Monday, July 2, 2012

Monday, July 02, 2012 - No comments

My Life in Dolmuş Stops

Public transit in Turkey can be awfully confusing if you aren’t a local.  
Ferries and trains are logical enough, and buses in the bigger cities have made it harder for out-of-towners to get lost, with their fancy TV screens announcing upcoming stops.  But dolmuşes are another story.  
A dolmuş is (at least in Istanbul - it varies from city to city) a big yellow “shared taxi” that runs along a specific route and generally doesn’t go until its eight seats are full.  (The name “dolmuş” itself means “full” or “stuffed.”)  Fare is determined by how far you are going, so you have to tell the driver where you are getting off ahead of time.  When a dolmuş starts its route, the sound of the key in the ignition sparks a flurry of money being passed to the driver, along with shouts of “Two for Üsküdar!” and “How much to Bağlarbaşı?”  
When I first moved to Istanbul and was still trying to memorize the phrase, “At a convenient spot, could you please let me off?”, I used to always make a beeline for the back of the dolmuş.  That was the only spot where a non-Turkish speaker could remain passively safe.  The middle bench was the worst.  If you sat there, all the people in the back would pass their money to you and tell you where they were headed, and it was your job to pass this information on to the driver, and then hand the person’s change back.  Not knowing the names of all the stops, compounded by the occasional “mouth full of marbles” accent and the fact that I didn’t know how to say, “Could you please repeat that?”, it was easy to turn “Zeynep Kamil” into “Zen Camel,” incurring a bewildered look from the driver and frustration from the passenger whose money it was.  
A few months into living there, though, not only was I more confident in my Turkish, but I’d memorized the names of all the stops on my usual route and could shuttle coins and change back and forth with the best of them. I especially prided myself on the fact that when a “foreigner” or someone from out of town asked for directions, I was able to help them out.  I even started sitting in the middle seat on purpose.  On a bad “cultural confidence” day it could be a real morale booster.
A recent trip to Izmir, the country’s third largest city, found me riding a lot of dolmuşes on my own as I visited friends in different parts of town.  My now-close-to-fluent Turkish helped a bit, but I found myself back in that place of having to pass money up for people going to places I’d never heard of, and once again, I felt a little like a country-bumpkin in the big city.  
It was a relief then to head from Izmir to Istanbul and, once again, be back on my own familiar dolmuş turf.  I may not have lived there for five years, but that Kadıköy - Üsküdar dolmuş route is still second nature to me.  The prices have changed, but the stops are the same, and being able to courageously plop down in the middle seat and take an active role in the functioning of “the system” still gives me great pleasure.   
It was during that trip, as I took a dolmuş to Üsküdar to catch a bus up the Bosphorus, it hit me that the reason I know that route so well is that it is a veritable memory lane - a historical map of one of the best years of my life, and all the visits that have followed.  Nearly every stop holds some significance for me - either because it’s at the head of a street where a friend lives or it’s a sentimental landmark of some noteworthy Istanbul experience.
And so, here you have it:  my Istanbul life in dolmuş stops.  
My dolmuş runs along a 20 minute (depending on traffic) stretch of the Asian side of the city.  It leaves the Kadıköy iskelesi (ferry docks), passing the grand old Haydarpaşa train station and squeezes out into the craziness of Rıhtım Street’s traffic.  It dips under the train tracks and passes the spot where, until last year, the “Have you brushed your teeth today” billboard always sat.  Right about here is the wall with the “Amerika defol” (America, get out of here”) graffiti, usually accompanied by assorted posters advertising meeting of the Communist Party of Turkey.  This is the spot where, walking home from a doctor’s appointment a few years ago, I got caught in a protest march in which people from out east were carrying placards demanding education in their own language and had to make a quick exit passed the water cannons down a side street before things got heated, as they always do.  
Turning left, the route swings past Tepe Nautilus - aka “The Carrefour Mall” - where we used to put our language books through the metal detector and meet up with friends after school or on the weekend.  I’d always get a Beef n’ Cheddar from Arby’s (luxury!) and sneak it onto a table at Pizza Hut while everyone else downed their all-you-can-eat pizza.  It was here, too, that a friend once arrived to meet us in tears because she’d been followed all the way from her house by some creeper.  Adding to the frustration of the situation was the fact that, in her stressed state, her Turkish had gotten jumbled and she’d thrown a few extra letters onto a word, repeatedly telling him, “Don’t leave me!” instead of “Get lost!”
After the mall comes what I think of as the “sacrifice district” - a series of several roadside stalls where one can purchase a sheep or lamb to kill for the annual Sacrifice Festival or as a thank offering for a new job/car/baby.  My favourite was the one ram who, in the summer, always had his own sun umbrella to keep him cool while he waited to die.  
Next comes the “hospital district” - several public and military hospitals in a row - juxtaposed, ironically, by the Karacaahmet Graveyard.  It’s the largest in the city - so sprawling that several major roads cut right through the middle of it.  Both of my “grandparents” on my Turkish mom’s side are buried here, making it the cause of visits on religious holidays to pray and water the flowers.  I’ve always loved exploring this graveyard and its fascinating Ottoman gravestones with their pre-Ataturk Arabic script and funny headdresses.  I was alarmed once a few years back to read in the paper that some “revolutionaries” had hid amongst the graves and used this as a launching spot to fire a rocket at the nearby Selimiye Army Barracks.  I haven’t gone “exploring” there since.  
The stop at the last gate of the graveyard is Kapı Ağası, marked by a Byzantine-era pillar from what I assume was an aqueduct.  This is where we used to get off to go to lessons at our language helper’s first house.  Then comes Zeynep Kamil, through which one dolmuş driver took a detour to avoid a traffic jam.  It was raining like crazy and, in all our confusion over the fact that we’d veered off our known route, we forgot the container of “Sin in the Camp” (a wickedly yummy dessert made almost entirely from precious imported ingredients) we were taking to a party at our helper’s house.  Much weeping and gnashing of teeth followed.  
Next is Askerlik Şübesi, where soldiers with poised rifles sit bored behind sandbags while nervous young men line up on the street to register for their compulsory military service.  From here, we’d walk down past the carwash and some saint or other’s grave to the building where our language helper lived next.  And then one more stop up is Pazarbaşı, where I’d stop and pick up a few of those little dill and cream cheese-filled pastries and walk down to the house where that same language helper lived for the majority of our time in Istanbul.  She’s moved again since and is no longer on this dolmuş route.  Which is fine, since I am no longer taking lessons from her.  The commute to Istanbul would be a little much.  
Bağlar Başı is where we used to get off to walk down the hill to the friend’s house where we all lived at one point or another before moving in with our Turkish families.  Once, a certain friend (who shall remain nameless) commented on the pleasant sound of rushing water beneath the street, thinking it was an underground spring.  Had the smell of the sewer wafted up through the grate at that moment, she might not have found it so charming.  We didn’t let her live that one down for awhile.  (Okay, we still haven’t.)  
That neighbourhood and the house on Tıknefes Sokak (“Out of Breath” Street) bring back all the anticipation and unknown of those first weeks living in Turkey, when my new life stretched before me and I had no idea how to jump in.  I remember the smell of the hand soap in the bathroom, the sound of the whistle throughout the night that let us know the guard was patrolling the streets, and our first attempts at making breakfast burritos without tortillas.  We’ve got a bottle of that same soap in our downstairs bathroom now, and every time I wash my hands a great sense of newness and possibility instantly comes over me.  Funny how smells trigger memories like that.
The dolmuş takes a right at Bağlar Başı, heading uphill between the Islamic Theological Seminary on the right and the Orthodox Church and “Infidel Cemetery” on the left.  Just past the mosque is Capitol, the mall with the Krispy Kreme (!) and the Chinese noodle place.  (Can you see why I miss living there?)  
At the mall, you take a left down that little side street where the drivers always fuss about letting people off cuz it makes for a tricky lane change, and then take another left and head down the hill towards the water.  A ways down is the spot where the old AK Party headquarters used to be, where for an entire election summer the Prime Minister’s face loomed larger than life, accompanied by the slogan “Durmak yok, yola devam!”  (“No stopping!  Stay the course!”) which has since become a phrase I like to whip out at opportune moments to make Turks laugh.  
It’s at this same corner, just off the main road, that I went to my first Turkish wedding.  The guy I bought my cell phone from was getting married, and our common friend (my language helper’s husband) thought I’d enjoy the cultural experience.  What I remember most about the night was how irritated I was that only the wedding facility’s photographer was allowed to take pictures and how my shoes hurt my feet so much at the end of the night that I walked barefoot most of the way home.  
Down the hill just past the Kuruçeşme stop is the “religious grocery store” where being covered seemed to be a prerequisite for being a cashier.  Across from that is the building where I once saw a body on the ground covered in a white sheet.  I never did find out if it was a jumper or a murder.  I didn’t want to ask.
The lights at Fıstıkağacı were my first reference point after moving to the city.  If I could find them, I could find home.  That was “my stop” when I stayed with a friend my first few weeks there, and became mine again when I housesat for a friend (same intersection, different house) the summer before I moved away.  I remember being so proud of myself when I first learned how to say, “Please let me off at the lights.”  
Down a ways on the right is that impossibly steep staircase that I always enjoyed running down on my way to school in the morning that last summer.  I wasn’t so fond of climbing it again at the end of the day, though  - especially not in August.  (But, oh, the calf muscles I had when I lived in Istanbul!)  I always felt so bad for the old ladies living at the top of that hill.  Maybe one day they’ll put in an escalator.  
From there, the dolmuş passes the cargo place from where we mailed the bulk of our luggage when we moved to the south.  (And even then, the bus drivers complained about how many suitcases we were checking on.  They clearly don’t stockpile Thai sweet chili sauce and deodorant like I do.)
It’s just a few hundred metres from there down to Üsküdar, with its mosques and its Mado (fancy ice cream joint) and the iskele at which I’ve run for countless ferries.  From there, one can take another bus or dolmuş further up the coast or cross the Bosphorus to “the other side” (Europe) to see famous sites like the Blue Mosque, the Galata Tower and the Dolmabahçe Palace.  For the thousands of tourists that tour the city on a hop-on hop-off bus every year, those are the most memorable icons of Istanbul.  

But as for me, the symbols of the city I most prefer are the ones that can be seen out the window of a crowded yellow dolmuş.