January 2022 – Istanbul, Turkey
One of my favorite things to do when I’m in a foreign city is to walk — just to look around. The fresh air feels good on my face. I walked about 3 miles on Sunday to a huge radio tower in Istanbul and took pictures from the sky.
On my way back, Google maps took me on a road that merged into a highway. I walked along the sidewalk there, a little intimidated by the fast cars whizzing by so close.
Then the sidewalk began shrinking until I was walking on a dirt path, way too close to traffic.
To my left, past a pile of dirt and through some light brambles and on the other side of a highway fence, I saw a normal street. I figured that was where I was supposed to be walking.
There was a break in the fence that would allow me to get over it, and about a 5′ drop that I could easily let myself down. A few minutes later I dusted myself off and was safely on the street.
Safe, it seemed, until 4 young men in camo military uniforms asked, in Turkish, what I was doing there. At least I assume that’s what they said.
“I’m lost!” I said.
Through gestures and translators, I explained my situation and, as best I gathered, they were about to send me on my way when one of them said something that stopped them all in their tracks.
My guess is: “We have to report this to our commander.”
They were very friendly and polite as they ushered me into a guard shack, offering me a chair and some water.
I wasn’t really worried, yet. They were so friendly and accommodating. One soldier who spoke passable English explained that the GPS sometimes makes this mistake and it will just take a few minutes to clear things up. I call him a soldier because of his uniform – he looked like a normal 20-something kid somewhat awed and excited at the prospect of talking to an American tourist.
More military men came into the room making phone calls, asking for my ID, my Google maps on the phone and, I suppose, following their supervisor’s instructions, looked at the photos I had taken that day.
20-something explained that this was the only exciting thing that has happened to any of them in their one year of mandatory service.
I soon learned that this compound was near the residence of Turkish president/dictator Erdoğan.
The mood was lighthearted and friendly. These were good kids who understood that I was just a misguided tourist who took a reasonable wrong turn.
Another soldier was instructed to thoroughly pat me down as they photographed every page of my passport and every item in my pockets. He hand-wrote a half-page report, meticulously copying information from my passport, business card, and visa.
They were all very impressed by my business and asked lots of questions about dog wheelchairs.
About an hour later, while they were still explaining that there was no big problem, the police arrived. I was told I would be taken to the station then put in a taxi to my hotel.
I was a little bit worried. This was transforming from an adventure to an “Uh Oh.” But I had faith that they would see that this was all a silly mistake.
At the police station they were still friendly and respectful, but not so lighthearted.
I was seated in a comfortable lobby.
“Why did you climb the fence?”
“Did you see the warning signs?’
“What are you doing in Istanbul?”
“Show me your return ticket.”
“Show me all the photos you took today.”
It was all friendly, but it was an interrogation.
I saw the report that the solder had written, copied, stapled, passed from hand to hand, and added to. The single page became a sheaf as policemen came in, looked at me, and went into a room. Two plainclothes policemen, one of them my interrogator, started talking in hushed terms.
Now, I was worried. Although they kept assuring me that it would only be a few more minutes and everything would be cleared up it had been over three hours. They wanted the IMEI of my cellphone, details about my business, dates of other trips to Istanbul, and more.
I called my friend, Efe, in Istanbul who said he would be there in about 15 minutes.
I saw my sheaf go from hand to hand while people spoke incomprehensible Turkish. I had no idea where this was going. I was assured it would only be a few more minutes, but still the hushed tones continued.
Indeed, 4 hours later, I was asked to sign a document, which my friend assured me was an accurate description of events, and allowed to leave.
The fresh air felt good on my face.