A few weeks ago, a peaceful demonstration in Ankara, Turkey was devastated by a suicide bombing that killed at least 100 people and injured hundreds more. In the weeks following the bombing, political tensions were high as the entire country mourned and sought to blame someone or something for the tragedy. Without going too into depth, some people blamed the government, some people blamed radical political groups, and others blamed the Islamic State.
Ankara is about a five hour drive from Istanbul, where I am an exchange student. It was also one of the cities where protests were held as a result of the bombing.
But there’s one thing I want to make clear before you ask yourself “Is it safe to travel to Istanbul?” Istanbul is safe. Most of Turkey is safe. Headlines about Turkey being “on the brink of civil war” or “dangerous for foreign travelers” aren’t 100 percent fabricated, but they’re very, very exaggerated. And I believe that’s the case for many different countries.
You see pictures of police going after protesters with tear gas. You see rubber bullets being fired and scores of people being arrested. It looks very dramatic and all-consuming. But the thing is, it’s such a small (though important) sliver. There are 17 million people in Istanbul, but when all you see is the 400 people protesting, it can present a skewed view of the city.
I think this goes for many places around the world. But wouldn’t it be a shame to miss the beauty and culture of those countries due to misrepresentation? Are you really willing to forego a life-changing experience because there’s a small chance of something bad happening? The truth of the matter is that bad things can happen anywhere, but more often, good things happen everywhere in every corner of the world.
So don’t eradicate developing, politically charged places from your travel list, because they’re often the most interesting.
Instead what you should do is consider how to approach these politically-charged (not necessarily dangerous) areas.
1) Stay up-to-date on what’s happening. I find Facebook especially helpful in this regard. Lots of my local friends or groups will post about events, or areas where they saw protests beginning. A local perspective is valuable here, as someone who’s familiar with the circumstances around the situation can better advise you on what to do. Also, your country’s embassy probably offers some sort of alert system. The U.S. embassy issued an alert after the Ankara bombing, for example.
2) Steer clear of the protests. I’m much better at dispensing this advice than following it. Because let’s face it, protests and political demonstrations are interesting. The primary goal is to get attention!
But seriously, you don’t want to be there if things go south. If the police show up and start arresting people, they probably don’t care that you’re a foreigner, which means you might find yourself in a foreign jail, which is literally never a good thing. Not to mention, I hear tear gas and rubber bullets really hurt. Not that these are facets of every protest, or even most protests, but…better safe than sorry. So if you see a demonstration starting, walk the opposite way.
3) Let friends and family know you’re safe. Do your parents a favor and assure them that you’re okay. If they’ve seen anything on the news, they probably assume it’s worse than it really is. So Skype them, call them, put something on Facebook for friends, just make sure you aren’t causing anyone to worry about your safety without reason.
4) Don’t forget to enjoy other parts of the city. Going back to Istanbul as an example, it’s a huge city with a ton of stuff to do. So just because one or two neighborhoods were breeding grounds for demonstrations, it doesn’t mean I had to stay home while protests were happening. You can still get out and go explore, go find a new cafe, museum, art gallery, park, or whatever you’re feeling like. Depending on the situation, you might try to find something within walking distance, as public transportation often is compromised in the aftermath. Some sections of the metro in Istanbul were not running the day after the protest.
If you’re reading a travel blog, I already suspect you have an adventurous spirit and you don’t shy away from a challenge. Undoubtedly, a politically-charged country is challenging, but it’s also a good experience. It provides insight into another culture and lets you see how other countries react to events. You can’t, however, ignore the circumstances that lead to the state of affairs. It usually means that a tragedy or crime has been committed, as is the case in Turkey. My heart goes out to everyone affected by the Ankara attacks, and I sincerely believe that Turkey will be able to overcome many of the challenges it faces as the country moves forward.
If you are interested in reading more on this topic, read our post on “Things to Consider as a Woman Traveling in Turkey.”