It was my first night in Istanbul. Prior to my arrival in the city thatspans two continents I’d been travelling without sleep for three dayson rickety old Hungarian, Romanian and Bulgarian trains. All I wantedwas a bed – somewhere to rest my tired and confused head.
As I searched for the youth hostel (which I eventually found on my last day in town) a man who spoke broken English approached me, enquiring as to whether I was looking for accommodation. It was clear that as a western tourist I had money, and before my departure I’d been warned to be careful of people offering bargains that seemed too good to be true. In this case the offer was of a room in his mother’s apartment for US$4.00 per night and despite my reservations I decided to accompany this man up through the streets of Sultanahmet. Upon reaching our destination I chided myself for doubting an honest man so gravely. All he had said was true – the Italian wallpaper, the beautiful wooden floor and the BBC on cable TV! Despite the unexpected luxury of my new resting-place, I felt a little uneasy in this unfamiliar household, and so set out to find a cheap hotel or hostel where I could stay for the following few days. Within a few minutes of stepping foot upon the road leading down to the harbour, a young man asking for the time stopped me. I apologised, for I did not have a watch, and continued to walk. “Ah, you’re English! He called after me with a Turkish-American accent. “Are you looking for a hotel?”
Cautiously I informed him that in fact yes, I was. It turned out that he was the owner of a hotel five minutes walk down the road, and he could give me a very good rate if I just take a look. Having established that I was just looking and had no obligation whatsoever to stay, I agreed to accompany him, and so we set off. As we walked he talked. I asked him for a business card, but Oh! – He’d left them back in the office.
“I’d usually have my car with me, but it’s at the garage today. Must pick it up tomorrow. How about we get a taxi?” he said as he flagged one down.
“I thought your hotel was just around the corner?” I replied, but it was too late, he was already giving the driver directions. It was then that I adopted the attitude of “Oh well, let’s just see what happens.”
Fifteen minutes later the taxi was stuck in traffic.
“We’ll walk from here,” my guide told me as I realised that I didn’t have a clue where on earth I was. I’d been so distracted by his incessant chatter during the ride that I’d barely noticed us pass over the huge bridge that spans the Golden Horn inlet. We were now in the New Town, an area I hadn’t even had a chance to read up on, so I felt it would be safest to stick with this guy even though I was beginning to doubt his story.
Up a couple of alleyways and out into a large street packed with seedy venues for soaking up your dollars. and it was into one of these that we turned. By this time it was about 9pm, I was almost drunk with tiredness and quite happy to follow my “friend” – providing I didn’t have to spend any money. I knew that someone was probably going to try to con me, but I figured I could deal with that when the situation arose. As my “friend was frisked by the security on the door he said something very quickly in Turkish, the doormen then gave me huge smiles revealing their yellow teeth, and waved me on in without hesitation. Once inside things became a little clearer. On a small raised stage were seven Russian girls wearing not too much, doing their best to look ever so attractive. My “friend” and I were escorted up to a table on a balcony overlooking the scene – I now appreciated that everything this chap had told me was a lie and in fact I was on my own! I considered my options. My mother would have told me to stand up, collect my jacket and walk out, but I reasoned with myself that that would be no fun. Also, providing I ordered no drinks how could I spend any money? – I was unaware of how scam really worked.
As soon as we were settled, exotic fruits, beer, champagne and sticks of carrot were brought to the table. Thinking no more of it I began to indulge, perhaps this was a courtesy snack. “Little do they know that they’ll get nothing out of me” .or so I thought. Our entertainment for the evening soon arrived in the form of two of the dancing girls. They must have been little over 18 years old, attracted by the large sums of money to be earned by hostessing (in comparison with wages back home in Russia). Within seconds of sitting down beside me my “partner” had her sweaty hands on my leg, which at the time I really didn’t appreciate – I was smelly enough from my train journey as it was! Having established that we shared no common language, when asked by the manager “Is the girl ok?” I replied that no, it would actually be kind of nice if I could at least have a conversation with someone in this dingy joint.
Soon afterwards, “Helen” was summoned from the dance floor – she spoke very good English. I’ve always been interested in how people who work in this kind of industry feel about their jobs, and so I set about trying to stop her using all the corny lines and instead to tell me about her life so far and her dreams for the future. It turned out she was actually a very interesting, intelligent girl. She had a degree in English and was intending to set up her own translation bureau – in order to do so she needed to raise a fair bit of money, and this was one of the quickest ways to do just that.
“Is it ok if the ladies have another bottle of champagne?” I was asked – the three girls had finished off several bottles by this time. It was only then that I realised that in fact everything was on my bill! However, I was now quite drunk and really didn’t care about money – as a result the drinks kept on coming. At one point I had a sip of the “Champagne” only to discover that it was the cheapest and nastiest sparkling wine to have ever been produced.
The night wore on. Things got quite interesting, even more so when the manager asked me “Cash or Credit Card?”.
“Well, it depends on how mush it is!” I slurred. A moment later the bill was produced. Now, it’s hard enough as it is to figure out how much something really costs in turkey under normal, sober circumstances. The exchange rate is approximately 1 million Lira to the pound, so the bill wasn’t immediately clear, all I saw was a large number of zeros following the number 18. However, with the aid of a pen I finally realised it was time to panic.
Â£1,800.00. I double-checked, and sure enough, it was Â£1,800… champagne, carrot sticks, beer and women. that’s three months worth of savings from Switzerland gone! Looking round I saw the door was rather a long way away, and security had become unusually interested in my table. I had no choice but to pay. It pained me to do so, but I tried to console myself by reasoning that at least it was a good experience and I’d enjoyed it while it had lasted! It had all been a complete set-up, but there was nothing I could do.The grinning manager informed me that my drinks were on the house for the rest of the night – oh yes, Very Generous!
My first night in Istanbul had turned out to be the most expensive of my entire life. Still, at least I knew I had a bed to go to, and that would only cost 4 dollars!
The following day I spent 6 hours in 4 different police stations trying to get them to believe my story. Boy would a bit of Turkish have come in handy!
*For the full story of his travels around Europe in Spring 2001, visit Joseph Tame’s website www.tamegoeswild.com