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Dolmuş story

Koç University exchange student, History 3 | 1/19/2010 12:00:00 AM | William Zeman

A dolmuş ride is terrifying, awe-inspiring, confusing, incomprehensible, charming, hospitable and alien. In other words, it’s uniquely Turkish.

You never forget your first dolmuş ride – though everyone remembers something different. My first adventure aboard this uniquely Turkish conveyance was, fittingly enough, to Koç University in Istanbul. On a hot July Saturday, I decided to learn how to get to my new Istanbul university.

I checked with my friends, gleaning my route, hearing different stories. It seemed simple: Taksim to 4.Levent, dolmuş from 4.Levent to Sarıyer, and finally dolmuş from Sarıyer to Koç. What was unusual about that? Unusual, nothing. Amazing, everything. My first dolmuş memory (besides a pang of terror when we raced toward the sea, turning sharply at what seemed like the last moment) is a feeling of being profoundly impressed. Maybe it’s because I haven’t driven a car in a long time. I go to university in Washington, D.C., a city with a Metro system far more advanced and comprehensive than it has any need to be. Or perhaps it’s because I never learned how to drive a manual; instead, like so many Americans, being weaned on the sweet simplicity of an automatic transmission. But I couldn’t take my eyes off the performance our dolmuş driver was giving, that first time I traveled north from 4.Levent.

The driver managed feats nothing less than extraordinary. He drove like a banshee. He navigated hills like a mountain goat. He made change like a bank teller. He made small talk like a Southern gentleman. He navigated traffic like a stunt driver.

Over time, I’ve become accustomed to the Turkish dolmuş’s rhythms and rhymes. I’ve even been able to tear my eyes away from the driver’s theatrics, settling into a book or an mp3 track, distracted only when something even more extraordinary than normal happens. Not a terribly rare occurrence, two days ago, our driver successfully gauged the speed and direction of a cow who had wandered onto the highway outside Koç. Calculations set, he raced around the bovine, just missing its horns, hardly a second lost off our itinerary.

There is a special code amongst Turks, and the dolmuş is the perfect place to experience it. I can’t articulate it, so I asked the one person who might be able to. I asked a Turk. “It’s a social thing,” said Harkan Gürkan, a Turkish linguist living in the Şişli district of Istanbul. “Passing the money ... the whole dolmuş concept, it’s quite reasonable for a city where everything is overcrowded and no one can afford a taxi for themselves. It’s a concept of hospitality, taking you exactly where you need to go. You get charged for a bus ride, but you get like twice the service,” he continued. “You get dropped off wherever is convenient for you. Can you imagine that sort of thing in London?” Gürkan’s right. I can’t. A dolmuş ride is terrifying, awe-inspiring, confusing, incomprehensible, charming, hospitable and alien. In other words, it’s uniquely Turkish.

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