Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: A visit abroad ends with a real turkey at home

Ibrahim, a 10-year-old Syrian boy and war refugee, shows off his prized bicycle to American tourists visiting Konya, Turkey.
Ibrahim, a 10-year-old Syrian boy and war refugee, shows off his prized bicycle to American tourists visiting Konya, Turkey. The Miami Herald

Oh, to come home to the small minds running the international-arrivals show.

For a moment after the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer shouted at me — “Turkey! What the hell were you doing in Turkey?” — I thought I was hallucinating.

I had just spent 14 hours in tightly packed airplanes with no sleep, had navigated two airports in languages I don’t speak, traveled through several time zones, and dealt with a confusing springtime change while making an Istanbul-Frankfurt connection at dawn.

I had been through more metal detectors than I can count in one hand, cursing my penchant for overpacking and adding to the clutter on the road with fanatical book and memento shopping. I was nursing a nasty cold — and then, there had been my seatmate, an 8-year-old German boy on holiday. Before landing at Miami International Airport in the cramped economy-class cabin of the mother of all planes, the Airbus 380, I had endured 10 hours next to this adorable creature, who kicked or elbowed me awake every time I fell asleep.

The dazed look on my face should have inspired mercy. But my lack of reaction to the officer’s agitation at one word in my declarations form — Turkey! — only encouraged this dedicated employee of the federal government to barrel through my rights as an American citizen to travel where I choose.

He had no interest in my jasmine tea, my Ottoman-style vase, or how many liras I spent. The safety and lawfulness of the contents of my bags — his real job at the last check point — weren’t on his mind. He cared not that I had already passed through passport control and had answered similar but polite inquiries about why I had visited Turkey.

His only concern was berating me for my choice of travel destination.

“Tell me, what were you thinking going to Turkey? It’s full of ISIS, ISIS! They’re everywhere, everywhere! ISIS!”

I was fully awake now.

“I didn’t see any,” I managed to say, as emotionless as I could and all too conscious of the “EXIT” sign — my reward for good behavior — hovering in the short distance above his head.

It didn’t matter; this guy wanted some action.

“Well, they’re there. What were you doing there?”

“Vacation.”

“Who goes to Turkey on vacation?”

The word “ignoramous” came to mind. The U.S. Constitution came to mind. The psychiatry of growing up with the constant presence of the boogie man across the Florida Straits who refuses to die came to mind.

Why wouldn’t I want to go to one of the world’s most fascinating countries — a transitional place for East and West, home to some of the most splendidly preserved relics of ancient civilizations, a beautiful place of other-worldly landscapes surrounded by stunning seas?

No, I didn’t run into ISIS. But I did meet Ibrahim, a 10-year-old Syrian boy who rode up to our tour group on his old bike as we strolled the lively storefronts of Konya one morning. In this conservative town, the 13th century home of the philosopher Mevlana Rumi, he and his parents have found refuge from the war. He took us to the fish market, where the men who run it keep an eye on him while his parents work.

No, I didn’t run into ISIS, but I did learn that Turkey is more like the United States than the Customs officer imagines it to be because, as our guide put it, “Turkey is where everyone flees to,” and it is far more prosperous than I ever knew. I saw lots of public works and investments in infrastructure, from new tramways to a hospital that offers free state-sponsored healthcare — not in a seedy, throwaway part of town but on a clifftop with the best views in the port city of Kuşadasi.

No, I didn’t run into ISIS, but I did commune with the ghosts of the Romans and Greeks at the ancient grounds of Aphrodisias, an extraordinary live archaeological site still being explored and excavated by experts from New York University, and at the ruins of Hierapolis, a UNESCO World Heritage site at Pamukkale. And I broke bread with generous ordinary people, like the small-town imam who answered our questions about Islam, and the widow who opened her home to us, cooked a typical Anatolian meal, and told us her life story, no holds barred.

And should I also mention that the food was splendid, flavorful — and fresh? In Turkey, there’s no trendy and overpriced farm-to-table movement. Shopping at a farmer’s market for every meal is a way of life.

“Who the hell goes to Turkey on vacation?”

“Me,” I finally answered the brute, coughing as heartily as my body desired.

I figured a mandatory test for Ebola would come next.

But this fine specimen of a guardian of our borders finally filed away my form and waved me out.

“Welcome home, Fabiola,” I mumbled as I finally made it into the light of the Magic City, feeling a little less free.

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