Being a born-and-raised Minnesotan, I am used to “Minnesota nice” in all realms of life, including drivers and traffic in general. We Minnesotans may not be great at navigating our cars on ice and snow, but we sure are friendly drivers. Pedestrian crossing? Cars stop 15 ft away to let people pass. Two lanes reduced to one? Everyone merges into the open lane early so they aren’t the jerk trying to squeeze in at the last minute. But this is not Minnesota, and the traffic here glaringly reflects that sentiment.
To say Istanbul traffic is insane is an understatement – cars zoom around each other, whip u-turns in the middle of the road, and park all over the sidewalk. In roundabouts, cars going around the circle often end up having to yield to cars entering it. They pass each other in places where passing is definitely not allowed and go well above the speed limits. Actually being a part of this traffic is a whole other crock of shrimp – I took a taxi with three other girls this past Saturday night and we practiced our Turkish with the driver as he weaved through traffic at 130 kmph, honking his horn the whole way. And the seat belts in the cab didn’t work. Believe me, I checked.
A favorite pastime of Turks has got to be honking their car horn. As someone who has used their car horn a total of one half-hearted time, all the noise on the roads came as quite a shock. On any given street with a few cars you will hear multiple horns, honking at each other simply because someone didn’t turn fast enough, someone is randomly stopped in the middle of the road, someone is randomly pulling a u-turn, or there are pedestrians crossing the street in front of them. Empty taxis honk at you as they pass, trying to attract your attention and business. Sometimes people just honk for the sake of honking along with the other cars around them. This makes for lots of noise, and I can hear cars honking on the streets of Istanbul from my room in the Superdorm as I type this.
While on the Asia side of Istanbul, a few other Oles and I witnessed an amusing sight that was a classic example of how Turkish traffic works. Cars on the side of the road were double parked already, and someone decided to triple park and then leave their car there. Other cars squeezed by the empty vehicle, but eventually a bus couldn’t get through. It sat behind the car that was triple parked and honked its horn. Then the other cars behind the bus got frustrated and starting honking their horns. Then everyone who was stuck in the traffic jam started honking and it went on like that for a good five minutes. Then the owner of the triple parked car rushed out of a store, hopped into his car to the noise of a few more honks for good measure, and drove off. Traffic then continued on as usual (usual being crazy).
While the traffic is amusing, it also makes walking along the roads potentially perilous. The familiar childhood lesson of “Look both ways before you cross the street!” has never applied more than it does here. As our beloved tour guide Sarap told us, “Istanbul drivers are egotistical. Don’t ever think they will stop for you.”
When crossing a road in Istanbul, one needs to:
1. Look both ways
2. Stick a toe or two off the edge of the sidewalk and look again, this time for cars that may be turning your way.
3. Use a crosswalk if possible, but be aware that even if you have the right of way, cars might not stop.
4. Look both ways again.
5. And again.
6. Then dart across the street.
7. Breathe a sigh of relief.
Over the past week we have all gotten sufficiently accustomed to this ritual and are, dare I say it, beginning to demystify Turkish traffic. We can bob and weave with increased ease and are getting honked at less and less. Which is a good thing, since this is only practice for Cairo, where the traffic is apparently considerably worse. Great.