$138.00 for a beer in Istanbul?!?!?!

January 12, 2010 · Posted in Travel · 5 Comments 

We’ll get to that little traveler’s mishap in a moment, but before I do let’s talk Turk for a few minutes.  After being stared at wherever I went for two and a half weeks straight, it was somewhat refreshing to be mistaken for one of the locals again.  From the flight into Istanbul people approached me in Turkish more than in English, only to be somewhat shocked I didn’t speak Turkish and wasn’t from there.  Not a bad start.  Got into my hotel around 2:30 in the morning and passed out – I had 48 hours in Istanbul and wanted to make the most of it. Next morning, up at 8:00 and greeted by – downpour.  Sheets of rain.  After a rather long sigh, I got dressed and went to the 7th floor where my hotel served a delicious breakfast buffet.  Now, I’m a huge fan of pho, and enjoyed the soups in Hong Kong for breakfast, but sometimes you just want coffee and a pastry.  Or in my case, coffee and about 25 pastries, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, yogurt, honey, and feta cheese sprinkled with paprika and chili pepper.  So I enjoyed the cold breakfast and gazed out at the city and the sea as the rain gradually lifted.  It was still overcast but at least I could walk around and do the touristy thing. Quick endorsement here:  I usually abhor looking like a tourist and when in Italy refuse to carry a guidebook or large map.  I’d rather wander around than admit I’m not supposed to be there.  However with such a short time frame and so much to see in Istanbul, I picked up Rick Steeve’s guide and was blown away.  It’s got much more on art and history and less on where to sleep and eat.  The mosques and museums were what I expected, but his tour of the Grand Bazaar was amazing – and so as much as it kills me I’d have to recommend his book if you’d like a more in-depth tour of whatever city you’re visiting. Now that a part of me has died, let’s continue.  First stop : The Blue Mosque.  Never been in a mosque before so that was interesting.  I have been in a large number of religious houses of worship and as ridiculous as this sounds, it takes a lot now for me to be really impressed.  Did get a decent shot of the outside, despite the rain, from a back street –

Afterward I wandered around some more on my way to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.  Saw a few smaller mosques, including one that claimed to have a piece of the tablet upon which Abraham had written down instructions from God.  Three pieces, actually.  Played with some features on the Canon S90, which I can’t say enough good things about.  Here are a few random street shots for you visual people out there –

Next up was the art museum, which had lots of pieces from the Ottoman Empire, Islamic history, and Turkish history.  Full of furniture for some reason.  One of my favorites was this piece:

The inscription reads: “You are only at the beginning of your journey.”  So…I got that going for me.

Lunch was a quick kabob of a mix of lamb and beef accompanied by some lentil “meat”balls.  My food pics from Istanbul are lackluster – my apologies.  And by lackluster I mostly mean just lacking.

On to Hagia Sophia.  Revisiting my previous statement about churches, my jaw literally dropped when I stepped inside.  I didn’t take any pictures because you should go see it for yourself.  It’s pretty amazing.

Perhaps my favorite part is the mosaic of Empress Zoe and two other guys.  One of the other guys is Jesus, so that’s pretty standard.  The other is her husband.  However if you look closer, you see the inscriptions above the head of her husband looks like it’s been erased.  Story goes she had one husband, couldn’t produce a male heir, he “dies”, she marries again, guy croaks again, she marries yet a third time.  So instead of changing this massive mosaic she just erases dude’s name and keeps re-doing it!  You may not agree with it, but you gotta respect it.  Keep it real Empress Zoe.  Keep it real.

Now it was time to relax and do a bit of shopping.  I knew that heading to Milan was going to be disastrous for my bank account.  A funny thing was happening as I traveled around the world.  In Vietnam it was 18,000 VND to the dollar.  Then in Hong Kong it was $7HK to $1USD.  Now in Istanbul it was about $1.50 TL to the dollar.  Upon arriving in Milan it would be about 0.69 Euro per $USD.  I was getting poorer as I traveled around the globe.  So I had to take advantage of some purchasing power, right?  And it turns out my favorite jeans company is a Turkish company.  Jeans that sell for $100 in the US were selling for $50 in Turkey.  And they have a huge flagship store on Istiklal street.  Istiklal street is the main street in the New District, where people are just milling about, shopping, eating, and drinking.  And that is how I ended up in an Irish pub in Istanbul speaking Italian.

I’m halfway through the 5th season of Lost, the greatest and most confusing show ever written in the history of TV.  In this season they are presented with an opportunity to go back in time and kill the bad guy in the show, thereby erasing most of what has caused them misery over the previous four seasons.  However, as far as I am in the season now – they cannot.  They have to save his life.  They are unable to remove the demons that put them where they are now.  As I sat in the Irish bar in Istanbul listening to people speak Italian (not only am I worldly, I am alliterative as well) I couldn’t help but think of the parallels.  When certain things happen and you can’t see the good at the time, you never know where you’ll end up six months, a year later.  I sat there with a huge dumb grin on my face.  Life will do its worst and somehow manage to bring out the best.  As I left the bar it was pouring rain, just pouring.  Everyone was running home.  I walked, the two miles to my hotel.  Over the Galata Bridge, where only fishermen were out, hoping to secure the last little bit of food before they went in for the night.  So I stayed and watched them do their thing for a bit – knowing I was the only tourist dumb enough to stand in the rain and watch fisherman reel in empty rods.  I laughed again, thinking about the possibility of going back in time and removing some of the negatives I’ve encountered, and how doing that would not put me here, now in this incredible circumstance.  Everything bad that had happened was a lesson or an opportunity.

Unfortunately it was a lesson I apparently had to learn again, the following night.

After touring Topkapi Palace and the infamous Harem, and the Grand Bazaar, and the Spice Market, I needed a quick nap.  I was so tired from two straight weeks of travel that I almost fell down in the Spice Market.  After my nap I decided I was going to grab a quick dinner and then call it a very early night.  On my way out of the hotel I almost bumped into two Turkish guys who, once again, assumed I was Turkish too.  After discovering I wasn’t, one suggested we go for a beer.  I said, what the hell, I’m traveling, may not be here again, let’s do this.  One beer, under the bridge where about 20 or so seafood restaurants are.  After this one beer I informed them I needed food cause I was getting very hungry.  The ringleader of this two-man clan suggests we go to Taksim square where we can get street food, which I what I wanted.  At this point something started going off in my mind, but I decided I was just being overly cautious and somewhat prejudiced, so I pushed it away and tried to convince myself it was fine.  But they were slightly too friendly too quickly.

After a less-than-satisfying kabob sandwich we start looking for this bar that plays Turkish music for “one beer, then we go.”  Yeah, right.  They say it’s right around the square, but then all of a sudden they announce we need to take a cab.  Warning sign number 3, if you include the fact that they tried to pay for my food.  Beer is one thing. But food is just weird.

I get in this cab, and the cab ride turns into something way too long to have walked, or to be considered “close” to the square at all.  Warning sign number 4.  But convincing myself I was being stupid, and it was fine, I go in this busted-looking place called “Bar Club.”  Um….yeah.  I know, I know.  At this point this looks like my fault.

When we walk downstairs yet another warning sign hits – the bar is empty save for what can only be walruses that escaped from the local zoo dancing onstage.  Upon closer inspection they were actually females so it was both reassuring and frightening at the same time.  I lost whatever remaining sense of humor I had right then and there.  Not only was I all hooker’ed-out by this point, but you don’t say “hey let’s go listen to music” and by “music” you really mean “to a brothel.”  Not cool guys, not cool.  I can’t say enough negative things about the bar itself or the inhabitants of said bar.  It looked like it was straight out of a 70’s adult flick and smelled like it hadn’t been cleaned since it was opened.

Sure enough, after we order a beer, two girls come over.  There are three of us, so I sort of wonder why only two come over.  Then I realize.  Couches have a weight limit.  Three wouldn’t have fit.  The girl who sits between me and one of the other guys introduces herself and asks if she can have a drink.  I point to the other guy and say “He’s buying, ask him.”  She tries to chit-chat and I am about as rude as can be.  The Candy Bar in Cambodia wasn’t exactly my thing, but even Brandy can attest to this – the girls there were at least funny.  Also cute, but cute or not I’m not really into professionals.  And the girls in Istanbul could have eaten the girls in Cambodia for appetizers and still been hungry.  Anyway I digress.  She she asks me where I am from, I say the US (mistake on my part – we’re all rich, right?) and she tells me where she’s from.  I can’t make this up.


I almost spit my beer out.  She asks “You know this place?  Not many people do?”  I said “anyone who’s seen Borat knows this place!  Let me guess, you are sixth best prostitute in Khazakstan?”  She didn’t get it.  So, despite what happens next, I met a real-life prostitute from Khazakstan.

Halfway through my beer I turn to idiot #1 and say I’m out after this beer.  They can stay but I’m getting my coat and going.  They’re chain smoking cigarettes like they think global warming is a good thing and I’m just super annoyed at this point.  Then the bill comes.

He turns to me and says, we can split this, yes?  I’m thinking 40, 50 bucks?  3 beers and 4 glasses of wine.  My beers twice that size the night before were about $3 a pop.


670 YTL and at about a 1.4 exchange rate that’s $479.00.  For 3 beers and 4 glasses of wine.

I almost completely lost my mind.  I start yelling at the two guys and that’s when things got ugly.  Immediately five gigantic Turkish guys in black suits, black shirts, and black ties come over.  One puts his hand on my shoulder and asks what the problem is.

“What’s the problem?  These guys are a*holes, that’s what the problem is.  I had one beer and you want me to pay almost $200?”

“Well it needs to be paid.”

“I’m a STUDENT, do you know what that means???  It means I don’t have this kind of money, I don’t care what you think about Americans!”

The two guys talk amongst themselves in Turkish (never a good sign) and one turns to me.  “I pay 470 and you pay 200?”

“200?  I had ONE BEER!”

“Yes but your girl…”


At this point the “bouncers” make it clear that I’m upsetting them and that I need to calm down.

Deciding that tonight is not, in fact, a good night to die, I acquiesce and hand him my credit card.  “We don’t accept cards.”  Of course not you back-water degenerate meathead.  Why would you?  (that was purely an internal monologue).

One of the bouncers escorts me to the nearest ATM, I take out 200 YTL and slap it down when I get back inside.  They count it, I said “we’re good?” and the head meathead says “We’re good.”  I run upstairs faster than I ever ran in high school and bolted for a cab.  The two guys I came with are running after me, trying to get me to stop.  Knowing full well I will attack them if I slow down, I keep going toward my cab.  As I get in, I do turn around and yell out a string of profanity that would make Clark Griswald mighty proud, then immediately tell the cab to get the heck out of there.

I checked my bank account later, and it amounted to $138.00.  $138.00 in extortion, to get away with my life.  Those two guys were obviously connected to the bar, and knew as soon as I said I was American that they were gonna take me to this brothel type place.  Tell you what guys, you wanna make some real money, get some real girls!  I wouldn’t have paid but other suckers will.

So incredibly mad at the time, looking back it is a pretty good story.  I was genuinely scared when those bouncers/mob guys whatever they were came over and put their hand on my shoulder.  That crossed some comfort lines.  I can say with absolutely certainty I have never paid more for one beer.

At the end of it all, it’s just one more successful interaction between Muslims and Christians, I guess…

Now, please excuse me, as I’m safely in Milan and there is much vino to be had, pastas to be sampled, and pizzas to savor.

A domani…