Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Living on the Edge: Lost in the Bosporus and Robbed (Nearly) in Kazakhstan

This may be the last of my "Living on the Edge" series of posts for awhile, at least until I can get back overseas or hear some more good stories from friends.

Spontaneity is not my style, at least not in any type of grand gesture.  Planning for contingencies to ensure that I am where I am supposed to be when I am supposed to be there is a central to my modus operandi, especially when traveling overseas.  When I’m traveling alone, I build plenty of time into my schedule to be where I need to be.

So my own decision and actions shocked me that spring, but I’ll get to that in a moment.  I was in Istanbul for a quick overnight stay by myself.  I had just finished escorting a group of cadets through Vienna, Brataslava, Uzhgorod, Lviv (Lvov), Kiev, Simferopol, Yalta, and Sevastopol.  As the cadets traveled back I was heading to Almaty, Kazakhstan to explore the option of sending cadets there for language immersion or a study abroad program.

I flew from Kiev to Istanbul.  My arrival was memorable.  I speak no Turkish so I was hopeful I could communicate my needs sufficiently while in the country.  At the time my wife and I were huge fans of the television reality series Amazing Race.  The taxi scenes from the show played out in my mind as I walked out to find transportation to my hotel.  But, I was prepared.  I had the name and the address of my hotel printed with a basic map.  It was all in Turkish making it simple to communicate.  As I sat in the taxi I confidently handed the papers to the driver.

He looked at it for a few seconds.

“Do you know where this is,” I asked.

“Yes, yes, “ he answered nodding his head.

Quickly we pulled out from the airport.  Within five minutes he was on his cell phone with my directions in one hand asking someone for directions.  He obviously had no clue where we were going or how to get there, which was shocking since I had purposefully stayed in an area frequented by tourists so that it would be easy to find.

Eventually he found the general area and had some young boy run ahead of him to lead him directly to the hotel.

My hotel was in an amazing spot.  Within just a short walk I could see both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
Hagia Sophia

Blue Mosque

My itinerary allowed me about 20 hours in Istanbul before my flight to Almaty.  With limited time I had planned two excursions near my hotel.  The afternoon I flew in I walked to the Grand Bazaar.  The place was amazing.  Somehow I made it out with some money left in my pocket.  That evening I had an amazing dinner in a small café not far from the Hagia Sophia. 

The next morning I had a delicious breakfast served buffet style at my hotel.  From there I went to the Spice Market.  After purchasing paprika, cardamom, saffron, Turkish delight, and other treats, I began to make the trek back to my hotel.  As I was walking along the waterfront I saw a boat ready to leave for a cruise of the Bosporus.  Looking at my watch, I realized that I had at least four hours before I would have to leave for the airport.  As part of my intel gathering the night before, and from speaking with friends, I had heard that some cruises last only a short time. 

Deciding to be spontaneous I purchased a ticket and got on the boat with my backpack and bags of spices.  It was an amazing trip as we headed out and made a few stops.  After about an hour I kept expecting us to turn back.  After an hour and a half of heading in the same direction, north toward the Black Sea, I began to lose all interest in the sites and the cruise.  As my anxiety increased I tried to find something in English that would tell me the course and schedule of the boat.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find anything.

Finally, I heard a female English accent coming from another part of the boat.  I drifted toward it hoping to ask some questions of a traveler with more experience in the city.  She mentioned to her friends that we were only one or two stops away from the last and the boat would turn around there.  Relief flooded over me, as it now appeared that I would make it to my hotel in time to get my luggage and go to the airport.  Then I heard say something to her friends about hiking to a nearby castle.

Unable to remain quiet any longer, I asked, “How long does the boat stay at the last stop before it starts the return trip?”

“Not long, “ she said.  “About three hours.  Just long enough for everyone to make the hike to the castle if they want.”

Panic hit.  I had no idea if I would make it back in time.  I walked around some more and heard someone mention that we would be stopping on the Asia side and that the taxis there would be few.  Listening I realized that I a few other travelers had made the same mistake as me.  They had got onto the wrong boat, the long cruise as it were instead of the short cruise.

As the boat approached the final stop, I was determined to be the first to any taxi that may be waiting.  I nudged my way to the edge of the boat with all of my bags in hand.  With the boat still a foot or two from the dock I jumped and ran up to the street.  There was one taxi ahead of me.  Looking back I saw a group of four or five people running for the same taxi.  It was too many to share a taxi so I didn’t wait for them. 

Out of breath I interrupted the lone taxi driver who was talking to some other locals.  Luckily I had a card with my hotels address and was able to communicate my need to hurry.  Now, I had years of watching movie and television scenes where the character offers the taxi driver more money to drive faster, but this first time that I did it and had results.  My driver flew down the highway, making detours here and there to void traffic snarls. 

We reached my hotel about thirty minutes after my planned departure time.  My driver agreed to wait while I ran in to check out and retrieve my luggage.  I’m sure the staff thought me rude as I ran past to my room and then ran back down, throwing my keys on the counter.

As fast as he could my driver navigated the streets to the airport.  Jumping out I paid him a prince’s ransom then dashed inside.

One more moment of panic hit as I watched the security personnel freeze on my suitcase after they had put it through the x-ray machine.  They began to speak briskly amongst themselves pointing at the bag and then at me.  At first I was unsure of the cause of the excitement, then I saw a sign indicating that travelers are required to announce if they have any type of knife in their luggage.  I hadn’t seen the sign and they had found my small pocketknife on the x-ray.

Finally one gentleman approached me, asking in broken English if I had a knife in my suitcase.  I answered affirmatively and tried my best to apologize, offering to leave the knife behind so I could make my flight.  He only nodded his head once, then turned away from me to confer once again with his colleagues.  Moments passed so slowly as I waited for some resolution, hoping I was headed to some Turkish holding cell.

In the end the same person approached me with a clipboard and asked me to sign my name.  Unsure what I was signing, I was a bit worried.  Maybe it was a confession to transporting something highly illegal.  I signed it anyway and waited for the consequence.  As soon as I had signed they grabbed me and pushed me forward, handing me my suitcase.

“Hurry, run, or you’ll miss your flight.”

Luckily I made it and jetted to Almaty for the second time in my life.
My flight landed in Almaty just before two in the morning.  I was sleepy and in a hurry to get to the Intercontinental Hotel as soon as possible.
Intercontinental Hotel - Almaty, Kazakhstan

Travel, especially overseas, demands an extra awareness of security.  Since I was traveling alone, I was extra sensitive to any threats or risks--arriving in the middle of the night only made the experience that much more exciting.  Security protocols in these countries encourages government travelers to take official, marked taxis and not take rides with individuals who are simply trying to make an extra buck with their own car.

Clearing customs and passport control with my luggage in hand, I stepped out into the public concourse to find several dozen individuals offering their services.  Looking around I found a young woman holding aloft the sign of the local taxi company.  She quickly made her way to me then led me outside to the waiting vehicles asking in English for my destination.

We stopped at a car that was full of four or five young men.  Security protocol, as well as common sense, dictates that riding with multiple unknown individuals may not be safe.  As I started to protest the selection of taxis, all of the young men except for the driver exited the car.  The driver, an ethnic Russian, came around to put my suitcase into the trunk.  I kept my backpack with me.

Crawling into the backseat, I hoped I could stay awake for the 20-30 minute drive into the city.  The lady communicated my destination to the driver and we pulled away.  Within 20 yards the car stopped, however, and a young Kazakh man in his early to mid-twenties got into the front seat.  I started to protest again when I heard the doors lock.  Looking at the car door I saw that the locks had been broken off so that I would be unable to unlock and open the doors on my own.

Immediately the adrenaline kicked in as I realized I might be in a dangerous situation.  The driver and his friend started to whisper to each other in Russian as we pulled away.  While I couldn’t make out what they were saying, I decided to make myself as undesirable a target as possible. 

I leaned forward, intruding on their conversation, and said in Russian, “Ah, the Intercontinental Hotel!  I’ve been there several times and can’t wait to get there again.  It’s only about 20 minutes away, right?”

My suspicions were rewarded, not in a delightful way, as they both looked shocked and concerned over my ability to speak Russian.  Glancing furtively at one another, they were trying to find another way to communicate.  I didn’t give them the opportunity.  I began to speak of my previous trip to Almaty and my familiarity with the area, although I may have made it sound like I had been there several times.

I was unsure if their plan was simply to shake me down for extra cash, rob me, or something worse.  As I spoke with them I wished that I had moved my pocketknife into my backpack.  The driver repeatedly put his hand between the seats grasping what I feared maybe a gun, but I wasn’t certain.

In an effort to reduce the impact of any robbery or shakedown I always travel with the bulk of my cash hidden, with just enough on my person to hopefully appease any would be criminal.  I decided to make it clear that I had only limited cash and that I hoped it would be enough to pay for the taxi ride.  I promised that if it wasn’t enough I could get it out at the ATM at the hotel, knowing that most other ATMs in the city would be closed at that time of night.

They didn’t tell me how much they needed right up front, but said that it needed to be exchanged for tenge, the Kazakh currency.  I offered to make the exchange for my US dollars at the Intercontinental.  Instead they said they had a local place that was still open to make the exchange. 

Once again the adrenaline kicked up another level.  The plan would be either to get me to reveal how much money I had so they could shake me down or to straight up rob me or worse.  As we made a detour to their local currency exchange, I rummaged through my backpack for anything that might be used as a weapon.  My only option was a pen that I quickly tucked into my jacket pocket.  I also tucked $100 into my pocket to make the exchange.

We stopped along a street in an unidentifiable part of town.  The door was unlocked so I could exit and both of them escorted me inside a building.  Inside we approached a closed window in a hallway.  With both of them standing close enough to me to touch both of my shoulders, one of them knocked on the window.  A young lady opened it and quickly exchanged my dollars for tenge while the two looked closely at the money in my hand. 

As we walked back to the car I ran through various escape scenarios, wondering if I could get away and if I did if I would be able to contact the police or find another ride to the hotel.  Helped back into the car we drove away.

My anxiety increased as I wondered if we were headed to the hotel or somewhere else.  Both the driver and his friend continued to look back and forth at each other, obviously unsure of what to do.  Finally the Intercontinental Hotel came into sight.  As we pulled into the circular driveway out front, they popped the trunk of the car but didn’t unlock my door.  The bellboy came out from the hotel and pulled my suitcase from the trunk, then waited for me to pay my driver and get out.

The driver and his friend turned to look at me.  I don’t remember the amount the asked for in tenge but it was about the equivalent of $200. 

“I don’t have that much,” I said.  “I only exchanged $100 and I don’t have much more in cash.  I can get more from inside the hotel.”

I gave the driver what I had.

“Give us the rest now.”

“I don’t have it.”

At this point the bellboy had come to my door and was reaching out to open it for me.  The driver hit gas, pulling ahead several feet out of the reach of the bellboy.  I looked around and saw the security guard from the hotel take notice of my situation.  He began to walk out of the hotel in case his services were needed.

“Give us the money now!”

“I only have another $40 in US.  Will that cover it?”

The bellboy had almost reached the car again prompting the driver to pull away again quickly.  Now the security guard was aware of the situation.  He pulled his handgun and started to run toward the car.  The driver pulled further ahead.

“Give me everything you’ve got now!”

I pulled out the two $20 bills in my pocket and put it in his hand.

The door unlocked.

“Get out now!  Get out now!”

Opening the door I released my grasp on my meager pen that I fully intended on using as a weapon.  I grabbed my backpack and rolled out of the car that was already starting to move forward.  Both the bellboy and the security guard arrived in time to help me up off of the ground and escort me into the hotel.

Sleep didn’t come easily that night as I played through the scenario and what else could have happened over an over again.

The next day, after completing my business, I was supposed to fly back to Kiev to stay there for a few more days.  I had had enough.  After two weeks of constantly being on the move and the excitement of the previous 24 hours, I was ready to be home.  As quickly as I could I changed my flight back home via Amsterdam and Minneapolis.

Other Living on the Edge Posts:
Mafia and Guns in Russia

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