Instincts And Safety Tips: Regarding Sarai Sierra’s Death In Turkey
I have been sitting by the past week listening to the news reports and the comments being made about the horrific murder of Sarai Sierra while she was visiting Istanbul on a solo journey. There have been numerous comments made demonizing her for making the decision to take such a journey alone and demonizing her husband for allowing it. What a way to blame the victim.
I spent 27 months traveling to 31 countries alone. I am a female solo traveler. I used only my instinct and a map to get me through most of these new cities and countries I explored. While during the large majority of my travel I felt welcomed and safe, there were many times I had uncertainties and fear. In the early stages of my travels, whenever I would arrive at a new destination, I would become nervous. Stepping off of a train at night in a foreign country to a new platform of streets and foreign language always gave me anxiety. I soon learned to make sure not to book my arrivals at night if I could avoid it after meeting with a vagrant in a Berlin subway that showed an aggressive fascination with me on the awaiting platform. My instincts kicked in and I positioned myself next to two men without them knowing why I was near. I sat closely next to them until the train arrived. The vagrant followed me to the train, hesitated to board once the doors began to close, but persisted in his harassment and focus on me.
There have been moments where the language barrier formed an improper translation like when a grounds worker in Pompeii, Italy invited me to access the ruins without having to pay and then giving me a mini tour of parts of the ruins that were deemed ‘No Access’. When he leaned in to give me a kiss, I startled, became nervous and found my way back to the exit. He reassured me he wasn’t leaning in for an intimate kiss, but more of a friend’s greeting as they do in Europe. An example of culture differences that can be mistranslated.
I spent two weeks in Istanbul, Turkey in November of 2011. I walked the city streets alone every day and sometimes into the evening hours after dark. I walked by the Blue Mosque each evening on my way back to my hotel located in the old city. The Blue Mosque is very close to where Sarai Seirra’s body was found by the walls of the Topkapi Palace and only a few blocks from where my hotel was. I am very familiar with that area. When walking past the Blue Mosque each night, I did notice that I received more attention from men in this area trying to talk to me than in any other area of the city, but as my instincts dictated, I never replied back to the men in their comments, never gave eye contact and walked briskly further along either trying to walk near others in a group or near to where the most brightly lit areas were. I remember having an uneasy feeling on those nights walking through that area.
I have had many instances where I have been nervous about my surroundings and cautious of my whereabouts, but each time my instincts kicked in and I listened to my gut to pull me in the direction of safety. In all of my travels and all of the moments I experienced these instincts, none was scarier than on one night taking the subway from Manhattan to an area near JFK airport. My hotel was near the airport and I, being the brave world traveler, decided to take the subway for the first time to this area late at night. I was dressed up, with a full face of make up and had yet to learn my way around. I noticed a young Hispanic man on the subway trying to get my attention. I ignored his attempts at eye contact, became nervous and mistakenly exited the subway one stop too soon leaving me vulnerable in a secluded area nowhere near to where I needed to be. It was after midnight and taxis were void. The man saw me exit and followed me out the door making efforts to get my attention. When I continued to ignore him, he became upset calling out to me, “Hey, so you think you’re too good for me, huh? You don’t talk me to me cuz you think you’re better than me?” I continued to ignore him and walked briskly ahead trying to act like I knew where I was going when in reality I didn’t. I saw a closed pizza shop ahead and assertively knocked on the door until the after hour workers graciously let me in still with the man following behind. I quickly closed the door and asked the men in the pizza shop if I could stay there for just a minute until I was sure the man was gone. I stayed until I found a taxi.
For the most part traveling around the world, I have come across genuinely good people. There were men, even in Istanbul, that went out of their way to help me with directions and other requests. Through my experiences, I have come to the conclusion that the large majority of people are helpful and just want to live their lives, feed their families and enjoy what we all wish to enjoy; love, happiness and freedom. Crime is in every city and in every city there are people who will target women to commit crimes. What happened to Sarai Sierra could have happened anywhere. It is unfortunate that while on a solo journey which was reported to be her first journey outside of the US, she was a target of such crime.
It is more of a shame that the people commenting on this story and the reports that are focused on her decision to go it alone insinuate that her decision is to blame for her being victimized. I don’t doubt that this wife and mother of two had instincts. As a woman, I know how innately strong those instincts can be. I don’t doubt she was intelligent. What I doubt is the knowledge of the people who comment so ignorantly on a brutal crime they don’t know the details of or the scenario in which it happened.
There are many sad elements to this story, but none sadder than a victim being blamed for her decision to take a life course she felt compelled to take. I applaud her for her bravery, her zest of life and her curiosity to educate herself and experience all of the freedoms she had been blessed to enjoy. I have made many mistakes on my journey that I have learned from. Some of the examples above could have easily guided me into dangerous situations, but I would never allow the fear of the unknown or the fear of what ‘might’ happen prevent me from living my life, following my heart and taking me on more solo journeys.
My prayers go out to her family and I encourage them to praise her for her courage, her need of independence and hunger for adventure and not allow blame or regret to load them with guilt.
Some tips I have gathered for the female solo traveler:
1) Always arrive to a new destination during the daylight
2) Always make sure you have the new currency of the destination before you arrive
3) Have a map or a clear understanding of the area you are arriving to and staying in before arriving
4) Always carry a map of the area. Study it before you leave your hotel and ask the hotel what area you should avoid in the city
5) I try to always book rooms with a refrigerator and have a stock of food available so I do not have to leave my room at night if I get hungry. Try to eat the biggest meals during daylight hours and snack in your room at night.
6) Never let on to anyone, if they ask, that you are traveling alone. You should always make it seem that you are on your way to meet someone or ‘your husband’. Wearing a mock wedding ring can help the single girls with unwanted attention.
7) Be mindful of the customs of each culture you will be visiting and especially the dress code that is considered normal for women. Always pack a scarf in the event you need to cover up your shoulders and sometimes even your head to fit in.
8) Only pack what you can comfortably carry. Luggage can weigh you down in vulnerable scenarios leaving you reliant on strangers to help.
9) Get to know and listen to your instincts. They are your best defense and barometer in warning you of potential danger. Don’t ever second guess them. If your instincts are telling you it may not be safe, listen to them and go directly to a safe area.
10) Keep your valuables to a minimum when walking through the cities and do not wear flashy jewelry. Do not bring electronics and use them in public. I always use a cross shoulder bag to carry my phone, small amounts of currency, ID and a map. I can tie a scarf around its strap for use if needed. If I choose to bring my camera, I keep it around my neck and can camouflage it with the scarf or a jacket. Get rid of the large shoulder bags and allow for both hands to be free.
11) Always be flexible. If something doesn’t feel right, change your plans and plan accordingly
12) Do not wear a lot of makeup, if any at all. Try to be as unassuming as possible and do not draw attention to yourself in any way.