We were escorted by three waiters down a dark, cramped corridor, no wider than a door, with the smell of stale cigarette smoke clinging to the limited air. In shock I muttered to myself, ‘welcome to Istanbul’. Only five hours in Turkey and I was already in trouble, a record by even my standards. The office at the end of the corridor was filled with the smell of stale beer, sweat and smoke so thick that I waved my hands in front of my face to clear the foul air in order to see across the room and guide myself over to an available chair in the office. I already knew that we were going to be here for sometime so thought I may as well make myself comfortable. I found myself seated across from an aggressive looking man behind a desk covered in a mountain of unsorted papers, ashtrays with ash overflowing on to the desk and packets of Turkish cigarettes. It wasn’t until I sat down that I noticed the doorman had joined us, his breath was foul and I could smell each individual exhalation from his large body. He was a tall, thick set man in his mid thirties in a long black leather coat. His jaw line was strong with large facial features and eyes menacing and dark, almost black. I felt a shudder down my spine when I noticed a gun placed in view on the desk. At this point I glared at my friend Richard who I held entirely responsible for the situation; “I knew it, I knew it” was all I could muster angrily.
We decided to explore the local area and find a place to eat and drink. Heading up the hill toward the Galata Tower we met a man who introduced himself as Abbas. “I will take you to a place to eat and drink,” he insisted. I immediately felt concern, but Richard insisted that we hire him for the evening as a tour guide. I agreed under the condition that if anything went wrong then I would hold Richard entirely responsible and he was agreeable. Abbas told us that he was a shoe maker, a business that he had been born into through generations of his family. He told us about Turkish life and traditions and some history of earlier oppression in Turkey and his hopes for his country joining the European Union in the future. I’ve always been a believer in that if you want to get under the skin of a new place and get to know it then you have to do it with the locals. Bar hopping commenced a long side streets off of the Taksim Square end of Istikal Caddesi and as the Efes Pilsner began to take effect, my initial concerns about Abbas the shoe maker began to escape.
Later that night we entered another bar a long a badly lit side street with a doorman outside and a thick red curtain between us and the inside. Within seconds of us sitting down, two Russian girls came over, asked if they could join us and sat down. The five of us talked about our native countries and our travels. It was similar to any other conversation that I have had when travelling with people from other nationalities, interesting and fun as we’d all seen different things, had different experiences and had different opinions on almost everything. We were all keen to talk about and share our cultures. We drank lots and laughed for about an hour until Richard decided that he wanted to look for a place to eat. I asked for the bill and it was speedily presented at nearly the equivalent of 2000 US dollars. Richard never been one fond of spending money, went red with outrage; “I’m an American citizen and I’m not paying this!” I felt a twinge of embarrassment at his reaction and we were escorted from the bar to the office.
Richard was not going to hand over the money without a fight until he noticed the gun on the table to him and went quiet. I handed over £400 as I wanted to leave and Richard was escorted to the cash point to withdraw money off different credit cards, while I waited in the office. I was handed a beer as consolation, the most expensive I have had.