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  • We briefly digress from our memoir of my first encounter with Turkey that left off in Olympos Air for some anthropological observations from a visit in 2009.


    In Turkey, where many people don’t own a car, buses fill most personal transportation needs. Tourists take to them in large numbers too, but usually are segregated from the locals. Long and short buses with padded seats scuttle through towns, ply intercity routes, and service resorts and tourists attractions. Nearly every one I’ve ridden has been close to fully occupied or more; on longer routes bus stewards serve tea and snacks. Larger towns operate municipal bus services: fares hover around 25 cents, a small price to pay for being crushed solid. A kind of minibus called a dolmuş (pronounced dole-mush) fills in the gaps, trundling ten to twenty people on short trips. These fleets of vehicles move a lot of bodies to and fro, but still can’t satisfy peak demand.

    You enter a dolmuş midway back and try to commandeer an empty seat. It's often near the rear. Leisurely, you dig out some coins to remit to the driver. You do this by handing your carfare to someone in front of you. The recipient passes your coins to someone closer to the front, and so forth until the driver's hand brings them to his eye for inspection. If change is warranted, he scoops coins out of a grooved tray and hands them back over his shoulder, where someone takes and passes them back, passim, until they are lodged in your palm. If the vehicle is really crowded, you may wait for your change almost until you have to debark, but you are never cheated and your money will never be stolen. Despite your paranoia, the circle is unbroken.

    Trust in community—especially among women—is evident in Turkey. This is a fundamental of human society that only affluence and the sense of entitlement that it ushers can wash away. Its loss is also something that is hard to understand for those of us raised in places where privacy and individuality are valued over social intercourse and cultural conformity, for which we tend to substitute self-sufficiency, mutual aloofness, and suspicion of strangers. All cultures fear strangers to some extent, but they don’t all define or respond to them the same.
  • Some of my cultural preconceptions about strangers were outed at a bus stop in the town of Kemer. A dozen or so Turks assembled there on a fading afternoon, awaiting a city bus that was 15 minutes late. Forget queuing: when the otobus finally chuffed to a stop, everyone surged toward the front door, eager to board. Every seat appeared to be taken, and standees consumed most of the remaining airspace. In front of me I noticed a young woman struggling up the front steps carrying an eight-month-old boy in one arm and dragging a heavily laden shopping cart with the other. Realizing the impossibility of safe passage, without hesitation she boosted up her offspring to an older woman sitting in the front row, and then retreated to the rear door and clambered up, hoisting her cart up after her.

    The doors eventually closed and the bus veered into traffic. Several clicks up the road, the young woman extracted herself down the rear steps, then hurried forward to pay the driver and retrieve her last-born from the older woman’s bosom. Maybe they were acquainted, maybe not. Perhaps they recognized one another (“I think she lives on my cousin’s street”). Hard to know, but what’s clear is that they partook of a communal trust that may be common in Turkish towns, but seems foreign to me. Bill Bunge, a radical geographer who in 1969 founded the Detroit Geographical Expedition, which studied hazards in urban spaces where women and children congregate, would disagree; he said “mommies are commies,” meaning that they watch out for one another and share responsibilities. Some do in America, but not so many of the middle-class ones in my neck of the woods.

    Most Americans moms wouldn’t dare to place their baby in the arms of a stranger and walk away, however friendly they might seem. We use our superficial familiarity to fortify our security bubbles even as we reach out to strangers. Turkish friendliness, on the other hand, goes places that we might find uncomfortably intimate. After “what’s your name,” “where do you come from,” and “have you visited Turkey before,” if time permits (and it should), they will continue to probe: “How are your parents?” “Are you married?” “How many brothers and sisters do you have? ”How many children?”

    For example, during a twenty-minute cab ride through Istanbul, my Turkish wife determined that our young driver’s name was Erol, he had immigrated four years ago from Trabzon (which is near where her parents grew up), goes home twice a year, wasn’t married but had a steady girl friend, was the youngest of seven children, and was studying to be a civil engineer. Erol received similar data about our family. We also learned (and could sense) that Erol’s cab’s transmission was about to blow, but nevertheless, we arrived safely.

    Encounters like these regularly happen in Turkey, where the practical often trumps the perfect and where expressions of common humanity are not uncommon. I hope this kind of openness and trust won't fall victim to private worlds of smartphones and private autos, like most everywhere else, but it is happening there too.


    @image: A Turkish dolmuş from a story in a Dutch Blog
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