Finding Unexpected Joy in Turkey

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
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I never expected to be able visit Turkey. Although everyone I knew that had been loved it, they all said how they thought it was too inaccessible for me. You see, I can't walk much because of my disabilities, and generally use a wheelchair scooter to get around if we don't have our car handy. I have travel with disabilities down to a science - I do my research, rent a car (or drive our own), figure it out, adjust my day. So how could I travel to Turkey, where the buildings are so ancient that accessibility isn’t really an option? I saw photos, I heard stories and travel tales, I tasted fresh Turkish delight and made gozleme. I hung evil eyes (gifts from loved ones), and read voraciously. Turkey? It was my Mt. Everest.

And then.

Turkish Airlines asked the most influential travel bloggers (including yours truly) from the White House Travel Bloggers Summit to visit Turkey. I asked if they could help make it accessible. Gizem Salcigi White of Turkish Airlines worked hard to make it so - she arranged for a wheelchair for me and found some university students, Sezer and Kadir, to help me get around Istanbul. YES!! I was so excited – I could visit a place that I dearly wanted to explore, but never thought I could. Having disabilities can be difficult, especially for travel. Venice? Probably not an option. Turkey? NOW an option!

The two guys that helped make Istanbul accessible to me.

Kadir and Sezer, two university students that helped make Istanbul accessible to me. 

And so I went – flying from Chicago to Istanbul was effortless. Airport handicap access is not the same the world over, but I had no issues. In fact, in Turkey, Turkish Air has these amazing trucks that lift up to the plane and then drop down and take you to the airport – all in your wheelchair. Genius. 

At first, handicap accessibility was easy. I can do up to a flight of steps, so walking a few steps up into the bus that took us into Istanbul was no problem. Our hotel (the Renaissance Bosphorus) was completely accessible. I began to wonder if I had made much ado about nothing. 

Cruising on the Bosphorus.

Aboard a cruise on the Bosphorus

Once in Istanbul, all of the travel writers split into groups and then went out to discover different aspects of the city. My trusty wheelchair was stowed in the back of the bus, and my university friends were ready and handy. We went to the Turkish Airlines campus, exploring training for the airline (including heading inside an enormous flight simulator), and the HUGE hangars in which airplanes are repaired. Mostly accessible, thanks to my wheelchair and Sezer and Kadir. 

At the Turkish Airlines training center, Istanbul.

At the Turkish Airlines training center

Visiting the Blue Mosque gave me a glimpse into accessibility and ancient buildings. The wheelchair could only go so far – the rest I had to walk. I held tightly onto Kadir’s arm as I climbed the steps into the Blue Mosque, wandered around inside on the soft carpets, and then headed out again, in a daze from the beauty and history of it. Sezer had taken the chair back around to the entrance and was waiting for me. 

Steps into the Blue Mosque.

Steps into the Blue Mosque

Heading into the Blue Mosque.

Heading into the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul.

Inside the Blue Mosque with Kadir

A visit to the Hagia Sofia… same thing. You can’t really make millennia-old buildings accessible, although there are some concessions (a shorter line to get in, sort of ramps to get over the door steps). I felt a bit stymied (and in a great deal of pain), but enjoyed the time with my new friends, who pushed without complaint and sought new ways to show me parts of these gorgeous buildings. We laughed, explored, and figured it out as best we could. In the back of my mind, I was becoming more and more stressed about actually seeing anything in Istanbul. It’s too ancient, too inaccessible, too crowded.

crazy sidewalks in Istanbul.

Crazy sidewalks in Istanbul - these ancient marble slates were the GOOD sidewalks!

And then it truly became more difficult. Crowds. Traffic. Steep, winding cobblestone roads. I sat in my wheelchair for a long time while my fellow travel writers went down a hill to an incredible arts museum and learned to do traditional Turkish marble painting. It was hot, and I looked at the wares for sale across the street, eyed some of the many Istanbul cats roaming the streets, people watched, and started to feel sorry for myself. It isn’t fun to wait, in the sun, while you’d rather be doing something else and you feel your disabilities acutely. Tears may or may not have entered the picture. 

getting into ancient buildings in Istanbul.

getting into ancient buildings in Istanbul.

Watching cats in Istanbul

Watching cats in Istanbul

The long steep pathway to a traditional crafts museum in Istanbul.

The long steep pathway to a traditional crafts museum in Istanbul - you can't even see the door from here

And then Sezer left the museum and came up to keep me company. He showed me photos – of his friends, his beautiful mother, his home. I learned that many Istanbulites escape the city as often as they can, to go home to relax and visit family. I learned that family is extremely important in Turkish culture. I learned about what life is like for a university student in Istanbul, far from home (in Sezer’s case, beautiful Antalya). We laughed, played word games, shared stories, and sat in the sun together, enjoying each other’s company. All of a sudden, being in a wheelchair wasn’t so horrible. I was having a great time, instead of missing things I’d wanted to see and experience.

It dawned on me…that instead of seeing the sights of Istanbul (or sitting outside of the sights of Istanbul, if they were too ancient), I was here to learn about the people of Istanbul. That instead of wandering through millennia of history, I could find glimpses of now. Instead of learning about a building (i.e., Topkapi Palace – extraordinarily beautiful, but NOT accessible), I could learn about a person, family, culture. If you know me, you know I love to talk with and learn about people. Why didn’t I realize this earlier, instead of being sad about not seeing the main attractions? The change in me was immediate.

I sparked with joy.

Instead of a tour of Istanbul, I was on a people tour. Here's how it went…

We next headed down an extremely rough cobblestone street and down a hill (one thing that Sezer and Kadir did was pretend to be Fast and Furious drivers. I didn’t fear for my life, much, but it was a great deal of fun once I got over being scared. Istanbul is hilly!). My travel writer friends headed into a beautiful pottery shop, and learned about making traditional Turkish pottery. I climbed the few steps in, and then waited while our group went downstairs to see traditional moonstone pottery. I found a newspaper with a new kind of game, like Sudoku (with famous people!), and chatted with a local. Learning about Turkish culture and talking with people? CHECK.

The next day, we visited Topkapi Palace. While some of Topkapi is somewhat accessible, most of it isn’t. For me, there was a long, restful period of time sitting around the fountain inside the grounds – peaceful and relaxing. I talked with the guys, with fellow tourists, with girls duckfacing for selfies. We then had lunch at the amazing Istanbul360, known for its views. 

At Istanbul 360

At Istanbul 360 - what a view!

Afterward, instead of heading off to explore and photograph Taksim, Galata, and other famous areas of Istanbul, Kadir and Sezer played Fast and Furious again, taking me down a very (very!) steep street (yes, some walking was involved, as the wheelchair would never have made it all the way on the street and sidewalk). 

Sidewalks in Istanbul.

Sidewalks in Istanbul. Yes, we headed down this steep road in a wheelchair...

The steep road down to the lemonade cafe.

The steep road down to the lemonade cafe.

Down, down, down the hill in Istanbul.

Down, down, down the hill in Istanbul

Destination? A lovely lemonade café, with a side journey to a bookstore (it’s the academic in me, I can’t pass one without going in) and an art supply store to pick up a notebook for our daughter.

a bookstore in Istanbul

An academic can always find a bookstore or two...

Bookstore in Istanbul

We made it to the lemonade café… and I discovered an entirely local, completely beautiful aspect of Istanbul I never knew existed. Shady trees in between the tall buildings, people playing chess, a professor holding forth to his class at the next table, couples on dates, groups of friends. THIS is also the real Istanbul, as much as the tourist attractions are. We ordered crisp, tart lemonades, and talked school mascots, friends, family, what they were studying in university, and more. We whiled away a few hours, and I thought: today, I discovered a tree in a bathroom, a secret garden, new friends with a wicked sense of humor, and a slice of life in Istanbul. It was glorious.

At the lemonade cafe in Istanbul

Kadir, Sezer, and I sipping lemonade

Look what message I saw on the board at the lemonade cafe in Istanbul!

Look what message I saw on the board at the lemonade cafe in Istanbul!

At the lemonade cafe, Istanbul.

At the lemonade cafe - what an oasis of calm! 

At the lemonade cafe, Istanbul

At the lemonade cafe, Istanbul.

A simple change in perspective can truly change your journey.

 

Evil eyes in Turkey

When our group went to the Spice Market, I was told that it was not accessible. Sezer and I rolled across the empty square, seeing a wedding party and a very smart way to handle the great amounts of trash in Istanbul (hint: it looks like a TARDIS). While I didn’t see the spices inside the market, I did see men on tiny stools having coffee, discussed trash with the trash guy, bought plenty of Turkish delight, discovered and discussed how many Syrian refugees are living in Istanbul, and had freshly roasted corn on the cob with Sezer, who loves old cars and showed me one of his favorites, parked near to where we munched on our corn. It was a different side of Istanbul than I’d expected to discover – one where you see real life, not just tourist stuff.

Turkish delight in Istanbul.

Turkish delight in Istanbul

An open square near the Spice Market, Istanbul

An open square near the Spice Market

Happy wedding! Istanbul

Lovely wedding couple 

TARDIS trash machine in Istanbul

The TARDIS-like underground trash containers in Istanbul

Sezer and I with fresh roasted corn in Istanbul

Sezer and I with fresh roasted corn

Vintage cars in Istanbul

Vintage cars in Istanbul

Sezer is a cowboy, a James Dean, a renegade who will go far, but whose thoughts are never far from his home in Antalya. Kadir? He’s a sensitive, thoughtful guy, very smart and talented (he can bowl backward!), with a strong grip that helped me up many a staircase and a ready smile to encourage me.

Sezer and I in Istanbul.

Sezer and I

Kadir in the Hagia Sofia

Kadir in the Hagia Sofia

My fellow travel writer friends helped when I needed it, lent arms and shoulders, and gave hugs. A loving and friendly face in a stressful situation is a wonderful thing - even better when you are longtime friends and colleagues. Like when you're an expat and you find a box of Cheerios and your heart gives a leap? Yes. My friends made my heart happy, with their care and love.

My people tour of Turkey didn’t end in Istanbul.

When we flew to Izmir and Kusadasi, to visit Ephesus, the House of the Mother Mary, and the Basilica of St. John (and later, Pamukkale), I spent most of my waiting time with Can (pronounced John), a funny guy with a wry smile and a very caring nature. I hacked his internet while we waited atop Pamukkale (because I am addicted to Instagram and wanted to share it); laughed at signs at the marketplace at the end of visiting Ephesus; learned of his job in tourism and how he tries to help travelers with disabilities. 

Can and I in Sirince

Can and I in Sirince

Laughing at Ephesus

Laughing at Ephesus. No genuine fake watches were bought.

Handicap gate to Pamukkale

Handicap gate to Pamukkale

A lovely table atop Pamukkale, where we rested in the shade

A lovely table atop Pamukkale, where we rested in the shade and instagrammed the heck out of the lovely area

When I waited outside of the ruins of the Basilica of St. John, I sat and talked with a man and his father - they ran the gift shop directly across the street. I learned that they each practice Islam very differently, but that understanding goes across generations, and is humble and kind. 

new friends near the ruins of the Basilica of St John, Turkey

New friends

While I waited in Sirince, after a glorious lunch at Sirince Artemis, I talked with the woman who ran the beverage shop. She was surprised when I asked for a cold hot chocolate and then made me one after we figured out the language difficulties, and then she made fresh hot donuts for me (I think she wanted me to have something hot that day). 

Fresh donuts in Sirince, Turkey

Fresh donuts for me! Thank you!

We visited a local cooperative and learned about traditional Turkish rug weaving. While our group climbed the stairs to see the amazing showroom and museum, I sat in the main weaving room under a tinted portrait of Ataturk, watching the women and girls weave in peace, chatting softly amongst themselves and showing far greater skill and talent than I had ever imagined. 

Ataturk

Weaving course in Turkey

Weaving Turkish carpets

I rested and watched her artistry

When we stayed at the Hotel Kismet in Kusadasi, one of the staff very kindly took me down the hill in a golf cart, so I could swim in the Aegean as often as I could. For a mermaid such as I, this was more than welcome - it was life-giving and soul-nourishing. I know he was busy, and I appreciated his efforts.

Catching a golf cart ride down to the Aegean at the Hotel Kismet, Kusadasi.

See how happy I am? BIG THANKS to this kind man for helping me to get to the sea!

When my friends boarded the Turkish Airlines flight back to Istanbul the regular way (walking across the tarmac, climbing the stairs), I talked with the guy who ran those genius accessible boarding trucks, learning about how things work at smaller airports - and who solicitously made sure I got to my seat ok. 

Accessible airports in Turkey

I love seeing signs like this! It means WAY less pain for me.

Loading trucks for accessible travel with Turkish airlines

Loading truck for people with disabilities. You go on the back gate in your wheelchair, it rises up to the top. You drive to the airplane, and then get right up next to the plane. Voila - VERY accessible boarding! Thank you, Turkish Airlines.

Did I miss seeing the attractions? Yes. But I learned so much more about Turkey than I realized – about the people who live there and care about their country, who pine for their homes while they are in the city, and who daily practice kindness and generosity to strangers. While some ancient structures may be inaccessible, people with disabilities can definitely visit Turkey – if they change their mindset on how to experience place, as I did. You won’t be able to see everything, but you will be able to experience more than you ever thought possible.

Me and my shadow- accessible Turkey

Can and I and our shadows on some pretty flat marble in Pamukkale

 

And the famous Turkish hospitality? It runs more deeply than I could have imagined, and made me fall in love with this venerable culture and country, which welcomed me with open arms.

 

Accessible Istanbul.
 

#WidenYourWorld - accessible travel in Turkey

#WidenYourWorld - accessible travel in Turkey is possible!

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