Life without public services

Last month, when I was talking with Izzy in the hospital during Elif’s uncle Bilgin’s angioplasty operation, at one point he turned to me, his face serious, and said, “You can travel the world, live all over, it’s great, but don’t keep living here. Turkey is in deep, deep shit. You know that.” He said that the religious party will win in the February elections, that there’ll be another army coup, that inflation would only get worse, that there were basically no human rights and services. He’s right of course, but being rich here, living in Suadiye, really has its advantages. In America, I had no health care, and here it’s a snap for me to afford great medical treatment. I got bronchitis, and they gave me drugs and I paid around $10. I’ve been getting everything done I could never take care of in the states – moles on back and leg removed; got creams for my chronic dermatitis around my nose. I asked him how much he was spending at the hospital, and he whistled. “You wouldn’t believe it. I know it’s intensive care and they’re watching him round the clock, but last year we were in here also and it came to over 500 million lira a day, totalling seven thousand dollars for the two weeks.” I told him about my surgery in 1990, how I was in the hospital for a day and how my bill was eleven thousand, and he categorically refused to believe it. “No, you must have gotten that wrong,” he said.

But no matter what your financial status, in a country with a breakdown in services, all sorts of cool things can happen. Last night we took the boat to Dilek’s house and there was a mutiny. The boat was absolutely packed with people, and when it stopped at Burgazada, a very small island, which it only goes to two or three times a day, the announcement came on the loudspeaker, “Next stop, Kadikoy!” This meant that the boat that we were on, carrying hundreds of people to Bostanci, where Dilek lives, was going to bypass it altogether. Perhaps the captain was misinformed, perhaps he wanted to go home to his wife and kids. But a hundred people on the boat got together and held up schedules to show that the boat was supposed to go to Bostanci. A few tourists were on the boat, very confused. People were all very friendly, but the captain got on the loudspeaker again to confirm it: “Direct boat to Kadikoy.” But at some point, several people went to the captain, and convinced him that he was outvoted a hundred to one, and the captain decided that it would be best to take us to Bostanci. (I should also mention that there was a monkey on the boat. He was on a very long, loose leash, and spent the trip attacking every single passenger in the vicinity. I watched them move to another seat, one by one, and the monkey’s owner, a Russian woman, giggled each time it happened.)

Everything here is contingency planning and bricolage. For example, say you’re working on a construction site and your buddy gets buried in a dirt-slide. You can’t call “911” (here, “110”) because it’ll take hours for help to come, and you know that the human brain can only survive without oxygen for about 5 minutes. (Sixty if you’re watching Baywatch.) What do you do? You jump in a Caterpillar tractor and dig him out! I just saw it happen on TV. It was pretty exciting when the big machine came up with paydirt, in the form of the buried man’s head, although the driver looked pretty upset at having decapitated his friend. OK, here’s another one: say you’re riding in an elevator, and it hasn’t been inspected, well, ever, and it plunges you five stories to your death. What’s the quickest way to the morgue? Hours pass. The ambulance doesn’t come. Not to worry – someone on the block will personally drive your carcass to the hospital themselves – people here are really nice. OK, let’s suppose you’re a 16-year-old girl and the hospital tells you you have bone cancer and they amputate your leg, and then they say oops, you never had bone cancer! You can sue, and if you have a good lawyer, you may win 10 grand! Hopa! OK, now let’s say you’re on the street and you have no legs, just stumps at the knees. Now you can’t afford a wheelchair, and sitting on a cardboard mat like in America won’t do – in Istanbul you’ve got to get around, to move, move, move! Your best bet would be to do as the locals do – tie pieces of rubber tire to your stumps, and you’re off! OK, now suppose you’re a leper and can’t play accordion very well for money because your fingers are falling off. Well, on second thought…

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