Here’s how the people of Turkey helped me to “widen my world” in the most literal sense

“I loved the hills and all of the reddish-orange roofs… the small winding streets. I loved seeing how similar life is over there yet also so different. But, it was really just the people like you, and the pure kindness and willingness to take care of someone you didn’t even know. And… just the history and the culture. I love it so much.”

I struggled to come up with the first word, much less the first sentence or even the first paragraph I wanted to write about my time in Istanbul. Then I remembered a conversation I had only hours earlier with someone who has quickly become so dear to me, just like a sister.

I typed to her as I floated through the clouds 32,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean… I told her that I could not stop crying. I felt a pain and a sadness about leaving a place I had fallen in love with – it was unlike anything I’d ever felt before.

She asked me what led to my attachment with the city of Istanbul and the country of Turkey. I responded with those opening words above. You see, I left on this trip with a plan, I had a mission… but what I planned for and what actually happened were two very different things.

I’m so excited and I just can’t hide it… but should I be scared?

I found out only about a week and a half in advance of my trip that I’d have the opportunity to cover a Turkish Airlines event for Airways Magazine… I was so over the moon that I couldn’t even comprehend the adventure that was to be had.

I told my family. I told my friends. I told my coworkers. While everyone was thrilled for me, some expressed concern over whether or not Turkey was in fact a safe place to travel to.

I get it. The U.S. Department of State is warning people to carefully consider whether or not they actually need to travel to Turkey, but the heaviest restrictions are on the Southeastern portion of the country. This comes after several terrorist attacks occurred in the country over the past few years, many in and around Istanbul, the very city in which I was going to travel to.

Attack at Atatürk

In June 2016, 45 people died and more than 230 others were injured at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport in a terrorist attack involving shootings and suicide bombers. Turkish officials said the attackers were affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), but no one claimed credit for the event.

Post-trip update: Last week I spent significant time at Atatürk Airport on two separate occasions. While the airport itself will permanently close in roughly a year and a half (it is being replaced by what will become Europe’s largest airport), Atatürk was by far one of the neatest airports I’ve ever been to. It was beautiful and bustling.

Bombings at Vodafone Arena

In December 2016, car bombings and suicide bombings outside Istanbul’s Vodafone Arena killed 48 people and injured more than 150 others. Most of the casualties were police officers and the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Post-trip update: The arena was less than two miles from the hotel I stayed in. And if there would have been a football game that I was able to get tickets to, you can bet I would have been there… happy as a clam.

Nightclub Shooting

On the first of this year, Abdulkadir Masharipov shot and killed at least 39 people in an Istanbul nightclub. More than 70 others were injured. ISIL claimed credit for the gunman’s actions.

Post-trip update: On Friday night I ate dinner directly across the Bosphorus Strait from where this occurred. The view was breathtaking and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world. The nightclub has since permanently closed.

I knew it would be humbling to put myself in the middle of an unfamiliar city, surrounded by unfamiliar people who speak an unfamiliar language. I knew it might be a little bit scary, but I knew that more than anything, it would be humbling.

I wanted it though. And even more than that, I needed that experience. I was ready.

The night before I left, I couldn’t sleep. I was so incredibly excited and still didn’t quite understand how or why of all people it was me who was chosen to do this. My aviation journalism career is in its infancy, so naturally I felt as though I didn’t deserve this. Surely I didn’t.

I woke up the next morning, tired from the lack of sleep, but still with a spring in my step, knowing I was about to travel further from home than I had ever been in my life, and I was doing it alone.

Widening my world

My dad happened to be in town visiting from his home in Florida, so he, my mom and my husband were able to see me off at the airport. My first flight would bring me to Washington-Dulles, and from there I’d board a Turkish Airlines Airbus A330 to Atatürk Airport in Istanbul – a 5,500-mile journey in total.

This flight would mark my first time flying business class (a perk that came along with attending this event). Anything above and beyond standard economy is a luxury that I simply never thought I’d be able to experience… as it is something I just could never afford, at least not in a practical sense. It was amazing and the crewmembers were so genuinely kind. I was pampered like a princess. I felt like I must have been dreaming.

The view coming in to land in Istanbul was unlike anything I had ever seen. The crisp blue sky and the deep blue ocean sandwiched hills filled with beautiful red-roofed buildings… the Mediterranean color palate has always been so pleasing to my eyes, and it was even more so in real life.

After deplaning, I easily found my way to where I needed to board a bus to my hotel. While the traffic was awful, the commute seemed quick… probably due to the complete and utter newness of every single thing we passed.

When I entered my hotel in Istanbul’s Bomonti neighborhood, I first noticed a distinct floral-like aroma. It was a very particular scent that I couldn’t quite place my finger (or better yet, my nose) on. Check-in was also a lengthy process, but that too seemed to fly by as I made conversation with other conference-goers from around the globe.

Upon entering my room, I knew that after 21 hours of traveling I wouldn’t be good for much more than changing into my pajamas, ordering room service, snuggling into my bed and falling asleep to the quiet murmur of the television. But when I first drew my blinds, the sun hadn’t yet set, and the view before me was nothing short of breathtaking.

I should have known I’d be a bit awestruck, as I was staying on the 18th floor of a hotel in a densely populated neighborhood in a densely populated city. But the view was so gorgeous that I had to just stand there and look out the floor to ceiling windows that overlooked this picturesque city. I was in love. But alas, I was tired, and within two hours I was out.

“I’m sick.”

I awoke sometime between 6 and 7 the next morning, and I wasn’t feeling too hot. I had an unusually painful stomachache, but I’d say I tend to have more tummy troubles than the average person, so I wasn’t terribly alarmed.

After an hour or so, the pain hadn’t subsided. I really didn’t know what to do. I had woken up alone in a strange place, and to make matters worse, it was the middle of the night back home in Minnesota… I wasn’t about to wake my husband or parents just to whine to them.

But after awhile, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was scared.

I tried to reach my husband, Scott, knowing he has his phone set to ring if one of his close contacts calls in the middle of the night.

He didn’t answer though.

I tried calling again…

Nothing.

I called my mom, knowing she was merely two to three hours from waking up for work. I knew she would answer, and she did.

“I’m sick,” I told her.

By this point I had polished off three of the four bottles of water in my room, and I lay in bed curled in the fetal position, pouting to my mom whenever the pain subsided enough that I felt I could bring myself to speak.

I was convinced I had food poisoning. How I got it from the grilled vegetable sandwich and french fries I had eaten the night before, I wasn’t sure, but my mom agreed with my self diagnosis.

And then it happened. “I think I’m going to throw up,” I said to her as she tried her best to console me. And the funny thing was, I was so incredibly excited to throw up. I just wanted this to end. I sat cross legged in front of the toilet, with my phone and a bottle of water sitting next to me.

I knew it was coming. And it did.

I cried. And then I cried more. I was soaking wet and freezing cold all at once, a combination I knew couldn’t be good.

I wished my mom was there with me, rubbing my neck and holding back my hair, but instead she was just a voice coming out of my phone’s speaker. She talked me through it though.

The next time I had to throw up, she talked me through it again. And all the times thereafter. At that point it really was as if she was sitting right there with me.

I felt better. I thanked my mom, we said our goodbyes and we hung up our phones. I knew she needed sleep, and I knew I needed rest. My gut told me I was unfortunately not going to be able to partake in the Bosphorus Tour that afternoon, no pun intended.

Maybe 30 minutes later, I realized I wasn’t in the clear. The pain was back and this time it was worse. I called my mom and she told me to call the front desk and ask if the hotel had a doctor on hand. I did that, and the gentleman’s answer was unfortunately “No.” He did tell me, however, that he could call an ambulance.

I couldn’t afford that. And, quite frankly, I didn’t really think I needed that.

I had been given contact information for a local Turkish Airlines communications team member, whom I had already connected with via text the night before. I asked him if he knew of any nearby doctor’s offices or urgent care clinics. And to be perfectly honest, that’s when the whirlwind began.

Why me?

I kept thinking to myself… “Why me?”

Selfishly I felt like this was my trip… this was my time to shine. I didn’t even know what was happening, or what would come of all of this, but I knew it wouldn’t be good.

I was having trouble walking and I nearly passed out twice. I was almost folded in two when I answered the door to grab the extra waters I had requested from guest services.

I already had Lira, but only huge bills. “Do you even tip someone who delivers bottled water to your room?” I thought to myself. I gave the woman American money… three bucks. She looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Water is free.” I thanked her and shut the door.

I somehow made it downstairs to the lobby with the help of hotel staff. I was donning my airplane patterned leggings and a bright pink T-shirt. I had bedhead. I was in too much pain to be embarrassed about how I looked though.

As I lay pathetically limp on the lobby sofa, I could tell all of the Turkish Airlines conference workers were looking at me, and I figured they were talking about me too. After all, I did stand out like a sore thumb amongst the other vacationers around me, but I didn’t even care.

Before I knew it, a cab had arrived. Two gentlemen and I got into the “Taksi” with one sitting up front and the other in back with me – both worked for Turkish Airlines.

My head fell back onto the headrest behind me, I opened my window and shut my eyes. I could feel the cab driver hastily speeding up and down Istanbul’s steep, narrow hills, but the breeze felt nice.

Hastanesi: The first Turkish word I learned

After what felt like a lifetime, we arrived at the hospital – more specifically, the Emergency Room entrance of Amerikan Hastanesi. I was helped into a wheelchair, brought into a room and placed on a bed.

A doctor soon visited me and asked about my symptoms. She poked, pressed and prodded… trying to remember those moments is difficult as it was all such a blur. Shortly thereafter, a nurse came in and inserted an IV to administer pain medication. It helped. It helped a lot.

By that time, there were several Turkish Airlines staff either outside my hospital room or sitting inside the room by my bedside. The nurse returned shortly to draw blood, and while I anxiously awaited the results, I expected they’d find nothing, since I was certain I was suffering from food poisoning.

While I so much appreciated the kindness of everyone who was present at the hospital even for just a few minutes, one special person, who I now consider my sister, spent upwards of 10 hours with me.

She held my hand and told me everything would be OK. She was with me when I had my IV put in, she was with me when my blood was drawn, she was with me when I was wheeled into the imaging room and she was with me when the radiologist performed my ultrasound and said, “Aha… you have appendicitis.”

And that was it, I knew what appendicitis meant. I knew I was going to have surgery and I knew I was going to have surgery in that very hospital in Istanbul on that very same day.

Ready to go under the knife

Seriously… I couldn’t even comprehend that this was happening to me. “How? Why?” I asked myself.

Back in my room, the nurse and my sweet new friend helped the highly-medicated me to change into a hospital gown. Of course, during that process, I accidentally ripped out my IV – spraying blood all over the place and setting off a chain reaction of panicked hospital staff.

Soon a surgeon came in to examine me and explain to me in more detail the radiologist’s findings and what they would need to do. I remember feeling tired and weak. I had mustered up enough energy to send a text message to my mom, telling her that I had been diagnosed with appendicitis. I asked her to tell my dad, and to also tell Scott, who at this point still was not answering his phone.

I didn’t want to be alone. Of course it was so nice to be in the presence of such kind hospital staff and such caring people from Turkish Airlines, but it still would be nice to see a familiar face at such a scary time.

After countless attempts, Scott finally woke up and returned our calls. I knew he would be scared and I hated knowing he would awaken to such a flurry of missed calls, voicemails and text messages. Hearing his voice was so comforting. And before I knew it, he was working with the staff at Turkish Airlines to fly out (for free) that very night.

My immediate family and friends were in the loop. My sweet family at Airways Magazine was in the loop. Now all that was left to do was to loop me up and put me under.

My sweet friend held my hand all the way as hospital staff wheeled me into the prep room. She prayed for me at my bedside and I felt those prayers… they filled the room and they filled my soul. I knew I would be OK.

I left my appendix in Istanbul

“All done,” I heard a voice say. I squinted, looking up at the bright lights… I couldn’t see anything clearly without my glasses, but I could make out a sea of people in blue scrubs moving about the room.

A women propped open my mouth and stuck something inside. I realized it was a lozenge of some sort, and until my pain medication first started to wear off, I didn’t know why she had given me that lozenge. My breathing tube must have really done a number on me… my throat felt raw and my top lip was swollen.

I noticed that my right shoulder hurt, and found out later it was due to the process of pumping air into my stomach pre-surgery. My stomach was stiff and puffy for hours following the operation.

I was rolled into a new room where I was greeted by familiar faces. The room was beautiful… state of the art. I was in a comfy bed and a few feet away sat a couch in front of a big window that let in lots of natural light. There was a large television in front of me turned to a news channel.

A number of people surrounding my bed, both hospital and Turkish Airlines staff, asked me how I was doing. It was then that I met for the first time the sweet guy who I had texted with earlier in my hotel room… the local Turkish Airlines contact who had helped facilitate my being brought to the hospital in the first place.

I was told that he’d be staying the night with me in my room. I felt incredibly lucky to be surrounded by such love and comfort in this strange new place. I was able to eat a little broth and drink some juice later that evening before turning in for the night.

I felt so thankful to have someone staying with me. I felt so much less scared. The evening seemed to last for a very long time. I couldn’t pass on much news to family and friends back in the states, as it was the middle of the night their time. And before I knew it, it was bedtime for me as well.

The night was odd, as I drifted in and out of sleep and received frequent visits from hospital staff to check my vitals and assist me to the restroom. It was difficult and painful to walk, but the nurses did all that they could to make it as painless as possible.

There was one period of time where I had several hours of uninterrupted sleep… and when I awoke from that, it was morning. My sweet roommate helped me as I was waking up. He poured me some water and made some tea too. I can’t explain what a difference it made to have a friend by my side.

When I was ready to eat, he helped to prop me up and brought me the food that the hospital staff had delivered to the room. It was a traditional Turkish breakfast consisting of a couple pieces of cheese, some olives and sliced cucumber. It tasted great.

When lunchtime rolled around, I was able to eat a few bites of tomato soup and some noodles. It felt good to be able to nourish my body as I hadn’t really eaten since I had my room service dinner the night before this all began.

During the early afternoon hours I heard some talking outside the door of my room… I even heard someone say my name. Shortly thereafter the door slowly creaked open and a sweet gentleman accompanied by a woman and an older man entered. He explained that he was a friend of Enrique’s (the Editor-in-Chief of Airways).

He came to wish me well and also to deliver two model aircraft to me, both Turkish Airlines planes. I was speechless and I smiled so big… we took photos together, holding my new prized possessions, and he invited me to visit his model aircraft museum later in the week – an invite that I quickly accepted.

Before I knew it, the plane that Scott was on was only a few hundred miles from where I was. That brought me great comfort. The surgeon visited me one last time before letting me know he thought I was ready to be released.

Even though I was moving at a snail’s pace, I packed my things, changed into a loose-fitting dress and began the journey back to the hotel.

Turkish Airlines had a car sent to the hospital to pick me up, and when I arrived at the hotel, I found my husband standing next to my new Turkish sister. There were lots of (gentle) hugs, and there was a whole lot of relief and happiness.

Three days after arriving, I finally saw the city

Thanks especially to my amazing friends at Turkish Airlines and Airways, I was able to extend my trip a bit, both so that I could have extra time to recover before such a long flight home and also so that I could actually see a bit of the city that I had looked so forward to exploring.

I moved slowly, but walking felt good. It was amazing and humbling to walk the streets of a city with so much diversity, history and culture. The language is beautiful and the people are beautiful. So much about Turkey was so different, yet so much was the same.

The streets are all narrow and the hills are steep. There are textile shops and cafes lining the sidewalks, and the car horns echo in and around the buildings. Shop owners stand outside and greet you and smile warmly at you. You’ll find at least one bowl of cat food on every block as hundreds of “kediler” fill the streets and the parks. These are not your typical feral stray cats either, they are happy street cats who get love and attention from the good people of Istanbul.

We saw some lovely sights in old Istanbul, like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the cistern – all so beautiful, each in their own way. Though the soreness of my stomach made it difficult to do as much walking as I’d have liked to, it was still so magical to be able to get out into the middle of this beautiful city and take in at least some of its history.

Now I was even more glad that I had gone

It makes me sad to think that some people will never visit the beautiful and idyllic city of Istanbul, and they’ll never see the rolling hills and gorgeous scenery of Turkey. But that sadness is slowly turning to frustration, because so many people will never make that trip, not because they can’t, but because they don’t want to. They’re scared.

Let me tell you something… terrorism doesn’t discriminate by country. Terrorism doesn’t happen in “this type of city” or “that type of state.” Terrorism doesn’t happen at a certain time of year and it doesn’t only occur at large, widely-attended events like sports games and concerts.

At the same time, terrorists don’t all dress alike and they come in all shapes, sizes and colors. They identify with a wide array of religions, political parties and/or militant groups. Sometimes they don’t identify with any group at all. They act alone and they act in groups. Sometimes they’re sick with a mental illness, other times they’re perfectly sane and healthy.

Here in the U.S. we’ve seen our fair share of horrifying and unspeakable acts of terrorism in all corners of our country and everywhere inbetween. They’ve been committed by terrorist groups from other countries and by mentally ill or purely evil U.S. citizens of all colors.

Just this past Sunday night, at least 59 people were killed and another 500-plus injured in our country’s largest mass shooting in modern history. It’s unfathomable. These concert goers were expecting nothing more than a fun evening of rocking out to country music… instead, they saw a completely different type of show.

Despite the sadness and grief, let me ask you this:

Why isn’t there a travel warning to the U.S.?

Should I never attend a sporting event or concert again? Should I constantly spin in circles surveying what’s going on around and above me? Maybe I could bring my binoculars with me everywhere I go so that I could see into all the windows of nearby buildings and possibly spot a gunman before he opens fire… would that work?

Seriously. This is awful and depressing and has most of us wondering what in the world our dear planet Earth and its people are coming to… but, as tough as it is to come to terms with, life must go on. We need to love and support one another, and put our prejudices aside for good… for the greater good. Easier said than done, right?

We are all in this together. Let’s start behaving that way. I feel like the events that transpired over the last week so perfectly serve as an example of why not to succumb to fear… I travel to Turkey, despite the U.S. Department of State explicitly warning me not to, I come back home and within one day the Las Vegas massacre happens. So where would I have been in greater danger? Istanbul or Las Vegas?

There is beauty all across the globe, and at the same time, there is evil. Of course there are countries and cities that are known to be more dangerous than others, that’s fine. But do yourself a favor, before completely writing off a potential travel destination, learn a little more about its people and its history, and if you must read about all of the awful things that have ever happened there, at least do some reading on the same type of awful things that have taken place right here on U.S. soil – you may be surprised.

Inspired to learn, love and give back

I have fallen so deeply in love with the city of Istanbul and the country of Turkey… I wouldn’t trade what happened to me for anything. I was supposed to be there exactly when I was. My appendix was supposed to start failing me at the very moment that it began to… because if it hadn’t, I would not have formed the special, magical, lifelong relationships and friendships that I did.

I have never met people more kind, selfless and welcoming than the people of Turkey. When I boarded my last Turkish Airlines flight with my husband, a big Boeing 777 headed to Chicago, I felt a sense of loss. I didn’t want to leave. And as soon as the wheels left the ground, I lost it.

I cried for so long and I cried so hard. I have never felt an attachment to a city and its people in the way I feel attached to Istanbul. I know that I will be back. I hope that it’s soon and I hope that it’s for more than just a vacation. Because I left more than just my appendix there, I left my heart there too.

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