We were escorted by three waiters down a dark, cramped corridor, no wider than a door, with the smell of stale cigarette smoke clinging to the limited air. In shock, I muttered to myself, ‘welcome to Istanbul’. Only five hours in Turkey and I was already in trouble, a record by even my standards. The office at the end of the corridor was filled with the smell of stale beer, sweat and smoke so thick that I waved my hands in front of my face to clear the foul air in order to see across the room and guide myself over to an available chair in the office. I already knew that we were going to be here for sometime so thought I may as well make myself comfortable. I found myself seated across from an aggressive looking man behind a desk covered in a mountain of unsorted papers, ashtrays with ash overflowing on to the desk and packets of Turkish cigarettes. It wasn’t until I sat down that I noticed the doorman had joined us, his breath was foul and I could smell each individual exhalation from his large body. He was a tall, thick set man in his mid thirties in a long black leather coat. His jaw line was strong with large facial features and eyes menacing and dark, almost black. I felt a shudder down my spine when I noticed a gun placed in view on the desk. At this point I glared at my friend Richard who I held entirely responsible for the situation; “I knew it, I knew it” was all I could muster angrily.
I had arranged to meet Richard in Istanbul for the Easter break. I was living in Bari, South Italy at the time and the thought of being in a country that closes down over the holidays convinced me to go ‘why not?’. Richard was flying in from Beaufort, South Carolina where he worked in some capacity for the US forces.
The flight was uneventful and I was pleased to be off the plane and meeting Richard in the arrivals lounge. I love to travel, but have never been keen on the actual travelling. I was excited about being in Asia for the first time and had heard so much about the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Topaki Palace. A hair raising dash in a speeding taxi and we arrived at our location, a two bedroom apartment on Yolcuzade Iskender Cadasi near the oppressive looking Galata Tower; the very location where this holiday’s misadventure began.
We decided to explore the local area and find a place to eat and drink. Heading up the hill toward the Galata Tower we met a man who introduced himself as Abbas. “I will take you to a place to eat and drink,” he insisted, a little too enthusiastically for my liking. I immediately felt concern and wanted to walk away, but Richard insisted that we hire him for the evening as a tour guide. I agreed under the condition that if anything went wrong then I would hold Richard entirely responsible and he was agreeable to that. Abbas told us that he was a shoe maker, a business that he had been born into through generations of his family. He told us about Turkish life and traditions and some history of earlier oppression in Turkey and his hopes for his country joining the European Union in the future. His spoken English was good, he was teaching me about his way of life and it was interesting listening to him. I’ve always been a believer in that if you want to get under the skin of a new place and get to know it then you have to do it with the locals. Bar hopping commenced a long side streets off of the Taksim Square end of Istikal Caddesi and as the Efes Pilsner began to take effect, my initial concerns about Abbas the shoe maker began to escape; I was focused on my surroundings and intrigued with the atmosphere in the birakhanesi that we were in. The bar was colourful, lots of reds and purples on the walls and a group of men were playing guitars in the corner near the bar.
Later that night we entered another bar a long a badly lit side street with a doorman outside and a thick red curtain between us and the inside. I looked up to see the name of the establishment, but there was no sign above the door, which seems to be common in Istanbul. Within seconds of us sitting down, two Russian girls came over, asked if they could join us and sat down. The five of us talked about our native countries and our travels. It was similar to any other conversation that I have had when travelling with people from other nationalities, interesting and fun as we’d all seen different things, had different experiences and had different opinions on almost everything. We were all keen to talk about and share our cultures. The girls were very attractive, but sex was not mentioned, discussed or hinted at throughout. We drank lots and laughed for about an hour until Richard decided that he wanted to look for a place to eat. I asked for the bill and it was speedily presented at nearly the equivalent of 2000 US dollars. Richard never been one fond of spending money, went red with outrage; “I’m an American citizen and I’m not paying this!” I felt a twinge of embarrassment at his reaction and we were escorted from the bar to the office. I didn’t understand what the American citizen comment was in aid of, I don’t think it matters where you’re from, when you’ve been stitched up you’ve been stitched up, so deal with it.
The club owner, bouncer and Abbas spoke amongst themselves. Abbas offered to pay half of the bill and it soon became apparent that he was involved in the scam. Richard was not going to hand over the money without a fight until I pointed out the gun on the table to him; he soon went quiet. I handed over £400 as I wanted to leave and Richard was escorted to the cash point to withdraw money off different credit cards, while I waited in the office. I was handed a beer as consolation, the most expensive I have had. I felt relaxed and safe throughout the experience and never thought that I would come to any harm provided money exchanged hands.
On the way out of the club I noticed the two Russian girls seated with a couple of backpackers who were no doubt in for an expensive round. We had some money left at the apartment back up near the Galata Tower and decided to get a taxi and call it a night. Abbas by this point was well aware that we had sussed him out and realised that he was part of the set up. As the taxi pulled up he played the part of a man without money, convincingly perhaps, to some, and before I had the chance to tell him where to go he jumped in the taxi with us. Rather than cause an ugly scene we allowed him to join us with the intention of getting rid of him when departing the cab on Yolcuzade Iskender Cadasi. As the taxi pulled up on the winding cobbled street outside our place, Abbas jumped out of the taxi and demanded that we pay for it. I told him that this wasn’t going to happen under any circumstance and he left in the taxi with a trail of foul language behind him. Not a very grateful attitude for the money he and his friends had taken from us.
We spoke for a while about what we could do to get money for the rest of our trip and about how stupid we had been, or, more to the point, Richard had been and decided to call it a night. It wasn’t necessary to hurl accusations and argue and was more important to decide what we could do to salvage the trip and enjoy it. Neither of us would allow for our holiday to be spoilt by a bad lesson and misjudgement.
In the morning with sore heads and empty stomachs the reality of the situation kicked in and after an hour of discussion and attempting to come up with a plan the telephone rung. Richard answered the phone and it was the proprietor of the property wanting to know how we were settling in. I had to laugh as she got more than she bargained for, a step by step account of the night before. She agreed to come over and was with us within the hour, very apologetic and feeling sorry for us. The telephone in the property was set not to make out calls and she allowed Richard to call his credit card company from her mobile to increase his limit, which was relatively simple to do and money was available before the end of the call and I arranged for money to be transferred via Western Union by a good friend of mine. Once our financial situation was sorted out we went for breakfast and good strong Turkish coffee in a small café facing the Galata Tower and put the night before down to experience. As it was the place where we had met Abbas, for the rest of the trip Galata Tower was known as the ‘tower of doom.’
A couple of times we were hassled by carpet sellers to go to their shops at various tourist spots around Istanbul, but we had become cautious and apart from a couple of disagreements over taxi prices the trip went without incident. We asked the price of everything before agreeing and when the price later mysteriously inflated we refused to pay the extra. All in all I enjoyed my time in Istanbul, it’s a fascinating old and modern city and on both sides of the Bosphorus river, immense in size. Great places to eat and drink and a culture as different as its coffee made Istanbul a great place for me to visit.
It was like a slap in the face when I read warnings in the practical advice section in the guidebook. It was a word for word account of what had happened to us the previous night. My advice is read the guide and research a destination before you depart, they’re written with you in mind. I’ve read about quite a few similar incidents like this happening in Istanbul, but don’t let these put you off the travelling experience to a new destination is different for us all.