Two years ago I was about to take on a senior executive role at work and didn’t have time to grow into a new comfort zone, so I did the scariest thing I could think of: I went alone to an Islamic country. I figured if I could survive that, the new job would be a breeze. It was on that first trip to Istanbul that I learned one of the most important lessons of my life.
What made Istanbul so uncomfortable? Why was being alone here different than being in Denver or Detroit? Was it all in my head? Maybe some of it was, but not all of it. Although Turkey is a secular country, it has been moving more and more toward Islamic conservativism over the past decade. Under current leadership more than 17,000 mosques have been built in the past ten years. About half the women cover their heads, and about a third also wear long dresses and long sleeves, leaving very little skin visible. They are dark haired, dark eyed and dark skinned. I, on the other hand, am fair-skinned with green/blue eyes and bright red hair. To say I stood out is an understatement.
On top of that, Turkish people check each other out. It’s just what they do. To the point that Americans feel stared at. Uncomfortably. Especially when someone stands out as much as I did. Especially when that someone is a woman walking on her own.
So there I was, trying to find my hotel. On foot. Alone. After midnight, in deserted alleyways, with neither GPS signal nor map to guide me, and hopelessly lost. I had made the mistake of watching Taken 2 on the plane, which is set in Istanbul, and I was keenly aware that Liam Neeson was not waiting in the shadows to open a can of whup-ass on my imaginary kidnappers and gang-rapists. The voice in my head (my mother’s, as usual) had me so convinced of my danger that I found myself tip-toeing so that I wouldn’t alert these kidnappers and rapists to my existence on their street. Picture that: me sticking to the shadows, tip-toeing slowly through alleyways, peeking around corners to decide which direction to take, and then scurrying across the street into the safety of the shadows. I probably looked hilarious. Or ludicrous. Or like a criminal.
And that’s when I realized how ridiculous I was being. Yes, there was a chance that the Boogeyman could be lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce on poor little unsuspecting me. But this was not a Hollywood movie and I was not being deliberately targeted as a potential victim, so what was I really afraid of? Istanbul has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, and virtually no violent crime. It was absurd for me to devote all of my energy to avoiding something with such infinitesimally low odds. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that from early childhood, girls are programmed to protect ourselves from victimhood, to the point where we often don’t realize we shape entire experiences – or lack thereof – around protecting ourselves. Think about it, ladies. How many times have you read a travel story and wanted to visit a place, but stopped yourself because you perceived it to be too dangerous? And that was my ultimate lesson that night: When I peeled back the onion and processed through all of my feelings, I discovered that I wasn’t actually afraid, because there really wasn’t any danger present to be feared. What I really felt was uncomfortable, and by cloaking it in danger I was missing the whole point of the experience: I took this trip to build a new comfort zone, which meant that I had to allow myself to be uncomfortable. And if I was feeling uncomfortable, it meant I was exactly where I was supposed to be.