Istanbul Seyahat

May 29, 2011 § 1 Comment

**Note: there are many pictures that accompany this post, but unfortunately my continually fickle Internet connection won’t allow me to upload my personal ones…I’ll try later**

After the university and the lojman, the place I spend most of my time in Tekirdag is the bus station, or, in the Turkish take on French, otogar.  Located right outside of the city center and behind the harbor, the otogar is home to intercity private coach lines traveling long distances to bigger destinations (2 hours or more), intracity public/private buses, and small private vans which travel short distances to regional towns and cities (2 hours or less).  But the Tekirdag otogar is so much more than place to embark or arrive; it’s a self-sufficient world.

The ground floor of the semi-circle otogar is full of small private coach offices selling tickets.  The coach line names and logos are prominently displayed, along with their most common destinations (which sometimes make you wonder why anyone would possibly want to go to Luleburgaz, but it’s Turkey).  Small means small; while some of the offices have room for 10 or more seats, a few are nothing more than a man at a desk.    In the middle of the semi-circle are a couple of convenience stores, and to the far left is fully-stocked lokanta (a quick-service restaurant with already-prepared foods kept hot in steamer trays).  In between the lokanta and the offices are the pay WC and the Roma family selling chestnuts in the winter and simit all other times.

The second floor (first floor in Turkish terms, but second to all you Americans–let’s just say the floor above the ground floor) is still a mystery to me.  There’s a male-only kiraathanesi (coffee/tea house), which for obvious reasons (death glares) I don’t enter.  Then there’s the family tea house, which also seems to be solely filled with men.  NOTHING MAKES SENSE.  Throw in some empty offices, some occupied unlabeled offices (shady!), a mosque, and there you have it: the Tekirdag otogar.

Catch Malkara Yildirim, Metro, Istanbul Seyahat, Kesan, Canakkale Truva headed east and you’ll wind up at Esenler Otogar, Istanbul’s central bus station.  This is the otogar to crush all other otogars, the uber-otogar, a seething literal hive of nonstop international transit.

Doesn’t it look like a hive?  If not in outward appearance, then at least in the constant buzz of activity.  The outside of the hexagon is lined with hundreds of multi-colored signs advertising private coach lines hitting every town and city in Turkey, Bulgaria, Georgia, Syria, Iran, Romania, even Germany.  THERE ARE BUSES THAT GO FROM TURKEY TO GERMANY.  My god.  Intermingled at the corners of the hexagon are competing lokantas and convenience stores are selling the exact same foods and products, differing only in salt content and price.  Above the ground level are offices, more restaurants (which, when you try to find them, are mysteriously closed or boarded up), hotels, political party headquarters, barbers, internet cafes, dry cleaners, etc. Overwhelming, no?

Then take a look at the central rectangle in the hive.  I know I have.  After being too late to catch an evening bus to T.dag and having several hours to kill, I’ve eaten, slept, boarded the metro, and made friends in that rectangle.  Not only are there more (like, 20) restaurants offering food from most regions of Turkey (their Tekirdag kofte’s got nothing on our Tekirdag kofte), there are kiraathanes, internet cafes, clothing store, shoe stores, convenience stores, unmarked offices, and lord knows what else.  Oh yes, a kuruyemis.  During the height of my leblebi addiction, I made friends with the 18 year-old scooping dried fruits and nuts behind the counter.  I promised him I’d come back and we’d have lunch together in the rectangle.  I never did.  I’m sorry.  But his prices were so good!

You might think the hexagon and the rectangle provide enough geometrical diversion for the travel-weary.  But you’d be wrong.

Underneath Esenler lurks a dark, murky, damp subterranean world offering the EXACT SAME services available on the surface level: countless restaurants, hairdressers, dry cleaners, pay toilets and showers, clothing and shoe stores, tailors, mechanics, and a mysterious internet cafe that I swear doesn’t exist.  I descended into the abyss to look for this cafe once and followed the trail of arrowed signs like a modern-day Hansel and/or Gretel.  As the trail led me further into the dark and progressively creepier labyrinth, I gave up and backtracked to where the sun shone, thoroughly skeeved out.  Another friend confided that she had indeed found the cafe but would never recommend that anyone else search for it.  I’ll let that one be.

So what keeps these transportation hubs humming?  People, obviously.  But not just passengers.  Bus travel is popular in Turkey because it’s cheap, easy, and networks are extensive.  Gas is pretty expensive here (US, you’ve got it easy) and passengers pay by how many seats they’ll take up, not by how many people are actually traveling.  So if you can squeeze your family of 4 into 2 seats from Istanbul to Ankara, you’ve saved yourselves quite a bit of money.  And anywhere you’re looking to go, the bus will take you.  And if the bus doesn’t take you there, you can find a van at the local otogar to drive you there.  Cheap, convenient, and quick.

But that’s not all.  What keeps the bus stations humming are the coach line personnel.  Not only do you have drivers, who, after schlepping impossibly long distances have only a few hours at most to freshen up and get a haircut before their next drive; you’ve got ticket selling agents who preside over pretty brisk business; touts who stand outside each coach line’s office and yell destinations in their loudest convincing voices (the bus station sounds like this: “AnkaraankaraankarankaraTekirdagTekirdaaaaagAnkaraankaraankaraSamsumankara”–why are so many people going to Ankara?); and bus attendants.  This is where Turkey tops all.  Each bus has a man (rarely a woman, only had one brusque lady on a trip to Bulgaria) dressed in uniform (tuxedo bowtie on Metro!) who check the passenger manifest, serve your choice of soda, juice, water, or hot coffee/tea (on a bus!), and prepackaged corn-syrup laden Turkish cake.  On some lines, the attendants will come around with lemon-scented kolonya and dump far too much of the alcohol-laden liquid on your hands, soaking you, your clothes, and your bags with the unmistakeable scent of fake lemon bordering on Pine-Sol.

All of this (the extensive network, the personal service, the self-contained station worlds) add up to make a more pleasant and generally more interesting bus travel experience than the grimy Greyhound station, though not nearly as colorful or terrifying as the Chinatown bus network.  Before “the accident” (refer to it in hushed tones, please), I was a frequent otogar-goer.  I was a presence at Esenler at least twice a week, and while I often chose to wait for my bus in the Metro waiting room (cleaner, quieter, less crowded, and with TVs!), my loyalties firmly lie with Istanbul Seyahat (literally, Istanbul Travel).  I can’t explain why–it’s the most expensive from Tekirdag to Istanbul (15 lira) and not the most luxurious, but something about the bright orange logo, in-seat TV entertainment system, and past consistent service of the prized Tutku cookie won me over early.

Do you see how good this cookie is?  The chocolate-hazelnut cream can actually bring Turks and Greeks together.  Amazing.  I’m more inclined to believe the Turk would grab that pack and run, but dreaming is nice

I digress.  Since I generally travel at the same times each week, I see the same drivers, ticket sellers, porters, and attendants each week.  Each week they butcher my name on my ticket.  Each week they can’t understand why I live in Tekirdag.  Each week they laugh that I live in my neighborhood.  Each week they urge me with imploring eyes to please, take some kolonya.  Each week I respond with a smile and broken Turkish.  But we never really bridged the gap between spoken niceties.

This all changed after “the accident.”  I travel to Istanbul now only to visit my adorably English-challenged orthopedist at the Amerikan Hastanesi, scoot on my butt across Tarlabasi Bulvari and up staircases that somehow count as streets in this city, and generally provide comic relief for Turks, especially Turkish children.  But my new condition has brought the bus personnel and me together like nothing before.  First, I need to buy two seats so I can stick my immobilized leg straight out in the back row.  This involves pointing to my leg, repetition of memorized Turkish phrases, and an ‘aw shucks’ smile.  The ticket sellers smile sympathetically (sometimes) and happily charge me 30 lira.  Next, I need to get up the steep steps to board the bus.  This involves handing my crutches and backpack to the attendant, turning around, doing the butt scoot up the stairs, and grabbing the seats to hop down the aisle.  The attendant follows me and places my bag and crutches beside me.  At first this step involved the attendant holding the foot of my injured leg straight out while I ascended the steps, but luckily I can hold it on my own strength now (it was awkward for everyone involved, trust me).  Then, after two hours of the bus seat arm jamming me in the back, I have to get off the bus.  Repeat the butt scoot.  Then the attendant flags me a taxi and wishes me, again and again, ‘Geçmiş Olsun’ (get well soon).  Some of the porters at Esenler will run over and ask me what happened, why the crazy yabanci who always goes to Tekirdag now has a Darth Vader leg brace and wears bright orange shorts.  One man in particular helped me recover a jacket I left on a bus back in November and because he never forgot me, was genuinely concerned about my new lack of mobility.  I love you, anonymous porter who wouldn’t accept a thank-you chocolate bar.  I ate it and thought of you.

Yesterday on the half-empty bus back to Tekirdag (thank you, Esenler ticket seller for not charging me for two tickets with a wink), the attendant plopped himself down next to me and proceeded to tell me his life story, of which I understand about 10%, but I nod and repeat certain words and it looks like I understand.  What I got was that he used to be a cook in Finland.  This I am sure about. Now he serves cupcakes on the Istanbul Seyahat bus and looks wistfully out windows.  I like him.

It was difficult to realize that yesterday’s trip from Esenler to Tekirdag will be my last.  When my dad comes next week to help me pack up and ungracefully exit Turkey, we’ll be renting a taxi to take us.  This recourse to private transportation is new to me.  The public nature of the bus meant that I met everyone: vomiting teyzes who grabbed my knee, engineers learning Spanish, Bulgarian workers, gawking children, Moroccan tour guides, my students.  I don’t know how I’ll feel not making the journey on the barreling white coach.  The crowded, polluted, and dangerous (those buses pull out like no one’s business to shouts of ‘Gelgelgelgelgelgelgel’–‘comecomecomecomecomecomecome) Esenler has seen my best and worst moments: injuries, farewells and breakups, fear loathing and dread of the ending weeknd, reunions, meals, and more.  But I know I’ll be back.  I have to come back.  And I’ll walk into Istanbul Seyahat’s office, they’ll butcher my name, a teyze will shove me, and I’ll smile.

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