This blog post is more like a scene from a movie – but it was real. It’s long but I hope it keeps you entertained (in a biting your nails kind of way). There really aren’t pictures with it – but grab some popcorn.
Istanbul is nothing short of amazing and despite this story it really is very safe. Istanbul is to date my favorite city in the world – big statement, true fact. I couldn’t see myself living there but I couldn’t see myself living in NYC and that doesn’t stop me from loving it. Istanbul puts NYC into the silly category for me. I’ve never seen a city like Istanbul. It’s the city that never sleeps but it isn’t about 90% of people rushing around to get to work and the other 10% rushing around for some other reason. It’s really, really hard to imagine but I came up with something – Istanbul is like Vegas – but without the gambling, without the desperation, without the fake-ness, without the cheesiness, with a whole lot of class, with a diverse culture, without very much drugs as far as I can tell. Oh, wait – it sounds nothing like Vegas – but it oddly is. It booms non-stop but in a great booming way.
Anyhow – but this story is more of a ‘Mark’ story – like a Mark from the old days story. Mark pre-Katie story. I say that for my old friends who will laugh and say “Oh yeah” when they get to the end – but, for my new friends and new family let me just qualify what that means. So, I used to have so much random stuff happen to me – crazy stuff – not bad stuff (or sometimes borderline bad stuff) – just stuff to come home and tell a story about – stuff that would start off something like this …… (and tip to Drutmans, Enriquez, Serota, Cooper, Josh and Mike A who are now like — OK, we’re ready for it)
So, yes, it started like this … I started chatting with this random Turkish guy.
You see, I was walking along the pedestrian only street in Istanbul where all of the action takes place. It’s mobbed with people apparently 24/7. There are musicians playing on every block, there are street vendors with chestnuts and candies. It’s cobblestone lined and there is a street car that runs down the middle of it ringing the bell to get the throngs of pedestrians out of the way.
From behind me a guy asks “Excuse me, do you have a light?” I turn and see a nicely dressed Turkish guy who looks around my age.
“Sorry, I don’t smoke”.
In Istanbul and in Turkey in general a sales pitch to a foreigner usually starts with a nice and simple question. They are never rude and it feels very rude inside if you are rude back. I learned this a couple of days into the trip. I thought this was a new spin on the old game when he followed up with “Are you from America” – but as noted, it’s hard to just walk away because you feel rude so I answered “yes” which led into the of course “Which state are you from”, “California”, which then lead into a conversation.
It became clear pretty quickly that he wasn’t selling anything and that either he was a really good scammer for something which I hadn’t figured out or he was a sincere young Turkish guy who worked for an oil company and needed to speak English for his job. He had studied but he enjoyed practicing conversationally.
Let me throw this out for my old friends right now – of course this story deteriorates – but at the end I am 100% sure that he was just what is portrayed above. He never becomes the bad guy in this story although it might lead you to think otherwise.
I will repeat that more clearly – No matter what it may seem I in no way believe that Hido (his name) for a minute purposely put me into a situation where I could have been shot by the body guard of a Turkish Pimp ………..
But I’m getting way ahead of myself.
So, back to where we were and what was happening. Now this road is close to a mile long and there are cafes and bars. I had originally been on my way home to rest and then to go to dinner but as we walked and as I thought more and more that he was a really nice guy he said – “hey, let’s go get a beer”. I saw no harm in it and so I said sure, and so we did.
It turned out he was a great guy. He was 32, He just had gotten engaged two days before. He lived in a rural part of Turkey and his family owned a farm – a big farm. 2000 acres, 200 cattle. He was a middle brother in a family of 8. His two eldest brothers ran the farm. He was the first to graduate from university. They thought he was a pretty boy and gave him constant grief over not working on the farm. His fiance was his love from when they were in high school. He had traveled the world a little, he lived in Brazil for 2 years and that was where he drank his first beer at 27 years old. He was real.
We were having a great time together – we bonded because my brother is a farmer and it made sense, we bonded because we were both engaged, we bonded for a ton of reasons. – talked a lot about work ethic, We talked about being frugal and not staying in over priced hotels. He wanted for me and Katie to come visit him at home – he wanted to invite us to the wedding which sounded like an amazing two day affair with 2 whole cattle from the farm for food and I really wanted to as well. In fact I really wish that shit hadn’t gone nuts and that we could go to that wedding!
But it did, and we won’t be going.
Let’s just say here that I’m really, really thankful that my phone battery was dead when I was going to email him and “whatsapp” (international SMS) him with my contact info right there and then …….
A little more background on him – he was in Istanbul for three days before heading back to Saudi Arabia – he loves Istanbul because of how crazy and party-ish it is where in general his life is pretty serious. It’s his chance to blow off steam. He asks me if I plan to go out that night. I tell him that when I was solo I wasn’t really planning on it but I wouldn’t mind going to a club and checking it out. In a moment which made it seem like a normal night club scene, he asked if I ever danced – I told him I like to dance. He told me he was too shy normally but that if he drank enough he would start to dance. All of this sounded like we would be going to a nightclub in the way that we think of as Americans. Oh – yea – he also told me at one point when I compared Istanbul to Vegas he said “Yes, but there are no strip clubs in Istanbul”. So, I’m thinking clubbing is clubbing.
Luckily, I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. He was already dressed club casual so he said politely – “well you probably need to shower and change – let’s say we meet at 9:30 in front of the Burger King at the square”. Cool. That sounds great. Thank God I didn’t say something like “Just cruise back and wait in the lobby while I change it will be 10 minutes.” Let’s just say it became really important that he didn’t know where I was actually staying.
BTW – a nice thing that he said a couple of times – almost exactly “BTW – I love my fiance more than anything – I am for sure 100% just like to look at beautiful women but never even think about touching.” He really meant it and proved it later but for me that was very important as well.
So in my mind at this point, in my mind, I’m going to a nightclub with a really interesting and good guy. We probably won’t even wind up dancing with anyone, we’ll probably sit, have drinks, listen to loud music and that’s about it. Maybe we will chat and dance with some girls but given what he said probably not – I won’t be pushing that agenda and from his shyness remark I’m thinking he won’t wind up either.
OK, again – thank God that we make the meeting place at the BK. I tell him roughly the area where I am staying and that I am staying at what they call a “pension” which is a small hotel – but, there are at least a dozen in the area. Point is – he doesn’t actually know where to find me (the next day or something ….)
Shower, shave, change. Out the door. At the BK. He walks up and tells me – “Ok, I asked my hotel desk and they gave me the name of 2 good clubs – if the first one is bad, we go to the second”.
Stop at the bar next to the BK and do a shot – not my normal but whatever.
Hail a cab.
Cab goes for quite a long time …. and longer …. and longer …..We’re leaving this part of town which is just blowing up – where it seems like there is music on every block and we’re going …. far away. But hey, I’m not that concerned. Hido has done nothing whatsoever to make me concerned so far.
Traffic at first, not much later. Stop. The “Club” looks like an empty restaurant in a two story building on a street with no other activity. On the other hand I need to note, people eat really late in Istanbul and I had thought from a bit before that we were pretty early for a nightclub given what I had seen of the people at all of the cafes? Still, my brain which was a little checked out (maybe from the shot? Haven’t drank hard alcohol in months!). Maybe I should have thought twice – but – I’m here, Hido got the cab bill – and – as he said – if the first club is a bust, off to the second.
First things first, I gotta pee – that was a damn long cab ride. That’s what I am thinking when we arrive. I get shown the bathroom on the first floor and when I come out someone points me through the empty restaurant up a staircase. Dark lights, club lights. There are 5 or 6 girls on the dance floor – it’s not a stage. They are all wearing skirts that would look conservative in the San Diego Gaslamp. Mid-thigh at shortest. Tight? Yes – but absolutely no skin showing higher than thigh. Not a strip club (nor did I think it would be since Hido had told me they don’t exist in Turkey). Also the girls are dancing like rhythm-less white girls – much more like dorks than like professionals but there’s something just not right about the place.
Hido waves me over to a corner table and there are 2 girls sitting with him. Despite the complete lack of skin and the fact that the girls are pretty average looking, something isn’t totally right. Hido is a good looking guy but everything he told me about himself didn’t add up to this. There are drinks on the table – a beer for me and hido, a couple of drinks in front of the girls. Immediately one of the two girls moves away and lets me sit down. Hido motions to make the introduction –
“Mark, this is ‘blahbla’ and ‘blahbla'”
True to his word I can see that while his ‘blahbla’ is running her hands on his shirt, he is doing his best to keep his hands anywhere but on her. I was only in the bathroom for a minute. This happened Waaaaay to fast to be a normal nightclub.
So for those who don’t know me that well I will let you know about something that those who do know me well already know. I hate strip clubs. Hate is probably not a strong enough word. I despise strip clubs. Sometimes I feel bad for strippers who feel they can’t do anything else to make money, sometimes I feel bad for guys who have no other outlet besides a strip club, sometimes I hate rich guys who pay stupid amounts of money because they have nothing better to do and sometimes I hate hot strippers who make stupid guys feel as if they are being paid attention to or who just gobble up excess cash from rich idiots.
Any way you slice it I hate strip clubs. Now, I was at a place that I didn’t even understand where I was. It wasn’t a strip club – no one was taking off their clothing. The two Ukrainians sitting with us weren’t offering us lap dances. It was so out of context and I was so many miles from anywhere – if I thought it was anything I may have thought it was a brothel/whorehouse, whatever you want to call it. I shuddered at that concept but at least this didn’t match my preconcieved notion of a brothel. Anyhow, I was pretty sure that Hido wasn’t looking for that (and he wasn’t).
So I just went with it – and we all started chatting and laughing and it was in many ways just like meeting some women at a club. ‘Blahbah’ was named Nadia. I talked with her enough to know this. I told her pretty much right away that I was engaged – although I assumed she didn’t give rats butt I made it very clear that nothing was going to happen and it seemed like everything was cool.
What I missed at first was the drinks.
The whole time I drank the one beer – on the other hand Nadia and her friend were drinking like runners driking water at the end of a marathon but it was way to late before I noticed. I actually got suckered in to the conversation – they were probably used to a certain part of their clientelle actually being in the bucket of myself and Hido – not wanting anything sexual. The damning part for us was that I didn’t realize until way too late that the waiter asked us – not them – every time if another drink was OK.
The drinks had to be mainly club soda – think like an IV attached to the table – by the time I clued in it was way too late. In truth we were there probably for 45 minutes. I think that maybe I was fooled thinking I knew what was going on and that I wasn’t going to participate in some ‘hooking’ which I maybe I thought was the goal at the end of the line? Still, it was getting old and I just wanted out. I said to Hido – “I have to take a piss, come down with me”.
In the men’s bathroom I confronted him – “Hey man, I know what is going on and we have to get out of this place now. I have no idea what those drinks are costing but if it’s $25 a drink we’re both in for $250 bucks”. He looked at me and he said something like this:
“I think it’s going to be a lot more than that. But we should get out of here. This is a nightclub, this costs a lot here in Turkey. Let’s just go upstairs, finish our beer and then get the bill and go”.
We go upstairs and start to say our goodbyes and Thug #1 approaches with the bill. Hido opens it. I’m going to flat out say I can’t remember what the actual number was. I can say this because first I was without question in shock – probably literally. Secondly it was in Turkish Lyra which my brain had to convert and the number looked massive. Unbelievable. Incomprehensible.
But there it was – 8000 Turkish Lira – roughly $4000 US. My math was fritzing on conversion, my brain shocked into not understanding, it was impossible to even ask what I was looking at. Apparently whatever the girls were drinking cost $75 US per drink and then there was some charge just for sitting at the table. Even at that it didn’t make sense – sure they were drinking like water – but how the hell did they even come up with that number? It was a situation where details went haywire – I knew that there was no negotiating this down to a reasonable number. If I were asked to give $500 US for the 45 minutes of chatting I would have probably thrown it at them and walked out but this wasn’t that – I didn’t have that money and I was in no way interested in blowing minimum 15 days of my $100/day budget on this nonsense.
I was so mad at Hido – hadn’t we talked about wise use of money? What did he get out of this idiocy? I swear he never touched the girl he was talking too! God, I could have found two entertaining women to chat with at any one of the hundreds of bars back in the thriving part of town and he would have walked away paying for a couple of drinks. What a freaking idiot.
But, we were here – in some dark park of Istanbul and neither of us had a credit card (thank god again – I for some reason only took my 1 bank card out of 3 cards with me).
Thug #1 was not happy with this. Thug #2 is set to watch us at the table and #1 comes back with manager/pimp.
Them: “We need your money”
Us: “We don’t have it”
Them: “We will drive you to an ATM”.
Rallied/shoved/pushed out the door into a White Mercedes with custom rims – 4 door. I remember this because I saw it screech past me several times later in the night from a street level view.
First ATM – I’m up first. Thug #1 pulls me out of the car although I perfectly OK going by myself. I fell him push behind me and I swear I feel a gun in his waist. UGH.
The machine maxes out at 800 Turkish Lyra ($400US). We’ve got a long way to go. On the other hand my brain is slightly happy that it didn’t just spit out cash. Something inside me is still radically mad about the idea of paying this money for a bunch of soda water. Thug #1 pushes me and tells me in broken English to ‘dip again’. luckily(?) The machine barfs in Turkish. Hido tells me it says something to the effect of one withdrawal per card. Thug #1 pushes him up and he takes out the max as well. We hand the money over to the thug.
Great – at this point we only need to go to 7ish more machines before they are happy. Meanwhile I am pretty sure that the max on my card is something like $800/day. Damn. Gun. Money. WTF. Damn.
My brain breaks. Hido is trying to talk to me – maybe to calm himself “Well, we both made a mistake”
Out loud I say –
Me: “No Hido, you made a big fucking mistake”.
Him: “Well, sometimes a great night is worth it.”
Me: “This was no great night – fuck you”. I feel badly for this even in this situation.
We stop talking. I’m so mad at him. I feel like he has have known about how this type of place runs – it’s his country and I’m guessing this is how it works here. I’m also sure this isn’t his first time, but as I stated earlier – I know that he didn’t set me up. His stress is real and he is too real. Maybe other places don’t charge so much? The whole thing seems nuts.
We pull up to an ATM. The car is about 200 feet from the machine but it’s obvious where the machine is. I open the door almost before the car stops and start walking up to the machine. My brain is doing stupid stuff. The machine is at a T-intersection with a one way street that is going in the direction towards us. I keep walking. I hear them walking.
I speed up.
I start running.
I run past the machine.
I speed up down the one way street.
very stupidly I shout something like “The US embassy will have a field day when you shoot an American in the back.” – probably one of the dumbest things I’ve ever said but I did say it.
I Run as fast as I can – the streets here are twisty and they are all one way streets. I try to run backwards at every chance – running sideways against the direction of the ATM but on the one way way streets as far as I can tell they line up. I can only go for about 5 minutes this fast and then I find a parked van that has double tires on the back with very little lighting on the road and I throw myself under the wheels close to the curb.
I can’t breathe any more but I am trying as hard as possible to be silent. The neighborhood is extremely still and while this plays in my favor that no one will come out and drive this van away with me underneath it, on the other hand it’s not a good spot to be trying to run away from some angry pimp and his thug with a gun.
I don’t have that much time to bother to think about how good of a hiding spot it is or if it makes much sense to try to keep running and find another one because screeching around the corner at the top of the block comes the white Mercedes with the fancy rims. There’s no question of whether it’s them – it’s whether they will see my shadow …………
Now my heart rate is more or less incalcuable. Every single click of anything I hear is one of two things – either 1) them around walking looking for me knowing that there is no way that I could have run too far or 2) The owner of the van coming to move it in which case he/she would probably start screaming if I jumped out or else I would get run over.
Tick, Thump, tick, Thump, tick, Thump. Heart, clock, clart, hock. Tick, tick.
Never in my life has is taken so long for my heart to return to normal. Never have I felt the same adrenaline.
10 minutes later – less screech, same Benz. Slow crawl. Adrenalin back.
I wait. I check my watch. I wait 45 minutes.
At the end of 45 minutes my pulse still isn’t normal. Nothing about my body system is normal.
I had charged my phone when I showered and I had put it on airplane mode. I had 15% battery.
I pulled up Google maps. Walking back to my hotel reads ………..
1 hour 53 minutes. In a relative labrynth. The streets are not straight in this part of Istanbul. Of course this is a blessing and a curse. I need Google maps to get me home because the lines aren’t straight, but since the lines aren’t straight there’s probably not a whole good chance of trying to find me.
Brain is still flipped out. I’m afraid to hail a cab. My guess is that the owners of the club are probably pretty in touch with the cabs in the neighborhood and I am guessing there is a cab APB on me. Pretty east to spot – 6″1′ bald white dude and drive him right back to the club for a decent reward. While I am guessing that the cab call wasn’t totally unfounded my brain also raced to think that the local cops might be on the take too – this may have been a stretch but at this point in my brain every car is dangerous.
The neighborhood is dead silent. I don’t like it. The part of Istanbul where my hotel is (the place that’s 1 hour and 53 minutes away) is crawling with poeple where I could disappear in a second. Here it’s me and the closed shops and dark apartments. I’m on edge. I walk for a minute and try to shake it off when I hear a car screech nearby. It sounds like it’s on the next block. I run over to a building under construction and hide behind a scafolding – I’m on their property but it’s an unfinished building. No big deal – right? The car doesn’t come this way. I start walking out and knock down a board or something like it and it makes a really loud noise that frightens me …..
And it also frightens awake the guy who must be the night watch guy who is sleeping in the half finished building. He looks more like a homeless guy and starts shouting in Turkish. I start walking away backwards with my hands up saying sorry in English. He’s a good 20 feet away from me, maybe more but he’s going pretty haywire. He clearly thinks that I was doing some serious wrong. There’s nothing to steal but he’s still freaking out and … he picks up a metal shovel with a full length wooden handle – and he starts to charge.
I can’t believe this is going on. I start to run backwards and scream because I can see his eyes and he isn’t messing around. He’s screaming at me. I feel like he may be mentally challenged for real because it seems like I am in the universal “I’m sorry, I surrender” posture and I’m pretty sure that if he gets close enough that his shovel is going to land on me. He is truly more dangerous at this point than the bodyguard was and I pretty tapped out and again – I’m running backwards trying to make sure not to trip on anything.
He’s getting closer and I can’t decide if it’s better to turn and run or to keep going backwards and losing ground. I just keep thinking that there’s no way that I won’t get at least seriously cut if that shovel hits any part of me – it will rip chuck off my raised hands at minimum but if I turn to run and he hacks it forward I am pretty sure he’ll land it right on my back. I’m screaming at the top of my lungs for help at this time.
Two guys come from out of nowhere – one grabs me and the other holds shovel guy back at bay. No one speaks English. My brain rushes to an easy explanation – Tulare (toilet) – I start motioning at my pants like I am holding myself to pee repeating Tulare and pointing towards the unfinished building now pretty far in the distance. “I’m American, I don’t speak Turkish, I just had to pee, please don’t let him hit me, I just had to pee and he started chasing me with a shovel”. I start crying – crying like nuts. I’m pretty shattered. The guy who has me is convinced thank God. He starts patting me on the back, the other guy is talking the shovel guy down from the ledge. My guy keeps his arm around my shoulder and let’s me walk away – he get’s me about 100 feet away and I thank him by bowing to him and start walking away. He goes back home or wherever he was.
(BTW – I told Katie the first part of this story the next day but she didn’t hear this part yet – sorry babe – I wasn’t ready to freak you out that much with this part but hey – at least that’s the worst of it?).
The rest of the story is pretty uneventful aside from the fact that I did walk the whole way home. I stayed away from abandoned properties and freaked out less and less as cars and cabs passed by but I still didn’t want to get in a cab – even as it got more and more full of people and cars as I got back to the city center. I was wearing shoes that weren’t made for hiking. Lots of the streets were cobblestone and Istanbul has a serious hill profile. Sure enough it took about 2 hours to walk all the way back.
The whole time all I can think is – did I ever tell Hido my last name? Had I given them my card at any point? Did I show them my passport? How much would Hido tell them and how far would they dig in to try to find me? My half was still $1600 and I am sure they didn’t take my escapade lightly.
I locked myself into my apartment for almost 24 hours. When I finally went out I wore dark sunglasses. I shaved my goatie. There are 17 million people in Istanbul. I looked over my shoulder for the next 2 days.
Happily the story ends with a fizzle. I’m guessing that Hido paid them whatever he could. I’m also guessing that he took the whole thing on himself without even thinking about rolling over on me. He was a really nice guy at the core.
It was honestly pretty stupid of me – that’s my feeling in walking away. But I’m also glad to have not paid it and without question I don’t feel like I ripped anyone off.
Here’s the take away – don’t go to ‘nightclub’ in Turkey and for me, for the next few days, I don’t care how lousy I felt like about it – I was an asshole to every other Turkish guy who started to have a chat with me on the street.
Let’s hope this is the very worst story from the adventure – but maybe you got a thrill in reading it too. And yes mom – I will try to be more careful next time – I usually am though!
UPDATE – A few people alerted me to the fact that this is a common scam – the links to the stories are identical to mine. Creepily identical. It makes me feel stupid, pissed and not so stupid at the same time. It also makes me know that running was the best thing once I was in it and that I was right about the taxis as well as the cops. These guys are really good. I’m not going to bother editing what I wrote but “Hido” was 100% the scammer and he was a pretty brilliant social manipulator as well – it sounds from reading the reports that the scammers are getting better at it as time goes on. For what it’s worth if you have any friends who ever plan to go to Turkey make them aware of this.