Editors' Choice

Red-Faced in the Red Light District

by Jeff Vize

Finding the right place to stay sometimes requires a little local knowledge.

Charlotte and I arrived in Istanbul in the throes of the longest day of our lives. A day earlier, we had woken in Sri Lanka at 5 a.m., flown into Dubai at 11 a.m., and spent the better part of sixteen hours wandering through the city. Our flight to Turkey had departed at 3:30 a.m., putting us in Istanbul just after sunrise. By the time we landed, we’d been awake for over 26 hours. We were desperate for a bed.

Unfortunately, our prospects did not look bright. Neither of us had been to Istanbul before, and we arrived sans guidebook. Our only morsel of information was a street name – Akbiyik Caddesi, which we’d heard was the heart of the city’s backpacker ghetto. We also knew that there was a cheap bus going into town from the airport. Surely it would stop somewhere near Akbiyik Caddesi. At least we hoped it would.

The bus, in fact, probably did stop near Akbiyik Caddesi. But we never found out. Fifteen minutes into the ride, a group of four backpackers got off at the first stop. In a panic we followed them. Bad move. They immediately jumped into a taxi and sped off. We were left at the side of a broad four-lane avenue lined with towering gray buildings – none of them hotels.

“Should we get a taxi?” Charlotte said.

“Nah, let’s just try walking,” I said. “It can’t be that far.”

We set out in the wake of our bus, traversing a series of steep rolling hills. With each peak, our backpacks became heavier, and the sun grew hotter. After a half hour, there still wasn’t a guesthouse in sight, but the streets were becoming more crowded. Soon we saw a few tourists. Finally, we ducked down a few side alleys stumbled upon a miracle: A street with at least a dozen hotels. This might not be Akbiyik Caddesi, but who cared? Salvation awaited.

We entered the first hotel we came upon – a 1960s high rise with a glass face and a claustrophobic lobby. A uniformed desk man greeted us with a grim nod of the head. Above him, a board advertised the prices. They were all in Deutschmarks.

“Guten Tag,” the man said.

“Do you speak English?”

He ignored my question and continued in German. Through a series of grunts and sign language, we were able to learn that a room cost about US $30. We were tired, but this was double what we’d expected to pay. Besides, it didn’t seem like our type of place – the clientele seemed to be mostly middle-aged men. With a dozen other hotels within walking distance, we figured it wouldn’t hurt to check out a few more.

We walked across the street to the next place, an older stone tower that looked more like an apartment complex than a hotel. Crumbling balconies – most of them tangled with drying laundry – clung to the upper stories. Potted plants sat beneath the billowing waves of yellowed underpants and faded jeans. The only indication that this was a hotel was a narrow entryway marked with a small sign.

We passed through the front door, and found ourselves in a darkened corridor that smelled of alcohol, stale vomit and sweat. The hallway emptied into a small café with about six tables. At the head of the room, like an altar, was a massive wooden bar. Its shelves were crowded with an impressive selection of international liquor, but no one appeared to be home.

“Hello?”

A heavyset woman in her forties peeked up from behind the counter. She wore a cast on her left arm.

“Do you have a room?” I asked.

The woman squinted and began moving towards us, with a glare that could have melted iron. As she got closer, I saw that the cast was not her only medical problem: Her face was bruised in three places, and she had a black eye.

She stopped about five feet from us and looked sharply at Charlotte. Her gaze began at Charlotte’s legs, moved up to her torso, and stopped at her breasts. She then repeated the gaze in reverse and muttered something in Turkish.

“We don’t have to stay here,” I whispered to Charlotte.

“I know, but let’s at least look at the room.”

The woman smirked and motioned for us to follow her. She walked down the entryway and began ascending a narrow stairwell near the front door.

That’s when the shouting started. The male voice was coming from upstairs, and it was clearly upset. The barmaid stopped in the middle of the stairs, paused silently for a moment, and shouted something back. The man responded with even more fury. Then we heard footsteps – running footsteps. Finally, the man emerged at the head of the stairs, positioned to block our way.

I can’t say I understood the literal meaning of each word that followed, but the gist was obvious:

“You stupid whore!”

“Whore? What about that cow you slept with last night!”

“At least she’s not an old donkey like you!”

The tone of this conversation suggested it was time for us to leave.

The next hotel was barely better. The female clerk cast the same construction-worker gaze upon Charlotte, and then gave me an equally suspicious eye. I asked the price of a room.

“How many hours?” she asked.

The question seemed odd. I conferred with Charlotte and we decided on twenty-four. This only made the clerk more wary.

“Married?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Yeah,” I said, lying, but figuring that this was the right answer.

“Show me name on passport.”

And so it was on to the next hotel.

This time we were a bit more careful. We walked to the end of the street and found a stately 19th-century building painted in a pleasant shade of yellow pastel. It was a crumbling charmer like you might find in an old French colony, and it seemed cheerful enough. Plus, the price was encouraging: Five bucks a night.

“I think we should go for it,” Charlotte said.

I was thinking the same thing, but first I wanted to see our room.

“Hello!” called a young man as we walked through the lobby. He was clad in paint-splattered overalls, and was standing with a group of four friends – all of whom were apparently staying here. None of them looked older than 19.

“You stay here?” said one of his friends.

He was speaking to me, but looking at Charlotte.

“We might,” I said.

The men let out an audible gasp, and began chattering amongst themselves. All of them now stared at Charlotte. I tried to distract them by asking where they were from.

“Tunisia,” the man said. “We are construction workers.”

Fair enough. They want to ogle a bit, one of them is drooling on my shoe, and another is on the verge of poking a hole in his pants. But I was man enough to handle a night with my girlfriend in a hotel full of horny construction workers. Maybe.

“What do you think?” I whispered to Charlotte.

“It’s fine. It’s just for a night.”

We were led up a stairwell to our floor. To our immediate right were the facilities: Two communal toilets and a group shower. Both were unisex, and neither had locks.

“Still interested?” I muttered.

“I guess I can skip a shower for one day.”

Our room was nearby. The door had no lock, the bed had no sheets, and it smelled like urine. A crowd of men stood outside our door, anxiously awaiting our decision. I was beginning to understand why they were so excited to see us.

“Thanks,” I told the clerk. “But I think we’re going to have to think about it.”

After two hours of touring the street, we finally figured it out: This wasn’t Akbiyik Caddesi. Even worse, no one around here had ever heard of the street. It seemed we might be forced to choose between a den of German sex tourists, a whorehouse, or a flophouse. It was a difficult decision. We decided to talk it over in a café.

We picked the first tea shop we found, a one-room dive with folding tables and plastic chairs strewn across a concrete floor. About three-quarters of the clientele were old men who had come to gamble – some playing cards, others wagering on the televised horse races. The rest of the men were cops, some of whom placed wagers of their own.

We sat back with our Turkish coffees and tried to soak in the atmosphere. Our presence, though, had caused too much of a stir for that. Apparently young foreign couples with backpacks were a novelty in the red light district.

After much murmuring, a bald bear of man with a bushy mustache finally approached. He asked what we were doing in the neighborhood.

“We’re looking for a hotel,” Charlotte said.

“Hotel?” he said, giving us a perplexed look. It was an expression that meant either “gee, you don’t look like a prostitute” or “wow, you people are morons.” Or perhaps both.

“You find hotel?” he said.

I shook my head.

“Address?” he said.

I handed him a piece of paper on which we’d copied two words – Akbiyik Caddesi.

He held the paper close to his face and repeated the street name aloud.

“Akbiyik Caddesi. Ak-bi-yik …”

He scratched his shiny dome and shrugged. I was ready to leave it at that, but he then proceeded to circle the café, asking each customer if they knew the address.

“Akbiyik Caddesi?!” he shouted, followed by some Turkish.

There were plenty of shrugs, but no answers. I already felt indebted, and told the man not to worry about it. He held up his hands and told us to wait. He then ducked into the back room and returned shortly with a man he introduced as his son.

They spoke rapidly in Turkish.

“Come,” he finally said. “We go.”

“Come?” I repeated.

“Car,” he said, pointing outside. “My car.”

His son picked up our bags and carried them to a red hatchback outside the shop.

“We go.”

This initial exchange was about all the English these two could manage, but their lack of language skills did not stop them from performing one of the kindest acts we could have imagined. For the next hour, we drove around half of Istanbul in search of the elusive Akbiyik Caddesi. We stopped every five minutes so that the shop owner could roll down his window and assault random pedestrians.

“Akbiyik Caddesi?!” he would shout, often without bothering to stop the car.

If the victims didn’t run – terrified at the sight of two bedraggled foreigners and a half-crazed tea shop waiter randomly screaming street names – they usually just shrugged. No one knew the street.

After a half hour of shrugs, cringes, and the occasional shriek, we finally found our first hint: Someone pointed. Ten minutes later we began seeing the city’s landmarks – the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sofya, the Bosphorus Strait. Eventually, we found our place.

“How much?” I asked as we got out of the car.

The old man laughed and shooed me away with the back of his hand.

“Gas money?”

He just laughed again.

We thanked the men heartily, but we couldn’t help but feel guilty. Their hospitality had been remarkable, and we had nothing to give in return. That didn’t seem to bother them, but over the next few days we toyed with the idea of heading back to thank them – to bring a gift, or to at least let them know that we had found a good hotel.

Then we realized we’d have a problem: How would we find the shop? Sure, we could just learn the Turkish word for red-light district, barge into a tea shop and start asking. But then we’d probably have another benefactor to feel guilty about.


Jeff Vize is a writer who lives in Southern California. This story won the Silver Award for Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers in the First Annual Solas Awards.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




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