Being Stranded in Istanbul During the Military Coup

by | Jul 18, 2016 | Destinations, Personal Stories, Turkey

They said it is unsafe and they said I should not visit it. “It” in this case is Istanbul and there was no way I was going to cancel my ticket.

Did I just prove them wrong?

I smiled to myself as I walked around Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square. I was glad I was here! I felt safer here than I did in my hometown. At least, no one was staring at me and there was excessive security everywhere. I even saw a military chopper a few hours back while I was cruising the Bosphorus Sea. That’s how serious they are about security.

My feet were tired but curiosity got better of me because everything around was too pretty. The spikey minarets, the domed mosques, the sweet sound of Turkish language, and the smell of Turkish coffee – it was breathtaking!

While common sense told me I should stay at the area around my hostel, my curiosity kept pulling me away to just “one more block” to see what it was like. It was my last night in Turkey and tomorrow I was going to fly to Germany. I wanted to make the most of it. I looked at the time – it was 9:30 pm.

Should I go back to my room now?

They all said I shouldn’t walk around in Istanbul at night but I was hungry! I had not had any food all day and it felt completely safe. I was not going to let people’s paranoia get to me. With that thought, I found a corner table and decided to eat kebab.

Something was not right.

This is what I told myself as I hurriedly finished my food. I had a funny feeling in my stomach. Was it because I had heard too many people’s opinion about what I should not do in Istanbul? Anyway, it was time to pay the bill and go.

I unlocked my phone and saw there was a massage from my mentor blogger – Sab from Just One Way Ticket. “Where are you? Don’t go to Istanbul”. Hmm? I was already in Istanbul! Her reply – “Shit”.

Shit. Bad? Scary? Am I in danger?

She said go back to your hotel right now. The military has taken control and the bridges are shut. The tanks are on the road.

Why was she saying that? Everything was normal in Sultanahmet Square – the heart of Istanbul. Maybe because she has a Turkish boyfriend and she’s worried about his safety?

“The military has taken over”.

What the hell does that even mean? How and why would that happen?

It took me a moment to realize that I was walking so fast that it did not appear normal. People were looking at me curiously.

Wait – why am I the only one running back to my room? Why is everything normal here?

With that thought, I crossed the blue mosque. Just next to the mosque, I saw a jeep full of men in uniform and guns. These were not the usual black clothed Turkish policemen that I saw during the day. These men were wearing army green and had big guns. Oh and these were many in number – not the twos or threes that I saw earlier this evening. And then it stuck me that I had seen a chopper during the day, which I had assumed, was for security.

Maybe that was a military chopper.

Maybe Sab was right.

SHIT.

Without realizing, I broke into a jog, as I got closer to my hotel.

I should get to my room and check the Internet.

I met a few people on the road near my hostel that had helped me earlier that day with the directions. I panted and narrated what I heard. They shrugged and said – “don’t worry lady, the media overhypes everything. Nothing is happening!”

I hope they are right.

On my way to my hostel, I messaged San (my husband) to tell him what’s happening. To my horror, he checked the news and confirmed its true.

Still unsure of what it meant and the possible implications, I entered my hostel and see a little “party”. Apparently, my room mate from France – Gabrielle (name changed) didn’t have a key and she was waiting for me at the reception. Our receptionist had a few friends over and they were all devouring baklavas and drinking tea.

Did they not know about it yet?

To my surprise, their reaction was also the same – “don’t believe it, it’s the media that’s overhyping things.”

They were all laughing.

All of them except Gabrielle.

She was the only one apart from me who had heard about this military coup. I made them change to a news channel. The news was in Turkish but we could see images of many military people everywhere. Tanks on the street, choppers and uniformed men everywhere – apparently there was total chaos in Istanbul and Ankara.

We didn’t even need to understand the language to sense what was going on. The smiles gradually disappeared from everyone’s faces as the consequences hit in.

Thank God I’m flying out at 8 am!

Oh, am I going to be able to fly out tomorrow?

Just at that moment my suspicion was confirmed and the receptionist said – lady, no flight for you tomorrow.

This was not good.

I look at my phone again and see close to 30 unread messages. It seemed the whole world knew what was happening and they were messaging me to check if I was safe. Every single one of those messages had a sense of urgency. The last thing I wanted was to get people worried about me!

I replied to every single one of them and then there were more messages. These were coming in faster than I could reply. Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter – every damn notification on my phone was on. People were writing on my timeline!

Soon there was a WhatsApp group that was made by my ex colleagues (RateGain) and included the entire Turkish team. I was surprised to see this kind of support because I was not working with them anymore. They did not have to do this. But they did. They saw the news and thought of me.

I was too much in shock to fathom what was going on and they were doing thinking for me.

Go to the ATM and withdraw enough local currency to last you for a few days – one of them said. The ATMs may be out of cash by tomorrow and you may get stranded.

It sounded reasonable to me. Gabrielle and I went to the ATM that was 20 steps away from our hostel and withdrew the cash. It seemed people now knew what was happening.

A man came to us and said we should go back to our room. He offered to walk us to the ATM and back to the hostel to make sure we were ok. The street had fewer people but it felt everyone was watching out for each other.

Do my parents know what’s happening? I thought to myself as I walked back from the ATM. I looked at the time; it was around 1 am in India. No, they would be fast asleep in India and I did not want to wake them up and worry them.

Maybe my sister is still awake? No, she has a busy job and her son to take care of.

By now, we’re back in the hostel and the three of us sat silently. We spent several minutes sitting silently and replying to several messages on our phone before one of us talks.

You girls should sleep, he said to both of us – no flight for you so just go and sleep. And you don’t secretly go to the airport.

How was he able to read my mind? Yes, I was actually stupid enough to be considering it.

Too lost for words, Gabrielle and I walked to our dorm room. Shin (name changed), our roommate of China was sleeping soundly on her bunk bed. Maybe she did not know what was happening.

For a few minutes, Gabrielle and I discussed the consequences of what was happening. She had lived in Istanbul for a few years and said it’s the first time she was seeing something like this.

By now, my phone battery was very low because of the number of messages. College friends, ex colleagues, bloggers – everyone was messaging to check if I was ok.

How am I going to reply to everyone?

I did not want to do this but I realized the easiest way was to update my Facebook status to let everyone know I was ok. Within a few minutes I realized that move was like opening a can of worms! The frequency of messages increased where as I wanted the opposite.

BANG!

What was that? A bomb?

Gabrielle and I looked at each other. Then we looked at Shin with a little envy because she was sleeping peacefully through everything.

Another bang!

This time it was followed by extremely loud airplane sound. Except, it must not be an airplane because it was a little too loud and was moving very fast.

Was that a fighter jet? Shit, what the fuck was happening? Were we going to be safe?

Gabrielle said her Facebook had stopped working. Thank God mine was working! What would I do if mine stopped too? I wanted to be connected to my husband through this app.

I’m going to sleep and so should you, she declared as she climbed on the top bunk bed. We both knew that no one was going to sleep.

Am I not flying to Germany? I looked at the watch. Soon it would be time for my shuttle. On the Internet it showed the flight was still going to depart. Maybe they had not updated the status but I really wanted to go! I called my hotel manager to check if it was all right to go and he pleaded me not to do so. I wanted to see my husband really bad. I had not seen him for two months and this had to happen just a day before my flight. Just my luck!

It was 4 am when my cousin from New York messaged on our family WhatsApp group to make sure I was safe. He even tried calling but I did not want to wake up Gabrielle even though I wasn’t sure if she was sleeping.

I could still hear loud bangs and jets from time to time. At 4 am, I heard the morning prayer from the nearby mosque. It sounded comforting in the backdrop of ominous sounds of that fateful dawn.

My ex colleagues from RateGain were still awake and that WhatsApp group was active. A few of them even offered me a place to sleep if I didn’t have one. People from all over the world were messaging me their friends’ or relatives’ contact details in Istanbul.

Someone instructed me to call the embassy. I called the general number and heard a recorded voice that said the business hours were 9 am to 6 pm. In my daze, it took me a few hours to realize that the embassy website also mentioned the emergency number. This realization came when a friend shared a screenshot of embassy’s phone number on my Facebook wall.

I finally called the emergency number of the Indian Embassy in Istanbul and was surprised when an actual person answered it. He sounded tired on the phone, he must have answered 100s of calls like mine. He listened to me patiently and told me to stay in. He said I should call him every few hours to check the situation. I should go to the airport only when he confirms it was ok to go. He also told me that I should expect the Internet to be down sporadically.

It was now early morning in India and my family had woken up. My WhatsApp received a new message every single minute telling me what to do. It was just what I needed because my mind was not working. They urged me to call Turkish Airlines, the embassy and what not. They discussed various options of what all I should do.

By now, everyone was asking me the same questions on WhatsApp and I was literally copying and pasting the same messages to everyone. Surprisingly, the owner of Turkiey Balloons was also concerned and checking to see if I was ok. Without me asking, he took my flight number and airline PNR and called the customer service.

He somehow managed to speak with Turkish Airlines. He told me that I needed to rebook through Yatra.com since my ticket was booked through them. Hmm, I needed time to figure that out.

Hours went by as I continuously answered the messages. I somehow managed to sleep for one hour and woke up again to more messages. Some of them said that the situation was better and the military coup had failed.

Did that mean I could finally fly to Germany?

No it’s still now safe and I cannot let you go, my hostel manager said to me. He said he needed to go out for some work for one hour and I should not attempt to secretly take a taxi to the airport.

What do I do with my flight? What if there are too many people like me at the airport and they do not let me board? I had still not been able to rebook my flight through Yatra.com and my sister offered to call the customer service from India. Minutes felt like hours because I felt like I was wasting time if I was not at the airport if the situation had improved.

I decided to call Yatra.com myself and hold for a long time as they figureed out what they should do. Obviously it took them a while because they were not able to contact Turkish Airlines. I asked them if I really needed to book considering I had a ticket and the flight did not go? The rep suggests that I should just go to the airport and request the ground staff and in this case they should be able to put me on their 7 pm flight. Yes, I wanted to be on that flight.

Fully convinced, I knew I had to get to the airport. I called the hostel manager again and he finally confirmed the situation was better. He offers to book a shuttle for me so that I could arrive 5 hours before the 7 pm flight.

I hope I’m doing the right thing.

I hope the streets to the airport are actually safe now. Apparently there was an army tank on it last night.

I tell my husband and family and they sound relieved. This gives me a little more confidence that I was doing the right thing.

The streets looked normal because all the cafes and shops were open. The people on the street were a mix of locals and tourists. I saw one man with a massive flag of Turkey and several small ones. He was distributing the smaller flags. Were they celebrating the failed attempt of military coup attempt had failed? I speak to a few of them and realized that many of them thought the military rule was what Turkey needed..

Mentally crossing my fingers, I boarded my airport shuttle when it arrived an hour later. Some people looked nervous and unsure if they were going to be able to fly out.

As we reach closer to the airport, we saw an abandoned military tank on the road. Towards the entry of the airport, many civilians and policemen were standing. The civilians were waving Turkish flag and showing a victory sign to all the people that were entering the airport.

I entered the airport and witnessed total chaos. The queues were longer than the ones outside Indian passport application center. I saw some people yelling at overworked Turkish Airlines’ staff members.

At the check in counter, a woman with two daughters started yelling like a mad person and crying loudly. The airline staff tried to calm her down but she hurled some insults at them. I could not understand the language but it was obvious what was happening.

What if they ask me to rebook? Will I also lose my mind like this woman?

I could hear announcements that all Turkish Airline ticket holders needed to call the customer service or visit the city office to get their tickets rebooked. If this was the case, I was going to be in trouble because I had done neither.

Just at that instant, my husband called. He had magically rebooked me for the 7 pm flight while he was in Germany! I LOVE HIM. I’m so lucky to have him.

The check in queue took extremely long but after one hour, an exhausted looking airline staff member finally handed me my boarding pass. He tiredly smiled at me and wished me a safe flight.

I finally had my boarding pass.

I decided to celebrate by eating my first meal of the day.

I finally sighed with relief after three hours when my aircraft flew over Bosphorus. I couldn’t help shedding a tear as I gazed at Istanbul’s beautiful architecture, the distinctive curved mosques with their minarets, the European architecture and Rumelihisarı Castle.

Turkey, you are a beautiful country. I love your culture, language, food, hospitality and the people. Please stay the same. I’m lucky to have visited you. I pray for your peace.

Would I revisit Turkey if I got another chance?

Yes.

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