A week after we returned from Istanbul in June 2016 our son sent a text: “Sure glad you got home OK!” I opened my iPad and there it was: Ataturk Airport had been the object of a horrific attack. It took a few days for the figures to firm up, but it turned out that more than 40 people had been killed and 230 had been injured. The videos showed the taxi line outside of arrivals, the same taxi line we’d stood in with our luggage less than two weeks earlier. Innocent travelers rolling their suitcases, families greeting one another with smiles and hugs, airport workers: all brutally attacked without warning.
So many attacks
We’d been traveling for nearly 7 weeks when we arrived in Istanbul. We’d left at the beginning of May to a quiet chorus of “do you think it’s safe?” from our friends and family. There had been so many attacks, so many innocent people killed by terrorists or deranged people incited by terrorists: Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Egypt, Nigeria, Tunisia, Bangladesh…. Even here: Boston, Fort Hood, San Bernardino. New York, where several close friends lived only a few blocks from Ground Zero.
Really safer at home?
Should we keep on traveling in these times of turmoil, we’d asked ourselves? Was it really safer here, or was that an illusion?
We mulled over the question, but our answer was clear. Even with the risks, even though we are not particularly adventurous people, we were unwilling to huddle in our home because Something Might Happen while we were abroad. So we went ahead with our plans.
Book Your Award found us business class award seats on Turkish Airlines, SFO to Istanbul, Istanbul to Paris, and back to SFO. That meant we could spend a few days in Istanbul, one of our favorite cities, on our way home. Once the airline tickets had been secured, a few hours of searching Home Away landed us a spacious apartment in Paris’s 11th arrondissement for less than $100 a night. We could hardly wait to leave.
Far fewer tourists
Once in Europe, we quickly realized that our willingness to travel in these tumultuous times was atypical. There were far fewer American tourists – tourists from anywhere – than usual in Paris. Few lines at the museums – we walked into both the Pompidou and the Orsay without a wait. Restaurant reservations? No problem.
The biggest crowds we saw were along the streets edging the Seine when the water rose to the bottom of the bridges after weeks of heavy rains. Shopkeepers in the tourist areas were hurting for business. One night we had a memorable meal at a small acclaimed restaurant near our apartment; only a few tables were filled, and when we ran into the chef on the street the next day, he said sadly that it had been like that all season.
But it was far worse in Istanbul. There was an eerie emptiness in Sultanahmet, where most of the tourists stay. Only a handful of tour groups. No lines at the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the museums – anywhere. Taxi drivers stood around smoking, waiting for customers who seldom came. Restaurants were filled only for an hour or so after sunset, when observant Muslim families broke their Ramadan fast. Shops and vendors’ booths were essentially empty. A tour guide who took us over to the Asian side for an afternoon said that business had just about dried up and he was looking for other work. All those people who depended on tourists for a living were obviously hurting, and hurting badly.
We heard about it first-hand from a friend who had recently opened a gallery, cafe, designer clothing store, and antiques shop on a lovely street in Beyoglu. “I don’t know how I’ll be able to keep everything open,” she said. An entrepreneur who has run several successful businesses, she seemed unsure about her future, and not only about the new ventures. Over a long Turkish breakfast, she and her husband explained quietly that Turkey was changing in ways they had been unable to imagine, growing up as they had in a democratic, secular, tolerant country. None of us knew then what was to come: that in only a few months, an attempted coup would throw the society into turmoil and only accelerate the changes.
Sad, but not scared
We felt terribly sad for all the people whose lives were being disrupted, or taken, by the terrorists who were throwing the world we knew into turmoil. But for the whole of our trip, we never felt frightened for ourselves.
Sure, we were more attentive than usual; I found myself covertly eyeing people on the streets, buses and metros, alert for any unusual or threatening behavior. I remember being very aware of a tall man who stood alone near the door of a metro train, reading a small Koran. Of course, that’s all he was doing – reading the Koran while he was waiting for his stop. But we keep our antennae up in any city. We actually expect more bad things to happen in New York or San Francisco than when we’re traveling abroad.
Still, the attack on Ataturk Airport, with Nice on its heels, touched a nerve. We could have been among the travelers, porters, and drivers when those gunmen exploded out of the taxi. If it hadn’t been for the strikes in France, we would have taken a quick trip to southern France before leaving Paris, so we could easily imagine ourselves on that broad boulevard in Nice when the truck mowed down the crowd. Had we traveled a few months earlier, we might have been at the Cambodian restaurant or the Bataclan Concert Hall a few blocks from our Paris apartment when the attackers opened fire. “What if?” We could not help thinking. “What if?
But fear won’t keep us safe
Our trip went smoothly and we had a wonderful time. But as attacks continue, the question becomes, “Should we stop traveling overseas? Stop traveling altogether?” Our children probably wish we would. But after the initial shock of the airport attack, reality took hold. Yes, we live in tumultuous, uncertain times. But living in fear will do nothing to keep us from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that wrong place and time can be anywhere in the world, even here. The travel blogger Peter Greenberg puts it clearly: “When you let fear motivate your travel choices, you lose.” We agree. Acting on fear is the best way to let the bad guys win, and that we refuse to do.
Peter Greenberg has an excellent post explaining how he decides where and where not in the world to go.
Also see the U.S. Government’s list of travel alerts and warnings so you’ll be fully informed when you plan a trip.
Do you hesitate to travel in an increasingly uncertain world? Why or why not?