Okay, that’s a strong way to start off a blog post. For the record, I wasn’t mugged, held up at gunpoint, or bashed over the head, but I was certainly tricked and forced into a situation that cost me a lot of money. It certainly felt like a robbery as it was all going down. Here’s what happened.
I had been in Istanbul for four days, and mostly confined to walking around the Sultanahmet area which is where my hostel was located. This part of Istanbul has all of the top spots people come to see, such as all the stuff in my previous post. However, this area is also filled with touts and scam artists. A tout is someone who aggressively solicits people in an annoying manner to either buy a product, visit a restaurant, or hire them for some service such as a taxi or guide. Often in the case of taxis and guides, the tout will also include a stop to a shop where you’ll get the high pressure sales treatment to buy overpriced junk. In the worst cases, an airport taxi tout will not take you to your hotel, but instead to a different hotel where he gets a commission for bringing you there. The Sultanahmet neighborhood is also filled with overpriced restaurants that have terrible food and drinks. After my first three days in this area, I was fed up with it. I actually hated being in Istanbul, and wanted out. I knew there was more to Istanbul, though, and had to get out of where I was staying.
I decided to go for a walk one night, and went across the bridge to the other European side of Istanbul. I was feeling really good that night for some reason. This area I was in didn’t have any touts, but was still well populated, and filled with shops and cafes. The area has a famous spot called Taksim square, and it really felt like it could be in any major city in Europe. I took the photos you see above and below, and was enjoying the cool evening air. I felt like I had turned a corner on my trip to Istanbul, and things would be better from that point on. Then a got a reality check.
As I was walking along minding my own business, someone walking in the same direction as me pointed ahead and asked a question in Turkish. I just looked at him blankly kind of shaking my head, and he realized I wasn’t Turkish. He apologized, and then started to walk on, but paused and looked back and asked where I was from. I told him the US, and the state of Ohio. He said his english teacher was from Ohio. We began walking together and talking about Istanbul and why we were each there. His English was pretty good, and he said he was from the capital, Ankara. He was here with his sister visiting friends for a few days, and knew the city quite well. I told him about my trip, and how I had been in Turkey for a few days already. This carried on for about ten minutes as we walked down one of the main streets in the area. He indicated he was meeting some friends, and asked if I wanted to join them. I was finally experiencing some of the famous Turkish hospitality I had heard about. I hadn’t met any Turks outside of the hostel workers, so it was kind of cool to meet someone so randomly.
I agreed to join my new friend, and we end up in this nightclub playing really loud music. I hate these places, but figured I’d meet some interesting people and learn more about Turkey. We ordered a couple beers and just sat back and relaxed. After about five minutes, two very attractive girls sat down next to us and started talking and wondering where we were from. My red flag went off, because I remember hearing about a scam that starts off this way. We bought the girls drinks, and that’s when I realized what was possibly happening. There’s a scam I read about when I was in the Czech Republic where a pretty girl sits down next to a single guy in a bar, and asks him to buy her a drink. The guy says yes, and four or five drinks later, the waiter brings the bill over. The poor guy soon realizes that he’s in the whole for hundreds of dollars because each drink is ridiculously overpriced. The next thing I noticed, my Turkish friend ordered a plate of snacks. I got his attention then and told him what I thought might be going on. He told me not to worry and that’s not what was happening. The girls wanted to dance and so we did that, and they ordered more drinks. I leaned into my friend again to say we really should see what the cost of these drinks are. He conceded, and asked for the bill. It was over 1,200 turkish lira which is like $700. I was so pissed-off at myself for falling for such a scam. My Turkish friend was pissed as well, and we talked it over and agreed to split the bill. The waiter wouldn’t take our cards, probably out of fear we’d refuse the charges later. I wasn’t carrying that much cash, and neither was my friend. He said he would go to an ATM while I waited, and then I could go to the ATM when he got back. That’s when it hit me… he was in on the scam as well. If I let him go first, he would never come back, and I’d be stuck with the whole bill. I said I would go first instead in order to avoid him just running away and me being stuck for the whole bill. I then argued with the waiter/bouncer guy about the obvious scam this was. He seemed offended, but “offered” to knock of a couple hundred dollars and give me a free beer. I just wanted the hell out of there at that point, and turned down the free drink. I was then escorted to an ATM where I was forced to withdraw my share of the tab.. around $250-$300 USD. I felt like running away, but I was in their country and didn’t speak Turkish. They could yell out to the cops or other passers by that I was trying to skip out on the bill. I was pretty scared to be honest, so I got the money out from the ATM, handed over, and just took off. I didn’t run, just walked fast. I was feeling a lot of emotion… anger, stupidity, embarrassment. It’s hard for me to even write about it, because I should be smarter than that after months of endless travel. How could I be so incredibly naive? I went over the whole experience in my head on the 40 minute walk back to the hostel. I became convinced that the guy was in on the whole scam. He and the girls, as well as the bar made a nice little profit off me for about 45 minutes of work. Once I got back to the hostel, I researched Istanbul scams and found a scenario describing exactly what had happened to me. The site I found even said it usually happens near Taksim square which is exactly where I was. It’s called the “Girl Drink Scam”, and usually starts with a Turk asking you for directions in Turkish, and then apologizing when he realizes you’re a foreigner. You end up talking because you’re a solo traveler looking to meet people. The scam artists prey on this. It totally came in under my radar since it started with meeting someone randomly on the street, and I had total freewill to enter that club with him. The scam also relies on your sense of not wanting to be a dork and ask the cost of a drink in front of the pretty girl sitting next to you. How much could it be anyway? In Turkey, the girl drink is the kiss of death for your wallet. I’m glad I handled it the way I did, though. I’ve read some people refuse to pay and are taken into a back room and roughed up. I argued just enough to get the bill dropped, but not so much that I got hurt.
So that’s my story. On the bright side, I wasn’t injured. I didn’t have to report stolen credit cards to my bank. I didn’t have to go to the American embassy and report a stolen passport. I didn’t have to call my cellphone provider and report a stolen phone. The damage was done, and I learned a valuable lesson. In general, anyone approaching you unsolicited speaking English pretty well in a foreign country should not be trusted. Since Istanbul, I’ve had similar situations arise, and I shut them down early on.
So you can see why I hated Istanbul and will likely never go back. I know it’s not fair to judge an entire city for the actions of a few, but when I add up all my bad experiences, it’s how I ultimately feel. There’s not much logic to it, just raw emotion. Besides, I can easily think of a hundred other places I’d rather see or go back to than this place.