As a student at Koç University, I live in the northern edge of Sarıyer, the northernmost district of the city of Istanbul. This means that, in order to get to the mainstream parts of town, I need to take at least two or three forms of mass transit. If I’m lucky and leaving around the same time as the hourly bus, I take a municipal bus to the metro station and then ride the Metro into the busy parts of town. I often take this to Şişli, Gayrettepe, or Taksim. (Taksim, the most common destination by far, leads to the famous İstiklal Avenue, a colossal pedestrian-packed street lined with all sorts of stores, restaurants, bars, consulates, museums, hotels, cafes, and peddlers’ carts. It is one of the most multinational and vibrant streets I’ve ever had the pleasure of strolling down. I can also easily take a funicular railroad from Taksim, which then connects to a tram that crosses the Golden Horn and takes me to the oldest part of town, Sultanahmet and the surrounding neighborhoods.)
However, if I don’t leave campus at a time that makes the municipal bus convenient, or if I want to go to a destination not on the main Metro line, such as Beşiktaş, I take a dolmuş (pronounced sort of like “dole-mush”). The Dolmuş is a delightful quirk of Turkish popular transit. Imagine a large van, like a large version of a Volkswagen Bus but boxier, with seats bolted down the left side of the interior and a pneumatic double door swinging outward on the right side. The floor of the vehicle is raised a couple of steps for no discernible technical reason. Now dirty up the interior a bit, but don’t get too much grime on the faded red upholstery of the seats. As you step inside, look to your right and take note of the raised, spring-loaded driver’s chair, the blanket laid out on a platform just below the dashboard with a neat change box. Now pack another 20 people into the compartment. A few old ladies and heartless youth rest on the seats, while the rest of you clutch overhead, side-wall, and vertical metal bars. You all sway together as the aging minibus bounces over rough cobblestones and swerves around narrow corners. If you, like my brother, Christian, are over 6 feet 2 inches tall, you will probably never ride a dolmuş in which you can comfortably stand. Instead, you will hold your head at a 50-degree angle and try to jockey for a spot near the emergency exit roof hatch or the staircase.
As the dolmuş careens and rattles its way toward its destination, it stops frequently to pile in more passengers or let off others. At each unmarked but consistent stop, the vehicle barely pauses long enough for the passengers to enter/exit, and resumes its travel even before the doors have closed. While he wrestles the steering wheel through remarkably graceful swoops, the dolmuş driver also makes change for his passengers, shifts gears with a pool-ball-topped shaft, and talks on his cell phone. When these latter tasks press his attention, it is not uncommon for the man to drive with his knees. In fact, dolmuş drivers may be the greatest knee-drivers on Earth. And their ability to wrangle the ungainly dumpsters on wheels through the narrowest gaps in traffic or around the most hairpin of hillside turns without a blink or hesitation never ceases to impress me.
Some of us study abroad students refer to the “Dolmuş Effect” to describe the experience of riding in one of these wheeled boxes. However, the dolmuş affects all of us differently. Some of us, packed in like vacuum-sealed salmon filets, choose to feel alienated and melancholy; surrounded by an unintelligible press of strangers with whom we can’t communicate our most basic ideas, it’s no surprise when we feel a bit irrelevant. But there’s more to the experience than the bursting of our personal space bubble. The dolmuş is a miniature community. When a person steps onto a dolmuş, they are joining a society of commuters, a fellowship with the sole aim of mutual destination. In this community, the passengers trust each other. Money is passed from hand to hand to the driver; fares are communicated through a short game of “telephone;” it’s not uncommon for passengers to advise their fellows on the best route for their particular destinations.
Sure, it’s not a perfect community. More than once I’ve noticed a young man too self-absorbed to offer his seat to the elderly woman swaying beside him. And the proximity to strangers occasionally leads to prolonged exposure to the infamous Turkish body odor. But the glimpse of a community, a system of people working together to reach their destinations, is a glimpse that often reminds me of the good people can achieve together. My alienation from this system, rather than making me feel lonely and isolated, reminds me that there is a grand world outside of my own experience. Even if I see a disheartening sample of human nature in my own life, I can know that good people will exist somewhere else; for all I know, everyone in the world outside of my experience is just a friendly person on a dolmuş, passing coins and offering navigational advice. Sure, they might smell sometimes. They may not all have the best manners. But their hearts are in the right place, and they’ll help you on your way to wherever you may be going.