Sunday, July 26, 2015

Off the beaten track drinking Evian: Or Bodrum (Part I)

I have friends who have trekked through beautiful Vietnamese and Tibetan countrysides meeting monks, and having to do their toilet out in the open behind trees. A girlfriend who was adopted by an Iban family in North Borneo in a ritual that involved being marked by chicken blood and drinking copious amounts of Tuak (rice wine) and chewing paan. Another friend, a journalist, seeks out exotic dishes that most people would avoid like the plague - things like rotten picked fish or Mopane worms, and a variety of other disgusting sounding things which are the culinary equivalent of playing Russian roulette with one's digestive system. Or friends who have travelled extensively around Africa, having close encounters with wild life and sleeping in the backs of trucks or in tents.

I listen to all of these stories wide eyed and as someone who writes, with great admiration and some longing. But in truth, I am not a brave adventurous travelling sort of person. I enjoy foreign travel, and I've been to some incredible places all over the world, but always, at the end of the day, I put my head down on a soft pillow and have access to my own bathroom and room service. Although as with any travel, or with life itself, there are always things that happen that one does not plan for: the earthquake in Japan while on the thirty third floor of a hotel, for example. Being surrounded and sniffed at (while in an open top jeep) by a breeding herd of elephants in Southern Africa. Narrowly avoiding drowning while snorkelling during a squall in the Maldives. Waiting nervously in a taxi while outside of the car our driver engaged in a fist fight with a man in Naples. Or encountering truly life threatening driving and taxi drivers in various cities around the world. But none of these things are experiences I have actively sought out in terms a 'Well that sounds like something I'd like to do' kind of thing.

I like to think of myself as a traveller, as opposed to what I really am which is someone who likes to experience new things but in a fairly safe and sanitised manner. I see a lot of myself in David Suchet's portrayal of Hercule Poirot - doing my bit to learn some of the local language and customs  - just enough to be a congenial and respectful guest in whichever country I am visiting. But maintaining my personal idiosyncrasies and desire for cleanliness, comfort, dressing up for dinner, and having an elegant drink with a great view at the end of the day.

Our most recent travels took us to Bodrum in Turkey. We were due to travel just a week after the tragic shooting of so many British people on a beach in Tunisia, and I would be lying if I said I wasn't concerned given what we were told in the press about Turkey being a thoroughfare for people with intentions of joining extremist groups in Syria.

Before going I spoke to a Turkish mum from my son's school over coffee. You know in that way you do when you choose one individual and assign them the job of being the expert and mouthpiece for the entire political and cultural situation of the country they hail from and quite possibly haven't actually lived in for many years. As a South African I am used to this.
Me: So what's the situation over there?
Her: What, you mean Turkey, or Bodrum?
Me: Bodrum, but we were thinking of visiting Istanbul too
Her: Oh I wouldn't go to Istanbul if I was you
Me (tensing up and leaning in): You mean, it's not safe?
Her: Yes, the sun, the heat, this time of the year - it's appalling. You are better off just sticking to Bodrum and being close to the pool.
Me (lowering my voice and with a conspiratorial tone): So I should avoid touristy public places?
Her: Oh yes, visiting touristy places in that kind of heat is terrible - especially for the children.

No matter how hard I tried to steer the conversation, albeit delicately and indirectly, to my concerns of terrorism, this woman's only concern was for my family and I avoiding getting heat stroke, sunburn, and blisters. Any kind of violence levelled towards tourists simply wasn't at the forefront of her mind.

Evidently this kind of practical and sound assurance was insufficient, and so I decide to do some serious factual research on the matter and asked my friends on Facebook what they thought. The reactions were mixed: A few people thought it was a bad idea. One friend has a husband in the US military and IM'd me that she didn't think I should go. I wondered if she was privy to some sort of secret military information and even though I failed to get anything more than her opinion that it was a bad idea, I convinced myself that she was right. Some friends pointed out the obvious massive distance between where we were going and Turkey's neighbouring Syria, and said terrorism was unlikely to be an issue. Looking at a map, Turkey is indeed vast. So I thought, yes they are right, we should go. Someone else pointed out that there are suicide bombings in Turkey from time to time executed by domestic extremists, especially in touristy areas, and I thought, yes they are right, we shouldn't go.

Then I googled Bodrum, and came across a
Daily Mail article of Kate Moss's recent trip there (you know where she got into a spot of trouble on her EasyJet flight for getting a bit over enthusiastic - after returning from the detox place in Bodrum?). I have a loathing of the Daily Mail, but this time round I thought: You see, Kate Moss went to Turkey, and it's in the Daily Mail - a publication that loves terrorising people with it's knee-jerk fear-inspiring bad journalism, and they are saying how fantastic it is - so it can't be all that bad can it?

FB and The Daily Mail were proving far too confusing with all these mixed opinions, so I looked up the the UK Government travel advice regarding Turkey, and this is what it says:

Demonstrations regularly take place across Turkey, particularly in Istanbul in the area around Taksim Square and in Kadikoy (Asian side), in the Kizilay district of central Ankara and on the waterfront area in central Izmir. Demonstrations often coincide with important national anniversaries and there are likely to be additional security measures in place in major cities on these dates. Police have used tear gas and water cannon extensively to disperse protests. You should avoid all demonstrations.Demonstrations are expected on Sunday 26 July across Istanbul including in Okmeydani, Taksim, Istiklal Caddesi, Tunel, Tarlabasi, Sisli, Besiktas, Gazimahallesi, Esenyurt, Bagcilar, on the European side and Kadikoy, Sarigazi and Yenidogan on the Asian side. There may also be demonstrations in other cities across Turkey. Police have used tear gas and water cannon extensively to disperse protests. You should avoid all demonstrations and leave the area if one develops.
There is a high threat from terrorism in Turkey and there are active terrorist groups throughout the country. These include domestic religious extremist and ideological groups, and international groups involved in the conflict in Syria. Attacks could be indiscriminate and could affect places visited by foreigners.The terrorist group DHKP-C (Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party Front) has launched a series of attacks in Istanbul in 2015 targeting the Turkish police and judiciary. On 5 June, two people were killed and many injured by an explosion at an HDP rally in Diyarbakir. On 9 June, 4 people were killed in an attack in Diyarbakir. You should exercise caution.Border crossings into Syria and nearby locations have also been targeted. On 20 July, a suicide bomber killed at least 28 people and injured over 100 others in Suruc, Sanlurfa. See Terrorism and the FCO’s travel advice for Syria
Many parts of Turkey are subject to earthquakes. An earthquake of magnitude 6.5 occurred on 24 May 2014 in the Sea of Marmara. See Natural disasters

So for someone who is travelling with small children all of my red lights were now flashing: Demonstrations, Terrorism and Earthquakes. Not again with the bloody earthquakes. The one in Japan was enough, and the 'high threat of terrorism in Turkey' was sufficient to convince me it was actually a really really bad idea. Plus my sister had WhatsApped me just that morning telling me that Sky News had said Turkey was a high risk country and they were expecting more problems.

By this point we were due to travel the following morning, I was in a flat panic, and I was running out of time to make a call on whether or not we were going. I say I was running out of time, because my husband had no doubts at all. There he was was whistling away, printing out our EasyJet passes and packing his socks, and evidently quite looking forward to our holiday with absolutely no concerns at all. While it can infuriate me sometimes, I inwardly envy the fact that he is so rational and unmoved by scare mongering and general panic and nonsense, the way that I am.

As a final bid for some reassurance, I emailed the hotel.

Me: To whom it may concern;

My family and I are due to travel to your hotel tomorrow for a 12 night stay. There appears to be a high level of warnings regarding the safety of visiting Turkey right now in terms of terrorists targeting British and American tourists. As you can imagine, this is of great concern to us especially as we are travelling with our children.

Can you please shed some light on whether or not this is something that is of a realistic concern in Bodrum and what if any security measures your hotel takes to keep its guests safe in the event of risks of this kind.

Many thanks
The hotel responded with:  
First of all, we would like to thank you for your e-mail. We do understand and respect all your concerns about the warnings especially as a mother. However, we would like to inform you that our hotel has 24 hours high level of security controls.
All our Hotel Managers and Colleagues are always an alert for any kind of threats because the safety of our guests is the first priority. Also, we want to assure you that our management has not received any warnings from the Government regarding a terrorist attacks for tourists in Bodrum or in other cities. Unfortunately knowing that these kinds of terror attacks can happen anywhere in the world makes us really upset as human and we do hope it will end soon to have a peaceful life for our children. Should you have any further assistance, please feel free to contact.  Kind regards

I felt heard, my concerns were not waved away as pure paranoia, but I think mostly it was the last bit about how terrorism could happen anywhere in the world that finally put things into perspective for me . Of course it could - how could we we forget the bombs that had torn through the public transport system in London ten years ago? Or 9/11 in the USA, or the killings of the journalists and staff at Charlie Hebdo in Paris? Or the lunatic that took hostages in the chocolate shop in Australia? So many of these terrible things perpetuated in places one wouldn't ordinarily associate with such acts of terror by people with a form of mental illness or a criminal history who had chosen to align their actions with the Muslim faith. 

It's just that when you have children, everything changes and your happy go lucky devil-may-care adventurous approach to travel becomes outranked by your primary concern of keeping them safe. "Calm the fuck down." I told myself in that way I do when I have frank internal conversations with myself and one of my voices has to be the tough rational one. 
You cannot live your life fearing the worst. Bad stuff can happen anywhere, and sometimes it does. But are you going to lead your life being afraid to leave the house because of what might happen? Are you going to stop having incredible experiences and showing your children the world on account of a very vague possibility? In my experiences of travelling almost everyone had always been welcoming, and maybe my husband was right, maybe the thing we really needed to fear was being in a road accident, which statistically is the thing most likely to kill you when travelling. And given, unlike my aforementioned friend I am not someone who takes my life into my hands every time I have a forkful, chances are it would all be fine.

And so, not without trepidation, we went on our holiday to Bodrum in Turkey.

Continue reading Bodrum (Part II) here.

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