If, while in Istanbul you find yourself in a tea house with no or very few other customers, surrounded by a few burly Turkish men, drinking tea with your newfound “friend”, whom you met on the street moments prior, you have most likely become a victim of the classic Istanbul bar scam.
The Turkish, and much of Western Asia, are well known for their incredible hospitality. However, if you find yourself in the historical centre of Istanbul and a man stops you in the street, befriends you and invites you to drink tea in his friends bar, I would suggest not taking him up on the offer. Once back at your new friends friends bar, they will serve the promised and rather nice Turkish tea, however upon wanting to pay and leave you will be charged a handsome sum relative to the tea served. Being in a foreign country surrounded by some large Turkish men you will likely cave and buy your freedom fearing the consequences (of which I do not know).
Aware of this scam, while wondering Istanbul on my first visit, second day I witnessed two young Asian guys get chatted up by a local near Hagia Sophia. After a few minutes of conversation they got off their bench and begun to follow him. I, feeling responsible to help my fellow traveller, followed the three and while the Turkish man was talking to one tourist and the other was slightly behind, I walked next to him, asked him if he knew this man, he said no, I said don’t go with him to his friends bar its a scam, turned and walked through a crowd in the opposite direction.
I was feeling quite chuffed with myself having saved the two from inevitable displeasure. That was until a very unhappy man tapped me on the shoulder several minutes later and started yelling at me “why did you do that! they were my friends! you tell them I am not a good man?! you took my business. I am a good man.” etc etc. Was I wrong, was he innocent, had the two ratted me out or had he figured it out seeing me walk away?! Confused and disappointed with my spying capabilities, I found myself in an unfavourable situation that could have unfolded in a number of ways.
I was not quite sure what to do, but felt some ease as I was in an open crowded place (not that any tourists would come to my aid in the event of escalation, but I imagine some locals might have). My mind racing, heart beating, I apologised profusely while slowly walking away. He followed me down the street for some time as I walked towards Topkapi palace. Stalling in the crowded area where I was safe to buy time, I was unsure whether to seek a security guard for help (complicated) or go into the Palace and kill time, when I realised I was near a hostel where the taxi had dropped a girl off the night before on the way home from the rooftop nightclub where we had met. After circling around and trying to blend in with the crowd of tourists I went to the hostel nearby, walked inside and coincidentally bumped into her and her friends. I spent the day with a group of Spaniards across the river in Karakoy.
The next day I went to 4 Levent, 10 km north of the Istanbul tourist centre to stay with a couch surfer, an extremely hospitable one, and did not return to the tourist centre.
Had I saved the two from the scam, or had I interrupted the beginnings of a beautiful friendship? My couch surfing host seemed to think the former.
Don’t let this scare you by any means! You are likely to be scammed and should be most alert when in a crowded tourist area of any popular city, this is just as likely to happen in Paris, New York, London, Beijing. The Turkish and people in the surrounding countries in Western Asia, Iran for example, are among the friendliest and most hospitable people I have ever met. Always willing to help and share.
It makes a trip to countries in the region a special experience because the locals want to get to know foreigners and want to show you their country – which most are very proud of. With a little common sense, an open heart and by listening to your gut feeling, you can share amazing experiences with the locals. There are countless travel stories that can attest to this. But whatever you read, you cannot understand until you go and immerse yourself in their culture: couch surf, meetup.com, workaway. Stay open and experience all that their rich cultures have to offer!