Surprise lessons from Turkey

Laura Wiens, The Triplicate

Mary DeMasters, 25, plans to enjoy the local Fourth of July festivities today while visiting her grandparents in Crescent City. It's a chance to celebrate her native land and immerse herself in crowds again - something she's avoided since she arrived in Del Norte to recover from some harrowing time spent in Turkey during that country's recent unrest.

The granddaughter of Tom and Virginia Walworth came here at the suggestion of her mother in Southern California, who thought DeMasters could use some quiet time. Soon enough she'll be heading home, and then back to King University in Bristol, Tenn., where she'll begin her senior year this fall as a political science and history major.

It was through the college that she got the chance to study abroad. She chose Turkey, arriving in January and staying until about a month ago.

"I wanted to experience a culture that was different than my own. It seemed like a fascinating place. Not a lot of people want to go there, and it's not where parents would want to see their kids go to."

She attended classes in Istanbul at Bahcesehir University and

lived with a host family. A Turkish woman, Lara, became her "Turkish

mother." Lara's mother was American and her father was Turkish, so she

could speak English as well as Turkish.

"It was an amazing

opportunity for me to learn" more about the culture. Lara would take her

to the homes of friends who wore burqas (full body cover), hijabs

(veils) and/or scarves.

Turkey straddles two continents, and

Istanbul is a transcontinental city divided by a shipping strait. "It

goes from big cities to villages with maybe a couple of cars, people

living the way they did a couple hundred years ago. It's such a


"From my apartment window I could literally see Asia.


the old cliche, the meeting of East and West. On the European side, you

see women wearing short skirts and high heels. On the other side, women

are very conservative. They are fully covered with a burqa, mittens and


"I had the chance to interact with a huge range of

people. So many people in this one little area. Anything you can imagine

people wearing, they were wearing it."

She got the chance to

visit ruins from the Roman Empire and Pamukkale, an ancient city in

southwestern Turkey atop travertines - terraces of carbonate minerals

left by flowing water.

"It's incredible. It looks like the surface of the moon or something. It gives me the chills just thinking about it."

Staving off the tear gas

Then the trouble began in Istanbul.


protests started May 31, triggered by the city's plan to remove a

unique green area, Gezi Park, next to the iconic Taksim Square to build a

replica of Ottoman artillery barracks and mall. The police cracked


"From there this grew and grew. Police used tear gas and water cannons on people who weren't even involved in the protests."


spread to other neighborhoods, including her own in Besiktas. "At first

my Turkish mom called me and said to stay in tonight. She said she'd

bring something home for dinner."

Normally there was always noise outside, horns honking, people talking.


we woke up the next morning, there was dead silence." Soon after they

could hear people chanting and could smell tear gas. They tried to keep

the tear gas out of their third-story apartment by sealing around the

doors and windows with tape, and then used rolled-up towels and more

tape when that wasn't working.

"We had no place to go. By Friday

evening they were shutting down all roads in and out of the

neighborhood. We would have gotten out but they were arresting anybody

they found on the street."

They could hear people outside heaving,

sick from the tear gas. It made their "eyes burn and throats hurt. And

it lingers with you for a couple of days."

"By midday things

started to quiet down. We planned to go to the market in our

neighborhood." People shop every couple of days for food. It's not like

in the U.S. where a trip to the grocery store is a once-a-week thing,

she said.

When they went out, "the streets were filled with

people. We were passing hundreds of people wearing masks and there were

big Turkish flags everywhere."

She got a call from her program

coordinator, who said to "be careful and to go home because things were

starting to heat up again." The coordinator told DeMasters that she

heard they were calling for strikes all next week, and bringing in

military-grade tear gas.

"I went home and packed everything I owned. We knew that once it got dark the police would show up again."


program coordinator came and got her and brought her to her house about

45 minutes away. "You could still smell the tear gas and hear people


From the balcony of the coordinator's home, DeMasters

was able to look out over the city. By Sunday at 9 p.m., "people

starting yelling, banging pans together, flipping lights on and off to

show support. It was an incredible noise, kind of beautiful, but sad."

By 2 a.m. on Monday morning, Mary was in a taxi on her way to the airport. She had to leave "before you couldn't leave."


turned out to be a good choice. Early Tuesday they tear-gassed the

university that I attended 'cause protestors were taking refuge there."

'Beautiful movement'


have been mass protests across the country, with nearly 2 million

people in 79 of the 81 Turkish cities attending, according to Interior

Ministry estimates. Four people, including a police officer and three

protesters, have been killed and more than 7,000 people injured,

according to the Turkish Medical Association.

Back in the United

States, DeMasters still thinks of her "Turkish mother," Lara: "She's

more proud of her people than scared of what's going to happen to them.

Out of all this chaos and pain, there's this beautiful movement


The Turkish people are starting to meet in the parks,

whereas before they didn't want to get together because "if you're in

groups then you're a target." People are coming together and talking

about "what they want for their future and what they want the future of

their country to look like."

"The Turkish government still has a

lot of power over the media. They've cracked down on getting information

out, but they can't control Facebook or Twitter. People are posting

pictures and art and stories of what's going on."

Even though DeMasters is still plagued by nightmares, she "absolutely will go back."


love Turkish people, they are amazingly wonderful and nice, so

different and fascinating. There's life and a vibrancy that I would miss

if I never went back."

Reach Laura Wiens at

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