Coming off a wonderful and (fairly) issue-free three months in South America, we were super excited to start the European leg of our worldwide trip in Istanbul, Turkey. While South America was a blast, countries seem to have more familiarities than differences, so we looked forward to the culture shock we love and seek out. For us, the beauty of traveling is the sensory overload. New sights, smells, sounds, tastes, etc. While it sometimes puts you on edge as you’re figuratively walking blind through a foreign place, it also makes you feel alive. It pushes us to learn, grow, adapt and experience. For us, this what it is all about. It’s about how we can better ourselves intellectually and emotionally so we can bring more to our relationship and relationships with others.
So when we arrived in Istanbul (even after 30+ hours of travel) we were on cloud nine. I think Katie might have skipped off the plane. Then our first hiccup. Our bags decided to ditch us and spend the night in Madrid. This was the first time we had a bag not make it to a destination and ironically, it was both of them. Many times we trade some clothes before a flight so if one bag doesn’t make it, we each still have clothes but this time we were both high and dry. Crappy part is the airline we flew, Pegasus, has only one flight a day between Madrid and Istanbul so our bags wouldn’t make it until at least 24 hours (at the earliest). Fast forward, it took them 36 hours to deliver them so we were in the same clothes for 30 hours of travel plus another day and a half i.e. we were the smelly kids for sure.
When we lost the bags we thought it would be the low point in Istanbul, but we were severely mistaken. What we didn’t realize is while we were at the Sabiha Gokcen international airport, Istanbul’s other international airport, Ataturk, was being attacked by three suicide bombers. We first heard of the attack while in the airport shuttle as the driver heard over the radio that a bomb went off at Ataturk but no additional details were given. Over the next couple days we learned it was actually three different explosions (one in arrivals, one in departures and the other in the car park). The devastating attacks resulted in 40 dead and more than 240 wounded.
Now this hit way too close to home for many reasons. First, we have never been so close to a terrorist attack. Second and probably the scariest, we actually tried extremely hard to fly into that airport. Ataturk is a quick 15-minute drive from our hotel whereas where we flew into is almost an hour drive. The only reason we ended up at that airport is the lower price of airfare there. Finally, we had no clue if the attacks were over and this is what the attackers specialize in, fear. Fear is their true weapon, not the actual bombs. 40 might be dead but millions now are paralyzed in fear. Millions more will choose to avoid Turkey which will cause billions of dollars in economic loss. The attack is the spark that lights the real terrorism fire.
Over the next couple of days, we almost felt like we were on house arrest in our hotel/neighborhood. Our hotel was right in the center of the most touristy area as it was walking distance from all the major sites. We could even see them from our rooftop terrace. The problem was, our hotel staff and even local restaurant owners we met told us to avoid the tourist places due to another possible attack. They told us they don’t allow their families to go there anymore and we stand out clearly as foreigners. This was devastating as the city is one of the most beautiful we have ever seen but we had to view it from afar. Part of me wanted to push through and go see places anyways to not let those bastards make me scared to live our lives, but the more logical part of me understood the risk clearly outweighed the benefits. Especially when the streets were all but empty of tourists. While normally there are close to 10,000 walking the streets in our neighborhood we saw less than 25 foreigners in the couple days we were there. Sure, we would have gotten great pictures and experiences but none of them would be worth the possibility of one of us being hurt or god forbid killed in a secondary attack.
Not to waste our time in the city, we did our best to enjoy the couple blocks around our hotel. We had wonderful meals and conversations with locals, enjoyed the world-renowned Turkish hospitality and took time to internalize all that was happening around us. It gave us a better perspective on what so many in the world deal with on a daily basis. In addition, we took a couple of hours to go buy an authentic Turkish rug. It involved looking at countless rugs, deciding on the regional style we liked, figuring out the size, texture, coloring, etc. They provided us with Turkish coffee and local beers too while enjoying the process. Overall, it was a really fun experience and we got a hell of an awesome rug to show for it being shipped back home.
Some people asked if we knew there was a travel advisory for Turkey so I want to touch on that. Yes, we read it. What many people don’t realize is the US government issues travel advisories and safety guidelines for numerous places around the world. We have learned from our travels that for the most part, you have to take them with a serious grain of salt. This is also why we usually read the advisories of other governments like the UK or Australia. US advisories tend to be a bit more dramatic and really paint the rest of the world a lot more harshly when ironically areas in the states are just as bad if not considerably worse than many places abroad. For example, when we traveled to Chilé the safety warning at the time started with words like “kidnapping, rape, violence, and death” and finished by saying that 13 Americans have been killed since 2009. I thought it was a bit ironic as Chicago alone has had 150+ homicides this year but you don’t see warnings up when you go to take a selfie with their iconic “bean”.
So we did our research and while Turkey had some issues most of it focused around attacks between the government and rebels (not tourist focused). Due to this we decided to still go but be cautious and only spend a few days in Istanbul and then the majority of our time in the country city of Cappadocia where there has never been any violence. This would allow us to see the country without taking on too much unnecessary risk. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out as expected. Also by the time of posting this blog there has also been a failed coup and another terrorist attack on a wedding just days ago. We wouldn’t even think of setting foot in Turkey now but obviously hindsight is 20/20 and we are still glad we got to see the country if even just a glimpse. People say travel is always worth “it” but to us “it” still has its limits.