A tempering of my love-affair with public transportation

Waiting on the side of the highway under a broken streetlamp, with a flashing yellow caution light blinking over my right shoulder I look out over Tekirdağ, through the smog and see the shipyard that abuts my flat across town and suddenly I become quite nostalgic.

I am leaving for Istanbul for about five weeks, rather trying to leave but its not working out so well. Its about 32 degrees (or for our non-American friends, 0) and I’m bundled up. My hands are the only things starting to get cold. I’ve been out here for about 45 minutes now, with minimal success. What am I saying minimal, with no success whatsoever and that nostalgia I felt earlier is beginning to fade.

The nonchalance of the bus system with regards to pedestrian/passenger safety is interesting: it is common practice to stand on the side of a highway in daylight or after nightfall and simply jump up and down when a bus comes along. Some of the more reputable bus companies do not participate in this informal arrangement, but I feel safe in stating that the majority here do. Because the bus station is across town, I generally just stand on the side of the road and wave at a bus as it comes by. That was my plan tonight but it seems that 10 o’clock at night on a Sunday isn’t a high volume time.

My stomach is in a knot and I’m angry. You see, it’s about 10:15pm and while I may actually eventually succeed in flagging down a bus, there’s really no point. I could go to the station but that would take until about 10:30 and I won’t arrive in Istanbul until after the subway shuts down. I know I’ve been defeated but I am loath to throw in the towel. I try one last time to flag down a bus in the dark—good thing it didn’t stop, it wouldn’t have helped anyway, it was an express to Ankara.

About five minutes later the city bus arrives and I get on, swallowing hard, finally throwing in the towel, or rather, putting off the battle until tomorrow morning. I arrive back in Altyol at about 11:30. Entering my apartment I decide not to remove my coat or my shoes—the heat is broken. I make my way to the kitchen and I heat up tap water in my electric kettle. Then, I go into my room and pull out some pajamas: a pair of athletic pants, a long sleeved shirt, my fleece coat, and a pair of ski socks.

Hearing the kettle has finished heating; I grab the pasta pot and the hot water and head into the bathroom. I mix the cold water from the tap with the boiling water in my kettle and give myself a nineteenth-century bath—the hot water is on the fritz too. Any nostalgia I had when looking out calmly over the city is washed down the drain with the icy water from my faucet. Istanbul here we come. I don a wool hat on and get into my freezing cold bed. Before I know it my alarm is going off, its 5am and the reprise of last night’s trip begins.

Because the dolmuş doesn’t start running until 5:45, and since the bus station is two dolmuş-rides away, I have to walk half way if I have any hopes of catching a 6am bus. What’s the hurry? Why all this fuss? My Turkish class starts at 9am in Taksim and, being a teacher myself, I am aware of how important first impressions really are. You see, after four months here I have a comical assortment of survival Turkish. I can navigate the bus station like a champ, restaurants are a breeze, and I can even finagle my way through the police station’s residence permit application and dozens of complex bank forms. What I can’t do is have anything resembling a normal conversation.

At 5:15 in the morning I am power walking down an empty highway. I turn on my running mix and get a good pace going, a feeble attempt to lighten up my dour mood. I arrive at the meydan at 5:53 and there is not one bus in sight. I storm through the empty roundabout on a rampage, ready to bully a driver into doing his job when a bus comes barreling around the corner.

An inter-city bus in the city center?

What is happening? I jump more from shock than from any real idea of convincing them to pick me up, but it seems my shock was animated enough to get the driver to pull over.

So at 5:55am I am finally on my way to Istanbul.

If you think this is the end of the adventure, you have clearly never tried to get anywhere in Istanbul during rush hour. Because the first bus was at 6am, I didn’t have any traffic allowance and, barring a trip to the Asian-side, getting to Taksim is one of the most difficult trips to do quickly in traffic.

I automatically discount the direct bus from the bus station to Taksim not only because on a good day it takes an hour and I’ve only got 45 minutes, but also because it only runs every hour and ten minutes and the time table is not working in my favor. I go into the subway to find the faster direction to be closed. Great, Zeytinburnu it is.

When I’ve got the time, and when I haven’t been muscled out of my seat by a burly un-deodorized Turkish man, there is some great sight-seeing that can be done from the 830 Otogar-Taksim bus and also from the Zeytinburnu-Kabataş tramline. I had neither time, nor a seat, so after packing myself into the Zeytinburnu tram like a sardine, I notice a bus moving alongside us with TAKSIM written on it. I decide to take a risk and I jump out at Yusufpaşa and switch to the bus, and for the first time in 24 hours, I make the right decision we make a beeline for Taksim square.

I arrive at 9:25, just in time to realize I have never learned how to say: Sorry I’m late.

Kiraathanesi Corner

Taking the number 2 to the Tekira shopping mall, we go through a pretty seedy part of town. The buildings are old, waiting only for one last earthquake to bring them to their knees. Some have already succombed to the trials of time, they are littred with plasic Migros bags, empty Efes Pilsen cans, old roofing bricks left to decay. Some still have half of a wall standing; the sun weathered, wooden door is still hung on its hinges, the little blue house number firmly attached to the bricks.

The bus bumps and slams over the dirt-cobbled roads, it lumbers up a steep incline, you can hear the engine strain. We round corners quickly, narrowly missing children, stray dogs and elderly men. They don’t flinch. We bomb down the hills, passing  what I think of as Kiraathanesi Corner.

The flickering, harsh light of the overhead incandescent bulbs illuminates the yellowing rooms, the faces obscured by the smoke wafts up from cigarettes. Men huddle around tavla boards, sipping tea gingerly from the curved glasses. One man reajusts his hat, another beckens to the çayci.

This particular part of town has a disproportionate number of kiraathanesis, all-male teahouses. Their popularity still evades my understanding. They are dingy, overly lit, filthy places. They have small tables with cheap uncomfortable chairs.

Men seem to have a loyalty to these places that resembles those of the village pub. Each group of kankas considers that spot his and rarely does a man stray from his particular dive. Sons, as they come of age, are brought up to respect the importance and authority of that particular café, it seems these places also represent the lines drawn by followers of particular political parties. A place where like-minded men can sit, sip their tea and for the evening and congratulate one another for being masters of the universe.Really, all of this is a figment of my imagination. Women can’t go to these places, or rather, we aren’t barred from entry but, we are certainly not welcome. One would draw suspicious looks and there is absolutely no mistaking: this is the man’s domain.

Turks seem to be big fans of bright lights. They love neon light shows, go to any city in Turkey and you will quickly see what I mean, even Ataturk, the revered Turkish leader’s tomb isn’t safe from the gaudy flash of brightly colored lights. Restaurants are so brightly lit, that rather than reaching for your reading glasses to make out the entrees, you reach in your bag for sunglasses to protect your corneas from the glare on the laminated menu. The kiraathanesis are no exception. Light pours out brightening the typically unlit streets. The average Turk, as far as I can tell, has no desire to implement mood lighting.

All the better, however, for these aging men to see their microscopic cups of tea and the dark wooden pieces they move around their backgammon boards as they sit, nearly squatting in their miniature chairs. Why futz with mood lighting, when this is a place for men? There is no need for mood. There is a need for practicality, and visibility. And cigarettes.