and mother living in Istanbul. Reach her at [email protected] for comments or questions.