Friday, March 30, 2007

Grey Skies and Treachery over the Bosporus

I've been in Istanbul for 24 hours and already we have seen a lot - and had some interesting adventures. This is absolutely the quintessential East-West city, that feels as European as it does Eastern. It's quite a mix, with a really laid-back vibe and lots of astoundingly cool architecture.Of course, the Haga Sophia/Ayasofia and the Blue Mosque are the focal points, but there are beautiful little touches tucked in everywhere, from Byzantine forums to tiny Ottoman cemeteries, all with a view of the glittering Bosporus.

We arrived yesterday, and checked in to the cramped but comfortable Paris Hotel and Hostel, and then headed out to just look around at the sites. We ate at a nice little restaurant, but I think travel fatigue and and hunger made it hard for me to eat too much, so I headed back to the hotel and slept for 3 hours! Anyways, after getting up Joe and I headed down to the Istiklal Cadesi, the sort of Newbury St. or 5th Ave. of Istanbul, where all the young and hip people hang out. It was pretty neat, a very lively, happening street vibe. Unfortunately, it was also the site of one of our more alarming experiences so far.

Our first stop was a bazaar/cafe where we drank tea and Joe had the local Turkish beer, Efes. This young, sharply-dressed and hair-slicked guy in a seersucker blazer sat down next to us and started speaking Turkish to me. When I explained to him I wasn't Turkish, he switched into English and we started chatting. His "Iranian" friend joined us at the table - which didn't seem weird, since it was the only space in the cafe. They said they had an import-export business and told some jokes, which was kind of fun. Then they asked if we had tried raki, the traditional Turkish beverage. When we said no, they offered to show us a bar which had been recommended to them.

Thinking why not, we followed them to a place a few blocks away. We sat down in this bar with a dance floor and a lot of sketchy-looking mafioso tyes sitting around. They brought us raki, and then, as soon as they had, these four Russian hookers showed up, with a couple more on the dance floor. At this point we were getting nervous, and we started trying to bail out. Finally, we managed to get them to stop putting more liquor in our glasses and get the check - which was over 1000 lira!

Obviously, we were being scammed. If they couldn't get us to go with the whores they were just going to try and rob us outright. After some spirited argument we convinced them we only had 70 lira and they threw us out, shouting at us to never come back again. Not bloody likely, but at least we're fore-warned now. Turns out this is a pretty common scam in Turkey and the Balkans, and we were lucky to only ge taken for that much. All things considered, we handled it pretty well - but the guys who tricked us in the first place were Grade-A operators. We had no idea we were being conned until we walked into the bar, at which point it was just a matter of trying to weasel our way out fast enough.

This reminded me of another weird experience I had, this one in Luxor. For some stupid reason, I had only bought a one-way ticket. When I tried to get the return ticket the first day, they told me "come back tomorrow." The next day, they told me 'No tickets for FOUR days!" Alarming, to say the least. So I walked out of the train station, angry and worried, wondering how the hell I was going to get back to Cairo. Walking down the street, a man on a bicycle shouted to me "You need train ticket?" My first thought was "SKETCHY" but I really did, so I reluctantly replied, "Yes..."

His leather-jacketed, hair-gelled friend materialized and led me to a hotel on a narrow side street. Sitting me down in a dimly-lit waiting room, he told me he could get me a ticket for that night. "Black market, of course. 75 pounds." I thought about it and decided that it was at least worth a look. I told him the time and place I needed, and he sent his friend out. We chatted for a while, and he kept hitting on Emily, the girl I was with, and offering to buy my boots - I guess he really liked them...

Finally, his friend comes back and tells me to give him the moeny and I would have it in a hour. Obviously, this was bald-faced robbery, and we went back and forth for 10 minutes until he relented and walked next door and got the ticket, no shame at all that he had just tried to steal my money. It was a damn-convincing forgery, and so I decided to go for it. He warned me not to tell anyone how much I had paid, and so I joked and said 40 pounds, of course(the price on the ticket). This alarmed him, and he kept insisting that I pay him 75, the price he wanted, before he realized I was just kidding around saying that if anyone asked, I would tell them the marked price. Then he laughed and kissed me on the cheek - very mafioso indeed.

And it worked! The police officer and the conductor didn't take a second look at it, and the forgers were really clever about it. There were 60 seats in each car, marked like an airplane. But in the last ten, the markings had fallen off, so you couldn't tell which one was which, so that when the guy with my ticket showed up, he just sat next to me. There was no way of knowing the exact seat! I'm not sure how it worked out, because the train was full, but somehow it did.

So those are my sketchy adventures in the Middle East...hopefully I'll avoid more like them in the future. Still, live and learn!

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