Dolmuses have long been considered a representative Turkish institution. Barreling down the highway in a tin can with doors, weaving between lanes with passengers packed in like sardines, following a route that is more like a suggestion than an actual plan, and screeching to a halt anywhere or anytime the driver is asked is a unique and adrenaline inducing experience. I had planned to take my parents on their first dolmus ride the last time they came to visit me in Istanbul, and after their muted reaction to the public buses, I was looking forward to playing with them a little. But when the bus ride was followed by an extended freeway trip squatting in the back of a friend’s cargo van, my mother looked at me and said, “I understand now what you meant about starting to question your life choices.”

So I let them off the hook, and now it seems there won’t be another chance. As so often happens in Turkey, with no explanation, one day dolmus drivers stopped allowing passengers to stand. It sped up waiting times and made the rides more comfortable, and presumably safer. But still, some of the unique aspects remain, and not just because the rattling quality of the speeding vehicles hasn’t improved.

First, the minibuses take winding routes avoiding big streets, which can be a blessing the near constant traffic jam of a city on two sides of a strait with only two bridges, although climbing the steep hills and sharp corners can be nerve-wracking. Also you never really know when one is going to leave. The same principle can be applied to buses, since the transportation ministry has realized its futile to predict anything beyond a bus’ initial departure. But, when my bus does come, I know it will be departing the stop immediately. I’ve sat on dolmuses for twenty minutes waiting for enough passengers to make the trip to seem worthwhile to the driver. Also the speed varies widely by driver, sometimes they go painfully slowly to pick up passengers and speed up when full, other times they rush by, honking at pedestrians to attract their attention.

Finally, the pricing is supposedly set, but there seems to be some flexibility. When taking a dolmus to a job interview, I asked the driver to tell me when we reached a certain neighborhood.
“Two-fifty,” he said.

I couldn’t imagine it would cost that much, so I assumed I had misunderstood and handed him a lira and fifty kurus.
“TWO-fifty,” he repeated. I asked another passenger to hand him another lira for me. A moment later my fellow passenger handed me back a fifty kurus coin, which I accepted bemusedly.

Beginning in January, the Turkish government switched from the “New Turkish Lira,” its post inflation currency, to the new “Turkish Lira,” and businesses stopped accepting the old coins around February. Since I am foreign, however, cashiers often try to pass the invalid coins off on me. When I got on a dolmus with too few coins, I tried to hand the driver an old 25 kurus piece to meet the total. He returned it to me, but with another ten kurus coin, the change I would have been given anyway.

In the most extreme case of driver charity I’ve seen, one afternoon, when my boss asked me to attend a conference on the other side, I realized I had forgotten my wallet only after taking the ferry across and getting on the dolmus. The other passengers handed their fares, and I looked uncomfortable. I searched through my purse desperately, but it was nowhere to be found. I waited for the driver to ask for mine. But he never did, just dropped me off at my stop. Like the typical Turkish service it is, all rules are negotiable.

posts by Suzanne