Concepts of the Road

A few days after Jamie was assigned to Ankara, she visited the Foreign Service Institute’s Overseas Briefing Center. The office has reports from around the globe, written by folks who serve in the embassies, as well as briefing videos that highlight everyday life at various posts.

We watched the Ankara video many times and shared it with several friends and relatives. I’ll never forget the segment that addressed driving in the city. Essentially, the narrator said, Turks are aggressive drivers who don’t follow traffic laws because, well, there aren’t many. So, keep your head on a swivel.

Massive understatement.

Since our arrival, I’ve taken taxi rides, a couple bus trips, and sat in the passenger seat of a friend’s car. Yet I’ve had a hard time trying to put the driver behavior I’ve seen here into words, usually because I can’t wrap my head around it. Then last Sunday I took my first trip as a passenger in our recently-purchased 1998 Chevy Blazer. Somehow the 20-minute, round-trip journey to a colleague’s apartment crystalized all the jaw-dropping incidents I had witnessed. It may have been because I was in our own car, but I became hypersensitive to traffic.

The 1998 Chevy Blazer we bought our first week in Ankara. My twenty-year-old self is very happy.

Here’s the highlight reel.

On the way there we fell in behind a dolmus, a quasi-taxi, minibus that run routes similar to the city bus system but make way more frequent stops. If a dolmus sees someone walking along the sidewalk, it will slow down and pull over to check if they want to hop on. On Sunday afternoon the dolmus in front of us had no brake lights.

Next, we, and several other cars, were idling at a red light. A timer on the traffic light (which has a yellow signal for stopping and accelerating) showed another 30 seconds before green when a city bus ran straight through the intersection at full speed.

On the way back we entered a large roundabout, with room for three unmarked traffic lanes along its circumference. We were in the middle lane when the driver on our right remembered he needed to turn left and jerked his car across the other two lanes, only to meet a red light and have his rear-end hang out, blocking the left lane.

At another red light I looked out my window to see the driver in the next car flat-out eating a potato.

The encounter that broke my heart, though, came later when I looked over and saw a family in their car. The dad behind the wheel, the mom in the front passenger seat with a girl no more than five months old sitting in her lap. None of them wore seat belts. I suddenly understood the Turkish superstition called “The Traffic Monster,” which refers to the fact that everyone here knows someone, or knows someone that knows someone, who has lost a loved one in an automobile accident.

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