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"In the Hands of Kismet" By Catherine Watson


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Posted 22 December 2003 - 12:57

"In the Hands of Kismet" By Catherine Watson

In the Hands of Kismet

Local road rules turn this visitor into a philosopher

I WISHED I HADN'T LOOKED OVER THE DRIVER'S LEFT shoulder. But I was in the back seat, leaning against the window on that side, and I couldn't help it. And having looked, I couldn't turn away.
We were doing at least 100 miles an hour, maybe even 110. I couldn't see the whole speedometer.
"How fast are we going?" I asked Jim, who was sitting on the other side of the back seat.
"You don't want to know", he said. "Tell me!"
He demurred and fell asleep. (It was out of our control, he ex- plained later.)
Riveted awake, I envied him. I'd been warned about situations like this-by the US. State Department, no less-in the same near-desperate tone that worried parents use on wild teens.
First mistake: It was dusk. "Dusk is a particularly dangerous time' " the State Department cautioned, "because most drivers delay turning their headlights on until well after dark."
Second mistake: Our driver, whom we'd hired for safety's sake, had been at the wheel foreight hours and needed rest." In Turkey," the State Department said, "drivers should be hyper-vigilant."
Third mistake: We were speeding. Oh, heck, make that the first mistake.
At 100 mph, survival depends on everything staying the same: no driver sneezes, no lug nut loosens, nobody hits a sheep. But you can't count on that. The result was like a nightmare with us in a Blue Angels formation, flying wingtip to wingtip, without
rehearsals. By this point in our trip around Turkey, we'd been tailgated by semi-trailer trucks at 100 mph. We'd been passed in heavy traffic by vehicles doing 100 mph with oncoming traffic in their lane. And we'd watched in shocked awe as cars and trucks passed us on blind curves, at 100 mph, changed their minds, and squeezed back into line with only a foot between their bumpers and ours.
I am not exaggerating. Neither was the State Depart- ment's "Driver Safety Brief- ing for Turkey." Some of its warnings were predictable: Always wear seat belts, carry jumper cables, drive defen- sively. Some were wise all over the Third World: Watch out for "herds of sheep, goats, and other animals on the

The TEM, Turkey's auto- balm, is the main thorough-fare from the border of Greece east to Ankara, Turkey's capital. On this road, there are speed limits posted; but the only reason I can think of for this is that it's an E.U compliance effort.
The only place that the dis- respected police can catch you is at one of the few tollbooths along the motorway. Their vehi- cles, generally four-door Fiat sedans with varying degrees of serious neglect, are the equiva- lent in size and power to a 1984 Ford Escort. That makes it impossible to chase down, or even pull out in front of, a

BMW or Mercedes, which are the ubiquitous choices of Turkey's financial champions.
Dean Eliason, "TEM-tation Highway"


roads" and for "pedestrians seemingly completely oblivious to on- coming traffic."
But some advice was disturbingly new: "Turkey has completely inattentive drivers" who "drive in the middle of the road and yield to no one" or, my favorite, "vehicles backing up-in reverse on exit ramps."
And for nowhere else had I ever been advised to carry a piece of chalk in the car. "To mark accident scenes," the State Depart- ment said. It was the chalk that got me.
I've read warnings on war zones that weren't this scary. This one read as if it had been written from a hospital bed.
The warning concluded with a list of handy terms and road signs in Turkish.
I figured we could master dur (stop) and even tek ydn (one way), but I wasn't sure about araf Okabilir (vehicles exiting), yaya geos (pedestrian crossing), yol falisma (road work), tirmanma sagdan (slower vehicles use right lane), or tehlikeli madde (dangerous materials).
But could we read any of them at highway speeds, let alone react in time?
The last terms on the list sounded the most dire but also the most useful: kismet (fate) and Allah korusun (may God protect me), said to be a sign often seen on trucks.
I e-mailed a copy of all this to Jim, and on the eve of the trip, we both chickened out and decided to hire a driver. A travel agent put us in touch with an agent she knew in Istanbul, who found us Erkan, an energetic, friendly guy with lightning reflexes.
He didn't speak English, but the agency's director wrote down a few common driving terms in Turkish. We couldn't pronounce them, and the paper became a bookmark.
Hiring Erkan cost about $600 for the eleven-day trip, but it added immeasurably- to our peace of mind. Except here we were, Jim asleep and me fretting, going 110 mph across the Anatolian Plain. When I couldn't stand the tension anymore, I leaned forward and touched Erkan gently on the shoulder, intending to have him slow down. He wasn't expecting it. I startled him so badly that he jerked the wheel, the car swerved, and my heart nearly stopped. When we were both calm again, I made what I thought would be a univer- sal gesture. Palm forward, I patted the air." Slow down," I mouthed in English.
Erkan smiled, nodded, and sped up. I had, apparently, given the Turkish signal for "You're doing a nice job, keep it up."
That's when I gave up and decided to follow the State Department advice, leaving it all to kismet.

Catherine Watson is senior travel editorfor the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Her work has won many national awards, including the two most coveted in travel journalism: Photojournalist of the Yearfrom the Society of American Travel Writers and Travel journalist of the Yearfrom the Lowell Thomas Travel journalism Competition, both awarded in 1990. She has taught at several universities, most recently in the Split Rock Arts Program of the University of Minnesota. Her current passion is the 13 0-year-old farmhouse she restored in the National Register Historic District of Galena, Illinois (the townfrom which U S. Grant leftfor the Civil War).

"In the Hands of Kismet" By Catherine Watson



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