In Istanbul there is an elite band of commuters, a lucky few who pass serenely from one continent to another in an unbroken path. While their terrestrial counterparts stagnate in miles of miserable traffic, ferry passengers ride in the slipstream of Jason and the Argonauts and Mehmet the Conqueror, crossing a stretch of water that cuts majestically through the most congested city on earth and disappears into expanses of sea at either end.
The Bosphorus is the subject of countless romantic clichés. It is also the school run, the shuttle to work, the twenty minutes factored into an errand. It is a ball gown worn every day, a beautiful constant in a city held hostage by a mania for concrete expansion. Istanbul’s residents treat it with fond practicality; in recent decades, they have crossed it ever more resourcefully, over a choice of two bridges—soon to be three—or via a newly constructed submarine tunnel. True to its unlovely etymology (βους-πορος, ancient Greek for “ox passage”), it is still used primarily for trade, carrying vast tankers and cargo ships whose crews consult a daily timetable to keep track of traffic. Watch the straits for any longer than five minutes and you lose track of individual vessels—the seemingly random trajectories of ferries, cargo ships, and fishing boats traveling at varying speeds interlace the water with choreographic skill and remarkably little incident.
The municipal ferries that currently dominate the Bosphorus were designed in 1961 in a shipyard in Glasgow. They are long, elegant steamers painted white, green, and black, three stories of open-air deck for summer days and enclosed wooden seats for winter, when the old men who walk among the crowds advertising “Tea! Delicious toast!” attract the most customers. As the boat chugs away from shore, seagulls swarm above the stern, wheeling and diving competitively for the hail of sesame-covered bread pieces thrown into the wind by a delighted audience.
Leaving Europe, the boat passes Byzantine churches on the cusp of the Marmara Sea, beyond them a sprinkling of waiting tankers from Panama, Hong Kong, Moscow; ten minutes later, a huge dockyard full of Chinese cargo crates on the Asian shore gives way to a neoclassical train station, the nineteenth-century northern terminus of the extinct Baghdad Railway. A few seasoned passengers do not even lift their eyes from their newspapers or phones to take in this spectacular historical slideshow; most do, looking up instinctively at their favorite points or simply staring out to sea. Tourists and children become positively overwhelmed, hurrying from one side of the boat to the other, greedily snapping with their phones or stretching over the side, transfixed by the furious froth of the churned-up water, white over green. As the boat approaches land, the al fresco passenger notes the dying of the wind and the accompanying lull of the engine, before stepping onto shore, exhilarated by relentless exposure to the elements.
Now picture an ergonomic catamaran resembling a Nike trainer. I was unreasonably upset by the appearance of this new kind of ferry, especially by the darkened windows of the hermetically sealed seating space, which confines passengers to an air-conditioned, portable waiting room with vending machines and flat-screen TVs advertising cleaning products while the glories of Constantinople pass by unheeded. Almost more offensive was the token handful of outside seats on the tiny top deck, allowing interested customers to avail themselves of the sights at a safe distance from the sea: a waiting room with a view.
Many have written on the experience of travel, on the value of a sense of movement and space, and, conversely, the ‘unreal’ experience of traveling by car or plane. Recently, I flew from Turkey to South Africa and watched, like a trapped fly, the progress of an animated plane flying over the vast expanse of Africa on a tiny screen inches from my face. As the hours slipped by, so did the countries—Egypt, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Zimbabwe—weeks of earthbound travel compressed neatly into nine hours and forty minutes of pixelated progress. It encapsulated what Will Self calls “the discombobulation of space and time effected by modern transport,” and in me, it produced a feeling akin to the guilt of cheating. There I was, flitting passively into the airspace of these incredible countries, mentally ticking them off as the computerized plane left them trailing behind on a finger-smudged map. In no sense was I a ‘traveler’ at that point, merely someone who had clicked judiciously on a computer, one of the frequent flyers described by Self as “wholly credulous consumers of the Promethean charade, ever on their way to wrest the Calibri lighter of the gods from a duty-free shop in Dubai Airport.”
I am not advocating airline abstinence. But when we are offered an opportunity to travel actively—taking in the sounds and smells of the sea, for example, rather than sitting blankly at the portable waiting room—should we not seize it? Or is this the same, sentimental attitude expressed by critics of the first automobiles, the conservative lovers of the horse and cart? Am I an old fogey?
What makes my preference for the old ferries even harder to defend are the undoubted benefits of the new model, which was introduced with great fanfare by the Istanbul Municipality in May. Grudgingly, I enumerate them here: The catamaran is capable of taking off without turning round and is therefore more fuel-efficient and faster. It also allows easier access for passengers in wheelchairs, and is equipped with baby changing rooms. All excellent attributes and more immediately obvious than the indefinable qualities of the traditional ferry trip, which is itself, of course, probably a pale imitation of the wooden paddleboat trips of the early nineteenth century. All the same, like Dylan Thomas I “rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” the spray, the wind, the gulls and the cormorants—the entire cast, sound, and lighting effects of the cinematic crossing I described earlier.
The new catamarans will gradually phase out the old ferries, joining the modernized fleets already operated by private boat lines—the Istanbul Sea Bus company (IDO), for example, has used catamarans for years. The Bosphorus is a teeming battleground for rival enterprises, the latest of which is none other than Uber, which now offers a private water taxi service. “Uberboats” have immediate appeal, if you can afford them. What could be more hedonistic than summoning a private speedboat with the tap of a finger, stepping into a Bond film as the wind whips your hair and a uniformed captain transports you to your coast of choice as others queue up for the half-hourly ferry? Uberboats are the most obviously glamorized example of the commercialization of the Bosphorus, freeing moneyed travelers from the turnstile and the timetable, the grubby reality of a public service.
Money—there’s the rub. If you have money, you can hire a speedboat anywhere in the world and you will always feel like Bond. What is special about a Bosphorus ferry is its communality, the fact that everyone from a grumpy worker to a bleary-eyed fashionista can be found on the same early morning commute, on a stately boat that has been a familiar sight for more than fifty years. The ferry is part of the rhythm of the city, of the practicality and sense of purpose that makes the Bosphorus much more than a scenic stretch of water.
Rob Horning, who writes about the hypocrisy of the ‘sharing economy’ of which Uber is a prime example, points out that “actual sharing is inexplicable, unreal.” Uber sells itself as a community that harmoniously promotes everyone’s best interests, but Horning calls it “an anti-community in which empathy and conviviality are tactics and no succor may be extended without a price attached.” In other words, give me my five stars or you will not get yours—and if you think I will not charge extra when demand is high, you are adorably naive. Alternatively, if you want to travel cheaply, welcome aboard the new, sanitized space capsule, which will transport you as efficiently as possible between the shores of the most romantic city in the world.
We have always used the Bosphorus for transportation. Today, we are in danger of becoming Ubercargo, paying βους. So if anyone is listening, SOS.