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Travel Isn’t Always Pretty: A Turkish (Mis)adventure

They would ask me, “Why Turkey?”  For me, it did seem like an absurd place to visit for vacation due to it being so far from home and so close and connected to the current violence in the Middle East. But within it’s borders lies captivating sights and a unique, deeply rooted culture. Above all, and unlike so many that I know, I simply wanted to say that I had been there. That’s exactly why I decided to go. I could’ve gone for a more common travel destination like the Caribbean, but when my Meetup Black travel group posted a trip for sailing the Turkish islands out of Bodrum and tours in the old city of Istanbul, the most potent wanderlust swept over me. From seeing the crystal blue waters to lifting my eyes to the high ceilings of the old city mosques, it would be nothing I could imagine on my own.

The continued unrest in Syria and in other neighboring countries near Turkey reached the media outlets almost daily. A bombing here, a peaceful protest turned deadly over there, but Bodrum and Istanbul remained relatively safe from the turmoil elsewhere. Still, these headlines caused those closest to me to fear for my trip and my life and question my judgment. To them, it was as if I rolled dice on a map of the world and decided to go based on wherever they landed without a thought. Not so! I never considered myself as a loose canon acting on emotion alone and was quite capable of weighing out the variables. But recently I had developed quite the adventurous spirit, and with that I learned that extensive research, common sense and planning would be absolutely necessary—especially for a trip of this magnitude. Leading up to take-off in late August 2015, Google became my significant other and I leaned on coworkers, friends, and friends of friends who had been to Turkey or knew someone that had gone. But in all of my preparation, what I realized to be the most obvious aspect of this trip aside from safety was overlooked, namely my—womanhood and Blackness. Little did I know that what was meant to be an amazing adventure and stint away from responsibility would turn out to be a test of patience, restraint, and survival. Let’s begin with the cute stuff.

Picture about twelve Black American women walking the streets of a city where the average skin tone is no darker than sand on a beach. Then again, considering what’s been going on lately on America’s college campuses that have prompted the #blackoncampus movement, maybe it’s not that hard to imagine being the only Black anything. But the difference between being Black on campus and being Black in a country where your race virtually doesn’t exist is that on campus, people usually don’t pay you much mind. In another country where Blackness is a rarity, it’s a almost guaranteed that you will attract stares and people pointing. You’ll hear and see camera phones going off in your direction or maybe feel a subtle tug on your Senegalese twists. This was everyday life for our group while in Turkey. In a sense, we were commodities for the entertainment of locals. My initial reaction was, “Aw this is so cute. We’re being treated like celebrities.” We’d be in the beautiful Hagia Sophia, the Christian basilica turned Islamic mosque, turned museum with it’s famed high ceilings and majestic dome looming overhead, yet it was our group the visitors wanted pictures of. Cute. It was even cuter that they asked for permission first.  It was very clear that some of these people were seeing Blacks for the first time and we accepted that we were the minority here. Eventually, it came to a point where we found ourselves doing a double take if we did see a Black person off in the distance somewhere and practically cried tears of joy when we came across a Black couple from Kentucky while touring the Topkapi Palace. Again, cute.

But the cute celebrity feeling didn’t last long. In a sea of tourists from around the world, we stood out the most and there were people that were going to let us know it. During our tour of Istanbul we had several instances of ignorance and found ourselves on the defense instead of enjoying our vacation. In a courtyard near the Hagia Sophia, our group encountered a group of Muslim women, not-so-discreetly laughing and pointing from behind their veils. While waiting to enter an exhibit, an Asian woman nudged her way through our group and sat next to one of our members, posed and smiled without a word. I turned to the direction she was looking and saw her male friend across the way snapping pictures of the two of them. I was beside myself and had enough. I got the woman’s attention and by way of death stares and vigorously shaking my head, I communicated to her that what she had done was totally unacceptable and inappropriate. She got the message. Later that day we sat—well slumped—into our seats for lunch. Between the heat and being treated like animals at the zoo, we were exhausted and feeling a bit defeated. And yet, more stares and pointing as we tried to enjoy a meal and regain strength. We were seated by a table of Spanish women who found our hair more interesting than the pleasure of each other’s company. They all sat there trying to analyze us, staring intently even as a couple of us stared back at them in disgust. It was a degrading feeling to not be accepted as you come. We  had to be studied and poked at because besides Barack Obama and, Beyoncé, some of these folks acted like they never knew of any other brown skinned people to walk the earth. We only know this because we heard people call out “Beyoncé!” as we walked by, especially by shopkeepers in the bazaars we visited. Not so cute.

Venturing through the inner city streets of a major international hub like Istanbul provided no relief—even with it’s increase of African migrants in recent years. We were constantly mistaken for prostitutes. Men would heckle at us from all sides or hold out cash and beckon us to come with them. One of our members went to grab something quick to eat and insisted that she didn’t need any company. Twenty minutes later we received a distress text message from her saying that a man had been following her for several blocks asking for sex. She had to take cover in a kabob shop and wait for us to come get her. Adding insult to injury, the man was offering 100 Turkish Lira, which translates to only about 30 US Dollars. She was so insulted, and I couldn’t blame her for that.

Our most traumatic encounter was during a wild night out in the port town of Marmaris, along the Turkish Riveria. There were bars and clubs for days on either side of the street, a huge tourist area. People from all over the world, but still very few Blacks. With plenty of drinks in our system and after having blessed several clubs with our presence, we were well into our night and walking in a lightly scattered formation in the street. I was ahead and turned around to see that we were all more or less together. In that moment one of our ladies started thrashing at some guy and trying to take swings at some him. He looked Turkish, with a slim build and was no more than 5’ feet 9”. Immediately, I thought that he had tried to steal something from her as she scared him off and he came running in my direction. With a little liquid courage I grabbed him with both of my hands on his shoulders and started yelling at him. Whatever he stole, we were going to get it back. Black women rolling about ten deep—who was he going to mess with? I was ready to tear him apart, and he looked absolutely petrified in my grasp. Then I remembered where in the world I was. Trying to hold a man down in a Muslim country? Getting into a fight or worst-case scenario being hurt or arrested in a foreign country was definitely not on the itinerary. With all of this in mind I let him go and he scampered off. The group circled around to figure out what happened.  Our girl was hysterical.  “He grabbed my vagina!” she exclaimed. We closed in to comfort her and I began to look around for the prick, regretting that I had let him go…and then I saw him again. He was headed back from where he ran off and walking along the sidewalk close to the buildings. I kept my eyes on him and he kept his eyes on me in a way that said, “Please don’t hurt me.” He knew what he did was wrong.  And he knew that I wanted a piece of him.  Eventually he disappeared, but the violation stayed with us all night long. Of course this could and does happen anywhere, but the fact that it took place in another country when our senses of being “the other” were already heightened, it stung us even more.

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image: Angela Brown

Overall, our experience was shadowed by the feeling that we were trapped under a microscope in a petri dish and constantly being poked at. There was only so much we could say or do, because it seemed of the culture of our destination, so we had to pick our battles.  But what we could control was the sense of sisterhood that developed among the group. I was so amazed with how quickly and how well we all got along—almost unheard of when this many women are together for multiple days. There was no room for drama here, we had to lean on each other to make it through the trip. We had to walk tall and know our truth as young, beautiful educated Black women who wanted to explore a new destination.

Afterwards, when people asked me how the trip was, I always hesitated, but there was no sense in glossing over it. So my reply was the same: It was a beautiful place and full of so much history, but the social aspects were a challenge and provided some moments I don’t want to repeat. I’ve always viewed traveling as an unknown happening adventure waiting to burst through the seams. That’s so easy.  In hindsight, what I had overlooked is the learning experience that travel brings.  I only thought about what the travel destination could do for me to satisfy my time away from reality. I expected open doors to all the defining moments of my sought out adventure. But Turkey required something out of me that I initially wasn’t prepared for. Although I was being stared down at every turn, shrinking under pressure and keeping my eyes low would’ve signaled defeat. It would’ve validated the thinking of those we crossed paths with. I couldn’t submit to those who questioned me belonging there. It was the hardest thing to simply turn away from the ignorance. How do you ignore a slew of heckling men who believe you to be a prostitute sheerly based on the color of your skin? While more than ever I was looking forward to stepping out of my everyday existence by getting on that plane, I found it was all the more necessary to hold on to who I was and not allow others to define me.

When we set out for our adventures we don’t always (and I definitely didn’t) entertain the possibility of having to face adversity. Nobody really wants to. We spend good money and time planning for trips of this nature and don’t want to have to be on edge constantly. We don’t want to have something to cry about or get angry over. But in the words of Anthony Bourdain, “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts; it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you. It should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you…Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

— Danielle Lawrence

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