Every now and then, I take the often overcrowded İstanbul Metrobüs to get to class. Part of Istanbul's massive ever expanding public transport system, you can see from the picture that it resides on its own private lane between the 4 lanes of traffic hustling and bustling in each direction.
Due to the fact that one rarely has elbow space, I prefer to take other options. However, sometimes I prefer to be above ground rather than the gloomy darkness of the underground services, and over the years have come to understand which times are usually less claustrophobic.
On a daily basis, Istanbul'lular (the "lu" meaning "people of" and the "lar" making it plural i.e. the "the people of Istanbul") come across beggars on the streets and on the various public transport options. Pretty much without exception, they are courteous and polite, which might be cynically explained as being in their best interests, and yet I prefer to think of it as a result of a personal choice.
As with most people in this city struggling for money, there's an endearing tradition which is not to simply beg for money. There seems to be an unwritten rule that one shouldn't get something for nothing and as such the young and old alike offer such items as packets of tissues, pens, or first aid plasters in exchange for your small coins.
Returning to the metro bus - a regular feature of this service is encountering young children aged between 4-14 begging for money. Some simply make their way through the metro bus offering their wares without pomp nor ceremony. In fact, they're so astute at weaving their way in and out of the passengers that if you're not paying attention, you might not even notice them (to paint a clearer picture - 90% of the passengers are standing and holding onto something for dear life as a result of the drivers thinking they work for the Ferrari Formula 1 racing team).
Since arriving into Istanbul in 2011, I've seen these urchins development their bag-of-tricks to find more creative and successful ways of soliciting money.
In the beginning (I almost wrote "beggining"!), as mentioned earlier, they simply walked through the bus with pleading expressions on their faces. Over time I've seen their strategies develop (in chronological order):
- cute faces designed to extract empathy
- standing for longer periods in front of people and waiting
- putting a packet of tissues on arms and waiting
- fully embracing people in big hugs of love
- hugging people's legs as if seeking sanctuary from the harsh world
For me, none of these are obtrusive as with only the smallest amount of compassion one can understand what a challenging life they must lead. I mean, imagine at the age of 5 working a full time job dealing with adults who aren't, on the whole, happy to see you or in a sense, even worse - ignore you.
Having said that, I must confess to one time being hugged by a little boy and uncomfortably spending the next few minutes brushing the dirt from my clothes. Understandably, their baths are few and far between, if at all.
Now, the main point I wanted to explain is yet to come. This prelude has been only to describe the daily goings on.
The part I find most fascinating about this facet of the city I now call home, as is often the case in most of my experiences of life, is observing people's reactions to our little friends.
Turks pride themselves on cleanliness and as such you can imagine their reaction to those who can't afford clean clothes or showers. And yet, one of the overriding characteristics of a Turk is to have empathy for someone facing difficulty or hardship. Usually, in these circumstances, the latter prevails.
The spectrum of responses ranges from disgust whereby the passenger almost runs away from the child (rare) to lovingly accepting the hug - which in my opinion is 30% "Can I have some money?"and 70% "Can I have some love?" - and gently stroking the child's hair (seen once). The latter, perhaps surprising for those not familiar with "Mediterranean cultures", was a young man of about 23 - another feature of life in Turkey: men not afraid to show their sensitive side.
At the stations, you can sometimes see the youngsters meeting and playing with each other.
By-and-large, they seem to have a good attitude towards their lot and simply get on with the task of living.
A lesson to be learned for their older counterparts?