Sunday, May 25, 2014

Taken for a Ride

It wasn't the first time I've been scammed.  And it undoubtedly won't be the last.  But this time was especially odd.  And disorienting.
A couple nights ago, after a long and wonderful day on Istiklal Cadessi near Taksim Square, I hailed a cab for a ride back to my guesthouse in Sultanahmet.  I'd walked up to the Square earlier in the day (a long and steep climb).  I'd heard a hundred tunes -- from street musicians to traditional trios, from kids on drums to a mesmerizing flute player in an open courtyard.  It was really quite magical -- the city at its absolute best.  Rhythm and bright eyes, and dancing feet. 

But it was late, and I hoped to get back to the guesthouse quickly.  So I hopped in the first cab that rolled by.

He was friendly enough, but he quickly lamented the "great" traffic all over town.  And he let me know it'd cost me to get home.  He gave me a number, it seemed steep but within reason, and we were off. 

Approaching Sultanahmet and the plaza around Aya Sofia, the friendly cabbie happily asked of my plans for the weekend and my impressions of Istanbul.  And then, pulling to a slow stop, he asked for 50 Turkish lira (something like $25).

Kind of pricey for a cab ride -- and a route I'd walked earlier in the day -- but I reached dutifully into my wallet and found a 50 lira note.  And I gratefully passed it forward.

"No, no, no!" he smiled, a good-natured smile.  "You've given me euros."  And he passed back a 5 euro note.  "It's 50 lira!"  So I apologized, an obviously clueless pilgrim, filed the 5 euro away, and searched out another 50 lira bill.  

In hindsight, it's pretty easy to see how this works.  I'm flustered: in a huge, new city; traveling at night; fiddling between euros and lira and calculating back to dollars.  And he's driving.  He's done all this a hundred times. 

So I passed the next 50 forward.  "No, no, no!" he smiled again.  "This is kaput."  And he pointed eagerly to a slight tear in a bill he handed back to me.  Of course that turned out to be a folded 10 -- but at this point I'm pretty well turned around.  I had no chance. 

In the end, in my fatigue and befuddlement, I probably handed over 150 Lira to this practiced and streetwise conman.  And only in retrospect, only later, did I put together how he did his thing.  I felt foolish, of course.  I wonder, in looking at it now, how he felt about the whole thing.  Did he feel some sense of satisfaction?  A twinge of regret?  For me, it was a creepy end to an otherwise glorious and musically delicious day.  The paradox of life.  Just the way it sometimes is.

Now, yesterday, I figured I'd better get back in a cab.  Rather than give up on the whole lot.  I felt pretty clear about this.  One cabbie does not a city make.  Obviously.  And I wanted badly not to be intimidated.

Turns out, of course, it was almost the same drill.  Really nice guy, very chatty and interested in why I'm traveling.  And when it came time to pay up: I handed him a 50, he passed back a 5 and said I'd given him the wrong bill.  Of course, he'd quickly switched my 50 for his 5 -- and this time I saw the whole thing.  So I smiled a bit -- wished him well and told him I'd seen that before.  And I was on my way.  

Sometimes the mistakes we make really are our best teachers.