24 June 2013


John and I traveled to Turkey in June. Why Turkey? Basically, we wanted to do a trip sometime in June, and a tour to Turkey sponsored by the CU Roaming Buffs was offered June 4-19. Odysseys Unlimited is the provider of the tour - "Legendary Turkey" - and we were quite impressed with their service on our African Safari. So we read a little about Turkey, thought it sounded interesting, and booked our tour.

Turkey spans East and West. The westernmost tip is in Europe, and the rest of the country is in Asia. Most Turks are Muslim, although the government is secular, and most women do not wear head scarves. Turkey is friendly with the US, a member of NATO, and is in membership negotiations with the European Union. On the east it borders Syria, Iraq, and Iran. This fact made us a little nervous about a visit, but we trust Odysseys, and our tour focuses on the western regions of Turkey.

Turkey also spans past and present. Ancient civilizations roamed and fought and settled across the land mass now called Turkey. Our tour will visit many of the ruins left by different societies over a period of 5000 years. The nation "Turkey" only came into being in 1923, founded by a forward-thinking man: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Turkey is a constitutional democracy, and fiercely proud of it. As we learned on our first day in Istanbul.

Our departure date approached. Then on May 28 protests exploded in Istanbul, sparked by the government's plan to bulldoze trees for new construction in Gezi Park, one of the last remaining public open spaces in Istanbul. In next-door Taksim square, violence erupted when tear gas and water cannons were used against the peaceful demonstrators. Buses and cars were burned. In the next days, things calmed down a bit, the polis pulled back, and the protests were allowed to continue without interference.

June 3 we received a voice mail from Odysseys: they have reviewed the situation and our trip will go on as planned. Good! We figure that Turkey is a big country and the chances of our being in the midst of a demonstration must be small. (Ahem. We should have google-mapped our hotel and the protests.)

June 5 we landed at the Istanbul Airport. We were met by our tour director, Ali, and I was busy trying to connect names with faces of our 19 other tour members as we walked out of the Istanbul airport to our bus. I (finally) learn at this time that our hotel is near the protests. But I am distracted by my first views of Istanbul and don't think about the protests too much. Instead, I look around at the large buildings of modern Istanbul.

Here is the first mosque that we saw:

mosque near airport

This symbol of Islam is juxtaposed with a rather sexy and scantily clothed woman in a billboard ad:

near airport

billboard ad

The drive from the airport to our hotel, Divan Istanbul, is about 15 miles and should take an estimated 45 minutes (in ordinary traffic). This photo was taken on Halaskargazi Cd:

street scene

Note the long, narrow street, the 3 story blocky buildings, the newish cars, the guy pulling a hand cart, the clutter of small stores, the display of vegetables.

street scene

Our travel is slower than predicted. The traffic is particularly bad, we are told the reason is the protests. Finally we near our hotel. This is the scene:


Rushing people, cars strewn across the road and divider, and there - a barricade constructed from junk. It was made by the protesters, I think to stop polis traffic. Here, you can see the barricade a little better:


Our hotel is just ahead. It's the Divan Istanbul, with orange and yellow horizontal patterns. Look at all the people milling along the street. OMG, we are going to be staying right at the doorstep of the protests!

our hotel

Our bus has to maneuver a U-turn just before the barricade. Ali directs us off the bus and gets the hotel valets to put our baggage on a cart. We walk the final block to the hotel.

our hotel

Note the taksi - I love Turk spelling.

We arrive at the Divan Istanbul. Here is the view from the front doors.

the crowd

Taksim Square. Gezi Park. We are there, right in the middle of it. Protestors have set up a mini-city in the park, under the trees. "Occupy Istanbul". The week before tear gas wafted up into the hotel we will be staying in.

Ali negotiates a change in our rooms: we will all be on the ninth floor. Safer. Turns out, the hotel has hardly anyone else in it but our tour group. It's a grand hotel, a luxury hotel, absolutely gorgeous inside. It feels weird staying in such luxury, with Turkish protestors camping across the street. That used to be us. Protesting the Vietnam War. Living as hippies.

We take a quick shower and walk a couple blocks to get some dinner at an indoor/outdoor restaurant. Many of the tour group members join us. We sit there at the outside tables, enjoying meze and kabobs. We discover our local beer: Efes. We try raki.

It's dusk. Streams of people come past, carrying boxes, bags, backpacks. Motorcycles squeeze between the tables and the edge of the sidewalk. The crowds are not rowdy, they are rather serious. (It is not a drunken crowd.) Many carry the red crescent and star flag of Turkey. The average age is young adult, but some are middle aged. Later, Ali told us that many families supported their young adult children by bringing food and supplies each day.


Diktator. This refers to the protester's view that Prime Minister Erdogan is not listening to his people, that he is acting like a dictator, that he is over-riding Turkey's constitution stating it is a democracy, ruled by the people. We are watching democracy in action. Fiercely-proud-of-their-democracy Turks. But will Erdogan listen?

I didn't take my camera to the restaurant, but back at the hotel I shot some photos from the ninth floor. I saw bonfires.


Camps of the protesters:


camps of the protesters

We hear big booms and worry that the polis are back but no, it is only fireworks set off by the demonstrators. As the night deepens, the crowd noises rise.

In the morning it's quiet and only the live-in protesters remain. Some are still sleeping, some have already worked to gather all the trash into bags. And so we begin our first full day in Istanbul, but that is another blog post.

If you are interested, here are links to two news articles published during the early days of the protests:

May 29 and June 5

Next Turkey post


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