Fireworks were exploding over Sultanahmet square in Istanbul, as we strolled back after dinner. It was our last night in Turkey, a country that had thrown quite a few surprises our way, all of them pleasant. The term Turkish delight could be applied to more than the sweets that we were enjoying on a daily basis. From the seaside promenade of Izmir to the ancient wonders of Ephesus, the underground city in Cappadocia to the multi-cultural Istanbul, we had enjoyed our holiday in myriad ways. The good-looking and fashionably dressed Turkish men and women exhibited a vivacity, that was as fascinating as the vast array of sights we had seen.
The evening had begun with a leisurely and somewhat long walk in the direction of the Marmara coast. Strolling through a slightly more rundown and non-touristy part of Istanbul, as evidenced by the overflowing garbage bins and littered streets, we crossed a bridge which took us over the railway tracks reaching the Kennedy Caddesi, a road which follows the coastline. We walked along this road for almost an hour and a half, enjoying the balmy breeze and lovely view. Istanbul natives were enjoying their weekend, the men casting their fishing tackles in the Marmara Sea hoping to get lucky, while women roasted succulent kebabs on a tandoor. The littered park, indigenous hawkers and graffiti-covered walls were reminiscent of our home-city of Mumbai, making us feel us right at home!
Doubling back in the direction of Sultanahmet square, it was growing dark when we decided to stop and have dinner. Over a glass of wine and kebabs, we raised a toast to our holiday. Turkey was definitely a destination to be recommended, we reflected.
It was almost ten o’clock, when we reached the square opposite the Blue Mosque, whose serenely lighted facade was clearly seen in the night. We settled down on a bench to watch the fireworks. We were debating whether the birds we saw in startled flight over the square were seagulls, when a girl of about twenty approached us.
“Umm, can I join you on the bench?” she asked, “Just until I finish my sandwich?” She indicated the wrapped sandwich in her hand.
Although wary of strangers, I scooted over to make place for her next to me on the bench.She munched in silence for a few minutes.
“Hi. I am Laura. I am from Brazil.”She said.
We introduced ourselves and added that we were from India.
Laura beamed at me. “Oh!” She exclaimed. “I have always wanted to see India.”
Pleased to hear this, I said, “It is a vast and beautiful country.”
Laura nodded, “I had planned to visit India this year. But my friends cancelled their holiday at the last minute. I am traveling alone. So, our embassy advised me not to travel to India, because it is unsafe for women.”
We digested this information in silence and some consternation.
It was, indeed, true that female tourists are being dissuaded from traveling to our country. The statistics for rape and assault on females is one of the highest in India. The capital city of India, New Delhi has one of the most horrifying statistics and gruesome cases on record. There were instances when I felt unsafe about traveling alone at night in my own city of Mumbai or using public transport at odd hours. Tourists traveling alone, especially female, run a risk of being harassed, molested or attacked due to the attitude of some Indian men, who view lone women as easy prey.
Laura looked at me, perhaps wondering at my continued silence and lack of spirited refuting of her statement.
She continued, “So I decided to see Turkey, instead of India.”
Indeed, we had felt safe in Turkey, despite traveling in a small group of three. Our walk into an unfashionable part of Istanbul had been an example. In every way, the littered park had reminded us of home except for the attitude towards female tourists Traveling at all hours in Turkey, we had never felt the gaze of men degrade from polite enquiry or friendliness, to one of a lewd nature. We had come across many women traveling alone or in pairs and certainly never heard of any incident that would have alarmed us.
“So, do you think I could travel to India next year?” she persisted.
I shook my head sadly, “No, Laura, you should not be coming to India unless you are with a group of travelers. And then too, you need to be very, very careful.” I sounded like a prophet of doom, I thought to myself, wincing inwardly.
She had finished her sandwich and mercifully, the firework show had reached its completion giving us no reason to linger as well as the perfect excuse to leave.
It was an anti-climatic end to our day. Hoping the darkness concealed my look of embarrassment and shame because I could not wholeheartedly recommend my own country to another tourist, I rose to leave, after a brief farewell.
Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar is a practicing Anaesthesiologist working in Mumbai. She loves conversations, meeting people, reading and listening to Hindi film songs. She writes about anything that moves her.