The International Writers Magazine:

Istanbul - A Word Of Warning
Tariq Elkashef

It’s one of the most famous and most visited cities in the world. It has a night time skyline that ranks with London or New York, a collection of mosques, churches, and museums that will blow your mind, and a history so rich, wild and fascinating that even the most knowledgeable scholar will be left short of breath. It’s also home to a growing number of conmen, thieves, liars, cheats and rip off merchants. Most of them drive a taxi.

“This money is no good” says the taxi driver and hands a crumpled note back to the little old lady in the front seat. Beryl is 79 years old, and confused. She was sure she gave the taxi driver one of the nice new 50 Lira notes she extracted from the cash machine earlier that morning. Still, she hands over another 50 Lira note. The driver hands over some change. And drives away. Having switched Beryl’s original “good” fifty for a fake, the driver is now 50 Lira richer. And Beryl, has paid 60 Lira, almost thirty pounds sterling for the five minute taxi ride back to her hotel.
Each month, leading an overland tour from London to Damascus, this is just one of the increasingly typical stories I hear from my clients during our two day stay in Istanbul. Of course, you can be diddled our of your cash anywhere in the world, and I’ve come across attempts at note switching and other petty scams in South America, South East Asia, and the UK. But never with the frequency with which it seems be to occurring in Istanbul.
Taxi drivers are the biggest nuisance. If they’re not switching notes on you, they’re over charging, or over driving, turning a five minute trip in to a full tour of the surrounding areas and therefore a hefty cab fare. My clients are no fools either. Usually well travelled, embarking on an overland journey of this nature requires a certain adventurous, savvy spirit. Beryl for example is no novice, she has just spent the last month in Africa.
If you just happened to be passing through and you got “taken for a ride” , you’d be forgiven for putting it all down to experience, down to one bad apple, in a city of otherwise honest individuals. But regularly coming back you start to sense a conspiracy. Of my group of ten clients, two thirds of them were diddled by unscrupulous drivers in their first day (despite my warnings.) Going out for dinner that evening, I had to stop 5 taxis before I found one person who was prepared to actually use his taxi meter. It’s not that everyone that drives a taxi is a crook, just that all the crooks seem to drive taxis.
On one occasion, taking three clients to the docks for a ferry ride on the Bosphoros, the taxi driver began ranting when I gave him the 5 Lira note that I knew it cost. He got out of the car “this is an insult” he said, threw the note on the floor and stormed off cursing in Turkish. I think I even saw a tear welling in the corner of his eye. My clients were shocked and wanted to give him some more cash. I insisted they didn’t. Moments later, thinking we were gone, the driver returned. Picked up the cash from the floor and drove away, seemingly satisfied with his Oscar winning performance. A complete contrast to the furious, insulted man he was only moments ago.
Another scam involves taking “the long way”. When a driver will find the longest route possible between two points in order to extract the most cash possible from his fare. Again, not a trick unique to turkey. But in Istanbul, instead of taking you the wrong way down the high street for example, the drivers are perfectly prepared to drive you 30 minutes out of town, and back to a destination that was only ever five minutes away. This is something they do to me on a journey I might have made a hundred times. When I protest, the driver will always play dumb, or suddenly forget how to speak English, or occasionally, even Turkish.
It seems this is not just happening to tourists. One of my Turkish colleagues from Ankara also detests working in the city for the very same reasons. And the overcharging isn’t just restricted to taxis. I’ve heard of corn on the cob, cooked and sold on the street for a whopping 5 quid a pop. In Kumkapi, the fresh fish district (well worth a visit by the way), the menu portrays a list of mouth watering sea food dishes at very reasonable prices. However, the waiter will bring a tray of fish (of the same variety as the menu) to the table, and ask you to point out the tuna, salmon, snapper of your choice. When the bill comes you’ll find you’ve paid 4/5 times more than the menu prices because those prices only refer to a fillet of the same fish and the not the whole thing. Of course it’s not strictly a con, but it’s certainly misleading, and night after night customers leave the restaurants feeling deceived and unexpectedly out of pocket all to the complete ambivalence of the staff.
Pickpockets are also nuisance in the city. If you’re ambling through the main squares or photographing major site, be very aware of whose around you, and if you are part of a tour group, who’s tagging along. During some of our city tours, we’d find we had inadvertently adopted a Turkish tourist, complete with shades, an “I love Istanbul” t-shirt, and a camera dangling around his neck. He would follow the group, engrossed by what the guide was saying, looking away only briefly to deftly dip his fingers in the bags and pockets of my clients.
And the crime isn’t just restricted criminals. Driving across the border from Bulgaria into turkey, my bus driver had to bribe no less that five different police officers and border officials just to get across. At each successive checkpoint, the officer in charge would have him off the bus, and a few Euros out of his pocket quicker than you could say “EU membership”.
There may be those of you that consider yourselves too travel smart to fall for these basic money extracting techniques, and they are of course relatively easy to avoid. Use the menus, learn the metro system (easy AND cheap!) have a map and know where you’re going, convert prices back to your own home currency before handing over wads of cash, check the notes are good, basically.. use your brain! It’s simple, obvious and common sense. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that a fiver is too much for a charcoal singed vegetable. But the point is, it gets very tedious and extremely draining when day after day you have to watch your back. Most travellers are happy to pay the going rate, and no one wants the locals to lose out, but when you are continuously the subject of attempted cons and underhanded tricks, it leaves a very sour taste in the mouth.
No one can dispute the grandeur and majesty of one of the world’s most historically and culturally compelling cities, but what makes a place truly special are the human interactions one encounters. In a country otherwise filled with warm and hospitable people, the Istanbul experience is being tarnished by a generally accepted attitude between taxi drivers, street vendors, petty criminals and even some police officers that tourists and foreigners are fair game, and that the contents of their wallets are up for grabs.

© Tariq El Kashef
06 December 2006

"Tariq El kashef is the author and editor of The Online Egypt Guide for the Independent Traveller"

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