In briefly chatting with Jeff of Planet Bell, whose wonderful website I have only just begun to explore, it dawned on me that I could share some interesting coincidences that seem to accompany our travels.
We joke, poorly, that we travel to places experiencing conflict because it results in a good deal, but that’s just our poor taste showing through. In the past ten or so years, we have just happened to have arrived or departed soon after or soon before something significant has occurred at our destination.
But wait, no, that’s a lie. It’s more than ten years.
Our first experience with things not going to plan because of outside influences would be the time we missed our plane back home because the ferry we were supposed to have taken had been hijacked by separatists. No one was on the hijacked ferry and no one was hurt, but it did prevent regularly scheduled departures from departing. We thought this was funny because we were able to show our employers the front page of Le Monde as our excuse for not being at work when we said we would be.
Soon after discovering that we enjoyed scuba diving, we booked a trip to Egypt. This was in 2009. Egypt was, if not happy and free, politically stable in the way of countries run by dictators. We were planning ten days, most of them diving in Sharm el Sheikh with some day trips to archaeological and culturally significant sites. Three weeks before we were set to depart, someone detonated a bomb in the Khan-el-Khalili market in Cairo. This is a big market. There were a number of fatalities. And two additional terrorist attacks followed that week, neither of them fatal.
Normal people, I think, would have second thoughts about their upcoming travel. I, however, am such a fierce defender of our time off that almost nothing dissuades me. In a “you’re not my supervisor” kind of way, I believed that no damn terrorist was ruining the vacation I had been looking forward to for months. Because I am not foolhardy, however, I consulted with a close contact who worked in the US government. Her response: “if the State Department says you can go, you can go.” And I should add that this close contact is extremely conservative when it comes to doing things you really oughtn’t.
So I checked travel.state.gov religiously. It’s kind of my favorite first site to visit when planning travel. But while the website advised caution when traveling to Egypt, it fell far short of saying you shouldn’t go. That was good enough for me. We went, we had an amazing time, we walked through Khan-el-Khalili. And precedent was set.
Fast forward to 2015. My husband and I each have a European goddaughter (which makes us sound really much more interesting than we are) and we were extremely excited that we were going to spend Christmas with mine in France and New Year’s in Portugal with his. This was a trip that required a lot of negotiation as it mean we would not be spending Christmas with my husband’s family. It had, in fact, taken 15 or so years to pull off (I believe that holidays happen when you celebrate them…I am alone in this opinion among my in-laws). So when the Stade de France suicide bombings occurred and the attacks that followed, I confess its impact on our travel plans didn’t even register. Like, I didn’t bother to check the State Department’s thoughts on the matter.
Paris is a city. New York is a city. Cities are targets. Date-insensitive targets.
It wasn’t until we arrived in Paris to be greeted by strangely thankful Parisians that it occurred to me that other vacationers may have canceled their plans. Cab drivers and restaurant owners and people we just struck up conversations with thanked us for coming. Embarrassed, I told them (in what I can only imagine was highly ungrammatical French) that, as a New Yorker, I was deeply appreciative that tourists continued to come to New York after September 11th and that we never considered canceling our trip. We hadn’t. It’s a combination of statistics and hubris that makes me pretty confident that my chances of being killed in a terrorist attack are not that great.
So when two tourists were killed in Hurghada in early 2016, it barely registered as I bought our tickets for July and booked our hotel in Hurghada – not that hotel for the record. Hubris and playing the odds.
The real test, not of my good judgement, but of my determination, came in July of 2016 as we were in the Uber to JFK to go on that trip. 1010WINS reported that a massive bomb had gone off in Ataturk airport and that there were active shooters. All flights had been grounded. This posed some concerns as we were flying to Hurghada via, you guessed it, Istanbul. We got to the airport and no one had any information. We were allowed to check into our flight, but there was no indication that it would take off. In our favor was the fact that I had built in an extra-long layover (about 15 hours) so that we could leave the airport and see a tiny bit of Istanbul. Not in our favor was the complete lack of any information about anything.
There began a frantic several hours of Plan Bs. We had to be in Hurghada by a certain time, two days later, because we were getting on a boat that was heading off into the Red Sea for 7 days. That gave me approximately 40 hours to get to that boat. As we milled about with the hundred of other possibly stranded travelers, I started researching every flight to Hurghada. If I could get us to Europe, I could get us to Hurghada. The question was, how much was it going to cost and could we manage it in time. Turkish Airlines had other things to think about and rightfully so. I will say that any information from them would have been helpful, but I understand if they simply didn’t have any to give. I could easily get us to London. That was going to be best of the Plan Bs. It was going the be expensive, but not EXPENSIVE, and we both agreed that we were too amped for this trip to give up. Were we excited about the idea of spending what would probably be $2000 to get it done? Absolutely not. But we rationalized that we could just postpone whatever our next trip would be until we recouped the loss (and hoped that our travel insurance might be able to help – though we doubted it because terrorism is rarely a covered expense).
But we were in luck. Istanbul is an immense hub and downtime would be crippling for it. The amazing people of Turkey got that airport back up and running within 12 hours and while our flight was delayed by about 3 (which is insane – I mean flights are delayed 3 hours all the time for totally bullshit reasons all the time), we arrived the next afternoon to an airport that was clearly still in shock. The evidence of the attack was everywhere as was the intense security, but the people at the airport were professional and friendly and ready to do business. We did go into a subdued Istanbul and were mesmerized by its scale. We had about 9 hours to catch a glimpse and that glimpse cemented that we were definitely coming back some day and doing it properly. It was refreshing to see people get back to work and back to the business of living so soon after such a terrible attack, and it reminded me that, worldwide, we’ve all internalized the “I ain’t letting the terrorists win” mentality. I don’t know if other tourists changed their plans that day, but I sincerely hope that if they did, they made it a priority to return.
So I guess it came as no surprise that the day we left Sudan, President Bashir declared a state of emergency – he would be deposed two months later. We took it in passing.
I was in high school when the first World Trade Center attack happened. Two years later came the Ricin attack in the Tokyo subway. To say nothing of the plane hijackings that populated the news of my even more formative years. I’m not callous about the loss of life and the trauma terrorist attacks inflict. I’m realistic about where these things generally happen and comfortable with the risks. So if I’m flippant about conflict travel, it’s because we’re all (and always have been) engaged in conflict living. That bad things happen in the world is never going to stop me from going out into the world and my barest shred of altruism believes that the places that have been most recently affected will also be best served by my keeping my plans and doing my small part towards helping them heal.