Thoughts reverent and irreverent from the road in Turkey


by in bloggingaboutturkey
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koyarabThe köy arabası (village van) is a phenomenon, the beaten-up, broken-down last link in the long chain of Turkey’s fantastic public transport system, a system designed to ensure that there’s hardly a place in the country with more then five occupants that doesn’t have some kind of link to the outside world.

You can usually recognise the köy arabası by its sorrowful, down-at-heel look. It’s the battered minibus that once knew better days on some more lucrative route before it was pensioned off to see out its days on the village runs. You can usually recognise it from some distance away too. It’ll be the van with the old wheat sacks stashed beside it, alongside the plastic shopping baskets filled to the brim with strange-looking sticks of greenery and plastic buckets of yoghurt. Often those sacks, baskets and buckets stand unaccompanied. Their owners are off drinking tea in a bargain-basement cafe nearby.

The köy arabası is a world of hairy ears and bulbous bottoms, of phlegmy voices and conversations conducted at full throttle, especially those involving the phone. It’s a world in which the unlucky find themselves perching on stools shoehorned into the aisle so that just one more person can be squeezed in. On the köy arabası personal space counts for little and women plonk themselves half on your lap with no word of apology. Because the truth is that the köy arabası only survives as a social service, a benefit mainly for the elderly. Turkey’s population analysts are economical with the truth. Seventy-five per cent of the population now live in cities, they say, which suggests that  a happy 25% of it remains in the countryside. But the truth is that most villages are effectively rural retirement homes, populated almost entirely by the elderly, many of them carless and poor.

Local authorities lay on the köy arabası so that villagers can get into town to do their shopping. The drivers hug their timetables to their chests but they needn’t bother really since they’re much of a muchness. The köy arabası crawls out of the village at 7 am, then ambles back again at 3 or 4 pm. Ipso facto they are not designed to serve the needs of foreign sightseers.

“The bus leaves at 4 pm but make sure you’re there early,” I was told in Borçka when trying to visit remote Camili on the Georgian border. From 3 to 4 pm I filled in the waiting time with a wholly unnecessary meal, cheered on by the fact that the van parked  nearby wasn’t particularly old. Indeed, it looked brand-new. But any illusion of timeliness that its modern appearance briefly promised was soon crushed. From 4 pm to 5 pm the driver busied himself with loading up an unfeasibly large quantity of shopping, most of it sacks of rice, trays of tomatoes and boxes of eggs. I’d picked my day unwisely, it seemed. It was Friday and Friday was the day that the villagers came to town to stock up for the weekend.

Actually, it looked as if they were stocking up for the next millennium but at 5 pm there was an encouraging development. The driver climbed into his seat. We would-be passengers squeezed into ours. We drove slowly round the square, then stopped again at the other side whereupon the driver proceeded to take out all the sacks and trays and boxes that he’d just so carefully stowed to make room for a plastic bicyle and assorted bulky household items. Then the sacks, trays and boxes had to go back in again, except that now there wasn’t enough space for them even if we in the back row sat with sacks under our feet, boxes on our laps and trays perched precariously behind us.

By now I was starting to get agitated. It would be getting dark at 7 pm, and the van was returning at 7 am the next day. When, pray, was I to see the village of Camili? A father with two young children remonstrated with the driver but “Köy arabası!”he said with a shrug and began repacking the van all over again.

At 6 pm we finally pulled out of the square, and as we started along the road to Camili I began to relax. Then the driver’s phone rang. A latecomer wanted to be picked up. The driver did a U-turn and started back the way we’d come. Three and a half hours later I was back in Borçka. There ended my attempt to get to Camili.

Things weren’t much better when I tried to visit Sulusaray from Tokat. In the bus terminal no one was staffing the Sulusaray ticket office and in its grungy bowels there was nobody waiting at the bus stand either. Onlookers had nothing helpful to say about the service. It left at 11 am, they said. Or perhaps  at 11.15 am. Or maybe at noon. Whatever. What’s the rush? Relax. Have another glass of tea.

I had to be grateful that the van returned from Sulusaray at the time stated because a favoured trick of the köy arabası is the sneaky early departure. “The last one back is at 3.30 pm,” the driver at Uzuncaburç assured me. Except that it drove off 15 minutes early leaving me stranded up a mountainside.

That’s when I discovered the last last link in the public transport system. Most village schools are staffed by teachers who wouldn’t dream of living in such remote communities. Hence transport is laid on to return them speedily to urban civilisation at the end of each working day. When push comes to shove space can usually be found for any strays left stranded by the köy arabası. Unless it’s the weekend, of course.

Sadly my adventures on the köy arabası have taught me a lesson that I hadn’t especially wanted to learn. From day to day I pay lip service to the belief that a slower pace of life is infinitely desirable. The sad truth is, though, that when confronted with the reality I’m as impatient as the last person to get going. Life’s too short, I’m afraid, to waste half an hour rearranging eggs.

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