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June 8-17, 2013
(Posted by Kristin. Note: I still cannot access the photos on my camera, so I was limited to the pics I took with my iPhone. I included a few really fuzzy pics — I got them by taking a picture with my phone of my camera display screen.)

During my first five days in Istanbul the biggest resistance I faced was trying not to buy a beautiful carpet, lamp, or ceramic bowl. For days, I wandered the streets taking in all the incredible historic sites and basking in the warm sun, coming home every night to a great hostel and hanging out with my new friends. If you weren’t watching the news you would have no idea that revolution was brewing just a few tram stops away. This was the Istanbul I fell in love with.

It all changed when I moved to the Taksim neighborhood to attend the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training, which was being held at the conference center a few blocks from Taksim Square. I knew it was unresty in Taksim; it had been building up over a few weeks, and just a few days before there had been a major police crackdown on protesters. Some of the kids at my hostel had gone to check out the situation and had been teargassed along with the crowd. But things had quieted down again, and I don’t like a long commute, so off I went to my new hostel, Chambers of the Boheme, just off Istiklal Street a few blocks south of all the action in Taksim Square.

The first morning of the training, I trudged out in the rain, my shoes soaked through within minutes, to find that Taksim Square was well and truly directly on my path to the conference.

It looked like a warzone, or at least what I imagine an urban warzone would look like.

Despite the wreckage of many days and nights of confrontation, it was calm and felt quite empty — and quite eerie.

This van had seen better days.

Just north of the square, I passed Gezi Park, which was packed with tents, very reminiscent of the Occupy movement back home.

A few blocks later I reached the conference center and went about my day meeting a great bunch of committed earth-huggers and learning to teach people about the realities of climate change. It was a bit surreal to be doing professional development in the middle of my round-the-world trip, but it felt right.

By the end of the day I had made new friends, and I went off to dinner with the delegation from France (only two of whom were French), an Indian, and Didem, a young Turkish woman passionate about the environment and very engaged in the protest. (She even made it into the New York Times — see her blowing bubbles on the bottom left in the happy pants!)

After dinner she invited us to Gezi Park so that we could see the community of protesters and understand that it was a peaceful protest. Before heading down to the park, she stopped at home to change clothes and grab her helmet, goggles and facemask. If I had been apprehensive about going into the eye of the storm, that certainly didn’t do anything to build my confidence!

So off we went to Gezi Park. It was packed shoulder to shoulder with people, but by and large it was a festive atmosphere — with a cloud of palpable tension. People were singing and dancing, on occasion chanting, and just hanging out. On the downside, Didem’s phone was stolen from her backpack, which disappointed all of us a little and took away from our overall positive impression of the protesters. There’s always one in the crowd. After making the rounds of the park, we left Didem at the Communist tent and headed back to our respective hostels.

Little did we know that was to be the last night of good times at Gezi Park.

The following morning at a dreadfully early hour, I headed off on my usual commute through Taksim Square, past Gezi Park, and on to the conference center. My new colleagues and I spent the day watching Al Gore present the updated version of the Inconvenient Truth slides in person (pretty cool!).

The truth is still true and as depressing as ever — but it’s not too late to take action! It was a long day, but we wrapped it up with a reception on a beautiful terrace overlooking Istanbul (which I mysteriously failed to photograph).

I left just as it was getting dark, and headed back to the hostel as usual. I didn’t get very far. There were a lot of people in their helmets and masks on the road leading up from the square, and I could tell things were getting tense. I decided to stand on a corner a bit out of the way and observe the situation before pressing forward. Good call. Moments later people started running up the street away from the square. And then I felt it…my eyes were burning and I started to cry. People who had been much closer to the tear gas were running by, their faces red, eyes tearing. One guy was foaming at the mouth and throwing up. This stuff is pretty nasty! I grabbed my scarf to cover my nose and decided to find another way home, NOW.

I had no clue where I was going, and had no map, but I knew generally that I should go west, south, and back east to circumvent the action and get to the hostel. I was counting big time on my generally good sense of direction, hoping it wasn’t clouded by the burning in my eyes and lungs. You can’t tell on googlemaps, but Istanbul is hilly. If Istanbul is hilly, Taksim is HILLY. So down a hill I went, knowing full well that every steep step down would later have to be matched with a steep step up. I meandered west for what I hoped would be a safe distance, then headed south on a main road. After a while, I saw a group of young people, one of whom was holding a binder from the conference! I joined up with them, happy to feel the relative safety of a little company — even though we were all wandering equally blind. Eventually we turned east, and headed up the steep pedestrian streets of a residential neighborhood. Laundry was hanging across the road from house to house, a comforting sign of normalcy on an otherwise crazy night.

We made it to Istiklal, the main pedestrian street leading up to Taksim Square. I saw the Swatch store and knew I was right where I needed to be. I parted ways with my crew and headed through the increasing crowds to my hostel a block or so away. I did take a few minutes to absorb the experience, observing this massive crowd of people peacefully standing for freedom and democracy.

With their gas masks, goggles and helmets, they probably thought they were prepared for anything. Not having any of that equipment — and being a bit of a weenie — I made my way back to the hostel.

Back at the hostel, we were all breathing a sigh of relief, sharing stories, and trying to account for everyone. Next thing you know, my eyes were burning again — tear gas was wafting into the hostel lobby! We all scrambled upstairs to our rooms seeking refuge. It was going to be a long night.

Only the next day did we find out just what a long night it was for so many people.

The conference organizers indicated that the conference was still on, so I headed out in the morning, as usual. A line of police were blocking access to Taksim Square, so I couldn’t go directly through the square on my usual commute route.

I noticed the burnt out cars had been cleared, but I knew things had really gone down ugly when I walked past Gezi Park and there was no sign at all that there had been thousands of people camping out there the day before. It was completely cleared out.

I pressed on to the conference center in the eerie calm of the morning, clutching my camera, but not bold enough to take pictures of the police. Except for the sleeping one.

Right at the conference center street, it looked like there was still some police activity going on, and bulldozers were busy clearing things up.

It was weird that the activity had reached so far north of the square.

Trying to stay one step ahead of trouble, I forged ahead to the conference. Good call. Cheryl, a colleague who came in a few minutes after I did said she had to dash between a line of protesters and riot police, with tear gas canisters flying overhead (that’s dedication!) The conference hall was half empty (not half full). We heard that some people had gotten to their hotels at 3 or 4am, some had not made it at all. Most had experienced the kindness of strangers at some point during the night.

The organizers adjusted the program to get us out early, but even then no one could focus on the topic at hand. It was still dangerous out there and no one knew if they would be able to get back to their hotels, the airport, or wherever they needed to be. Under the circumstances, the conference petered out and we all started to trickle out. Cheryl and I decided to get our stuff and relocate asap to Sultanahmet — I really didn’t want to hunker down at Chambers of the Boheme, with the grouchy owner and awkward common space — and tear gas wafting in at any time.

We came up with a plan: we would stop at Cheryl’s airbnb apartment first, pick up her stuff, then take the long way around to avoid Taksim Square to get to my hostel, where I would pick up my stuff and we would catch a cab to Sultanahmet. We picked up her things, and started down a hill, ending up on pretty much the same route that I had been on the night before — at least I knew roughly where we were going now. Before heading up the big hill the hostel, I suggested that Cheryl wait with her luggage at the bottom of the hill while I went up to get my stuff. There was no point dragging her and her luggage up the hill into an unknown situation, only to have to come back down again. I told her that if I wasn’t back in an hour she should just go to the Bahaus Hostel and I would meet her there later.

I once again headed up the hill through the residential neighborhood, admiring the laundry, watching kids playing ball and old ladies gathering to gossip. These streets seemed world’s away from the activity just blocks up the street.

I finally made it back to Istiklal. There were police everywhere, and everyone just seemed to be waiting for something to happen.

I scuttled to the hostel, told them I was checking out, and dashed up to pack up all my stuff. The grouchy owner was annoyed, as usual, even though I had already paid and he wasn’t going to lose any money by me leaving. “There are police everywhere in Sultanahmet too, it’s the same. There is nothing happening here today,” he said. Yeah, whatever — I was outta there! I packed up and headed out of the hostel, bidding farewell to my fellow conference attendees who had decided to stay put.

No sooner had I stepped out, than dozens of people started running from Istiklal past the hostel. Hmm. Back into the hostel I went, not sure what to do next. I waited it out a bit, aware that the clock was ticking with Cheryl, and then decided to head out again, this time taking an even wider detour to avoid this hot spot on Istiklal. I was about a block away when I felt it again — the burning eyes! Oy! I took cover in a laundromat, and the nice man working there brought me a glass of much appreciated ice cold water, all the while shaking his head at the situation. He had probably been closing and opening his door a lot in these past few days.

Once the tear gas subsided, I decided to make another break for it, detouring even further. I passed a lot of police, and almost got run over by this TOMA truck (probably filled with pepper spray-laced water).

From there on I was free and clear! I had ten minutes to get to Cheryl, and I made it with 5 minutes to spare (she says she would have waited for me anyway). Phew. That was an ordeal.

We hailed a cab, and were about to get in when all of a sudden our cab driver sprinted away — some rascal had just tried to rob him! Our driver was very fast, however, and he managed to get his money back, picking it up off the road while another man held up traffic. Needless to say, we were all exhausted and emotionally spent when he got back into the car. We finally headed out of the danger zone, breathing a big sigh of relief. Ah, back in Sultanahmet, land of happy tourists and persistent carpet salesmen.

The reality is that while I was scrambling to get away, hundreds of thousands of protestors were working just as hard to get to the very place I was fleeing, willing to put their lives on the line day after day for something greater than themselves. To witness this first hand was to see the best and worst of humanity: what people are will to do for each other (fight for rights, help strangers), and to each other (relentless police brutality).

Through it all, I gained a much greater appreciation for these protestors and all those throughout history who have fought against all odds for what they believe in, particularly those engaged in peaceful protest. Although I am clearly to much of a wimp to stand with them in person, I stand with the people of Turkey in spirit and hope they gain back the democracy (and trees) that they are so creatively and bravely fighting for.

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