Corruption December 2013

I’m sick of corruption! Maybe this is how most of the world works, but I’m not accustomed to it and it’s insanely stressful. It’s getting exhausting having to constantly be on guard. Just in the last 48 hours I’ve encountered corrupt, dishonest people about a dozen times. I miss the world where people are relatively honest and where you can walk five meters without someone attempting to rip you off or scam you.

Last night I walked down to the bus stop in Skopje and asked the attendant at the official Currency Exchange office which claimed to take no fee if he would exchange some Serbian dinars for Turkish lyra. He glared at me like I was wasting his time. Perhaps he was having a bad day or perhaps he was pissed that he had to use the global business and travel language: English. He said OK, so I counted out my 2,850 dinars (worth ~$34) and handed them to him. He handed me back a 5 lyra bill, worth about $2.50. Screw that, give me my money back! He threw my dinars at me.

I boarded the bus to Istanbul with a wallet full of dinars and no lyra. The bus arrives at the border between Macedonia and Greece and a stern looking border agent gets on. He checks everyone’s passport. He gets to me. He asks me why I’m headed to Istanbul. “I’m traveling. I’m a tourist.” I say. “That’s a strange destination, my friend” he replies. You need to come with me. I am quickly told to pack up my belongings and follow him. I follow him into a little booth outside of the bus where he proceeds to go through all of my belongings, digging through the clothes in my suitcase and rummaging through all of the food in my bag. He keeps telling me that I have such a strange destination and asking me where I’ve been and why I’m going there. He finds no reason to detain me so he tells me I may go. I pack up the rest of my belongings and get back on the bus.

Not long after, we stop at a store. I get off to pee, get back on, and sit down. I close my eyes to sleep. Suddenly I find myself being handed a bag with a box in it. Confused, I look inside the bag. It’s a box of cigarettes. Not just a small box, but a huge carton. One of those boxes of 1,000. The bus attendant motions for me to hide the box of cigarettes in my bag. I shook my head no and attempt to hand the cigarettes back to him. He shakes his head and pushes them back to me. After being so thoroughly searched by the Greek border patrols, I sure as hell am not about to hide undeclared cigarettes in my bag. A little more stern, I shake my head and say no. I put the cigarettes on the seat across the aisle from me. He is not happy, but he gives up and hurriedly continues to try to stash the cigarettes under other seats around the bus. It does not stop there: I see that he has two huge duffle bags pack full of these cigarettes. He quickly runs around the bus scattering the boxes of cigarettes among other passengers and in the overhead compartments. Once he’s sufficiently scattered the boxes around the bos, he yells to the driver to continue. We continue through the Turkish border.

Finally I get to Istanbul just as the sun rises. It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. I nearly immediately fall in love with the city. Compared with the rest of the Balkans, it’s enormous, clean, orderly, and modern. I felt safe walking around today, but I also lost count of how many times I was approached by people trying to sell me useless tourist bullshit. In the city center there was even a guy that approached my friend and I and pretended to recognize us from our hotel. He was not from our hotel. We weren’t even from a hotel, we were from a hostel. He was a scammer trying to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists.

Then for dinner we went to a section of the main pedestrian area with lots of Turkish restaurants. We were immediately approached by dozens of men pushing menus in our faces trying to sell us on their restaurants. They were literally pushing their menus on top of each others menus yelling at us why their restaurant was the best, like a bunch of hungry dogs. We figured they were all probably about the same after comparing a few prices and decided to go with one. The service was slow, the air was smokey, the portions were small, and the food was terrible. Then they brought our receipt. It was a few lines scribbled down that were completely illegible, so we called them over and asked. They told us the first one was for “bread and water”. 16 lyras just for bread and water. Then on the bottom was a “tax”. Restaurants in Turkey don’t charge separate sales tax. We were pissed, so we each put in the exact change we owed for our meals, not including the “bread and water” or “tax” and then bolted. Travis, Ella, and I made it out quickly but they grabbed Ted by the sleeve and tried to block him. He sternly told them we’re not paying for the bread and water. They tried to block his exit, but he pushed past them and made it out as well. They were used to ripping people off.

We were all a bit riled up after the restaurant attempted to rip us off. We came back to the hostel for a beer. Then Ella went to pay for her beer and realized someone had given her a 50 Swedish Kroner note (worth ~$7) as change instead of a 50 lyra note (worth $25). She was furious.

And to make things worse, I also went to lock up my belongings in my locker at the hostel to realize that not only does the door on my locker not close, but the keys to lock the lockers are all the same. Anybody can lock or unlock anybody else’s locker! There is no safe place to keep valuables in the hostel. And to be honest, this is not the first hostel that I’ve noticed this to be true for. Many of my hostels here in the Balkans have used the same keys and locks, rendering them completely useless as secure places to store belongings.

I find it absolutely exhausting to constantly deal with this. Having to constantly be hyper-paranoid about getting ripped off is draining.