It's good that Turkish Airlines automatically upgraded me to business class, with pleasant flight attendants, spacious seats, complimentary lemonade, and the opportunity to write this note.
Two days ago, I flew from Houston to Minsk with a layover in Istanbul. I had a 20-hour layover in Europe's largest city (20 million people) with a deep history and culture. With anticipation, I booked a three-star hotel with breakfast in the Old City of Istanbul, overlooking the Blue Mosque. The hotel cost $12, which is important to understand the current prices in Istanbul. Breakfast is 15 lira, lunch is 25 lira, taxis are cheap, and Uber is prohibited. The exchange rate of the Turkish lira to the dollar is approximately 4 lira to one dollar.
When the plane descends into Istanbul, the coastline of the sea becomes distinctly visible. Istanbul is situated on the Bosphorus Strait, connecting the Mediterranean and Black Seas. When you see the beaches and the beautiful transition of transparent water into the depths from a bird's-eye view, you want to put on a mask, fins, and dive into this enticing sea right from the plane. But it's winter outside, and I have only one evening to explore the former capital of the Roman Empire (330–395), the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453), the Latin Empire (1204–1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453–1922). Previously, this city was called Byzantium, then Constantinople, and now it is Istanbul.
photo from the Internet
The adventures began at the airport. I met a very friendly Turk who engaged in lively and interesting conversation, and he even offered to give me a free ride for half the distance. Later, he hailed a taxi for me, negotiated with the taxi driver, and I was quickly and fairly taken to the hotel. I had never encountered such hospitality in Belarus or Houston, and I instantly liked Turkey from the very first hour of my visit.
I checked into the hotel. It was already dark, around 7 in the evening, and I was in the old city, surrounded by landmarks, mosques, hotels, shops, and cafes. The temperature was around 0 degrees, with either snow or rain, and I went for a walk to find some kebab for dinner.
my photo the next morning
The first things I quickly encountered were homeless cats and dogs, as well as the unpleasant weather. Perhaps due to the weather and the off-season, there was no one on the street at this dark hour. Around the corner, there was a café with a sign that read: 'Hot Beer, Lousy Food, Bad Service, Welcome!' It sounded bizarre, but many years ago at a ski resort in Poland, I used to love hot beer with honey, so I believed that they served warm beer. And since the weather outside was unpleasant, I was already half on the threshold when a Turkish man called out to me in Turkish
The Turkish man had a white Renault. He was dressed very decently, like all Turks. He was around my age and very, very talkative. I had forgotten about the Turkish bazaars with eloquent and friendly sellers who are eager to sell you something at any price, so no 'red flags' appeared. It turned out his name was Nazar, and he spoke Russian fluently because his wife is Russian. Nazar was in Istanbul for business, buying cigars for his store in the city of Izmir. He spoke Turkish, Russian, English, and Italian. He made a good impression. If it weren't for the incident at the airport with the genuinely helpful and honest Turk, I might have just had a warm beer and gone to sleep, but curiosity got the better of me.
Nazar loves Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, but especially Belarus. He told me a lot about his visits to Belarus, with many details. Unfortunately, it was about sex tourism. In Turkey, they are Muslims, in Russia, they are Christians. Sexually obsessed (not all, but those obsessed) Turks prefer girls from Russia because they are more accessible, especially 'consumable' ones. Trading is in the genes of Turks, and that means they have a very persuasive way of talking. Mr. Nazar professionally instills trust and sweet-talks people, especially 'suckers' who haven't been scammed yet. That evening, I found myself in the role of a sucker. I was curious, only spending one evening in Istanbul, and the Turks seemed hospitable right from the airport, so I believed that my new acquaintance Nazar just wanted to chat. Naive as it may sound, I went to have tea with him. As I later read on the internet and heard from two Australians to whom I told this story, I fell victim to a common scam called Let's have a drink, which is prevalent in major European cities and especially in Istanbul. ..
screenshot of the website www.turkeytravelplanner.com
How it works: There are entire websites in English on the internet with stories of people who fell for this bait. I'll say right away that they aim to 'extract' a quite substantial amount from naive tourists, more than a thousand dollars. They tried to swindle me out of $1,800 that evening. In general, we were having tea, and in Turkey, a tea party is a big tradition. I was asking him about Istanbul, about Turkey, and he was happily sharing. That's how half an hour passed. He paid because it's the Turkish way, insisted on paying for my tea. And the story began, which ended 4 hours after our tea party.
photo of "free" food
I was hungry and asked where I could find delicious kebab. My new acquaintance, Nazar, had managed to gain my trust to the extent that when he suggested giving me a city tour in his car, including a visit to a good Turkish restaurant frequented only by locals, I agreed. Although, in my defense, I must admit that I was cautious. According to Nazar, Istanbul is gigantic, larger than New York, equivalent to two Belaruses in terms of population. On the Bosphorus, there were dozens of cargo and cruise ships, tall mosques, upscale neighborhoods, regular neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, and vibrant nightlife. We arrived at a cafe, had a delicious meal, and played four rounds of backgammon. I won two, and he won two. In the meantime, we had another five cups of Turkish tea. It's a tradition, after all. It was fun, and Nazar's friend, also a Turkish man, joined us. Since I hadn't been 'scammed' before, I didn't raise a 'red flag.' I should have.
After some time, the guys suggested going somewhere to have some Raki and then head home. I was catching a cold, and they insisted that Raki would cure me. At that moment, I thought I was lucky: to experience so much in just one evening in Istanbul, and how hospitable these Turks were, not at all like what they say about them on television. The next morning, I had to catch a flight to Minsk, which I'm currently on, so I agreed to stop by for 20 minutes to have some Raki (you can't refuse a person who has already 'done so much for me'). So, we ended up at a nightclub - dimly lit, with waiters in their 50s-60s in suits, all Turks, with stern faces, not smiling but doing their job professionally and earning respect. There were 20 girls on the dance floor, each one more beautiful and sexy than the other, while the male patrons sat at private tables sipping expensive alcoholic drinks. As I later found out, all the girls were 'consummation girls,' all from the former USSR republics. You can easily find job offers in the consumption industry in Turkey, reviews about this type of work, reviews about employers, and more on the internet. These girls earn a base salary starting from $1000 plus commissions. The atmosphere in the club was pleasant, cozy, and inviting. I haven't encountered this format in Minsk or especially in the USA. I blossomed because getting into an entirely new type of club at sunset and gazing at beauties while sipping Raki is great.
photo from the Internet, which was found by Alexander Vladyko
My new Turkish friends ordered a bottle of Raki and some light snacks, along with three girls who joined us for casual conversation. I got a girl from Uzbekistan—she was a beauty, to say the least. These girls came to Turkey for work and are employed by this establishment. Their job is to dance and keep company with men, entertain the stronger sex. You can hug the girls, talk to them; they listen very professionally. Sex is not implied, it's a different format. I suspect that 'Consummation' is somewhere between being a dancer and being involved in prostitution.
We were having a nice time, chatting. Waiters approached and offered champagne to the girls, my friends nodded 'yes,' and looking at them, I also nodded 'yes.' An hour went by. During this time, my Turkish 'friend' Nazar tried to get me drunk, but I held my ground and stayed sober. 'Yellow' flags started to appear, and the level of perceived danger increased. The girls had three glasses of champagne each. An interesting detail, I don't know if it's related to the business of scamming tourists, perhaps it's Nazar's personal quirk, but he asked to look at my photos on my phone, and since I had nothing to hide, I gave him my phone, and he looked at my photos. I don't understand what he was trying to find there – it's probably his fetish or he was trying to estimate how much he could scam me for. And he decided that he could steal 7,000 lira from me, which is significantly around $1,800.
Whether we sat for a long time or a short time, they brought the bill, and it turns out that according to Turkish tradition, when men sit with ladies, the bill is split evenly. And my share turned out to be 7,000 lira, and even the owner of the establishment (a real mafia-looking guy) came to collect payment. My Turkish acquaintances gave their cards and 'paid' their shares. In my mind, I calculated because I couldn't believe my eyes that everyone was waiting for me to pay 7,000 lira. I had 45 lira in cash and a couple of cards – a credit and a debit card. Everyone was waiting and looking at me: my two friends, three girls, the waiter, and the owner of the establishment. I realized they might start using force. I gave them my card but entered the wrong PIN, then pretended I didn't understand anything and that I had no money at all. I told my 'friends' that it's not customary in our culture. If Nazar came to Minsk, I would have definitely warned him that a glass of champagne costs $300. I asked Nazar to pay for myself, and I would send the money via Western Union the next day. They showed me the menu, and the same menu was on the wall, and indeed, a glass of champagne for the girls costs $300. Everyone was looking at me, the waiter and the owner began to express dissatisfaction and demand their money, raising their voices. My Turkish acquaintances played along; for them, it was a regular bill. We were in an expensive elite club, they paid their share, and I also had to pay, or else I would be 'cheating' them, and I would be a very bad person. The girls were also looking at me and waiting. The bar owner made a face like in 'The Godfather' movie, hinting that serious trouble would start any moment. It was already past midnight, and in Turkish, I couldn't understand anything, and everyone looked intimidating. What should I do?
I refuse to pay and declare myself bankrupt. They rudely invite me to a special room designated for resolving disputes, portraying me as a buyer who refuses to pay a legitimate bill, although this is clearly robbery. They apply pressure, make threats, and demand to see my wallet and try all my cards. I managed to remain completely calm and repeated one phrase: 'I'm bankrupt, I have no money, I can't pay. Let my friends pay, and I'll send them the money via Western Union. Let's invite the police to record this incident.' This goes on for 10 minutes. Then the owner of the establishment starts lowering the price from $1800 to $1000, then to $800, then $700, then down to $500, and finally, everyone agrees that if I go to an ATM and withdraw 500 lira, we will settle, and my Turkish friends will cover the rest of the debt. That's how this scam works, and there are many stories on the internet of Europeans and Americans who fell victim to it. Some are even less fortunate, as they are drugged, beaten, threatened with weapons, forced to reveal their PIN codes, and money is withdrawn from ATMs and terminals. Of course, all the cash is taken as well. However, the primary scam is built on making the victim believe that a $300 bill for a glass of champagne is legitimate, and they should voluntarily pay to avoid trouble. That's why it's crucial to convince these scammers that you have no money.
Screenshot of a map of the area where the club is located
On the way to the ATM, two Turks were accompanying me, presumably to prevent me from escaping. I spoke with them, invited them to Houston and Minsk as guests, assured them that I would show them great clubs, introduce them to friends, and expressed my gratitude for meeting Nazar, stating that he was a wonderful person, and I would remember this for life. In the end, they decided to let me go, but I insisted and gave them 40 lira to somehow compensate for their losses, all the cash I had on me. One of the Turks didn't want to stoop so low and accept 40 lira, but the other took it. Then I quickly jumped into a taxi and left. At that moment, I had developed a strong dislike for the Turks.
But ironically, the taxi driver turned out to be such a kind-hearted, cheerful Turkish man. He smiled warmly, chatted with me, dropped me off, and when we went to the ATM, he took less money than I owed. It was clear that he was genuinely happy to help me. Unlike Nazar, he wasn't playing games. That's when I loved the Turks again because the vast majority of people are kind and decent, as far as I understand. Maybe I'm judging based on myself, but I hope that's how the world is. I just had the misfortune of encountering street scammers. Such criminals operate in all tourist destinations worldwide, and one must be very cautious. This story really rattled my nerves and taught me a few things, I hope. I went online and found many similar cases of scams called "Let's have a drink." The Turkish police are combating it, closing down related clubs, but Istanbul is just too big of a city with too many tourists, and it's destined to have an industry of street scams.
I would like to emphasize separately that when you watch movies like "Ocean's Twelve" or other films about heists and scams, the authors often portray the criminals as positive characters, even though, for the most part, they are psychopaths and sociopaths who belong behind bars. I was lucky that I wasn't robbed or beaten, and I can write this note. Now my former mother-in-law definitely won't fly through Istanbul. She warned me to be careful, and I, as often happens, succumbed to adventurism and the spirit of adventure. That's where she will get her satisfaction, always being right and all 😃 I will come to Istanbul again; it's beautiful here, no more dangerous than New York, with many tourists, delicious food, and, for the most part, very pleasant and hospitable Turks.
The popular map of Turkey that I often saw in the center of Istanbul
The conclusion for me is this: one should have knowledge about standard street scams, which tourists can fall victim to in most tourist cities around the world. Because trust in people is still necessary; otherwise, you'll have to stay at home. Here's one of the many articles about scams in tourist destinations on Earth.
After my incident, I found and read many similar stories and even watched a video report with a hidden camera (produced by National Geographic) about this scam in Istanbul. Enjoy watching!