x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Do like the Turks and share a ride for a slice of life

Shared Turkish rides, despite their shortcomings, remain one of the greatest achievements of modern day transportation.

Their stops may be unmarked, their fares varied and their timing unpredictable. They are old, rattled and beaten, and it's a war to get into them. They are filled from top to bottom, driven at harrowing speeds, and ridden by bad-tempered old men and grandmothers who give off mysterious smells. They can pass you by on a whim, kick you off at will and refuse to stop without question. They are the shared ride, and, despite their shortcomings, they remain one of the greatest achievements of modern day transportation. Shared rides are often privately owned and operated, cheaper than other local transportation and expertly manoeuvered by drivers who have seen it all: from city traffic jams to where stray farm animals roam. All around the world shared ride vehicles wheeze, hack and cough their way to their end destinations, but always manage to get there at the lowest cost to the passenger and the fastest possible speed. In Turkey, this mode of transport is known as the dolmus, which literally means stuffed, owing to the fact that the vehicle often departs only when it is filled to bursting. Like their food counterparts, stuffed grape leaves, dolmus come in two varieties: small and packed or minuscule and even more packed. Short trips, such as the five-minute ride up the winding hill of Besiktas in Istanbul, employ seven- to eight-person minivans that charge a flat fee. Longer routes use larger minibuses, such as those of Otoyol, the boxy Turkish response to the travel wagons made by Peugeot and Mercedes. These ever-present vehicles are fixtures of Turkey's landscape, which is hard to see when you're crushed between an armpit and a bag of mustard greens. But the dolmus is worth a few rides if only to understand its integral role in Turkish culture and society. A few suggestions: to pick up a dolmus, wait by a regular bus stand. Bus stops and taxi stands double as dolmus stops as the drivers descend upon the streets like reapers to the harvest. They stop anywhere, gathering until full. Then, the real stuffing starts. If you're just on the street, catch the eye of a driver and raise your hand. They will stop unless the dolmus is full. A flick of the head back means there's another dolmus with the same destination coming. A raise of the eyebrows means the dolmus is full, and good luck finding another one. One or two beeps means "want a ride?" Three beeps means "get out of my way!" The destinations are normally noted on plaques in the front window or on a marquee that hangs from the side. Always double-check by asking the driver though, as sometimes the signs don't get changed. Once aboard, fish for small bills. Exact change is preferable, though inexact change has led to the development of an art form. Passengers stuck at the back, or anyone generally unable to move, pass their money forward via those sitting at the front, who in turn give it to the driver, who in turn, with finessed machismo, flicks the coins into slots on the dash, rummages for change, calls out: "Who gave 20?" and passes it back. All this happens with one hand on the wheel and one eye on the road, through traffic jams, construction work, animal herds and different fare amounts. If you're not sure what the fare is, don't worry. Most trips within cities cost less than two Turkish lira (Dh5), so if you give a five or 10 lira note you will be passed back the correct amount of change. Normally, the fare, if it is fixed, will be attached to a sign somewhere, often under the swinging evil eye in the rear-view mirror, as if to hold you accountable to an honest trade. Despite countless transactions and the endless throng of riders, there are very few passengers, if any, who fail to make payment. So, you have entered, you have paid, you endured or enjoyed the ride. Now, it's time to get off. This too is an art form. Here is a guided visualisation to steer you through the morass of bodies that will be blocking all escape routes. Pretend that you are the Night Fox in Ocean's Twelve during the final museum scene. Assume the passengers are all alarm-rigged lasers. Commence movement. Weave your way to the front or back door. Don't wait for the driver to glide to a bus stop. Throw your head back, project your voice towards the front and call out: "Burada durabilir misiniz?" It means "can you stop here?" and Turks don't really like saying it either. That's why everyone fakes it. "Bur?[mumble, mumble] siniz?" will have you out on the pavement in no time. (English is understood, but you are more likely to get a reaction if you garble a Turkish sentence rather than over-enunciating a foreign one.) Lastly, and above all, try to enjoy the experience. People from all walks of life ride the dolmus, which is what makes it so fascinating, more-so than hopping on a proper city bus, which are orderly, modern and stick to paved roads. The dolmus is in fact much more than a way to get from A to B; it's a rite of passage, an instrument of solidarity, a common point of reference, a staple of life and a great social leveller. Nothing brings people together like a death-defying experience, and from businessman to fruit vendor to politician, all sorts of people have at some point clung the handgrips of a 1975 Otoyol, having feared for their lives and then been grateful to have survived another day of riding in a stuffed grape leaf. mmetallidis@thenational.ae