The Pudding Shop: Istanbul’s famed hippie hangout still has place in the heart of “Midnight Express” writer Billy Hayes
(This is the last of a four-part series on Istanbul. Today: The Pudding Shop.)
ISTANBUL – I walked in and the aromas of cumin and roast meats nearly blasted me back onto the sidewalk. I felt like I was roasting on a spit myself. People sat at plain metal tables with plates stacked with kabobs and vegetables and French fries.
The Pudding Shop seemed like just another cheap diner in a city full of them. But in a zone boasting the internationally renowned tourist sites of Aya Sofya 100 meters away, the Blue Mosque across the square and Topkapi Palace down the street, the Pudding Shop is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Istanbul.
Anyone who has backpacked overseas knows the Pudding Shop. It’s because we all read or watched “Midnight Express.” It’s about Billy Hayes, a 23-year-old American who got busted smuggling two kilos of hashish out of the Istanbul airport in 1970. He spent five years of a 30-year sentence in Turkish jails before escaping. He wrote a best-selling book in 1977 and it became an Oscar-nominated movie the following year.
“Midnight Express” became kind of a backpacker’s red flag. Don’t screw around with drugs overseas, it warned us. The penalties are severe. Hayes’ 30-year sentence was reduced from life. It’s a true story. This was not propaganda.
Billy Hayes and the Pudding Shop
The Pudding Shop, for Billy Hayes, is where it all started. It’s here where he met the taxi driver who took him to his first buy. It was a natural meeting point. Istanbul, where West meets East, was the crossroads of the overseas Hippy Trail that snaked through Central Asia and India all the way to the Himalayas and the beaches of Southeast Asia. The Pudding Shop was the nervecenter of backpackers going through Istanbul.
“Back in the ‘70s, the Pudding Shop was the mecca for all the tourists and hippies traveling around the world,” Hayes told me last week. “They used to have a big board up there where people left messages for people traveling east to the West and vice versa. ‘Contact me at blah, blah, blah, Kabul or somewhere.’ That was the information central long before there was Internet.”
I caught up with Hayes by phone in Las Vegas where he has lived the last 10 years being, well, Billy Hayes. He has taken around the world his one-man show, “Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes,” about his prison experience; last year he published his fourth book, “Midnight Express: Epilogue” filling in his last few years including his return to Istanbul for the 2016 documentary “Midnight Return;” and he is working on an eight-part series about his earlier drug deals in Istanbul and his prison escape. He even has his own website: www.billyhayes.com.
Now 76, he’s happy and healthy and seems as enthusiastic about talking of his five years in hell as when he first returned home to New York following his escape in 1975.
Of the bad memories he had of Turkey, the Pudding Shop is not one of them.
“That was the place to be and the place to meet and, of course, the place to score any kind of hash if you wanted it,” he said. “The food … I can still taste the rice pudding they had with the cinnamon on top. I used to eat yumurta, fried eggs and ham there.”
The pudding is still there, but little else is. The Pudding Shop isn’t even the original name. It opened in 1957 as the Lale Pastahanesi (Pastry Shop). It sold chocolate, Turkey’s trademark sweet candied gels called Turkish Delight and, of course, pudding.
After the Vietnam War began in the ‘60s, many young men escaped the draft and left the U.S. They were dropping acid and dropping out. And they started traveling the world. It was a time when Iraq and Iran were safe to travel, The Beatles made Hinduism in India hip and Afghanistan was not only at peace, but it was one of the world’s top opium dens. To get to these places overland, they had to go through Istanbul. And they had to go through the Pudding Shop which adopted the name the travelers kept calling it.
As late as 1978 when I backpacked around the world, I was in Greece looking to go to Asia. In the 1960s and ‘70s Asian travel had the Magic Bus, a party on wheels that went from Istanbul to Kathmandu for about $100. Adem’s father, Idris, arranged to have the bus pick up passengers outside the Pudding Shop.
“We were in the right place at the right time,” owner Adem Colpan said.
While in Istanbul last month over my birthday, I sat down with Colpan and his uncle, Namik, at the back of the restaurant, finally quieter in mid-afternoon. The message board is still up but it’s less an exchange of insider travel information as diner comments, like in a hotel guestbook. “First time back since October 1972 en route to Kathmandu,” reads one. “The old place remains a wonderful landmark full of fond memories. Keep on keeping on.”
The walls are covered with clippings and photos from the last 50 years, including one of Pres. Clinton standing outside the shop.
In the ‘70s, Adem’s father, Idris, realized they couldn’t survive just selling sweets so they expanded the menu. However, everyone still called it the Pudding Shop and it remains on the sign to this day. In fact, after the movie came out, Idris made so much money they bought a nearby building and opened the Blue House Hotel.
“He’s one of the few people in Istanbul that profited off ‘Midnight Express,’” Hayes said with a laugh. “He thanked us.”
Today the Pudding Shop is arguably Istanbul’s biggest tourist trap. Colpan says their clientele is 90 percent tourists. Some are serious travelers. Others, including many on tour groups, are just curious about the movie.
The trademark pudding is still a top seller. I tried it and can see why. It’s so cold, so creamy, so smooth. Topped with powdered pistachios and coconut, it tastes like light vanilla ice cream. I can imagine what it would taste like with the munchies. No wonder the hippies loved this place.
And the Turks liked the hippies. This Muslim country suddenly came in contact with people from Southern California to Sweden to the far corners of Asia. And everyone had a story to tell.
“The first thing people realized is these people were coming from space, the moon,” said Adem who took over with Namik when Idris died in 1998. “People came with the long beards and the long hair and the shorts and the guitar. Turkish people are very polite. They loved them, especially my father and uncle.
“We have so many memories from those days. Some customers had no money on the way back (from Asia). We’d give them some money. When they get back home they could send us the money.”
Adem handed me a salt shaker. He said one time in the ‘70s, a traveler took a salt shaker from the counter on his way to India.
“He brought it back after 30 years,” Adem said. “He felt guilty.”
But Adem said the Pudding Shop was never a drug center. Idris had the U.S. Consulate bring a sign that read on the wall, “If you smoke a joint, you get three years. If you sell, you get 10.”
That’s one of the many fact errors in the movie where Hayes told police he bought the drugs at the Pudding Shop and took them to it. Hayes told me he didn’t buy them in the restaurant. He was told to wait inside and look for a taxi driver pulling up.
Billy Hayes and hashish
He said he first became intrigued with Turkish hash in 1967 when he was a senior at Marquette University in Milwaukee and a friend returned from Istanbul with some. Two years later, Hayes was in Istanbul. (Yes, his friend’s hash was that good.)
A chess lover, Hayes told me he went into an Istanbul chess shop and met the old owner whose son had moved to Manhattan and played chess in the same Washington Square Hayes did.
“We had this instant rapport,” Hayes said. “We started playing a little chess, then one thing led to another. Then we went out back and smoked a little hash. The. Best. Hash. I’ve ever smoked.”
The man was part of the Kurdish minority who live in Eastern Turkey where they grow the best hash in the country. Hayes asked the man how he could get some.
“He said, ‘Do you know the Pudding Shop?’” he said.
“‘Of course I know the Pudding Shop.’”
“He said, ‘Tomorrow at noon. Can you be at the Pudding Shop?”
“‘You get a window seat and you look out the window and you look for …’ and he described a taxi cab, an old black beat-up Buick.”
“‘He’ll be stopped outside waiting for you and won’t let anyone else in.’”
He took Hayes to his house where he sat with the driver’s wife and young kids while the cabbie and brother-in-law pressed the hash powder into packs the size Hayes wanted.
“All the hash that could be had in Istanbul was fantastic,” he said. “Certainly way better than most of the garbage we were buying in the late ‘60s in America. Hash was hardly a known quality back then. After I came back with my hash, everybody wanted it because it was so good.
“(The cabbie) bragged about how they grow, the Kurds, the best hash. Well, smoking is believing. It was really good. It was very Turkish taffy-ish, very gummy, very dark, brown and greenish color. It was incredibly good. I like to get high as opposed to stoned. I’m like you. I’m a writer. I like to think. I don’t particularly like to get stoned and fall down on a couch somewhere.
“Well, if you smoke enough of this stuff, that’s what you’ll do.”
It was so good, he made four smuggling trips. Yes, four. What I didn’t know until after I left the Pudding Shop is neither Hayes’ book nor the movie ever mentioned the first three successful trips in April ‘69, October ‘69 and April ‘70. After his return to the U.S., Interpol still had him on its list and he didn’t want to raise any alarms.
But in 1970, Pres. Nixon was pressuring Turkey for tougher enforcement in his War on Drugs. The PLO was hijacking and blowing up planes. Turkey tightened security, particularly in airports where Hayes, for the first time in four trips, got searched before getting on the plane. The Turks had their prize drug bust.
I asked him how worried he was during his frequent trips about Turkey’s stiff drug laws.
“Obviously not enough,” he said. “I was young, 21, 22 years old. After I got away with it the first time? I was golden. I was invincible. I couldn’t be touched. You can’t do shit like that. I look around and see people riding motorcycles. For the most part they’re young people. Young, dumb, full of cum. And you haven’t been broken by life yet. You haven’t had an accident yet. You don’t realize that you can’t get away with anything.
“Well, that’s how I felt. Until suddenly, bang! The ceiling fell on my head.”
Hayes loves Turkey and Turks
During our hour-long conversation, we shared our love of Istanbul, of Turkey, of the Turkish people. Hayes remains perturbed at screenwriter Oliver Stone’s portrayal of him wildly cursing the court after it gave him a 30-year sentence. He never said, “For a nation of pigs it’s sure funny you don’t eat them.” He also never yelled, “I fuck your sons! I fuck your daughters! Because they’re pigs!”
The Turks didn’t like the book. They made Oliver Stone shoot the film in Malta. Last year I toured the military museum that served as the prison during filming. But after the movie became a hit, it got worse in Turkey. Tourism dropped 95 percent.
What Hayes told me he actually said to the court was, “If after more than three years in your prison you’re gonna sentence me to more prison, I can not agree with you. All I can do is forgive you.”
“I loved Istanbul,” he told me. “I loved the Turkish people. I had weeks and weeks and weeks between my first, my second, my third trip. I had time in Istanbul. I traveled a bit down there. I had a Turkish girlfriend. I had my chess-playing old guy who I’d see each trip.
“I loved the city. You’ve been there. It’s an amazing city. I knew Istanbul before I even got there. I knew Constantinople. I knew Byzantium. It was the center of the world for so many years and I always wanted to go. And when I got there it was more than I even imagined. Standing on the Galata Bridge on the European shore looking out at the Bosphorus at the hills of Asia?”
The biggest beef I had with the movie’s inaccuracies was the escape. No, he didn’t simply kill a guard by biting his tongue out and walk out in the man’s uniform. He got transferred to an island prison where he snuck onto a rowboat and rowed himself to the mainland. From there, he made his way to Istanbul and then to the Greek border.
He asked the director Alan Parker why he didn’t use the real ending. Parker said, “What 45 minutes of the film do you want to cut out?”
Eight-part series in works
It was a harrowing journey worthy of a movie in itself. That’s the impetus of the eight-part series he’s working on.
“It’ll be about all four hash trips,” he said. “I had this incredible adventure. I was traveling the world and running with the bulls (in Pamplona). Meanwhile, I’d run out of money and do another hash trip. They only had two hours to do the movie and they didn’t do the escape. I wanted the escape. It gave me back my life. It gave me back my sense of self. Prison 24 hours a day says you’re a loser, you’re a loser, you’re a loser. That shit seeps in. Eventually you believe it.”
He’s winning now. He has a lovely home in Las Vegas’ tony Summerlin community with the wife he met in 1978 at the Cannes Film Festival where “Midnight Express” was shown. Every day he practices yoga, which he picked up in prison and credits for his survival.
He also promotes the legalization of marijuana in the U.S. Progress has been made. It is now legal in 20 states, decriminalized or medically legal in 19 others and only illegal in four. Even Turkey president Recap Tayyip Erdogan has hinted toward leniency on medicinal use.
Maybe that is why Billy Hayes, a human warning to the dangers of drug use overseas, seemed so peppy for an hour.
“The War on Drugs led to monumental failure,” he said. “It destroyed how many people’s lives? Anyone who’s in jail. When I got back in 1975, it was the height of the War on Drugs. You’d go to jail for any amount of pot.
“I’m thrilled things are where they are at. It’s been a long time coming.”