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The Mongol Rally: Zen and the Art of School Bus Maintenance

Will "spend a day with the mechanics in Dolpadere" ever make Lonely Planet's top 10 must see list for Istanbul? Absolutely not. That being said, the experience afforded us a unique sense of the city.
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After an eight hour drive along the Aegean and Marmaratic coast, we arrived in Istanbul at nightfall. For hours we had been driving through westward facing sunflowers, which coat the rolling hills of Western Turkey. These fields slowly transformed into villages, towns, and eventually the lethargic sprawl of metropolitan Istanbul. After parking in Taksim Square, we wandered down Istiklal, still teeming with people just before midnight on Monday, the first day of Ramadan.

On Tuesday, the girls headed out to see the sights while Robin and I, both of whom had been to Istanbul before, pledged to tackle the obligatory maintenance that invariably arises after 3,000 miles of driving in 10 days.

Armed with just a few hundred lira and a scribbled note indicating the part of town our hostel in which our receptionist thought that we might find a mechanic, Robin and I headed out in the dull heat of early afternoon. After a few wrong turns, some bad directions, and a personal-best 15 point turn on a road that our little bus had positively no business being on, we descended upon Dolpadere and a surfeit of mechanic garages before us.

After shopping the street, we agreed upon F&L Otomotiv, both for the Ford logo pasted on the wall and the pleasant demeanor we sensed from the staff milling about the shop. With no common language, Robin and I set forth explaining what on Earth we were doing in Istanbul with an American school bus and, more importantly, what we needed done. After spreading out a world map, wall calendar, Haynes repair manual, and calculator on the hood of the bus, both parties reached an understanding of what work was needed.

While I certainly would have liked to return to the jaw dropping monuments of Sultanahmet, haggle in the bazaars, sample fish along the Golden Horn, and spend hours in the music shops around Galata Tower, I was perfectly content to spend my day in Istanbul replacing oil filters and sipping 10 cent chai. Our lead mechanic, Ozcan, opened the doors of his shop to us, so while he changed the oil, I could clean out the air filters and Robin could reshape the metal rim of the passenger door, which had an unfortunate run in with a signpost in Kosovo. When questions arose that hand gestures simply couldn't communicate, we would duck next door to the refrigeration shop where our translator for the day, Ken, was happy to help.

We worked straight through the afternoon and it felt extraordinarily fulfilling to be part of the progress. Things that had been bothering us for hundreds of miles - from our broken red flashing lights to the small window clearance afforded by the child lock on all the windows - were investigated and rectified. Through this, we were happily served tea and water, even though our hosts were unable to join us due to Ramadan.

By the time afternoon prayer arrived, I realized that my day had not seemed like a series of chores, but rather a unique way of seeing a city firsthand. I was part of the daily ebb and flow of a neighborhood - curious onlookers would come over and talk, some for twenty seconds, others for half an hour, and we quickly moved back and forth across streets, drawing brake pads from one locale and diesel from another. Will "spend a day with the mechanics in Dolpadere" ever make Lonely Planet's top 10 must see list for Istanbul? Absolutely not. That being said, the experience afforded us a unique sense of the city. After we wrapped up around six in the evening, we drove by the carwash, where we were eagerly greeted by a team of no less than 10 men in identical blue and red suits, all of whom wanted to be a part of the bus wash.

Running smoothly and gleaming in the evening light, we returned for a victory lap around Taksim Square before joining our friends for dinner in Beyoglu. Slurping down mussels that evening along Istiklal, we toasted our accomplishments and prepared for our foray into Asia early Wednesday morning.

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