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The Dolmus

By: Suzanne Scanlon, Istanbul, Turkey
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

We are sitting in Istanbul rush-hour traffic.  The usual 20 minute dolmus ride from Yenikoy to the Metro had turned into an hour long affair.  On top of that, after a few near crashes and some lively cursing out from other bus drivers, we'd begun to wonder about the sanity of our driver.  This is a common concern, but assessing the turtle-like speed at which we were travelling, I didn't worry too much.  You have to choose what to worry about when it comes to getting around in Istanbul. 

As my colleague A said once, commenting on the way the mini buses, "little tin boxes" she called them, fly along the Bosphorous coast road, "Well, when my time comes, it comes."  

I've come to agree that this attitude of passive acceptance is really the best way to deal with getting into a taxi or minibus in this city.   When E (my sister) was here earlier this summer, she got a taste of it.  During one particularly harrowing near-death experience - traversing the winding mountain roads home from Zekeriakoy to campus - I explained to her (in what I knew were sweeping generalizations, but in our experience, true enough):

"It's a fatalistic culture.  They drive like maniacs, they don't use seat belts.   The prevailing attitude is Insallah- Turkish for 'It's in God's hands." 

This didn't seem to calm her down.

"Dad, put on your seatbelt," she motioned to our father, looking wary in the front seat.  

"It's okay," he said. 

"Well, one of us should live," she said, as my husband and I, who've long ago adopted the Insallah attitude, laughed in the back seat.  

Once we were home, thankful to be alive, she exclaimed, "That driver- it was as if he had nothing to live for!" 

Or so it seems. 

This brings me back to the minibus.   It wasn't that I feared for my life on this particular trip - sitting in traffic that creeps slowly along on a hot August afternoon, leads one to other musings. 

Next to me, my husband complains: "This was the worst decision ever."  

We inched along, merging into even more traffic, stopping to let even more passengers on the bus.  

I decided to let my mind wander.  We'd get there eventually.

I'd been in Istanbul three days when I first took a dolmus (dolmush) from Sariyer to the Metro stop.  Now it's become a regular way to get around. 

In my current mood, I feel like being anonymous.  I'm in my head, following random thoughts, looking out the window, until suddenly I feel a poke on my shoulder.  "Pardon, pardon, pardon," a woman behind me is saying.   She's not getting my attention; my husband turns and takes her money.

"Two for the Metro" she explains in Turkish. 

We are four seats or so behind the driver.   My husband continues, passing her money - some bills and change - to the girl in front of him, repeating, "Two for the Metro."  This happens until the money reaches the driver, who then makes change, and passes the change back through the rows of passengers.  

It is a practice that can still seem utterly strange to me.   Of course, in Istanbul there are buses and trams and ferries in which you can use the Akbil card, which stores money - the sort of efficient, mechanized payment method that is familiar in any large city.  

But the dolmus is something else.  (Dolmus is a nickname - minibus is the standard name - which comes from the word for stuffed or filled.   The wonderful stuffed grape leaves or peppers, commonly served as cold mezes, are called dolmus.  As I understand, this name came because the minibuses are often, or usually, stuffed full of people.)   I was warned, by the Koc Newcomer's Guide, to be ready for the money-passing practice.  Another American friend here makes sure to never sit in the front seat, just behind the driver, because (as she told me) "then you have to make all the change."   I was told by others that the dolmus is "somewhere in between a taxi and a city bus" and that the practice of making change and passing money to the driver is evidence of Turkey as a "collective culture".   Like other things that seemed so strange and foreign at first, it has become commonplace, part of every day (or every few days) life here in Istanbul.

On the other hand, I hadn't expected that a year later, it would occasionally still feel, if not foreign, then strange in a deeper way than I could understand - a way that cuts into my sense of myself in a city.  

I've lived in big cities for most of the past 15 years; when I'm not in a city, I'm missing it somehow.  One of the best things about living in a city, I'd say, is that sense of anonymity, that opportunity to be alone, in your own head, but still connected and a part of the energy that is the city.  

It all fits with my sense of life in the city: sitting on the dolmus, staring out the window, daydreaming, following the winding path of my thoughts as I amused myself by the scenes from traffic - a man with his glamorous headscarved wife in a new BMW (the nouveau riche), a driver in a fully tinted Mercedes, a family of six in a French car that was falling apart, the wife holding her two-year old son on her lap in the front seat (car seats, anyone?) - until I am confronted by the woman behind me: "Pardon, pardon, pardon"  

A stranger, trying to get my attention.  

My attention, which is expected.  

I can't feign yabanci (foreigner) or get out of this one.   I understand it, and it is required that I be here, be present, participate in this "collective culture." 

I recall living in New York - walking alone for blocks and blocks, tuned into my thoughts and the people at the same time--the city around me and my sense of myself seemed connected.  Still, it was in New York City of all places that I became more of a loner than I'd ever been.  The city gives you that option - 8 million people and so you are allowed to become incidental, not relevant.   At times, this was terrifying; but, on the other hand, it was also what I loved about living there.  Being - becoming - myself, alone in a crowd.   The very best way to get to know yourself, to become who you are.

Years later, now in Istanbul, I think of New York.  I think,  "This would never happen in New York." 

It wouldn't happen in Chicago, either.  You can be - and you simply are - completely anonymous, in American cities.  No one expects you - or, frankly, would want you - to help them pay for their ride on the minibus.   No one expects you to pass their change back - and in the case of New York, far more to the point: no one would trust you to pass back the correct change. 


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