The leatherette seat slips a notch down my grip, and I’m frantically re-latching my fingers as the cab tackles the next corner like an over-souped race car. I’m in a magic space where vinyl acts like sand between my fingers. It’s also a space where buckle-catches don’t come with seatbelts. I’m prudish when it comes to seatbelts (I mean, come on. And Singapore fines belt-less passengers). Here I am, on my first cab ride from Taksim to Rumeli, as excited as a birthday kid whose present is the Bogazici campus. It’s my first time in Istanbul, and my first living in another country; I dream of all the adventures I’d take home from my exchange semester, and how they’d live on for generations to come.
Except that right now, this non-story to tell my grandchildren looks set to be a eulogy on how I could have had grandchildren – especially since we’re winding up a hill. The Bosphorus skims past in a gorgeous blue burr, flashing yachts and waterfront homes before my sunglassed gawk. My cab driver, small and lithe and not much older than I am, winds his window down a crack. He whips out a pack of cigarettes. “Smoking problem?” He asks. Drunk on the whizzing, unregistering scenery, I say no, and he offers one to me before happily lighting his stick.
The smoke doesn’t waft out the window. It chokes the cabin. Ridiculously, I stifle my coughs to keep polite, for being too embarrassed to speak up and contradict myself. To be frank I’m afraid that, if I do, I’d cause my driver to lose his bearings (if he has any) and make cigarette smoke my last visual memory.
Istanbul’s traffic deserves its own column. It’s an entity, and a high-strung, temperamental, rule- scoffing one. Newcomers take note: Hone your sprinting and look-out skills. Traffic lights are not the ones to beat; it’s the monsters on the road. Vehicles carve a special order-in-chaos in junctions governed by their own kind and, miraculously, the system works – for them. The pedestrian is a hapless obstacle. There are traffic lights, but they are generously spaced (mostly on the main roads), and most times you’d grow too busy bucking through car lanes alive to wonder why the city skimps on them; the first time I crossed one was at my campus five days in.
As with my easy-going cab driver, commuter confidence borders on carpe diem callousness – even for passengers. If you’re lucky, you may get tailgated by cars with youngsters flagging out the windows, self-congratulatory whooping included – compliments to the city’s nightlife, which commences like a dream after rush-hour is exhausted. Yeah, rush-hour. And you wonder why those nighthawks stay so merry on the road.
Rush-hour climaxes at six p.m., and overstays its welcome. It clogs up most main roads, including highways. A twenty-minute bus ride can sag to over two hours. Thick in a jam one evening, my bus-mate moaned that she could have biked to our stop and reached it earlier. By biked, she meant bicycled.
Yet, as with every major city round the globe, Istanbul’s transport network isn’t limited to the tarmac. Congestion and heavy traffic are inevitable in urban places of high population density. But urbanity acknowledges this shortcoming, and accommodates it with an efficient, increasingly extensive underground substitute.