Ataturk Airport is the third busiest in Europe. It sprawls and crawls over acres and acres, with massive shopping facilities at its center. The duty free stores feel as large as the Mall of America, and anyone who has ever flown through with barely 90 minutes to make a connection is highly stressed. All passengers have to be re-checked, and there is barely enough time to sprint down the miles of gates to make your flight.
I’ve been there a number of times, and on one occasion, came hurtling to my gate only to find out that it had been sealed off moments before. I had to spend the night in Istanbul, albeit in a five-star hotel. Not such a bad thing.
Fly Turkish Airlines
On June 28 2016, some 42 people were killed in an ISIS attack on the airport. That has a way of inhibiting travelers from wanting to visit. Yet for the last two years, Turkish Airlines has been running Super Bowl ads with luminaries like Morgan Freeman to entice people not only to fly their jets, but also to “come on down.” Turkey is open for business.
Despite the fact that Turkish Airline personnel can be appallingly inept and slow when it comes to loading people who are wheel-chair bound (the reason I missed my flight), I love their service. And I love Turkey. Despite the terrified rantings of all my friends, I flew there in March of 2017 to go riding in gorgeous Cappadocia: home of the fairy tale towers.
I’d been planning this trip for several years. The Dalton Brothers run an outfit just outside town. I was going on a five-day guided tour, just myself and Omar. People were terrified that I’d be exploded at the airport. Turkey’s dangerous, they said. They pleaded with me to cancel my trip. My god, they said. There are Muslims.
Cappadocia is one of the world’s geographic wonders. The town is built on and surrounded by unique rock formations. There are ancient Christian churchs carved out of these amazing rocks, as are all the homes and hotels. Nowhere in the world is anything remotely like it. A friend had ridden here prior and gushed. I was going.
A well-traveled friend once told me that the single best time to travel to another country is right after an attack. While this may seem counter-intuitive, he has a point. First, everyone is on high alert. You’ll never see more police in riot gear out to protect and deter. Second, the tourist industry suffers terribly. When everyone else runs in the other direction, local businesses wither and die. Third, prices are lower to entice you back. You can get amazing deals right when everyone else is afraid to travel.
He was right. The Dalton Brothers were beyond happy I’d be coming. And I got great deals on hotels in this magical place.
I flew confidently into Istanbul, made my eventual way to the in-country terminal, and landed near Cappadocia in the early evening.
From Foe to Friends
As it would happen, my five-day guided horseback ride lasted about twenty seconds. While I’m an advanced rider, one thing you learn especially when you ride horses in other countries is that they can be unpredictable. I was wearing a Pikeur jacket that I’d bought in Switzerland. The swishing noise that the jacket made when I moved my arms terrified my mount, and he launched me onto the hard, rocky ground. My foot got stuck in the stirrup, further scaring my horse. So he did what any irritated, frightened horse would do: used his hoofs to remove this large human dingleberry from his person.
By the time the staff finally reached me to control my animal, I had a severe concussion, a broken rib, a stomped shoulder, three broken teeth and cuts and bruises all over.
From then on, Omar, his coworker Cihan, and his hotel-owning friends came to the rescue.
My Muslim Family Grows
Omar and Cihan rushed me to the excellent private hospital a few miles away. I was treated with the utmost professionalism, given a host of tests for internal bleeding and injuries. As I was rolled through the facility, someone grabbed my hand hard and wouldn’t let it go. That was Mohammed, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo. As I was to learn later, Mohammed was a fireman who had moved to Turkey some years before. When his wife was pregnant, a male nurse held her hand through terrifyingly rough labor, and would not leave her side until she had safely given birth. Now a translator with excellent English, Mohammed worked for this same hospital out of deep gratitude, and his commitment was to ensure that I felt safe and comforted as his wife had been. He never left my side, translated for all the Turkish doctors, even sent out for special food.
Omar and his friend refused to leave the hospital until they knew I was safe. When they came back to visit that night, I handed Omar the $700 payment for the trip. He didn’t want to take it but I insisted. I had travel insurance. Omar didn’t. I learned later that Omar’s family had just lost both a cow and a horse, and they were counting on my trip to make them whole again.
He expressed his gratitude in a multitude of ways- by making me family.
A Perfect Recovery
When I was released from the hospital, Omar took me to Ismail’s lovely hotel The Chelebi Cave House in Cappadocia. I stayed in the honeymoon suite for free, aided by a massive jetted tub, and constant care from the owners. The food was unbelievable, and Ismail, the young owner, cared for me hand and foot.
One night while Ismail and his friends were having a vodka-infused party on the roof of the hotel, I was wracked with extreme pain from my broken rib. I was screaming at 2 am. Suddenly Ismail’s hotel partner Villy was at my hotel door, the only sober one of the partiers, and he rushed me in his rickety sedan to the state hospital. There, along with many others, I laid for hours for care. Villy slept in the bed next to me, translated, and even paid for my care when we found out that the hospital only took cash.
When I had further complications a few days later, Ismail took me back to the private hospital where Mohammed again took over, making sure that I received all the specialty care I needed.
In between hospital visits, Ismail, Cihan and their friends squired me everywhere. I saw all the sights, got insider deals on ceramics, help picking the perfect Kilim rug for my bedroom wall.
Once night they cooked a special dinner for me in the hotel restaurant. It was heavenly: home made Turkish specialties, just for our small group of friends.
The Final Touch
Omar heard that I had fallen in love with his hand-made half-chaps, which had lovely long fringe. I came back from some tourist exploring one day to discover that he had left his own pair on my window sill as a gift. They fit perfectly. I was simply overwhelmed.
When I was well enough to travel again, I was gently bundled off for the return to my base in Switzerland, battered, bruised, but befriended. I flew through Istanbul one more time, aided by many who saw that I was injured.
When I got home, I had an email from Ismail making sure that “Mama” had arrived safely.
I’m Going Back
When I go back to Cappadocia (without that Pikeur jacket, thanks) I will be returning to family. These young men, and my Syrian friend Mohammed, embraced me with love and care beyond anything I could have imagined. Far from feeling frightened or threatened by terrorists, my experience in Turkey was a lesson in generosity and kindness. I can’t wait to plan another trip, finish what Omar and I began, and have another home-made Turkish dinner with Ismail and friends. And I’ll be wearing Omar’s half-chaps.
As those of us who travel internationally nearly always discover, the world is largely full of wonderful people. Sometimes the best time to travel to a country is right after they’ve had trouble. Not only are people eager to see tourist dollars, but they are also determined to show the world that most of their countrymen aren’t evil. They’re like Mohammed and Ismail and Oscar: generous to a fault, kind, and appreciative. I have rarely felt safer, and in better company. Even if everyone does smoke (and they do).
Ataturk Airport is expanding. I recommend the baklava in one of their many coffee shops. It’s ridiculously delicious. I also recommend sitting down at a table for four. Because the airport is so busy, you are likely- no, guaranteed- to be joined by all kinds of folks looking for a place to sit, and friendly conversation to be had.
We can let terrorist activity terrify us. Or we can let it open the doors to remarkable experiences. When you take a chance and head where others are avoiding, there’s a very good potential that you will come home, as I did, with extended family eager to have you back.
And I can’t wait.