Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Tales of Turkish Traffic

I want to confess right up front that I have broken more traffic laws in Ankara in the last two weeks than I have in my last (almost) forty years. Let’s give the forty year span a fighting chance: I have broken more traffic laws in the last two weeks than I have even THOUGHT about breaking in the last (almost, don’t rush me) forty years. Even the car I’m driving isn’t exactly legal yet. Ok, it’s not legal at all, but I really need it.

Lest you think that I have undergone a complete personal transformation, let me, like a good American, absolve myself of any and all personal responsibility and blame it on geography: the traffic here in Ankara is legendary. Not as in DC/LA you-shoulda-seen-the Beltway/Santa Monica Freeway legendary. Legendary as in an utter free-for-all. When people in the community welcome you to Ankara, it usually goes something like this:

“Welcome to Ankara! How’s it going so far?”
“Thanks, it’s going well,” you answer.
Long pause.
Then they venture, “So….have you driven yet?”

This is not a random, idle question. This is a will-you-be-able-to-hack-it-or-will-you-go-home question.

Consider what some of the guidebooks have to say about driving in Turkey:

“Driving in Turkey is only for the confident and experienced” - Insight Guides
“You really need to be an experienced, level-headed driver in order to tackle the challenging highway conditions” – The Rough Guide
“We certainly do not recommend driving in Ankara. The traffic is fierce, fast and intense, traffic patterns crazy, driving habits bizarre, and signage insufficient – to name only a few good reasons.” – Turkey Travel Planner

Now, Turkey is not a third-world country. They have highways and traffic lights and street signs and super modern gas stations and many Turks have brand new, very expensive cars. There are no fifteen family members crammed in one car, there are no “salad trucks” as my son liked to call the small pickups with mounds of lettuce and tomatoes in the flatbed that we saw in Cairo. No three people on a scooter. No animals in the streets, competing with the cars. No swarms of motorcycles. None of that. There is also no, and I mean NO, traffic enforcement either.

And this utter lack of enforcement leads to a predictable end: anarchy. If you could do anything you wanted to with no repercussions, what would you do? Exactly. You would do whatever you wanted to do…because everyone else is. The only thing that saves it from monumental disaster is that the Turks are generally polite, not overly aggressive drivers (although many would disagree with me.)

So in light of the situation, I decided to enter the Ankara traffic war, Boston style. I did what any self-respecting Bostonian would do – I bought myself a junker. A total beater of a car. A car that says, "Cut me off if you want to, but you really don't want to nick that pretty paint job of yours and you can tell by what I’m driving that I don’t give a s__t.” A car that has SOUL, as my father would say.

A 1993 Renault. Used to be black. Now it’s just ugly.

I’m pretty sure everyone in my neighborhood thinks I’m the maid, because they all drive such nice cars. I know the $60,000 BMW in the garage space next to mine has been giving me more and more space every day. So there is a method to my madness. But it does concern me slightly that I’ve taken so readily to the rules, or lack thereof, of the road here, with no thoughts of becoming a shining example of responsible driving behavior. I am definitely not part of the solution. Perhaps because I learned to drive in Massachusetts and recently honed those driving skills on the streets of Paris brings out a competitive streak in me.

Here’s what you’re up against:

Red lights are completely optional. One always stops at them, for sure, but if no one is coming, then by all means, plow ahead. Indeed, if you don’t, the car behind you will honk to remind you to do so. I admit, I often bow to peer pressure and optional red lights remain the biggest source of my transgressions.

Lane markers are merely a suggestion, no need to take that suggestion. You can occupy two at the same time.

Parking. Be creative. Sometimes a lane on the highway is an excellent place to park a car. Doesn’t have to be the right lane, either. Nor do you need to warn the person behind you on the highway before you stop and park.

Double-parking. Newbury Street on a Friday night, times ten. But all the time. The three-lane road home from my children’s school usually has two lanes parked, one open as you head up a steep hill. Get an old bus in front of you and you’ve smoked three packs worth in a matter of minutes.

One way streets. Same status as red lights - completely optional. My apartment building is on a one-way street and there are definitely more cars going up the street than down it. So you can never just swing onto a one-way street without thinking about what might be coming up to meet you. And the wrong-way Charlies aren’t meek, apologizing with slow speed and hunched shoulders like you think they would. They roar up, owning that road. Just last night I had two cars (two!) coming the wrong way up my street as I attempted to pull into our garage. Damn if I was going to back down on my own street. So I sat there. The first one pulled over. The second one remained stubborn. No one moved. The Mexican/Turkish standoff continued. Finally, he pulled over, perhaps bowing to my diplomatic plates but more likely taking one look at my car and figuring if I was stupid enough to drive a fourteen year old french-made car, I’d be stupid enough to sit there all night.

Stupid, no. Stubborn Yankee, yup.

And my personal “favorite?” Just because you happen to be in the left lane doesn’t mean you can’t take a right turn. Or vice versa. And no, it doesn’t matter how many lanes there are. I kid you not. It’s quite a shocker to be merrily rolling along and then have a car perpendicular to yours right in front of you, not to mention a large bus.

But despite the above description, it’s still not like driving in Rome. In Rome I would emerge from the car wild-eyed, hair askew, out of breath and just glad that I lived through that wild ride to hell and back. In Ankara it’s almost more of an intellectual challenge, albeit a heart-pumping one. The driving behavior here is so unpredictable that you have to be constantly alert. You arrive at your destination with a fierce pride that you conquered everything they threw at you and still made it. I don’t play video games but I imagine it’s like getting through to a next level with a new high score. It just makes you want to pump your arm and say “Yes!”

Twisted and sick, I know. But often that’s life in a foreign country. It scrambles all of your neurons and alters your reality but it keeps you alive and aware and connected to LIFE.

Well now, now that I’ve scared any of you timid souls out of visiting Turkey (and in the interest of full disclosure I should add that none of the taxis here have any seatbelts) I will try to reverse some of the damage with future postings on this blog and urge you to visit this wonderful country. The people are nice, the food is fabulous and the culture rich in history, all subjects I will explore further. Do come.

Besides, wouldn’t you like to see if I’m exaggerating…?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Friday, August 24, 2007

Just Another Sunny Day in Turkey…

…is what we say every morning at 6AM. And it has been so far, without exception.

A far cry from Paris, where it was usually overcast until midday when the sun appeared. I’ve always said I didn’t care how early I had to get up as long as it was light out. Well, geography is calling my bluff and I’m walking my talk. It’s sunny here when the alarm goes off at 6AM, and for the most part, I get up, with far less difficulty than I did in Paris at 7:30AM. By 8:30 the sun is blazing, making sunglasses a necessity as I drive the kids to school. The day continues with 90-95 degree temperatures, surprisingly comfortable in the shade, but instantly wilting in the sun. An occasional single cloud will wander by lazily, its purpose visual interest against the vast blue sky rather than any sun relief. Just another sunny day in Ankara.

The downside to a thousand sunny days is that Ankara is in the throes of a severe water shortage, with no rain in sight. The city had begun water rationing a couple of weeks ago, alternating the water supply by district. Water would be shut off to the northern half of the city for two days, and then the south side of the city (save a small district that housed the President of Turkey) took its two-day turn. This transpired for a week or two, until the interruption of water flow and change of pressure caused the city pipes to break, thus shutting off water to EVERYONE. The city eventually repaired the pipes, restored water to all the residents, ceased water rationing, begged for water conservation, and offered prayers for rain at the mosques on Fridays. They said we have six weeks of water left, and when that’s gone…? We may get some rain but the bulk of the water is supplied by winter snowfall (certainly not forecast for the next two months), so stay tuned for the unfolding hydrosaga.

And how did we fare during the water stoppage? Well, fine, thanks to our building’s large reserve water tank. When we had looked at this apartment on a brief trip to Turkey last February I remembered the previous tenant saying, “Oh, and a bonus of this building is that they have a reserve water tank.” Well, in my mind I imagined a small second tank in the apartment that would allow us to take consecutive showers without running out of water. She seemed so proud of the fact, and not wanting to be rude, I said to her, “Is that important?” She opened her mouth in surprise, stared at me a moment and then finally said, “YES,” very firmly. This was the same YES I gave to a college classmate of mine from Miami, who by mid-October of our freshman year in Vermont was wearing a down parka and sleeping in a sleeping bag. Sometime around Halloween, he looked at all of us native New Englanders and pleaded, “It doesn’t get any colder here than this, does it?” YES. It’s the answer of a weary veteran toward the woefully uninformed, skipping the unwelcome details and condensing years of experience into a three-letter answer. YES can be equally kind, incredulous, and condescending. So YES, the tank was important. We have water. For now.