Riding Metro in Istanbul and Beyond

It's after 9 at night on Thanksgiving and I'm sitting in a bus station on the Asian side of Istanbul waiting for a Metro bus. No, not that Metro.
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It's after 9 at night on Thanksgiving and I'm sitting in a bus station on the Asian side of Istanbul waiting for a Metro bus. No, not that Metro. A long distance overnight to Kusadasi near the famous Greek and Roman ruins at Ephesus on the Aegean. I've come back to Turkey on a heap of frequent flyer miles to see what has changed and what hasn't since my last visit during the 1980s. And I've also come to get away from the handful of wrongheaded Beverly Hills residents who think I'm a hired gun for LA Metro and a local public transportation "coalitıon." No on the first, and no more on the second. It's true I did some consulting for the latter group earlier this year but that assignment has long since wrapped up. Should Metro extend me an offer, in the spirit of full disclosure, you will be the first to know.

The Beverly Hills posse, as I've started to call them, are out to smear me and undermine my credibility because, in their minds, why else would I support a Wilshire subway station at the hands down preferred Constellation Blvd Century City location. Uhh, maybe it just makes sense and would serve the greatest number of Angelenos traveling to and from Century City.

Since I have now set the record straight, I do hope I am once again welcome to ride the Metro 720 Rapid through 90210 upon my return.

Meanwhile, back in Istanbul, now that the bus to eastern Anatolia has pulled out, there is a smaller cloud of cigarette smoke hovering over the platform, some open seats in the station and things are somewhat calmer. I say "somewhat" because there is still quite a din coming from a group of army recruits doing their best imitation of Stomp as they play their penny whistles and bang on pots and pans.

My bus leaves in 25 minutes and I'm mostly watching and listening and wondering whether the traveler with the three giant unmarked containers of oil or fertilizer or whatever it is will be boarding with us or is going elsewhere.

Whatever the case, my curiosity is all in good humor as I muse about what the TSA at a Greyhound Station in the US would make of this traveler's cargo.

And then there's the food, including a tempting rice pilaf being sold from a small stall.

It's been a great week in Istanbul and en route to here in Madrid and NY. In all three cities I've ridden public transportation that would be the envy of most American cities. From the A and Q and Broadway Local trains in New York to a half dozen underground Metro lines in transit-saturated Madrid, to the Number 55 bus to Taksim Square and the Tunel (subway) to Istiklal from Galata Bridge in Beyoglu. I won't soon forget the beautiful blue tiles in the Galata Tunel station. While no match for the floor to ceiling ceramic artwork on the walls of the Rüstem Pacha Mosque on the Suleymaniye side of the Golden Horn, the station design was no doubt inspired by the beautiful tiles that grace Istanbul's finest mosques and Topkapi Palace. Those mosques and Topkapi are surely wonders of the built environment.

What a gem Istanbul is and, Inshallah, always will be. With the recent rapid growth of the city and the influx of millions of more traditional people from rural parts of the country, many longtime Istanbul residents fear the city has lost some of its multicultural charm and tolerant ways, as well as the many Italians, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Kurds and others who helped make the city what it is today.

While in newly conservative Fatih one now sees few women without a headscarf and even some women dressed head to toe in black, on Istiklal Street in Beyoglu, the short skirts and uncovered heads still outnumber the shawls by far. As a counterbalance, elsewhere in the city there are many new secular residents including the Russians and others who now call Istanbul home.

Though it has been over twenty yeas since my last visit, for all its growth and the changes, Istanbul remains a magical place with a vibrant streetlife that few cities I know of can rival. In spite of the notorious traffic congestion -- think the 405, 101 and 110 -- for which the region is increasingly reliant on bus rapid transit (BRT) and new underground transit lines, it is refreshing to see that Istanbul still has the vision to keep several areas of the city (mostly) free of cars and trucks. The results are vibrant public spaces and thriving pedestrian business districts like Istiklal Street, which rival Las Ramblas in Barcelona and the boardwalk in Venice and Santa Monica.

In the park outside of Topkapi Palace, alongside the chestnut and popcorn sellers, presides an industrious old man with a rooster and two rabbits. For a few Turkish lira tourists pay to have the animals pick their fortune out of a box. And as if this money making scheme wasn't good enough, the old man has even filled different boxes with fortunes in English, French and German, as well as Turkish.

While I couldn't bring myself to pay to have my fortune read by a rabbit or a rooster, as I watched others learn their fate from the animals hard at work, I did close my eyes and make a wish. Though LA will never be Istanbul, or Madrid, or New York, and many would never want it to be, we sure could use some of their transit.

Here's hoping my wish comes true.

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