I guess this story could be summed up in a 140 character tweet, but it’s the most exciting thing that happened on this trip, so I’m coming out of blogger hibernation to share it. I was in Turkey over the last two weeks for my cousin’s wedding. One night, we all went to Nusr-et (AKA Salt Bae) for a late dinner. Around 2 AM, we drove back to the hotel in my cousin’s rental car (a BMW), when we were pulled over by police outside of the Vodaphone Arena. We had no idea why.
Two cops approach us and one of them utters the word “Araba,” which prompts my sister to think we’re being profiled: “They think we’re Arabs. Tell them we’re Afghan. They like Afghans.” Both cops speak a bit of English and begin asking for my cousin’s identification and car papers. He hands over his German driver’s license and insurance documents.
The older officer makes some kind of objection to the fact that we’re in a rental car and when that doesn’t illicit a reaction, he goes with “We need to see your passport.” My cousin tells him he left it at the hotel. The officer asks my cousin to pull over further and walk over to his vehicle. The whole thing drags on and we get concerned when a second police car pulls up. I’ve successfully talked my way out of several traffic tickets and I’m great at dealing with shady a**holes, so I decide to get out and talk to them.
The child lock keeps me in. I contemplate crawling out of the window, but if traffic stops in Turkey are anything like the ones in the US, we all wonder if it’s worth getting shot over. Instead, I decide to address the amenable English-speaking officer who stayed behind. I ask him what the problem is and the following exchange ensues:
Him: “The problem is he has no passport. You have to carry your passport.”
Me: “Most people don’t carry their passport around for safety reasons. They leave it behind in their hotel safe.”
Him: “Yes but you need identification.”
Me: “He showed you a driver’s license.”
Him: “Yes, but we need identification that shows entry dates.”
Me (in my head): Do you really think a German national would try to stay in this country illegally, with all the sh** you’ve got going on?
Me: “The hotel front desk has a copy of it. I’m sure they can send it to you if necessary.”
Him: “No, he must have it with him. He needs to be punished.”
Could they arrest him? My sister suggests we tell my cousin to try to bribe these guys. I object, on the basis that bribing a police officer in a foreign country could go very wrong. At this point another police vehicle arrives. Now it’s a party and the possibility of arrest seems real. Just then, a red Mustang pulls up in front of us and two officers come out to deal with that vehicle.
I follow up on the “punishment” comment:
Me: “What do you mean by ‘punished’?”
Him: “He broke the law and he must be punished.”
Me: “What does that entail? Is he getting arrested?”
Him (chuckles): “No! If we think he committed suicide, we would arrest him. But not for a traffic stop!” It’s past 3 AM and I’m sleep deprived, so it takes me a second before I have to hold back an explosion of laughter. He clearly meant homocide and we spend the ride home laughing about his misuse of the word.
Me: “I see. So he has to pay a fine?”
Me: “How much?”
Him: “I am only a trainee. My chef knows.”
Now we’re relieved because with the favorable exchange rate, I’m sure the fine is not a big deal. It certainly sounds like a great compromise to the imagined possibility of arrest. But I need clarification on something, so I ask him: “What does Araba mean? Your Chef kept saying Araba.”
Him: “Araba means car.”
I google it later and he’s right. We’re not being profiled as Arabs after all, but we probably are profiled because we’re tourists driving a nice car. My cousin comes back with all his paperwork and I ask him what the fine is. He starts driving and says, “Nothing. They want me to come back with 4,000 Lira.” WHAT?!?!? I get that’s *only* ~$650 but this is not how traffic fines are paid.
He recounts how the shakedown went. The officers insisted on seeing a passport. When my cousin couldn’t produce one, they asked him to empty out his pockets. Those same exact words. My cousin knew what was up, so fake apologized for not having a passport and offered him 100 Turkish Lira. That’s when the officer informed him he had to pay a fine. But it was his lucky day because he would receive a 50% discount in the form of 4000 Lira.
My cousin decided to play stupid and thank him for his generosity, offering to pay him with a credit card if he had a machine handy. That’s when the officer handed back all his papers (a rookie crooked cop mistake) and instructed him to simply go back to the hotel and bring back the cash. They must have thought since he had offered to make a credit card payment, he’d be stupid enough to return with the money without any kind of obligation. My cousin thanked him for his understanding and we drove home, pondering the stupidity of Istanbul’s corrupt police force.
As far as bribes go, I find the practice fundamentally abhorrent no matter what the amount. I will take someone down to the mat rather than pay $1 towards a bribe. If it’s one thing I despise, it’s being thought of as a sucker tourist who can be taken advantage of. Ultimately, my cousin handled the situation well and got us off the hook.
It was just my luck that neither I nor my sister had our cellphones to get some of this exchange on camera. I normally don’t go anywhere without my phone but, ironically, I had to use it to bribe my niece into staying at the hotel.
Crooked cops aside, I had an amazing time in Turkey and find their people to be some of the kindest, most hospitable and generous I’ve ever met. More importantly, I felt safe and welcome in the country at all times. If you get a chance to go to Istanbul, do it. There are terrible people everywhere and you are bound to encounter them at some point. Don’t let that tarnish your opinion of an entire nation or its people. I definitely plan on going back – hopefully in the spring.
Have you ever encountered crooked cops during your travels? How did you handle the situation?