The apartment I’m staying in in Cihangir, Istanbul sits at the bend of a steep, narrow, cobblestoned street, the kind of lane one car can drive down comfortably but two need to suck in their stomachs to squeeze through. This evening when I stepped outside to go register my cell phone so it would work in Turkey (an apparently silly government regulation designed to combat phone theft) I encountered a man resting against a two-wheeled cart burdened by a rusty piece of equipment that looked like an oversized air conditioner long past its useful life. He was calling out to someone when I stepped onto the street and we made eye contact. I then became the object of his appeal. He rolled out a stream of Turkish that sounded like a question but I answered apologetically that I didn’t speak Turkish. That was OK because his gestures up the hill and toward the cart told me all I needed to know. He needed help pushing his load.
You need a tractor or a donkey to make it up this hill, I thought. A second later, looking at his sweaty face, I realized that I really had no choice. I would be walking in that direction. How could I say no and just leave him behind?
So I slung my bag over both shoulders, joined him behind the cart, and grabbed my share of the handle he was grasping. “All right,” I said, “let’s go.”
The words he spoke made no literal sense to me but I knew he was thrilled. Together we strained to break the inertia of gravity, got the cart rolling, slipped a couple of times on the slick stones, but bit by bit made it up the steepest slope and around the bend. Taxis flew past us at an alarming speed, casting a cooling breeze upon us as we labored on. After about 100 yards the slope lessened and I needed to take a left to be on my way. Assuming my task was done I explained in useless words but effective sign language that I needed to go that way. “Me too!” his sign language said. So we bent to our task again.
Fifty yards farther on we hit another fork, and blessedly this time our ways were to part. We shook hands several times speaking in tongues and as I walked away I turned back to see that he was moving ably along, his way much easier now. It took me about 300 yards to catch my breath.
Ten minutes later I stood in line at a Turkcell office on the bustling pedestrian street of Istiklal Caddesi, where all the high end shops provide temptations for credit card shoppers. I’d been directed to the line as the place to register my phone but things didn’t seem to be going well there. Two young women sat behind computers trying to register phones and activate sim cards for customers but it was taking forever. Eventually I was able to ask a young woman who spoke English what was going on. She explained that the computers were acting up, the Internet was down, and they were succeeding only about half the time. Considering that I wouldn’t really need my cell phone but now 40 minutes into this debacle I decided to stick it out a little longer. After two more customers walked away shaking their heads in disgust I muttered to myself, “This is madness.”
“Yes, it is,” said the man behind me.
It turned out he was Dutch, had arrived just the day before to study for a semester, spoke English and Dutch (of course) and also Turkish. When my turn came and I said I simply wanted to register my phone the patient young woman at the computer explained everything to me in slow words that meant absolutely nothing to me. She tried again, and then my Dutch friend leaned over and intervened. They had a spirited conversation, she brandishing my passport and phone in one hand as if they were the cause of all my problems, and maybe some of hers.
“You’re not going to like this,” my friend said. “You can either buy a Turkcell sim card to put in your phone, or buy a Turkish phone to put your sim card in, but you can’t use your phone with your sim card.”
Despite having an unlocked GSM phone that I’d used successfully in other countries, I was thwarted here in Turkey. Of course I could have bought a Turkish sim card, but that would have meant leaving my place in line, going through the process of buying it and a service without speaking Turkish, and then joining the endless line again hoping the computer systems would reboot themselves and the Internet would light up again, all in about 40 minutes before they closed for the weekend. If I didn’t make it I’d have to wait until Monday, when I’d be two days at sea.
It was time to abandon ship, as they say. I thanked my Dutch friend for his help, wished him luck on his semester here, and headed for my home away from home, Cafe Kahvedan on Akarsu Caddesi, to have a beer. I like to think it was a kind of payment for my labors, and I toasted my two anonymous friends.