Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Odyssey in a Box

We borrow a car from a friend. "Car" is a word used loosely to refer to a white, tin-boxlike item with wheels which occasionally, when properly cajoled and nourished, will propel one from Point A to Point B. Night rides in this vehicular wonder (officially known as the Tofaş, in case you were wondering) are vaguely terrifying, unaccompanied as they are by anything resembling head- or tail-lights. One lonely right side parking light bravely attempts to do the work of all its fallen comrades. Consider that this is a country where people don't, as a rule, stop at red lights, and you'll understand the terror.

Anyway, on this particular Sunday, it is broad daylight, a lovely, balmy spring day, and we decide to jump in The Box and hie ourselves to Çesme, a beach resort about 45 minutes away. The Box is temperamental today, and the engine first petulantly refuses to start and then gives in, only to launch in to a fit of death-bed coughing and shuddering. Çesme suddenly seems very far away. We speculate that The Box may have had a rough night out on the town whilst we were sleeping. Or that it is ailing from some mysterious and terminal automotive disease. Or even -- Levent casts an inquisitive glance in my direction -- that it may be out of gas. Hard to say, since the gas gauge doesn't actually serve any purpose other than to keep there from being yet another gaping hole in the dashboard.

The gas in Turkey is said to be some of the most expensive in the world. Currently prices stand at 2,70 YTL a liter. For Europeans, that translates to 1,44 Euros per liter; for all you Americans, that's $1.87 per liter, or about $7.50 per gallon. Like America, Turkey is highly dependent on the automobile. Public transportation is not particularly widespread, and while it may be technically possible to get where you want to without a car, it is not at all easy or quick. It all comes back to the automobile. This being the case, and it also being the case that most Turks earn very low salaries (I don't have statistics, but consider that 2000 YTL per month, or about 1000 euros, is viewed as quite good), it is not surprising that Turks have found ways of getting around the exorbitant cost of fuel. It's called the LPG, or liquid petroleum gas tank. A large number of vehicles around these parts have been retrofitted so that the cars run on LPG, a compressed liquid gas that is vastly cheaper and more efficient than regular gasoline.
The only drawback to this type of fuel is that it can be hard to find. Not every gas station sells it, and, adhering to the law of Murphy, those stations that lie directly on your route most certainly do not sell it.

We set out this fine day, The Box choking and sputtering, and there is a moment of snap decision-making. The nearest LPG station is in the opposite direction from the way in which we want to go. Do we play it safe and go there, or continue on our merry way towards our destination, in the good faith that there will soon appear to our wondering eyes an oasis of LPG? The car does have a normal gasoline tank as well, and on a previous run, L. had thrown 20 lira worth of gas into the car as a safeguard against running out of LPG. So we figure, what the heck, worst case we'll switch tanks and run on the expensive stuff for a while. On to new frontiers! We manage to make it around the curve of the bay, past the detergent factory, the military zone, the walkers and joggers along a long stretch of waterfront park, the port, on into the central commercial district, jockeying through a sea of traffic and pedestrians, The Box all the while nurturing its bad cough. We have nearly made it through the heart of the central commercial district when our steed suddenly lurches, coughs, and dies. At a red light, fortuitously. L. mutters an incantation and flips the switch to the normal gas tank. But instead of the roar into vibrant automotive life we are expecting, the traitorous car hiccups, belches, lunges viciously at an unsuspecting pedestrian, wheezes, splutters, coasts a meter or two in silence...and is still. Puzzlement on our parts. A second attempt. A third. In between silent, coasting periods, the car is lurching like a mad bronco. We are making fitful progress down the palm-lined boulevard, attracting no shortage of stares, when it gives a last gasp and falls silent. We coast to a pitiful stop at the curb, coincidentally just in front of a parked dolmuş (shared taxi) with its hood up and toothless driver peering intently into the engine.

Words are exchanged between Levent and the dolmuş driver. Out of nowhere, a mechanic materializes. A cigarette dangling lackadaisically from between his lips, our twenty-something would-be hero somehow brings to mind a Sean Penn fallen on hard times. He removes some hardware from our car. Between drags of his cigarette, he sucks gasoline from a hose. He does it slowly, almost like a wine connoisseur at a degustation, and I sit watching him in fascination, waiting for him to explode into a great orange fireball, or fall over writhing and convulsing after having accidentally swallowed too much gasoline. The suspense is terrible and transfixing. I look on, ever-so-slightly cowering in my seat, bracing myself for the inevitable cataclysm.

... to be continued ...


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