Friday, May 01, 2009

Flashback Friday: Getting ripped off in Istanbul

There are few things in life that irritate me more than theft. Maybe it's the flagrant violation of the Golden Rule, or the greed of the perpetrator, but whatever it is, stealing just makes me so darn mad.

I'm sure that pretty much everyone who's traveled anywhere has their own story of getting ripped off. Here's one from the Bridget files for today's edition of Flashback Friday.

It was December 2004, and we were heading up to Istanbul from Damascus to meet up with Jeremy's brother and sister for a two-week Middle Eastern travel extravaganza. We had been living in Damascus for about six months at that point, and while we had done plenty of traveling in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, going to Turkey was going to be our first travel encounter with "The West," as it were. We were very excited to be visiting a country with a McDonald's, not necessarily for the predictable, clean food and sanitary western toilets (complete with toilet paper!) that we knew we could find at that restaurant, but because of all the things that usually go along with a country having a McDonald's in it.

Anyway, we arrived at the Istanbul airport, met up with Jeremy's sister, and made our way into the city via public transport to find a hotel (Jeremy's brother got in on a later flight and made his own way into the city to meet us). And find a hotel we did, probably one of my favorite hotels anywhere in the world: Hotel Sebnem in the Sultanahmet area of the city. The staff was friendly, the beds were comfortable, and the free breakfast on the roof of the hotel overlooking the Bosporus was excellent both in terms of the food and the view.

We saw all the sights, of course, but that's not where this story happened. This story of thievery involves, as such stories often do, a taxi driver.

Jeremy needed some new shoes, and Damascus didn't have what we were looking for. He had been making do with some ancient running shoes he'd brought with him from America, but they were almost dead and it was getting very uncomfortable for him to walk.

One evening while we were in Istanbul, a large, quasi-western city, we took the opportunity to visit a mall. We took a tram across town and then walked for forever to get there. It was as if the universe was just making sure that Jeremy got the message that he needed new shoes. By the time we got to the mall, his feet were really suffering.

The mall was very impressive, especially since we hadn't seen anything like it in many months. We found what we were looking for and, since it was getting quite late, decided to take a taxi home. In Damascus, taxis were cheap. We thought taxis in Istanbul couldn't possibly be that much more expensive...right?

Well, by the time we got to our hotel, we realized our mistake. The taxi's meter showed that we owed the driver something like 30 million lira (around $20), which was much more than we were expecting. Still, there was nothing to do but pay the man, no matter how upset we were about it.

Jeremy gathered our things to get out of the taxi while I shuffled through our stash of unfamiliar Turkish bills to find 30 million lira. I handed the driver one large bill, worth about $15, and then turned back to our stash to fish out the rest.

When I gathered the remaining $5 and gave it to the driver, he held out his hand again and asked for "the rest." I told him I had already given him everything. He said I still owed him $15. I told him I had given him that bill first. He said no, I hadn't.

My heart sunk. I knew exactly what he had done and I realized there wasn't a thing we could do about it. I'm sure that while my back was turned, he tucked the first bill into his pocket and then pretended we hadn't given it to him at all.

At this point, one of the hotel owners came outside and asked us what the problem was. We explained the situation and the owner and the taxi driver got into a very loud discussion, in Turkish. Apparently, not only had the driver stolen $15 from us, he had run the meter on the higher late-night rate, even though it was not yet past midnight. He was an all-around crook. They argued for quite a while and eventually, the hotel owner turned to us and said that it was our word against the taxi driver's, and there was nothing we could do about it.

I still didn't want to pay. Jeremy thought we should pay, just to end the situation. We were obviously very distressed. Looking back, I realize it was only $15, but in the heat and indignation of the moment, it seemed like so much more.

While we were debating about it, the owner did something I'll never forget: he paid the driver $15 out of his own pocket and sent him on his way (cursing him as he went). I couldn't believe it. It was such a kind gesture, a genuine one meant to improve the experience of his hotel's guests.

He refused to let us pay him back for a while, but I think by the time we checked out we had managed to give him back his money. And even though we still ended up paying $15 more than we had planned, it felt good to give it to our kindly hotel owner instead of a sleazy taxi driver.

So that's my story of getting ripped off. I'm sure you have one, too, and I would love to hear about it. My sister-in-law once paid way more money than she should have to use a toilet in Italy (it's those countries with millions of lira that are the worst offenders, it seems). How about you?


Liz Johnson said...

UGH, that irritates me to no end. WHAT IS IT with taxi drivers?? I actually slapped a taxi driver in Romania because he almost made me miss my train (that was the last one leaving to Bucharest, and I would've missed my flight back to the US if I missed the train) because he was so busy running up the meter driving around town. Once we got to the train station, I chewed him out in the best Romanian I had, and then as I leaned over to get my suitcase out of his trunk, he actually GRABBED MY BUTT. I smacked him as hard as I could, took off with my two (ridiculously heavy) suitcases, and got a round of applause from 10 or 15 people standing nearby. Strangely, that almost made the entire thing worth it. I literally had to run to catch my train as it was pulling out of the station. UGH.

Stupid cab drivers.

If I ever visit Istanbul (which is on my short list of places to visit), I will stay at that hotel simply because of this story. What a fantastic owner!

Nancy said...

How funny that we chose the same place to write about! My friend Sara just got back from Syria. She loved it and now we want to go even more!

How did you guys manage the whole Israel thing?

That had nothing to do with your post...

But what a nice hotel man! That is a great end to an otherwise icky story. I have too many cab rip-off stories to tell. My favorite one, though, is when Steven (from our Jordan group) ripped himself off on the first day because he didn't realize there was an extra zero on all the meters. That still makes me laugh.

He even had an honest taxi driver who was trying to give him correct change (well, some change at any rate) and Steven was like, "Sweet!" and then ran off leaving the driver with much more money than necessary and refusing to take any more change.

Cracking up funny!

sarah said...

I think Dave and I stayed at the hotel to get some rest while you two made your way to the mall and back. I remember how mad you both were and rightly so, but I also remember how happy you were for the hotel manager.

I also loved the breakfast on the roof, it is a great memory as my first morning in the Middle East.
I loved Istanbul and can't wait to go back. It was much cleaner than it's more southern neighbors

and Liz- how funny and nice work! i hope he felt that slap.

Andrew said...

My first evil taxi driver experience was also in Istanbul when I went after my mission with my parents in 2005.

The guy charged us the late night rate at 8 PM and the bill got up to like $20, $17 more than it should have been. He drove us out near our hotel, by the Fatih mosque, and refused to go any further, since he apparently "only drove people up to [whatever the $20 equivalent of YTL] was.

He even somehow locked us in the car with a child lock or something until we paid him his exorbitant fee. Yeah. Lame.

It's recurring adventure taking the meter-less taxis here in Egypt.

Jennifer said...

My parents and I flew into Beijing after they picked me up from my mission. The airport is quite a distance from the center of the city where we were staying, but we had been informed it was easy to get a taxi to drive you. Right as we were coming out of customs, this man (dressed in black) approached my dad about needing a ride into the city. He helped us with our luggage and then we had to walk out into a parking lot (past the taxis) to a nice sedan where another guy drove us to the city. It cost a little more than we expected and the next day we asked someone at our hotel how much a taxi ride from the airport should have cost and I think it was about half of what we paid. Looking back, it was pretty shady and I don't know why we fell for it. Oh well, at least we got to ride in a nice car.

OH, and then a few days later we asked the hotel to call us a cab. We were going to a certain part of the city where lots of people go on paid tours, but we were told we could have a great experience just walking around on our own. We told the hotel guy we just wanted a ride. We had been speaking to them in English for my parents sake, so they didn't know I spoke Chinese. I didn't hear the hotel guy talk to the taxi driver, but after we got in, the driver got on his radio and told someone he was bringing some American tourists and to get ready for a tour. I mentioned it under my breath to my parents as a heads up. Sure enough, when we got there, they were ready for us and haggled us to pay them for a tour, telling us there wasn't any other way we could see this area, etc. And we just walked away...

Susanne said...

I must say you have some of the most adventurous commenters and friends! I enjoy all the stories from around the world! Even the rip-off ones.

Bridget said...

Liz, you are AWESOME. I hope I would have had the guts to do the same.

Nancy, we just asked Israel not to stamp our passports and they didn't. They gave us a bad time about it, but there is no record of an Israeli visit (or corresponding Jordanian entry point) in our passports. Woohoo!

Taxi drivers make me mad. Not all of them, just the dishonest ones. Sometime, to balance it out, I'll have to tell the story of a taxi driver from Hama. It's a good one.

Chris said...

I am a bit of a sucker and I get ripped off a lot, so I usually remember the times I don't get ripped off better.
My favorite is when Anna and I were leaving Jordan and we paid a guy a dinar to help us with our bags. He was really nice and took us to a "special" entry into the terminal where we didn't have to pay the exit fee. We didn't realize he had done it until we heard other people complaining about it later.
I still feel like I go the best deal in the world when I think about it.

Hareega said...

I used to get ripped off in the US itself by "brothers". Cab drivers, workers in gorcery stores....etc would ask me where I am from and when I tell them I'm Jordanian they call me "brother" and starting ripping me off.

Steven said...

That sounds like a Jean Valjean. What a neat experience. Well... You know what I mean...

Anonymous said...

I had the exact same sort of trick played on me when I hired a car to take me from Amman to Aqaba. The driver slickly palmed a note and then claimed I hadn't paid him in full. So I was minus 10 dinars...

But I guess there's some sort of taxi-karma. I remember the driver in Alexandria who scrupulously made exact change on my paltry two-pound fare, and refused a tip.

Anonymous said...

This is a late comment, but I like a good story, and even better when I can share one of my own.

Mine is not a story of being ripped off, but a story of a very honest taxi driver. I was studying abroad in London, and one day there was a planned Tube strike (the British are organized--they have a strike for one day only, just to show the public what it would be like without Underground service. The next day, everything is back to normal).
However, it was difficult to find any above-ground transportation because everyone was forced to use buses and taxis. Traffic was horrible. A friend and I wanted to go catch a train for a day trip out of the city, so after much frantic waving on a street corner, we hailed a cab. We asked the driver how much it would cost to get to Victoria Station, and he said, "Oh, about 12-13£."
We got in the cab, and traffic moved at a crawl. We watched the meter tick up to 9, 10£, then 13, then 17, then finally ending at around 23£ when we reached Victoria Station.
My friend, Amy, and I began rummaging through our purses to try to find the extra 10£. We tried to give him the money, only for him to wave us off and say, "13£ is what we agreed to."

So, we didn't get ripped off, but I understand that a London cab experience is a much different experience than one just about anywhere else. Hooray for taxis!

ps--I think we went to the same Girls' Camp, at least for a couple of years at the beginning. Were you in Cedar Mill Stake?


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