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
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
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
"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,
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
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