The day started innocently enough. Francisco, a friend from my FIELD 2 group (FIELD2 is a program at Harvard Business School where we undertake a week long consulting project in a developing economy), and I had spent the morning experiencing the delights of a Turkish bathhouse. We were near Taksim Square, the heart of Istanbul and the site of the Gezi Park protests in 2013. After a week of snow and slush, the weekend finally brought some sun and warmth and our group had organised to take a cruise on the Bosphorus.
We needed to get across town to the Ortakoy to catch a ferry. So we walked up to the main square to catch a cab. After unsuccessfully hailing a few cabs on street we went to cab rank and after confirming with the driver that he knew where we were going we got in. The driver told us that he was resetting the meter and then headed off.
Traffic in Istanbul is pretty terrible and so the next 15 minutes involved very little actual movement. During this time the driver chatted with us about where we were from, what we were doing in Turkey and the like. I was impressed with his level of English; I had found that English was not that widely spoken especially with the cab drivers. “Oh we are here doing an assignment for university” “Are you American?” “No I’m Australian” “and I’m Brazilian” etc…
Having crawled along during those 15 minutes we reached a highway bypass that wasn’t busy and would get us there faster, he said. Google maps on my phone concurred. At this point Francisco lent over to me and whispered that the meter amount seemed pretty low; it was just 5 lira (less than $2). I replied that yes it was low but reasoned that perhaps the cost relates more the distance than time and we hadn’t actually moved very far.
Once we turned onto the highway the driver immediately floored it and started doing 100km/h in a 60 zone weaving in between cars with only centimetres to spare. And Turkish cabs don’t have seat belts. Francisco and I looked at each other and held on tight to the hand-holds on the car’s ceiling. This lasted for 3 or 4 minutes until we reached the turn-off to head down the hill to Ortakoy. At this point I was thinking “This guy is crazy” but I have experienced my fair share of cab and Uber drivers that thought driving fast = great customer experience. When we turned the corner though things got worse. The driver started tail-gating the car in front doing that game of pulling out to see if he could overtake before pulling back. This happened a few more times. Finally when there was ‘only’ a scooter coming the other way he went for it causing the scooter to take evasive action and nearly driving into a wall. With clear air in-front of him he continued to race down the hill, turn the corner and abruptly stop.
“The ferry is just over there. That’s 19 lira” he said while pointing to the fare meter. Francisco and I look at each other, pleased to have arrived in one piece. “Here’s a 20” Francisco replies.
“No, no, no, 99 lira” the driver now says, tapping on the meter. Sure enough it now shows 99 where it had previously been 19. Now I had taken this journey a few times before so I knew it should be 15–20 lira. On top of that I was used to this haggling game from my time in Bangalore. You start at the fair price, they start at an obscene price and you meet in the middle.
“99 lira? I have done this trips many times before and I know it should be 15. We’ll give you 20, that’s fine.”
Immediately, to our surprise he turns around, yells “You no pay? You no pay?”, revs the engine, and starts to pull away.
At this point my brain goes into instinct mode. Pictures fill my head of the car doors locking and being driven to an abandoned warehouse (thank you Hollywood). I get this overwhelming sense that I just need to get out of the car.
So what’s the most obvious thing to do? “Ok, ok fine. We’ll give you 99 lira.” He pulls over, we pay, and go on our merry way.
No, that’s not what happened.
“Francisco, open your door,” I say as I open mine, fully expecting the driver to stop. He doesn’t.
At that point I grab my bag, look over my shoulder to check there are no cars close behind, and exit the vehicle (Sorry Francisco). Now I’d love to say I channelled James Bond and suavely rolled out. Instead I stumbled out and ended up on my arse. The car was only going 5–10km/hr at the time so I was perfectly fine. No scratches, cuts or bruises.
The cab stops a few metres ahead and I pick myself up off the road. Being in a foreign place with a nutjob around I decide the best thing to do is to draw a crowd. I start waving my arms around and yelling at the driver as he exits the vehicle. “You are crazy, you are trying to kill us.”
At this point he comes charging up, yelling at me in Turkish, slaps me across the face, leans back and kicks me in the thigh. By now Francisco is out of the car and by my side. So here are the choices. I could have fought back but by now another 10 cabs have pulled up to check out the action. This 100kg+ angry gorilla was enough but 10 of his friends would be trouble. We also could have legged it but that would have made us look guilty and he hadn’t done anything wrong. So we stay put and I back away to create some distance between us. Some of the crowd whom I had attracted earlier now stepped between us and appeared to be asking the driver what had happened. He starts to charge again but this time the bystanders hold him back.
Not able to attack me again he does what was is the scariest part of the whole ordeal. He walks back to the driver’s seat and rummages around under the seat and in the glove compartment. “He’s looking for a weapon,” I think to myself, maybe a knife or a crowbar. Later Francisco tells me he thought the driver was looking for a gun.
Fortunately, after a couple of minutes he returns empty handed, by which time a younger Turkish man speaking English has arrived to quell the situation. “What happened”, he asks. “This man is trying to rob us”, we say. “We came from Taksim Square. First the driver said it was 19 lira, and then it became 99 lira.”
“99 lira? That’s ridiculous” the younger Turk says. At which point the driver blurts out “99 lira, no! 19 lira!
Francisco, still holding the 20 lira note, hands it over. “That’s what we were trying to pay you in the first place!”
Angrily, he driver walks back to his car and begins to drive away. We pull out our phones and take pictures of the licence plate. Shaken up, we head to the port to meet our friends — unhurt and with a story to tell.
Examples like this are why the taxi industry will be overtaken by ride-sharing services, unless it implements user-rating systems and screens out the bad eggs.