Travel and Terrorism
Spring Break 2016
We had a very interesting spring break. We had our trip to Turkey planned since October. The kids had been learning about the places we were going to visit and all our accommodations, tours and plane tickets were set. Then in January there was the first suicide bombing in Istanbul…
We started watching the news closely and then in February Ankara was hit. Our friends and family began to question- for obvious reasons- our decision to go to Turkey. Then on March 13th, a week before our scheduled departure, Ankara was hit again. It was time for us to decide whether to cancel our trip or go.
I sat down at my computer for 3 days reading anything I could find on CNN, BBC and a myriad of local European and Turkish online sources that I had never heard of before. I reached out on Twitter for reports from people on the ground, my husband contacted colleagues who live in Istanbul, and I posted my question “to go or not to go” on Tripadvisor forums and on my Facebook page.
Many of the folks who replied to my questions were of the “terrorism will strike anywhere, the chances that you get hit are less than walking out of your house and getting hit by a car” kind. And while I usually agree with this principle, I also think in this situation and at this point in time it is naïve and blasé. Turkey has a specific threat against it and multiple attacks have happened, with the promise of more to come.
Others replied with advice on postponing our trip, which is, of course, easier said than done. The most helpful advice, however, came from those on the ground. The message there was: it is a tense situation, but we are living our lives and going about it smartly.
In the end, we decided to go.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
We landed in Istanbul's Ataturk airport on Saturday March 19th to the news that our driver was running late because there had been a suicide bombing- 15 minutes walking distance from the apartment we had rented.
As we waited for him to arrive, on a cold and rainy afternoon that did not help the mood, I looked around at my kids. One was concerned and the other two were somber but still very happy to be there.
At the apartment, which is a stone's throw away from the Galata Tower, we met with the manager who, like everybody else in Istanbul, was in a state of disbelief. It was shocking to see this area of town deserted on a Saturday night. Normally the restaurants and bars are brimming with people, the streets are crowded and there is music everywhere. That night there was not a soul about. Still we walked over to the tower and ate at Galata Kiva. We were the only ones there. The food was great, but the people were even better! The manager and the wait staff were friendly, warm and very appreciative. They were eager to show us some real Turkish cuisine and treated us to all kinds of appetizers and drinks. This set the tone for our trip. Not the bombing, not the news about the imminent terror attacks, not the fear, it was the people.
No lines at the Blue Mosque on Sunday March 20th
Grand Bazaar area, March 22nd, everyone is back in business
We have never felt more welcome than in Turkey. People went out of their way to help us and to make us feel safe and at home. They appreciated that we had come, that we had not canceled our vacation. On Sunday we had an amazing guide named Ayk. He took us to Sultanahmet and we did the major tourist sites. There were no lines at all and police, armed to the teeth, were everywhere. The city was pretty empty, but as the days wore on everything began to go back to normal. By Tuesday things felt normal again. Istanbul was back on its feet, the hustle and bustle of millions of people on the go filled the air.
Wherever we went we met people very eager to show us that ISIS is not Islam. They also feel threatened by ISIS and misunderstood by the world. My kids were taken aback by how nice everyone was to us: The guy at the tram stop who offered to pay for us because there was not time to refill our tram card; the restaurant owner who picked us up and dropped us off in his car so we didn't have to walk to his restaurant in the cold wind; the bazaar guy who took us downstairs for tea, coffee and Turkish delight- and these to name a few.
Turkish Delight, Grand Baazar
Every night that week we came home to messages from worried family and friends. Things from afar sound so much scarier than they really are. On the ground there is always a sense of normalcy since people have to go about their lives. Access to social media was censored so some of my friends sent me news stories via text. This kept us informed and helped us make decisions. For example, on the 21st we left the city on a day tour because of the high probability of demonstrations and unrest due to the Persian New Year. We also did not visit Taksim Sq and stayed away from the German school and consulate area. I felt that we managed our risk appropriately and got to enjoy everything we had planned to see.
Would I do it again? Yes. I learned that you need to make decisions based on travel advisories, input from people on the ground, social media and the news. Keep informed and weigh this against your own level of risk tolerance. Travel only if you know your enjoyment will outweigh your worry.
It is unfortunate that the situation seems to be escalating. This is an area rich in history and culture that I would love to explore further. We loved it there, the people are warm, friendly and helpful, they deserve much better than this.
Golden Horn in the evening. Galata Bridge on the right.
For more pictures of Istanbul check out my Flickr Gallery: https://flic.kr/s/aHsk3bughs