“Whadya mean, you ‘can’t get back’?” Joe asked into a borrowed phone. “We told that asshole exactly where to go!”
“I’m telling you man, I’m in trouble here. I told him I’m Brazilian and now all the guy wants to talk about is football. He’s relentless. I think it’s all he knows how to say in English but he obviously doesn’t understand a word I say. He keeps rambling on about Roberto Carlos and some dude named Alex.”
“I know, it sounds familiar, but I don’t know what to make of it, man. He’s driven around so many tiny little streets with nothing but darkness and stray cats for what seem like miles, and I might as well be in Baghdad.”
Joe didn’t panic. The Wolf. I, on the other hand, was trying to get back to my hostel after spending the day with this guy, whom I’d only met the day before. Our mother’s were walking friends (you know – mothers) and when mine heard I was coming to Istanbul for a week of work, she’d put me in touch with Joe. My kid brother had already met him a few months before on HIS trip to Turkey and completely recommended the guy.
“Oh, you’re going to Istanbul?” The kid had asked me. “You should totally call Joe.”
“Yeah, mom said the same thing. What’s his story?”
“Joe? He’s totally cool, man. Very likable guy, all chill. He’s been there for like, 4 years or something, teaching English or some shit. It’s awesome. He loves it.”
“Cool, it sounds like he’s my guy. Do you have his number?”
“Yeah, I’ll send it to you.”
He forgot, as it sometimes goes, so I got it from mom. “Oh, you’re going to love Joe!” she said.
“I know. Paul already told me he’s awesome.”
So I’d gotten in touch with him when I arrived in Istanbul and agreed to meet hime between the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofia, also known as the Hagia Sofia, two of the most well-known mosques/churches/museums in Istanbul. We met by the fountain on a very warm and clean-aired day, where people were walking, talking, reading and eating corn, which must be a Turkish thing. In general, people were out enjoying their weekend and judging from all the Turkish flags everywhere, their independence day.
Joe turned out to be the bald guy I’d missed on my first pass around the fountain. Like my brother, he sported the bald look well, though instead of the hideous chops that Paul dons occasionally, Joe had a typical Walnut Creek goatee. His pretty girlfriend, Zeynep, was with him, tanned skin, light hair, light eyes and a girlish figure that attracted the attention of most guys around. I thought she looked more Iranian than Turkish, and I would later learn that I was right about that.
“Hang on. Zeynep will talk to the driver. Give him your phone.”
“Give him my pho… No! Joe! Wait! Are you nuts?”
“Alo”, responded Joe’s girlfriend.
“Shit, hang on, Zeynep. Hey, Ronaldinho! Yo! Driver dude! Yeah, Kaka! Robinho! Woooooh, futbol! Right On! Here: talk to this chick.” I handed him the phone.
They talked for a bit and then I got the phone back with Joe on it.
“Dude, there’s a marathon going through the city right now. It’s cutting off the roads that go back to your part of the city.”
“goddamn health nuts…” I heard myself mumble.
“Wait,” paused Joe. “Didn’t you say you’d run a triathlon last year or something?” Apparently, he wasn’t as drunk as I’d pegged him for earlier that night.
“Well, yeah, but that was like, more than a year ago, Joe. And besides, I had the decency to run in the middle of central California, and the only people I’d disturb were yokels from highway 46 who had no business being out in that heat anyway.”
“Fair enough,” said Joe.
“Right. And that’s not important right now. What should I do? Just get out of the cab and wait?”
“No! Under no circumstances should you get out of the cab. Listen: Zeynep knows where you are. Let the meter run, talk football with the guy. It takes 5 minutes to get to where you are. We’ll be there in 2.”
Zeynep, I should mention, could qualify for most Grand Prix spectacles. A true Turkish driver, she paid no heed to lines on the road, only other cars. And she saw them as obstacles, points to watch for and pass with the greatest expediency. And having grown up in Istanbul, she’d learn to do so better than any man I know, Italian, Brazilian or Turk. I believed him.
And sure enough, before homeboy could get me acquainted with Turkey’s multitude of teams, I saw them pull up behind me. I paid the man and got out of the car, being sure to say ‘fish’ which means he gives me a receipt. Important when you’re traveling on business, you know.
We killed the remaining 20 minutes of the marathon, the mass of people passing over the Bosporus Bridge and through and around the old part of town (old: talk about an understatement!) by having Zeynep drop us off at a Metro somewhere and taking it to the end of the line and back. Joe has good ideas like that.
We eventually got off as Taksim Square, the center of the European side of Istanbul and took a cab from there. I dropped Joe off at his place on the way across the Golden Horn, and thanked him for the evening’s adventures.
“Sorry about the troubles, man. I had no idea about this marathon.”
“Are you kidding me?” I jabbed him. “Without shit like what happened tonight, this would just be WORK!” And with that, we parted ways.
“Wait, one more thing,” Joe warned me. “Watch these guys. Taxi drivers in Istanbul are all run by the Mafia.”
Whatever, I thought. Everybody says that about their cabbies. And I’ve always had a watchful eye in foreign places, which, for me, is everywhere.
“Nonsense,” I said. “This is a good man.”
“No, seriously. Watch the meter. This shouldn’t cost more than 50 Turkish lira.”
“Okay!” I shouted out, not paying much attention. “Thanks for the fun day, man. I’ll call you next week!”
And with that, I was off to Asia.
The ride took me up and around what must be every corner of the center of the world. In the distance, when we cleared a hill and I could see the ocean, the tankers of the world floated on, some moving and some anchored. Lights flickered everywhere and there was little movement off the road.
On the road was another thing altogether. Cars zoomed passed us and we passed them. Stone walls were a blur on every side, and the poorly kept Constantine roads of stone occasionally showed through the asphalt, and that’s when we’d really rock. At 160 kph on city highways, almost anything can happen. When we finally crossed the Bosporous Bridge over to Asia, I almost didn’t see it for fear of my life over that busy waterway.
But despite the driver’s confident nod when I gave him the address of the corporate hotel and said, “Okay?”, the drive took far longer than I was expecting. And went through far darker and more remote-looking areas than I cared to expect.
“Relax, Pete,” I told myself. “This is just a sensation of disorientation that happens every time you’re in a country you know nothing about. Remember Prague?”
And I did, I did!
Deep into the Asian side of Istanbul now, my worries took more form – my fear took more shape. Where am I? Where is he taking me? Does he know?
Do I? There are silent and square concrete buildings at every line of sight. I’ve wandered into the 3D version of Lewis Carol’s mind. Wonderful. My mind was tired and the shisha we’d smoked earlier was mixing with the beer. Things were getting strange, but could I maintain? Would I make the sanity last? That was the real question.
What am I doing here? Few people in my life even know on what continent I’m ON right now. Let alone where I am. Hell, I don’t know where I am. What hope is there that others do?
All good questions, I thought to myself, once I got a grip. But now was not the time for their answers. We’d passed a few closed rug shops and kabob stands that went long into the night, reminding me of Saudi Arabia and the fact that Iraq was literally touching the same country I was in, and that reassured my position on the globe, reminding me that things here would not, no matter what, resemble what I could possibly expect. Or manage to explain.
And despite all the wandering, despite all the wondering, he suddenly pulled into an intersection and realized he wasn’t on the right track. My body jerked forward, knocking me out of my reverie and causing me to lean just enough towards the front of the car that I could see the Hotel’s name in the distance.
“There! There!” I pointed to him like an idiot. “There it is!”
I’d lost it, clearly. Joe had told me to watch the meter, to pay attention to this guy, and here I was, slapping the seat like a giddy child, hoping the nice man would just take me where I was supposed to be. This was more than I had expected. But the incident brought me to my senses a bit and by the time he’d pulled against the hotel’s sidewalk, I had my wits back about me. I think.
“Hundred fiftin,” he said, pointing to the meter. I looked at it intently. Sure enough, there it sat, reading 115.24.
‘This shouldn’t cost more than 50 Turkish lira,’ Joe had said. But how could I challenge him now? I didn’t know these things! Besides, my employer was paying for it and I was in no mood or condition to argue or even haggle with a cabbie. Especially not in Turkish, and I could hardly expect that this schmo was going to do me the favor of suddenly bursting forth with Anglo-sounding discourse. ‘Hundred fiftin’ it was.
I reached back for my wallet and remembered that I had 4 50′s in there, with the spare 5′s crumpled uncomfortably in my front pocket. I pulled 2 50′s from my wallet and then grabbed the glob of crumpled 5′s. I was pretty sure that I had 3 5′s and 2 50′s in my hand when I shoved it towards the front of the car and said, “fish?”
He hesitated and then said, “No, sir – hundred fiftIN!” and showed me 4 5′s and 1 50 in his hand.
“Really?” my mind wondered. I was sure I’d grabbed 2 50′s out of my wallet, so I checked again, while he pestered me, saying “No, sir – hundred fiftIN! Hundred fiftIN!”
Flustered, and with unrecognizable coins on my lap mixed with notes of Turkish Lira in the darkness and heavy eyelids that clouded my thoughts, I said, fuck it, and gave him another 50, taking the 5 he offered me. I stumbled into the hotel with a receipt and before falling hard on that bed, barely remembering to set the alarm for work the next day, went over the bills that I had on my person, in all my pockets.
I could not account for the missing 50.
The next morning on the way to work, one of my colleagues warned me about taxi drivers in Turkey, and how they are very good with their hands, changing bills between 5′s and 50′s, which happen to look very much alike.
“Bunch of thieves, eh?” He said to me.
“I know,” I said. “I’ve heard.”
Wombat’s Terrace, Berlin, Germany – September 2008