Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Our Own Odyssey: While It's Not Exactly How Odysseus Did It, He Could Have Learned a Thing or Two on This Aegean Journey from Istanbul to Athens

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Our Own Odyssey: While It's Not Exactly How Odysseus Did It, He Could Have Learned a Thing or Two on This Aegean Journey from Istanbul to Athens

Article excerpt

On an early September evening in the Aegean, somewhere between the Greek island of Lemnos and the mainland, seven gay men and everyone's new bestie, singer Abigail Zsiga, are literally hanging out over the bow of a gorgeous clipper ship. We are tanned from the day and tipsy on mai tais, laughing and taking pictures as we zip over the deep blue toward the horizon under fiery slashes of an orange and pink sunset. We're hanging on tightly to our smartphones, as there's no going back for anything that falls through the thick rope net that holds us up over the flashing sea 30 feet below.

This moment is exactly the kind I'd hoped the trip would offer. I didn't think twice when offered the chance to board that dramatic SPV Royal Clipper again--it had provided immeasurable relief to my polar-vortex doldrums in the Caribbean in 2014--and this time it was for a Brand G cruise from Istanbul to Athens, with Turkish and Greek ports, on the mainland and islands, for an entire week.

The trip featured a ton of upsides: an all-LGBT cruise (nearly all gay men, one lesbian couple), a truly romantic tall ship (based on the Preussen, a famous German five-mast windjammer, circa 1902), ports of call including some significant sites of antiquity, a relatively small passenger manifest (just 227 at maximum), and ports that the big cruise ships don't have access to, making the experience more about sailing and the destinations, and less about cruising.

But not all can be perfect. There's inherent risk in traveling, and sometimes world events get in the way of even the best-laid plans: Between the booking and setting sail, a shocking coup d'etat was attempted in Turkey, against state institutions and the repressive government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, organized by a faction of the Turkish Armed Forces. The faction attempted to seize control of key cites in Ankara, Istanbul, and elsewhere, ultimately failing, but not before 300 people were killed and more than 2,000 were injured. Since the coup, 40,000 people have been detained, including soldiers, judges, and teachers. I had to think hard about my own safety but also the safety of any LGBT visitor to whom The Advocate might recommend a destination. And Turkey was not currently an uncomplicated destination. Istanbul is a vibrant cosmopolitan metropolis, and Turkey is a secular state, but a coup is a coup, and the shift toward religious extremism tinged the coup and Erdogan's response.

Brand G, the gay-travel company chartering the ship, was quick to inform and protect the welfare of the passengers. "We are working closely with our land providers and port security to minimize risks in Turkey," Jeff Gundvaldson, owner and operator of Brand G, told me a month before departure. "We plan to break up our [pre-departure] Istanbul tours into smaller groups to avoid drawing too much attention. Our ground operators will also implement other security measures to help keep our guests safe. For those who wish to avoid spending time in Istanbul, we have made it easy for them to go directly to the ship for boarding."

Ultimately there were no incidents, on a large or small scale, and no one was harassed or troubled in Istanbul. But because of decreased tourism from the West, I experienced something I never thought I would feel, at least not in any major city in the 21st century: the sensation of being the only Westerner in a place. (Obviously I wasn't, but nevertheless I could imagine myself traveling in a pre-globalization Turkey.) My husband and I visited the most famous tourist destinations--the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar, the intricate Blue Mosque, the sprawling Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern with its inscrutable Medusa heads, and the Hagia Sophia--but never lined up for tickets or fought crowds to see the sights. And walking down istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul's famed high street down from Taksim, I saw Turks and visitors from Arab states but no obvious North Americans or Europeans. …

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