Posted by: cousindampier | 29 December 2013

I am Dumb in Istanbul

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The steep hills of the Galata Tower rose behind me as I walked the bridge across the Golden Horn.  Late at night it was packed full of fishermen, forcing me to dodge lines and hooks and the poles themselves as they cast out into the Bospherous.  The bridge was well lit, and the Yeni and Suleymaniye Mosques dominated the skyline.

The way to my hostel in the day was nearly a straight line, through the steep cobblestone streets of the Spice Bazaar and then the Great Bazaar, but both were closed.  Instead of navigating my way through the backstreets of Istanbul, I followed the water – a longer walk, but it was hard to take a wrong turn when walking along the water.  You end up wet.

Istanbul is alive in pockets at night.  You may walk a few blocks and only encounter others who are attempting to get somewhere, and then you’re in the middle of street vendors and juice carts and guys wheeling carts around selling Salep, a boiling hot mix of milk, honey, orchid, and cinnamon, and advertised as the best drink to have on cold nights (it is).  Then, suddenly, you are again by yourself.

The Galata bridge is not a modern suspension bridge, but an older arch bridge built on piers sticking out into the water.  There is a small gap for the Golden Horn to flow through, and the piers are decorated with seafood restaurants, brightly lit in blue light at night.  It is a funny scene, as these well lit restaurants seem to be roofed with hundreds of fishing poles.

As I left the bridge and the docks and the ferry pier, I walked through darkness and then took a turn, heading uphill, when I was stopped by a guy in a nice white car – I think it was an Audi.  He asked me something in Turkish, to which my reply was a small smile and shrug of the shoulders.  He then switched to perfect English.

So we started talking.  He was dressed well and had a small goatee.  He asked me where I was from and why I was here, and as soon as I responded “I’m from a city near Seattle,” his face broke out into a big smile.

“Oh Seattle! I know Seattle.  They have lots of guns there.”

I was taken aback, because Seattle is known for many things and guns are not one of them.  I thought maybe I misunderstood and he said “gays,” but as I was about to ask him, he put his arms up in mock surrender and said, “Please don’t shoot me, American!” and laughed.

The guy then asked what I was up to.  I told him that I’d been out in Taksim and was headed back to my hostel.  As I said this, he shook his head no.  He was waiting for his friend and they were going to a club and I should join them.

At first, I thought the guy was being nice.  Mehmet was a random person to meet, and he bought me a beer.  The Finns were great people to talk to.

Yet as he kept talking, I realized the guy was playing me.  I didn’t really know what the game was, but the whole conversation thus far had been a sales pitch, and now he was making the ask.

The problem is that I wanted to play him back, and my ego is such that not only did I want to, but I thought I could. Whatever his game was, I wanted to win.

So I said, yes, and hopped into the car,

And his friend, who was hanging out by the ATM, conveniently showed up just at that time, and we started driving.

I was not paying attention to the first few blocks he drove – I’d sobered up quite a bit, but I was still just happy enough to forget.  As he kept driving, I quickly tried to orient myself so I could backtrack later.  And as I was doing this, he was telling his friend – shorter, bearded, but dressed well and speaking perfect English – that I was from Seattle and I might shoot them.

His friend found this funny, and turned to me, asking what I did and why I was here, and this is where I unknowingly saved myself.  I told them I was currently teaching english in Kazakhstan, and that I was in Istanbul to warm myself up for a few days.

This was received with a brief glance between the two men.  This reaction was something I’d started to notice over the course of the day.  I was not wandering around advertising what I did, but if people asked I’d tell them; and after I did, they always seemed to be a bit more kind.

Either people realized I was not just a rich American there to blow money, or the felt sympathy, because Kazakhstan was somewhere even they would not go.

The next question the friends asked was telling.

“So how much do you make doing that?”

I undercut how much I get paid by a third.  I stressed how much rent ways, especially because “We’re foreigners and when people hear that, they double the price.” And then I mentioned how glad I was to be doing it, and how glad I was I got to come to a place like Istanbul for vacation.

This got a further glance, and the car was brought to a halt.  The driver turned back to look at me.  His friend talked.

“Abram, we are going to a very exclusive club.  Are you okay with that?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “That sounds great.  I can’t drop too much money though.  What are we looking at?”

His friend smiled sympathetically.  “It will be at least four hundred per person.  Dollars.”

I had fifty lira on me, and a few hundred dollars at the hostel.  “Guys, I’ll ride to the club, but then I’ll be on my way.  I can’t swing that.”

His friend continued to look at me.  “No, you will get out now.”   He held his hand out and we shook and he told me good luck and I wished them fun.

As I got out of the car, the Hagia Sophia dominated my view.  The guys had saved me about twenty minutes, and I walked back to the hostel laughing to myself.

***

The next morning was Christmas, and I woke up horrified.  It could’ve been a straight-up robbery, they could’ve beaten the hell out of me, I could’ve found myself waking up somewhere totally unfamiliar, with somebody totally unfamiliar, and owing somebody else a lot of money.

The usual scenario, a guy from Belfast told me later, is they get you into the club, surround you with stunning women, order bottle service…and then disappear, and you find yourself stuck with a tab running into four figures, and all of a sudden you’re faced with the Jack Benny “Your Money or Your Life” question.

None of that happened.  I got out.  And though I don’t know who played whom and as much as I want to say it was me, it wasn’t.  I got a little lucky.  Teaching in Kazakhstan – quite literally, I suspect – saved me from something really dumb.

What I got from the night instead was a pretty good story.  It is funny still, in a horrifying way, and what I garnered from it is that vague lesson called experience – and a reminder that the old aphorism “only a fool profits from his own experience,” might be more true that I previously thought.

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