Taking a Cab Ride in Turkey? Beware the Magic Button
Well, a Serbian television broadcaster has blogged about what he calls "Taxi Express.''
Visitors to Istanbul for the FIBA World Championship overall look to be having a great time. But there does seem to be at least one very unwelcoming aspect of the city.
Not all Turkish cab drivers are dishonest. The great majority aren't. But it's still hard to find a visitor here who has taken taxis and hasn't run into at least one crooked cabbie. Since many travel books don't seem to be getting into specifics on these schemes, consider it a public service that we will do so here.
One scheme is the magic button. I was a victim of it once and so was Slobodan Sarenac, the blogging Serbian TV guy.
"Ah, yes, the magic button,'' said Sarenac, knowing exactly what I was talking about.
For one trip I made, the cab's meter read just over 16 lira (about $11) when we pulled up to our destination. Suddenly, the cab driver pushed a button and it read 27 lira.
We argued for a while. Well, as much as we could argue since the cabbie, like most of them, could not speak English. He eventually lowered his price to 25 before I finally flipped him a 20 and got out of the cab.
The next night I had returned from the arena to the hotel and had paid a fare of around 20 lira. A cab arrived after me, and I noticed a big argument between several Serbian media members and the driver. I walked over to see what was happening, and informed passenger Sarenac my fare from the arena had been around 20.
"The meter said 18 and then he pushed a button and it said 38,'' said Sarenac, referring to the magic button. "We argued back and forth. We told him we weren't going to pay him 38. Finally, he agreed to accept 10. I blogged about it, and I called what they have here 'Taxi Express.'''
Sarenac is hardly the only member of the media with a story about a crafty taxi driver. Solly Boussidan, a Brazilian web writer, paid a 50 lira note for a 25 lira fare, and the next thing Boussidan knew the cab driver had produced a 5 lira note and said that was what he was presented.
Boussidan was certain he had provided a 50 but said he was very tired from a lack of sleep and didn't want to fight the driver. So he forked over an extra 20. After the the driver pulled away, Boussidan checked his wallet and, sure enough, that 50 he had been carrying was nowhere to be found.
Chris Mitchell, a London resident who works for the BBC, said the old bill switcharoo was attempted on him when he said he handed over two 10s, and then the cabbie switched a 10 for a 5 and claimed he was still owed five lira. Mitchell said he didn't budge and the driver soon realized he was striking out.
Mitchell said another cab driver claimed the fare was 31.08 lira when the trip should have cost about half that. Turns out the driver was pointing to the date on the meter (Aug. 31) and hoping Mitchell would fall for that being the amount.
But the ultimate Istanbul taxi story from Mitchell, who said he had been warned by his girlfriend about Istanbul cabbies before he left London, came when a driver ended up chasing him and two colleagues into a hotel lobby to collect an alleged inflated fare.
"It was 4 a.m., and three of us got into the cab back to the hotel,'' Mitchell said. "We're driving through the streets with breakneck speed. The driver (in broken English) is saying, 'You like soccer. You like girls.'
"We're going a different way, way out of the way, and (the driver is saying), 'We can't go this way because all the bridges have been shut down.' The trip took us (nearly an hour), and the meter said 104. We had taken that trip before and it should been 30-something. So we said, 'We'll give you 40.' He said, 'I want 100.' Since he was being such a (jerk), we said, 'We'll give you 30.' Then he said, 'I want 50.' He had already lowered his price.''
After the offer of 30 was turned down, the three passengers got out and walked into the hotel lobby. They were soon chased by the taxi driver into the lobby, and an argument ensued.
Eventually, all three passengers slipped away and the driver was unable to follow them in the elevator. No fare was paid, which didn't make Mitchell feel guilty at all.
"We first offered him 40 and he wouldn't take it,'' said Mitchell of an amount he said would have been higher than the fare should have been.
But let it be known that not all cab drivers in Istanbul are cheats. Then again, one could make an argument they're all crazy.
I've had cab drivers do the highway slalom at over 90 mph. The speed limit on one surface street was 55 kilometers per hour (about 34 mph) and the guy was doubling it at 110.
"I had a taxi driver doing 140 (kilometers per hour, which is about 87 mph) and he's going in and out of traffic,'' said Daniel Brito, who writes for a Brazilian newspaper. "I tried to put my seat belt on, but he wouldn't let me. He kept saying, 'Oh, no, no, no.'''
Brito complied and, fortunately, survived the trip.
Provided one reaches a destination in one piece, some of the cab rides actually can be a bit fun. I had a cabbie named Mete ask if I had a cigarette. When I told him no, he went to work.
With traffic moving slowly, he got out a 1 lira coin, rolled down his window and began asking cars alongside him for a cigarette for that price. The fourth car he approached did pass over a cigarette, providing it for free.
The cabbie started to smoke and eventually started to sing. But when he had finished his cigarette and the traffic got bad again, he needed something else to do. So he pulled down the window and began to have conversations with people in cars in the next lane as if they were good friends.
The drive was quite entertaining. He graciously allowed me to take a few photos of him.
Of course, the best part of the trip was he did not push the magic button when we reached our destination.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson.