In my early days of travelling, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I had the good fortune to be offered a lift from Corfu to Istanbul. It was good fortune not only because it was a good lift, but also because it broke me out of the state of lethargy I’d fallen into as a result of three months of lounging on the beach day in day out.
As I wrote in that post, the family I would be travelling with comprised of Grandma, who never stopped complaining; Mom, who was very nice, very patient and very generous; The Boy, who was a complete psycho, and The Girl, who, oddly, was a fairly normal kid, if a bit withdrawn.
The journey itself was slightly fraught, what with Grandma having palpitations (accompanied by repeated utterances of “Oh my Gaad”) about my driving style (which was admittedly a little erratic as I was on a learning curve), and the The Boy having screaming tantrums on an almost hourly basis, but it seemed a small price to pay for such a good lift. Mom was a bit of a culture vulture, so we did a few of the ‘must see’ sites, like Delphi and Corinth en route. I wish I’d taken more notice at the time, but being young I only had a passing interest in antiquities, and couldn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. One interesting diversion, though, was a visit to a relative (Mom was a Greek American) who owned a tobacco farm. I got shown round all the drying and curing racks, and on departure was presented with a wad of whole tobacco leaves. It must have been about a kilo in weight, and was apparently the finest leaf. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a clue how to deal with it, and my attempts to cut and smoke it were, for the most part, a dismal failure. I ended up giving most of it away. A great shame, that.
Having traversed the breadth of Greece, via Athens, we finally arrived in Istanbul some ten or so days later. I had a minor problem exiting Greece, as I’d exceeded my 1 month limit on visa-free entry by two months, but fortunately the immigration guy was in a good mood, and just gave me a ticking off. Which was lucky, really, as I didn’t have any money to pay any fines with anyway.
Once we’d found a campsite just outside the city for Mom and her camper van, we went into Istanbul proper to meet up with her nephew, Alex, who had been living in Istanbul for a while, ostensibly studying, I believe. He was a couple of years older than me, a suave and worldly-wise American abroad. Or so it seemed to me at the time, anyway. He was also very friendly, and I hit it off with him immediately. Once the camper van and its occupants had departed for the campsite (my lift was decreed at an end, and I was dumped in the city), Alex took me to a couple of bars, helped me find a cheap hotel, showed me the best places to eat around the area (Sultanahmet), and then we went back to the room he rented with a couple of cold beers. Once there, he asked me “You ever smoked any hash?”, to which I replied in the negative. I’d never come across it in my schooldays, nor during the short period I worked before setting out on my travels. Plus, having been a competitive gymnast when I was at school, I was very anti-drugs in a vague sort of way, although I used to smoke cigarettes at every opportunity.
However, I’d had a couple of beers, and it seemed like a pretty cool idea, so when he suggested we smoke some of the local hash he had, I readily agreed. Rather than roll a single spliff for us to share, as is the norm, he rolled two, one for each of us. And I’m guessing he didn’t stint on the hash, because it really hit me! Ha! I got so stoned, I didn’t know if I was coming or going. Everything, however mundane, seemed absolutely hilarious to me, and I almost gave myself a hernia, I laughed so much. I finally staggered out of his room and down to the street with the intention of returning to the hotel, but in my state of inebriation, I took a wrong turn and somehow ended up outside the old city wall. I’d totally lost my bearings, and in my current state was unlikely to find them again, so I found a grassy bit at the foot of the wall, lay down and passed out in a stupor.
I was woken a few hours later by someone poking me with the toe of his boot, and I opened my eyes to see three villainous looking Turks standing over me, two with knives, and one with what looked like a wood chisel.
It was one of those “Oh fuck” moments.
“Money! Money!” They demanded.
Sadly for them, they had hit on the wrong person that night, as I didn’t have a bean. So I emptied my pockets, which to their dismay and disgust contained only about enough money for a cup of coffee, if that. They were a little stumped as to what to do next. They were probably expecting a mini-bonanza, what with finding an unconscious ‘tourist’ in a vulnerable situation, and it rather threw them to find I had nothing for them to extort. Then one of them noticed I was wearing a watch, and gesticulated that I should give it to him.
Up to this point, I’d been basically just a passive observer, my head still spinning a bit from what I’d imbibed the night before; but the demand for my watch rather changed my attitude. I’d bought the watch with my very first pay packet, and it had cost me ten shillings and sixpence, which was a lot of money back then, and I wasn’t about to hand it over to some Turkish ruffian, menaces notwithstanding. Which was very stupid, really, since there were three of them, and they all had weapons. But protest I did, and loudly and aggressively. At the top of my voice.
On the top of the old wall behind me were residential buildings, with windows overlooking where I’d collapsed, one of which belonged (I thought) to the room where my new friend Alex lived. Also, it was getting light by that time, so we could be seen from above (if anyone was up at that ungodly hour, that is). So my loud protestations weren’t just howls of fear and displeasure – I was hoping someone above would look out to see what the racket was all about.
This reaction rather took them aback, as they didn’t quite know what to do with it. They also couldn’t understand a word of what I was saying, either (probably just as well), which must have put them on the back foot slightly. Anyway, they looked at me (raging incoherently); they looked at the watch on my wrist; they looked up at the windows above and they looked at each other. Then, as one, they turned round and scarpered.
Phew! I lived to fight another day! But when I look back on it now, it frightens the life out of me. It could very easily have been a very different story. It was a salutary lesson in choosing ones accommodation wisely!
The following day, having found my way back to the hotel after the ‘incident’, and having grabbed a shower and another couple of hours sleep, I met Alex again, and knowing I needed money, he offered to introduce me to the people he did some work for so I could earn a bit of cash. The ‘people’ were Turkish mafia (or so they liked to style themselves), and the ‘work’ was a shady scam involving laundering travellers cheques. It was pretty easy, though, and I made some much needed cash, so what the hell.
The Istanbul mafia, although it sounds pretty heavy-duty, was in fact a bit of a joke. The guy who ran it was called Raki, and he’d lived in America for years apparently, making quite a good living working as a bit-part actor in Hollywood. Because of his swarthy Turkish features, he tended to be typecast as a gangster almost every time, so when he returned to Istanbul with his earnings, he set up his empire using Hollywood gangster ‘B’ movies from the 1950s to early ’60s as his template.
His ‘office’ was a black Lincoln Continental (or something similar – it was Big, American, and De Luxe) with tinted windows which he parked in the entrance drive to the Hilton hotel, which at the time was just about the swankiest hotel in Istanbul. The first time I met him, I was taken to the car, and the dark-tinted glass electric window slowly wound down to reveal Raki sitting inside in air-conditioned luxury, blinged up, smoking a Dunhill cigarette and with a heavy, cut-glass tumbler of whisky on the fold-down table in front of him.
“Hi”, he said in a Hollywood drawl, “My name’s Raki.”
“Raki the Cash”.
Upon which he handed me his business card, which against all the odds, I still have, fifty years on. (In fact I came across it when going through a box of old stuff last week, which sort of inspired this post.)
I was taken under the wing of one of his right-hand men, Ozkul, who, as befits a proper gangster, was always armed. He was very proud of his gun, and took it out to show me. He kept it tucked down his trouser band under his shirt, but because he didn’t want it to lose its sheen due to his sweat, he kept it wrapped in a metre or so of crepe bandage. I remember wondering at the time how quick on the draw he was likely to be in an armed confrontation, what with having to unwrap reams of crepe bandage before he could use it.
But it was a gun, a real gun, and that’s what counted. I very much doubt that he ever got to actually fire it in anger. In the unlikely event of a gun battle, he would have been riddled with bullets before he’d managed to even half unwrap his weapon.
With me having a bit of money in my pocket, Alex and I ranged a bit further afield, and hit some of the bars in the more upmarket Taksim Square area. It was a lively and cosmopolitan area, with some great bars. One dimly lit side-street bar that particularly comes to mind, seemed to have an overabundance of skimpily clad and attractive young girls, who were inordinately friendly. I was most flattered by their attentions.
I was, remember, only seventeen years old still, and had no knowledge nor experience of these things. It didn’t dawn on me what this bar was all about until I was on my second beer, and I looked more closely at a menu / price list on the wall behind the bar. On it were listed services like ‘hand job’; ‘blow job’; and so on in both Turkish and English.
I looked. And looked again, slightly disbelieving, thinking maybe I was misreading something. But no, that’s definitely what was written.
I was starting to understand why all the girls seemed to fancy me.
I nudged Alex and pointed at the menu. Sotto voce, I said to him “Hey, have you seen what’s written on the fucking menu back there?”
“Sure”, he replied in his easy drawl, “That’s why we’re here”.
Ah, the innocence of youth – how easily it is stripped away…