Vendors and commuters criss-cross in front of the gates of the dock. My friend and I use the akbil dangles with the circular buttons fitting into the turnstile. A large crowd waits in the port station watching a majestic event take place behind the glass doors: an Istanbul ferry pulling in. The floor trembles as the engines rumble in effort. The propellers leave bubble trails in the water as the boat makes a wide three-point turn to back into the dock, thump against the tire bumpers and get tied off by a dockhand. Metal-railed gangplanks clang onto the dock and the passengers squeeze onto the ship looking like human grains passing through a sand-clock.
I had no previous ideas about the Istanbul boats, but my interest is piqued. A large exhaust stack toward the front of the ship is trimmed in yellow and painted with the anchor and rope emblem of the ferry fleet. The worn wooden floors inside have dipped over years of hard use from the soles of possibly millions of shoes passing. The steps creak and snap as everyone makes their way up one floor. We buy simit and 50 kuruş tea before heading outside to the back of the top deck. Seagulls already loft and wheel close by, keeping an eye on the passengers lining the railing.
The engine shakes awake, shivering through the floor boards into our feet, and pushes the boat away from dockside and into the mingling waters of the Marmara and Bosphorus. People on the shoreline watch the ship depart. It feels like a journey is beginning, like we should wave to those staying on the Asian coast. The ship, suspended between two continents, transports us from East to West. The churning water reflects back the cold clouds hanging above the city, with Topkapı Palace and the many grand mosques of the Golden Horn ahead, and the Princes’ Islands to the left. I take a sip of the tea — it is bitter and hot, almost scalding. Most of the bread, however, goes uneaten. Together with the other passengers, we feed the seagulls crowding around the boat; they loop down to catch each piece of simit before retreating away from their hungry comrades.
The ride only lasts something like 20 minutes, but by then I have a feeling that somehow I had really arrived in Istanbul. This is the magic of the many city ships criss-crossing the Bosphorus and to and from the Islands in the Marmara Sea. In a time as short as 15 minutes sailing across the borders that split the city, daily life is put on pause and passengers feel a connection to the past and enjoy a social moment.
This was my first time on the ferries, almost seven years ago today. I had landed in Istanbul just two days before, dropped off in the middle of Kadıköy by a Turkish driver wielding an English dictionary. Even though it was wintertime, my new colleague took me on the IETT ferry from Kadıköy to Eminönü for a day of touring around the Golden Horn before our first day of work the following day. From that first glimpse of the vessel, I was hooked.
When aboard one of the many ferries, even if only commuting, the trip becomes a journey of sightseeing and enjoyment. The many kilometers I’ve clocked on the waters of Istanbul have been filled with colorful people and memories, some comedic and others bittersweet. On a ship bound for Büyükada, I’ve been sold a one lira lemon juicer, demonstrated by an expert salesman with a bag full of lemons. Simply twist the plastic in, open the cap and fresh squeezed lemon juice pours out like a fountain. I’ve been serenaded by a guitarist and his friend giving an impromptu concert on the way back from a long work day. I’ve watched revellers dance and clap to folk songs, pulling in other passengers until the whole boat rocks with the beat of heels on the boards and the tune of the song. All the Turks know the lyrics and can’t help but add their voice, and even as a foreigner I’ve felt the pull to attempt the chorus. No one cares if someone messes up the words; it’s a celebration.
Life changing events seem to occur quite frequently on board as well because the boat lends itself to a timeout to talk life over. Breaks-ups or reunions of friends caught in passing. News of proposals and new jobs accepted. Once a wedding even took place, although I did not have the privilege to see this myself. I’ve suffered, philosophized, slept and sung on the Istanbul boats.
Trips over Istanbul’s’ waters are especially restful in winter, a different kind of magic. The boats tend to carry fewer passengers, as most of the tourists avoid the city during the colder months, so it’s easy to find a corner in the indoor cabin to curl up in, preferably next to one of the heaters. The summertime turquoise shade of the waters darkens to an oceanic blue. In the past, I’ve boarded a ship and taken it back and forth a couple times, just to enjoy the feel of being off the land.
Looking for something to do in Istanbul this winter? Everyone should get down to the water for a break from their routine, and those who have the benefit of a watery commute should look up from their phone screens and unplug their earbuds to experience the pleasures of this historic transport. There are many journeys to take around Istanbul. IETT, Mavi Marmara and IDO serve the Princes’ Islands all winter. The Islands empty in the off-season, meaning time for a quiet walk or bike ride to reflect and enjoy the many wooden mansions and city views. Other services go up and down the Bosphorus stopping at many points along the way, a great way to discover unknown neighborhoods. But know that whatever the destination, you’re sure to enjoy the ride.
Meridith Paterson is a contributor to Yabangee
Photo Credit: Sveta Nekrasova