Nov 10

M16s and Minivans. Is it Safe? Balancing Risk and Travel.

Akdamar island, near the city of Van, I never got to go because of the Military Police. Credit: Azberez

I was traveling in eastern Turkey in early 2005 and after a long and painfully cramped bus ride from Doğubeyazıt, I arrived in Van.  I had barely gotten off the bus when I was approached by a smiling military policeman who spoke English (a rarity in eastern Turkey).  After a short conversation, he told me that Van was not safe for me, it was too dangerous, and on that note he essentially forced me onto another bus going back the way I had come.  Needless to say, I was extremely annoyed and a little bit spooked.

To put it into context, Van is in the southeast corner of Turkey; one hour drive from the Iran border, and 5 hours drive from the Iraq border.  In early 2005, the Iraq War was still going strong, and so Turkey had bolstered border security in order to prevent refugees and smugglers from sneaking across.  By security, I mean that the entire road along the Turkey-Iran Border had military checkpoints every hour.  At every checkpoint, a couple of nice looking military boys dressed in fatigues and cradling M16 machine guns would squeeze into the aisle of our minivan and collect the turkish identity cards of all the passengers (or passport in my case).  After dark, the road was closed down.

A typical dolmus. Photo taken in Trabzon, Turkey

I had just turned 20 years old, I had never been to the middle east before, and I was definitely not used to the barrel of a glistening M16 brushing past my leg every hour.  I also stuck out like a sore thumb; I had not seen another white guy since leaving Goreme for Trabzon a week earlier and the only English conversation I had engaged in on the ensuing string of bus trips was with a young man asking me “Are you a soldier?”.  I was loving every minute of it, until I got turned around in Van.

If I had had more time, and if the ATMs in the area had not been rejecting my bank cards, I might have considered the military police officer’s advice and gone back to Istanbul another way.  But I had no time, and I had no money.  What I did have was a plane ticket from Van to Istanbul in a couple days and a flight from Istanbul to London after that.  So deciding to go back to Van wasn’t a difficult decision to make.

Pick-up football match in Goreme, Turkey. Football (soccer) competes with basketball to be Turkey's favourite sport

It took me 24 hours to get back to Van after spending a night in some town I can’t remember the name of.  I can’t remember the name of the town, but I do remember that the Lonely Planet had deemed it worthy of two whole sentences that stated something along the lines of “don’t stop here, but if you get stranded here you can stay at this hotel…” (road closes after dark, remember?). Upon arrival I got out of the bus station as quickly as I could lest I ran into my old friend again. Because of the time lost, I only had a day in Van before my flight, and I had absolutely no spare money, but did I have any other problems? No. None. In fact, I spent most of my time talking to random shop owners and their teenage sons who wanted to practice their English. I was constantly being ushered into a shop, presented with a six-inch stool behind the counter and warmly offered mint or apple tea and a chance to practice my rudimentary Turkish. This wasn’t Istanbul, I wasn’t being asked to buy anything (in any case I couldn’t), I was just being greeted with the incredible hospitality that the Middle East is renowned for.  I never felt threatened or in danger, well, unless you count wetting myself every time the dolmus driver gunned the van full speed along those icy and snow covered mountain roads.

Lessons Learned?

Lesson 1: ATMs aren’t always reliable.

Lesson 2: A place is never as dangerous as people think.

A place is never as dangerous as people think. Everything worryingly bad or reassuringly good you hear about a place, whether you hear it from your mother, the news, a traveller, or a local, must be taken with a healthy dose of salt. The more you travel, the more you get accustomed to this precept, and the more you begin to take it for granted, almost on faith, that no matter how bad a place sounds you could probably still visit it and not have any problems. To the non-travelers among us, this sounds crazy, foolish even. For the traveler though, this is the mindset we take on as the starting point of any travel plan. That is all it is though, a starting point. Any responsible adventurer knows that it is imperative to research the dangers of their destination before departing in order to arrive at a balanced and unbiased assessment of the risks and how to manage them accordingly.

In my next post I’ll be researching Mexico, and deciding if now is a good time to ride a bicycle through it.

Adkamar Island photo credit: Azbarez http://asbarez.com/83145/van-to-host-armenian-%E2%80%98pilgrimage%E2%80%99-to-akhtamar-church-in-september/

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