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American's Death in Turkey Puts Spotlight on Solo Travel

8:35 AM, Feb 4, 2013   |    comments
Sarai Sierra is shown in an undated family photo, in New York. The New York City woman who went missing while vacationing alone in Istanbul was found dead on Saturday and police detained nine people for questioning in connection with her case, Turkey's state-run news agency said. (Photo: AP via USA Today)
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Laura Bly, USA Today

From a whirlwind around-the-world jaunt spanning eight countries in eight days to a cross-cultural immersion in a Libyan bathhouse, most of my adventures over a three-decade career as a professional travel writer have been on my own.

So I was saddened when I heard that Sarai Sierra, a 33-year-old American on her first vacation outside the USA, had been found dead in Istanbul, Turkey - and shocked when I read the subsequent reactions condemning journeys by solo women as naive, misguided or both.

The circumstances surrounding the budding photographer's death, including reports that she met a Turkish man with whom she'd been chatting online for months, remain murky.

But these facts are clear: Millions of solo women, American and otherwise, travel happily and safely around the globe - including Turkey, where tourism is a significant and growing part of the national economy and, notes the Associated Press, "such disappearances by foreign visitors are rare."

"Most female visitors find Turks-both men and women-extremely welcoming, accommodating and helpful, and enjoy their trips immensely, (as long as they) conform to local customs and attitudes and take normal, common-sense precautions," writes Tom Brosnahan, founder of the popular travel site TurkeyTravelPlanner.com.

I've found that much of Brosnahan's advice directed to solo women travelers applies in other Mediterranean countries as well, from doing things with fellow travelers or local women when possible to dressing neatly and conservatively and adapting a more reserved demeanor.

"Many Western women smile readily, at anyone. It's looked upon as good manners. Turkish women, who act more formal, don't usually smile at an unfamiliar man until they feel assured that the smile won't be misinterpreted as a come-on," he writes. "So if you smile at a Turkish man just to be pleasant, he might interpret it to mean that you're interested in being even more friendly. The problem, then, is that the cultural signals passed between men and women, and the expectations, might be quite different, and not what is intended."

Along with doing pre-trip cultural research and wearing unobtrusive, conservative clothing. there are plenty of other safeguards solo women can take. I've followed many of them over the years, from arriving in a strange city during daylight hours to avoiding ground floor hotel rooms and room service doorknob cards that alert passers-by I'm alone in the room. (I frequently choose bed and breakfast inns or homestays when I'm traveling alone, because the hosts are a ready-made source of local advice and, often, company.)

But as longtime solo traveler and Journeywoman.com founder Evelyn Hannon notes, "loneliness is nothing to fear. Issues become a lot clearer when there are no other distractions. Eventually one feels renewed and then there is a real need to reach out and make contact with others - another traveler, a shopkeeper, an official, perhaps a mother walking her baby in the park. The result? I've heard countless wonderful stories and have had a myriad of lovely adventures to match. All because I am a woman who refuses to be timid and who has learned, by trial and error, the benefits of solo travel."


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