Tears from Turkey
by Stephanie Elizondo Griest
I once prided myself for having tear ducts of steel. I was the only kid on my block who could watch “Bambi” without bawling; “Beaches” made me snicker. Graduation. Weddings. Break-ups. Disappointments. I endured it all with neither a sigh nor a whimper.
Until, that is, I went to Turkey.
Istanbul had been a destination point on my atlas for ages. After working in Beijing for a year, I finally made it there one summer with loose plans of selling carpets by day and belly dancing at night. My plans changed my fifth day, however, during a visit to the Archaeological Museum. As I gazed at a row of headless statues, my hand happened to brush against the spot on my thigh where I always strapped my money belt. Instead of a reassuring bundle, I felt only bare leg.
My heart stopped. I threw down my backpack, hiked up my ankle-length Guatemalan skirt, and gazed in horror.
The money belt was still there.
Its contents were not.
I stumbled about the museum in a state of shock. I had used my passport and American Express card only an hour before and deliberately sealed them both back into the belt. What happened? Did everything somehow fall out? How could I not have noticed? I remembered reading about thieves who tossed powder into tourists’ eyes and robbed them blind in a matter of moments. Did that
happen to me?
Panic set in as it dawned on me what I had just lost: money, credit cards, passport, airline ticket, traveler’s cheques, visa. In short, all forms of identity — except my Beijing work permit, which said I was American in Chinese — and all my finances, save for $30 in Turkish lira.
I bolted for the museum’s exit, nearly knocking over a museum guard in the process. “My passport!” I shrieked over my shoulder. I raced through Gulhane Park and the Topkapi Palace grounds, darting in and out of tourist patches, frantically retracing the casual stroll I had taken only minutes before. I was nearing the towering minarets of the Aya Sofya when I spotted a Turkish policeman. I scrambled over.
“I lost all my stuff!” I wailed.
He looked at me, amused. A couple of his buddies joined us.
“Money! Passport! Gone!” I told them.
One of the officers pointed with his rifle toward a building labeled “Tourism Police.” I scurried over, dodged the security guard, and barged in on five officers settling down to an afternoon smoke.
Something I’d learned on the road is that tactics differ from country to country. Vodka bribes had taken me far when I was an exchange student in Russia; I’d yelled a lot that past year in China. But what about Turkey?
When I approached the men with determination, not a one raised an eyebrow. Realizing that pushy women may not be well received in Turkey, I took a deep breath and tried reasoning with them.
They lit up another round of smokes.
I pleaded for their help.
One got up to make apple tea.
I was about to ask if they preferred Johnnie Walker Red Label or Black when I remembered that I was broke. I collapsed into a chair in despair, and — beyond my knowledge or control — a tear rolled down my cheek.
That did it.
I was instantly surrounded. One officer dabbed my eyes with a tissue; another handed me a phone. The third took to patting my shoulders and murmuring “No cry no cry no cry,” while the fourth gave me some vital instructions: “You can get everything replaced as long as you say it was stolen. Understand? Not lost. Stolen.” The fifth officer pounded away at a typewriter before handing me something written in Turkish that appeared important. With that, I was dismissed to the city police department.
I walked out of the building in a daze. I had never seen tears work outside of a B-grade movie. Surely Gloria Steinem would not have approved of what I just did. NOW would revoke my
membership. I felt like a coward, an anti-feminist, the world’s biggest wuss.
But then again, I was a wuss with an important-looking document in her hands on her way to the city police. I was going places.
I handed over the document with feigned confidence to the officer behind the desk. He looked it over carefully, eyebrows raised, before handing it to another officer, who walked it downstairs. I was wondering how someone could have possibly reached inside my money belt without my knowledge when a new police officer joined me. We made small talk for a couple of minutes — Where are you from? Texas? Do you have a horse? — before he stopped abruptly, looked straight into my soul, and said: “I saw you by the Aya Sofya. You said you lost your passport.”
I tried not to blink. Was he bluffing? If not, should I? Then I had an idea.
“But all my stuff is gaaah-hnn,” I blubbered as a fresh wave of tears dampened my streaked face.
Within five minutes, I had an official Declaration of Theft and directions to the American Consulate.
And then I just got shameless.
In the 48 hours that followed, I cried for the consulate and bawled for the bank. At first, I waited for a rejection before raising the flood gates. Then I got the tears flowing before I even walked through the door. My tear ducts got a little crusty, but I still managed some sobs for American Express. Not only was I ushered to the front of every line, but all emergency processing fees were summarily waived. My passport was replaced in three hours as opposed to three days; my traveler’s cheques were replaced in a matter of moments. The guys at the airline agency gave me a discount on my new ticket; a bank teller bought me lunch.
I never did figure out what happened to my money belt that day. But I’ve since learned that the Vietnamese sometimes hire professional criers for funerals.
I’m considering a career change.
Interested in booking a trip to Turkey? Consider booking through Thomson for your Turkey flights.
Stephanie Elizondo Griest has mingled with the Russian Mafiya, polished Chinese propaganda, and belly danced with Cuban rumba queens. These adventures are the subject of her award-winning memoir: Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana (Villard/Random House, 2004). Atria/Simon & Schuster will publish her memoirs from Mexico in 2008, and Travelers’ Tales published her guidebook 100 Places Every Woman Should Go in spring 2007. A former Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, she has also written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Latina Magazine, and numerous Travelers’ Tales anthologies. An avid traveler, she has explored 25 countries and once spent a year driving 45,000 miles across the United States, documenting its history for a website for kids called The Odyssey. Visit her website at Around the Bloc.