*Names and dates have been changed to protect the innocent.
I went to London and Istanbul a couple of years ago with a friend. We spent most of our time in London with a 2 day stint in Istanbul. We both wanted to go to London, but I had to sell Istanbul to my travel partner. We were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan so tensions were high between many Muslim countries and America – but that was part of the draw to Istanbul for me: I was so curious about the Muslim faith. After convincing my travel buddy we would be safe we booked our trip – it was then that she realized that Turkey bordered Iraq (although quite far from Istanbul) and she, and her family, started to freak out a bit. My grandmother had traveled to Istanbul and I figured if she can do it, I can do it, but my friend didn’t have anyone elses’ experience to trust. It didn’t help that the movie Taken was released right before our departure – this definitely set my friend and her family on edge! My friend’s step-mother gave us her pepper-spray to take with us: just in case.
While we were in Istanbul we had quite a different experience than most travelers. I don’t know if it was because we were inexperienced or if it was just the war and all the politics surrounding being an America, but several things happened that made us uncomfortable. 1) While shopping at a store someone asked us where we were from, we told them America and they proceeded to insult America in Turkish to another person in the store. 2) While walking in a park, a police officer and some kids approached us to ask us where we were from – they were very friendly and jovial. When we told them America, the cop shook his head, turned around and walked off. (We told everyone we were Canadian for the rest of our trip) 3) While sitting in a restaurant we started talking to another local. He asked us where we were from and we told him Canada. He asked us how we felt being so close in proximity to a horrible country such as America and spent the next 30 minutes criticizing everything American. 4) I have blonde hair and blue eyes – this is uncommon in Turkey. I was stared at everywhere, felt pretty uncomfortable, and was often approached by men.
Like I said, most other people I have spoken to about Turkey, Istanbul in particular, have had wonderful things to say about the country. Me: not so much. I paint a pretty unflattering picture. The architecture was amazing and I loved the history – I would consider going back, but I would not be the happy-go-lucky tourist that I was on my previous trip.
Needless to say, we were happy to return to London.
After a couple of days in London, we headed back to Heathrow for our departure. We were checking in for our American Airlines flight back to Dallas and making fun of the British people in cowboy hats and head-to-toe fur (very Dallas) when my travel partner realized she had the pepper spray in her carry-on bag. This would not have been ok had we gone through security so she politely asked the clerk at the check-in counter if she could put it in her checked luggage. It was then that things got weird.
Photo credit: Here
It was just a small aerosol can in a black case. Nothing dangerous or hazardous, just so long as it was in the case. The gentleman behind the counter poked it with his pen and refused to touch it. He said he was going to have to call to check and see if we could put it in our bag. While we stood and waited we were approached by two police officers. They proceeded to ask us questions, which we thought were ridiculous: ‘Did you know you were bringing an illegal firearm into England?’ – Wait, what?! An ILLEGAL FIREARM? It’s pepper spray! We thought it was comical and were even a bit smart with the cops until he started reading my friend her rights. All jokes ended there. The ‘yes sirs’ started popping out of our mouths immediately. We were missing our flight to the States and my friend was going to jail.
While she was gone I found the nearest phone and called the US Embassy. I was told that this was not uncommon, especially for American women traveling alone, and that she would probably be released before the end of the day. I then called my friend’s dad (which she had asked that I do). I got no answer. I then called my dad – he is British so maybe he would have some insight. He said the same thing the US Embassy said. I spent the next couple of hours at an internet cafe looking up British laws while my friend was at the police station.
When my travel buddy returned, she looked like her dog died. She was so relieved to have been released, but said it was horrible getting into the back of a cop car and being taken to a the station for questioning. She was released with a slap on the wrists but was warned that she would be listed in Interpol and if she committed any other crime in England within the next 6 months she would go to jail. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’m not coming back!”
We boarded a later flight and made it to Dallas safely. When my friend’s dad picked us up from the airport, he greeted her by asking, “How’s my little terrorist?” and laughing. Not funny to us then, but really funny to us now.
Lesson learned – don’t take pepper spray into the UK. (I believe it is also illegal in Turkey too!)
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