Why I Chose To Visit Turkey Despite Travel Warnings
Fear couldn't stop me from living.
One week after booking my flight to Istanbul, Turkey, the unthinkable happened. Suicide bombers armed with assault rifles led an attack that would end in 42 lives being taken in a myriad of gunfire and explosions, while countless others hid for their lives and prayed for their safety. As I watched the events unfold on CNN, my heart dropped. I was due to go to Istanbul in less than three weeks, one of my closest friends was in Istanbul in the midst of a terror attack, and my ticket was non-refundable.
With many people across the world, I watched the aftermath in awe and in utter shock and despair, finding out later that my friend had barely escaped the airport an hour before the first blast. Thank God for parents with a sense of discernment, because it was only a text from her Dad to come to his office instead of waiting for the arrival of another friend that was the reason she had not still been at the airport. While terror attacks are becoming all too frequent and increasingly bold, this one hit too close to home. If it had not been for my standing 4th of July trip to New Orleans pushing my Turkey excursion back to mid-July, I could have been a casualty in that war of terror.
Amidst the devastation of one of the world’s most secure airports being victim to an atrocity of this magnitude, within 24 hours, with blood stains and shattered glass remaining as remnants of an incident that the world would not soon forget, the airport was back up and running. Eventually, the frantic text from close friends and family bearing warnings about my safety begin to fade, and for a brief moment in time, life returned to normal.
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And then, it happened. On July 15th, 2016, news stations around the world began to broadcast the coup d’etat in Istanbul that would end in the deaths of an estimated 194 people, with over 1100 reported injuries. Again, my heart sank into my stomach, as I once again checked on the safety of my friend and her family, and begin to try and scramble to make alternate travel arrangements.
With a flight scheduled to depart in less than 48 hours, a ticket office closed for the weekend, and a bank that couldn’t issue a refund on a non-refundable ticket due to policy regulations, I was left with the decision: Do I still travel to Istanbul in light of all of the travel warnings, flight detours and cancellations, in the midst of an impending war?
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My thoughts ran rampant, frequently interrupted by calls and texts, this time forbidding my travel. For hours, even after the failed coup attempt had ended and another terror attack replaced it in France, I watched continuous news coverage of a country seemingly in shambles, followed by the public persecutions of those deemed responsible, guilty without trial. My brain said, “You know that the media comes to over sensationalize and instill fear,” but my conscience said, “If you go, how will your family sleep worried about your safety?” As my brain and heart played the game of wits, I waited for my sense of discernment to kick into gear, for that lump in my stomach and dread in my soul to appear and seal my decision….but both remained elusive.
On Sunday, July 17th , I boarded Lufthansa Flight LH 1300 headed to Frankfurt, Germany, without a clear destination in mind. I said my prayers, told my family I loved them, and made peace with my decision to proceed with my travels. This trip had been planned as my last hurrah before summer vacation came to an end, and my celebration trip for a job promotion that had been years in the making. In order to protect my sanity and calm, I decided to tune into the real news coverage, Twitter. Whereas the media continued to run coverage of a nation in peril and airports absent of security, I was able to read numerous tweets of those that were flying safely from Istanbul to their desired destinations. As I stood in line, waiting to board my flight, inquiries about my final destination were met with blank stares and eyes filled with compassion. I never thought I would have to justify my travel decision to a woman headed to of all places, Egypt, a place with a travel warning list more extensive than multiple countries combined.
With the exception of the great food and even better wine, my flight to Frankfurt was nothing more than the norm on the surface. But internally, I was torn, not because I was afraid, but because I knew that back in the States my family and friends were awake and waiting on word of either my decision to stay in Germany or my “safe” arrival in Istanbul. Being a woman of faith, my prayer for the 48 hours leading to my departure had been the same, “Lord, in the midst of chaos, allow my sense of discernment to prevail against all evil. Guide my footsteps and please don’t allow the battle between my mind and heart to lead me astray.”
And 3 hours later, I boarded my flight to Istanbul. When I think about the day that I spent soaking up the rays of the sun on my friend’s family yacht while enjoying sporadic plunges in the warm waters of the Poyrazköy Plajı, the overnight trip to Cappadocia where I was able to cross a hot air balloon ride off my bucket list, right next to a private ATV ride through valleys and fairy chimneys and an overnight stay in a cave hotel, nights of fine dining and Turkish tea, unforgettable conversations with beautifully, diverse people, all in the midst of the the inexplicable feeling of fear that permeated the air knowing that I was only getting to enjoy the calm before the storm, I walked away a renewed woman, a woman with a sense of purpose, a woman with a newfound understanding of the word “free.”
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
While the common consensus amongst my family and friends was for my trip to be relocated to Germany, while on my vacation in Istanbul, Germany too fell victim to 2 terror attacks of their own, both ending in mass casualties. And I realized, the only guarantee in life is that tomorrow isn’t promised. You have to “make the decision” to not live in fear, to really believe that the same God you pray to protect you in the United States will not turn his back on you in another country. I made the decision to LIVE without any regrets.
It would be naive to pretend that the terror attacks occurring all over the world, and increasingly in Europe, should not be a valid concern for travelers. ISIS is real, civil unrest is real, and innocent people are often the casualties. Even if I would have opted to remain in Germany versus continue to Istanbul, there is a chance that I could have fell victim to one of their atrocities as well. However, I’ve made the decision to not let the ways of the world stop my travels.
I don’t regret my decision to visit Istanbul, and I’m looking forward to it becoming a place that I visit repeatedly throughout the course of my lifetime. A place surrounded by beautiful seas, rich in customs and traditions, architecturally designed masterpieces, delicious cuisine to satisfy any palate, and some of the best dressed women I have seen on any of my travels. The fashion scene in Istanbul could give Paris and New York a run for their money on any day. If nothing else, the rapid decline of democratic politics in Turkey should be a lesson to many “free” nations around the world.
Contrary to popular belief, women’s suffrage was achieved in Turkey in the 1930’s, long before many other European nations. And while most Turkish citizens identify themselves as Muslim, it wasn’t until the last few years that the number of women in burqas has increased drastically, even though they are still nowhere near the majority. Yet, many can see the country slowly changing to reflect traditional Muslim views under self proclaimed President Eragon. Let this be a lesson on the importance of voting and the drastic changes that can take place under the rule of an elected official.
For me, travel has been and will always be a fixture of my life. Travel often tests your tenacity, your endurance, your character, your views about life. It teaches you to take nothing for granted. Don’t be afraid to LIVE, just proceed with caution, as you do most other things in life.
Tips for Traveling in Times in Terror
- Rely on more than one news source to find the most up to date information on your travel destination, including but not limited to, state and government websites, social media, airline customer service, etc. I’m sure that I called Lufthansa 45 times in 48 hours scared that I would end up stuck in some third world country without an alternate route back to the States if I decided to proceed with my travel, thanks to the fear instilled by local and national media.
- Purchase tickets that are refundable or invest in travel insurance for pricier tickets. I had to choose between taking an $1100 loss or traveling into the unknown. It helped that I had a friend in Istanbul that was able to give up to date information and that there were several tweets contradicting media coverage, but I would have liked to have had the option of a refund in case I opted to not go.
- Listen to your gut. There’s a reason that we have a sense of discernment.
- Be a smart traveler and not a gullible tourist. Even though Turkish flags and photos bearing Eragon’s face were available on every corner for protesters, I knew to stay out of certain areas and far away from the late night madness and mayhem. It was advised for tourists and residents to stay out of high traffic, popular areas, so I did. I’m all for authentic traveling, but it would have been hard to explain to my family that I got caught up in a bomb while participating at a protest. There were some areas that I was unable to see on this trip, but every city has their hidden jewels that can be just as enjoyable.
- Know your rights and/or lack thereof. From the anti-Eragon journalist I met that couldn’t sleep at night for fear of being arrested and jailed without trial to the Iranian girl that I met in Cappadocia that couldn’t attend college in her home country because she was not Muslim, even though she had one of the highest averages in her school, I learned what it truly meant to have limited rights. While I was in Turkey, a state of emergency was declared, giving military officials the lawful right to search anyone without cause outside of this person is non-Muslim and looks like one of the intellectuals that would challenge government law. A search and seize that usually began and ended with a scroll of the “suspects” Facebook feed for anti-government sentiments and could end in their arrest. When you're in another country, abide by their rules and customs. Extradition is a privilege, regardless of how small your crime may seem, and there’s not a guarantee you will be able to get off with a slap on the wrist. Ask DJ Esco.
“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson