Beginning a word with a capital letter can drastically change it’s meaning. Take, Pole vs pole, for instance. One is a native of Poland, while the other is a long (usually round) rod of wood, metal or plastic. Or another example: the book vs The Book. The first is any pages bound together on one edge, the other the sacred writings of the Christian religion. So when I say that we had a run in with the Turkish mafia, I’m not a liar. Mafia (capital M) of course refers to the secret terrorist group in Sicily or the crime syndicate in the United States. The lowercase mafia I’m referring to is any tightly knit group of trusted associates. In fact it seemed as though the entire country of Turkey was part of this mafia.
We happened one afternoon upon Walkabout Tours, a travel agency in Istanbul, and decided that it would probably be worth our while to book our nation-wide expedition through their agency, rather than have to figure it all out on our own. Instantly, we were befriended by Hüseyin, our travel agent extraordinaire. He offered us deal after deal, and tea after tea… we just couldn’t refuse, his charm won us over. That, and the assurances from his boss (and owner of Walkabout), that we were in fact getting an exceptional deal. We purchased our personalized package, but we’d have to stop by later to pick up our vouchers; the best time, Hüseyin informed us, would be 8:30pm when he’d be getting off work. His boss added the promise of a free drink upon our return, so we agreed.
The next few hours were spent wandering around Istanbul, up and down alleys and through small galleries and shops. I’m sure we must have stopped for ice cream, as is our habit, but around 7pm we had exhausted our options of time killing activities and were getting a bit tired of walking around in the hoards of tourists. We’d decided we would forgo the free drink and just pick up our tickets early. Easier said than done. Although Hüseyin was visibly disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to join us, the offer of a free glass of wine was renewed and, though tired as we were, we accepted. One of the agents walked us to a very nice restaurant a few doors down where live music was playing and the richer of the tourist breed were gathering for their nightly feeding. The thought occurred to me that this might be one of those stories you read about where you’re lured into a nice looking establishment, offered ‘free’ refreshments, then presented with a horrendous bill upon leaving. We’d just have to wait and see.
The man and woman at the next table turned their attention to us, asking about our travels, etc. After the woman offered to take our photo and excused herself, the man asked to join us. We agreed with as much politeness as our hesitancy allowed. He introduced himself as a relation of Hüseyin then chattered about things I can’t really remember now, until he was interrupted with a punch to the shoulder by a younger man, Hüseyin’s cousin. This mafia was good. They were coming in from all sides. He informed us that Hüseyin had called him and asked him to keep us company in his absence. Noel and I exchanged looks, that said, “hmmmm this is a bit strange, but we’re in a crowded restaurant, and we’ve got each other.” They shared stories, asked us to guess their ages, guessed ours, told us of their lineage (the cousin had a Korean middle name – WonBin – named after a famous actor in Korea, whose nephew, incidentally, was a student at Noel’s school. Small world.) As our wine glasses were slowly emptying, we noticed that the restaurant was filling and that there was going to be a dinner show of Sufi dancers. The free wine and familial conversations were great, but why not bump this up to the ‘too good to be true’ category and ask if we’d be allowed to stay and watch. “Oh, sure! The owner of Walkabout owns this restaurant, too, I’ll let him know. More wine?” was the response as we were escorted inside to a table with a better view.
Around 8:45pm we were joined by a bewildered Hüseyin who wondered at our still being in the area – remember we’d left him almost two hours earlier. The show concluded with a surprise performance from the man who poured our wine, and urgings from the cousin that we join him at a party later. We declined, but couldn’t refuse the Godfather’s offer to walk us the 30 minutes across the Bosphorus and back to our hostel, since it was dark and late. So we said our goodbyes to uncle, cousin, boss, friend, sister’s neighbor’s dog, and kitchen sink. I’m not going to lie, these mysterious connections, and random appearances by family members did make me a bit nervous. I thought maybe, by some unlucky stroke, we’d stumbled upon the Turkish Mafia -capital M. That maybe we’d not only end up paying for our ‘free’ drinks, but find ourselves accepting other more dangerous offers that we really couldn’t refuse, or worse, find ourselves sleeping with the Bosphorus fishes: hooked, cooked, and served off a boat tethered to shore.
There was in fact one more offer we couldn’t refuse and that came in the form of made-to-order waffles. Otherwise known as “diabetes stuffed in a cakey waffle sandwich with cavities drizzled on top”….. DELICIOUS! Hüseyin insisted that we top this off with Salep – a cinnamon/coffee/milkshake drink. My system was in sugar shutdown mode so I declined, but Noel accepted – the first of what would be several Noel-Hüseyin dates.
When we arrived back in Istanbul after our 9 day tour around Turkey, we were greeted warmly by the Walkabout team. I was offered more tea while Noel was offered more dates. We even reached Walkabout fame when we were asked to relate our experiences on film for a documentary/commercial they were working on. We spent that first afternoon back just hanging out in their office until my friend Steven could meet up and take us to his apartment where he’d so graciously agreed to let us crash for the next week. Yet throughout that week we somehow still managed to make our way back to their offices for tea on a regular basis. It was beginning to be ridiculous how many times we found ourselves sitting across the desk from Hüseyin. I guess that’s how mafias and Mafias work. They reel you in with kindness and generous offers until you’re indebted to them and loyal.
The last time I graced walkabout with my presence was to buy our bus tickets from Istanbul to Athens.
Us: “We would like an overnight bus to Athens for Wednesday night, can you do that?”
Hüseyin: “Of course I can. So you’d like to go overnight on Thursday night?”
Us: “No, Wednesday night if we can.”
Hüseyin to his coworker: “Okay, Murat, can you book a ticket for these girls on Thursday night?”
Us: “Wednesday night”
Murat: “Okay, Thursday night it is.”
Us: “umm… alright. Thursday night!”
We actually ended up staying until Saturday night, but that’s an entirely different story all together now. (in unison: “That’s an entirely different story”…….. an Airplane! quote, my favourite movie)
There were so many other instances of this Turkish mafia during our month-long stay in that land. Everyone seemed to know everyone from everywhere. And countless other travelers along our way had the very same Walkabout Tours stationary with a meticulously planned and personalized itinerary. This mafia had their fingers in every aspect of a tourist’s life in Turkey. And fortunately for us, we found ourselves mixing with the only mafia in the world that didn’t have a hidden or dodgy agenda. They really just wanted to help. They love their country and they want other people to love it, too. Yes, they’re a business that needs to make money to stay afloat, but we were never once treated like ‘clients’, only as friends. And WHEN (bold, underline, caps, and italics) I return to Istanbul, I’m sure I’ll make my way to Hüseyin’s desk at Walkabout to drink some tea and catch up like old friends.
That first night, as we were sipping on our free wine, I sat there skeptical of all these men and their generous offers, wondering how it would all turn out. I leaned over to Noel and said, “If we make it out alive, and with all our Lira sill in our wallets, this will make a pretty good blog.”