The Ugur Manoevre

Joyce and I had just gotten into Istanbul that evening, the last stop of our guided tour through the Balkans.  We spent half of the day just making our way through the Istanbul itself through a gridlocked Istanbul Highway complete with young men selling roses, bottled water, and headphones as they walked between the highway lanes.  Being more adventurous than others in our tour group who might seek out the safety of the hotel restaurant, we went out into the dusk of a fall Istanbul evening to seek out our dinner.

We didn’t stray far from out hotel, but we did walk up and down nearby streets seeing what we could see since we would be staying in the area for three nights.  It’s strange being in a foreign place, and Turkey was certainly the most foreign place I’d ever been.  In shops and restaurants, people inside speak a smattering of English if any at all, and communication is frequently a multi-modal struggle, trying to find key words we both understand mixed with pointing and other gestures.

We settled on a place called Uğur Usta, and for only one reason; I’d recently started watching a man named Cenk Uygur on an internet news show.  So we went in.  We’d actually walked past it earlier and been put off at first by a man sitting on a motorcycle and smoking right outside the door, but we later figured out he was a delivery guy.

We happened to show up soon after four other people from our tour group, and when the man who was serving us understood that we knew each other, he began pushing tables together so we could all sit together.  Joyce and I had been looking forward to a quiet dinner alone after spending so much time with our tour group, so with the heat inside the restaurant as our excuse, we extricated ourselves from the others as politely as we could and instead sat down at the table just outside.  It was delightfully cool, and it gave us the opportunity to watch the world go by.  We were on a narrow street, but only a few storefronts down there was a much more interesting larger street.

The man serving gave every appearance of being the owner, and I assumed he was the Uğur the restaurant was named after.  He was a late middle aged man with typically swarthy Turkish skin and was bald on the top of his head.  He seemed to be very friendly, but it was difficult to communicate with him.  We all made assumptions, claiming to understand what each other were saying when we really didn’t.  He seemed concerned that we were sitting outside, he kept looking up and holding his hand out as though he were concerned we would get dripped or rained on.  The menu had an English section… sort of, and when he first came to serve us we just ordered a couple drinks. 

After receiving our drinks, we had to negotiate the menu which was challenging, but not impossible since in addition to rough English translations it had pictures of the items.  Wanting to sample various things when so far from home, we each picked two things we wanted to try.  When Uğur came back we pointed out the items we wanted as we gave mangled pronunciation attempts.  Uğur moved his hands around in a circle in a questioning way and asked “together?” in addition to some other words we couldn’t make out.  Joyce and I looked at each other and simply agreeably at him together.  We figured he was asking if we wanted everything at the same time as opposed to one after another.

After a short time, Uğur brought us some food which we definitely hadn’t ordered.  It was something rather like a pita football; it was a large thin pita filled with hot air, complete with two kinds of what as a westerner I can only describe as salsa, one was some kind of red sauce with fine chunks, and the other was some kind of Turkish Greek salad.  Joyce and I looked at each other somewhat confused.  We didn’t know if this was something we were to eat with our meal when it came out, or if it was while you wait snack.  Cautious at first, I ripped off a piece of pita, dipped it in the red sauce, and tried it.  It was good!

Uğur then returned and mystified us.  He brought out four small glasses, and after clearing a large central area on our table, he placed them upside down in a square, and put small wet napkins on top of each of them.  We didn’t know what to make of that, but we were going to go along with it whatever came of it.  We kept eating the pita and dip, and before we knew it we had eaten all of the pita.  When he came back and asked if we could have another pair of drinks and another pita, he seemed to laugh at us, but before long he’d brought our drinks and another inflated pita which we tried to eat more slowly.

Then came our next surprise, but at least it answered our previous confusion.  The glasses were a stand for the large platter he brought us and set upon them.  We realized then that when he’d asked: “together?” he was asking if we wanted it all on one big platter to share.  Happy for the revelation, we then investigated what we’d gotten.  Some of the things we recognized as things we had ordered, others things not so much.  In retrospect, I imagine some of the items were sides for the dishes we’d ordered.

On the platter was kafte, seasoned ground lamb meat on a skewer, more recognizable kebabs, an eggplant dish Joyce had ordered, and for some reason most memorable for me, some sort of onion salad which is hard to describe.  It had sliced white onions in a light orangey-red sauce heaped in a pile on the platter.  Whatever it was it was delicious.  So, not sure how we had gotten everything we’d ordered, we nevertheless happily ate it, and I believe we wound up eating all of it, including a second pita.  Not long after having brought our food out, Uğur then for some reason brought us fresh cutlery, and then proceeded to take one of the eggplants off of the platter with Joyce’s utensils, place it on her side plate, and ‘show’ her how to cut it and eat it.  To this day we still can’t quite figure that one out.

Once we’d finished our meal, something happened that neither Joyce nor myself will ever be able to forget.  After clearing our table and while we were still talking about our meal, he came back with a dust buster style hand vacuum and started vacuuming up off our table very thoroughly.  It was the damndest thing, and Joyce and I just lifted our eyebrows and looked at each other in bewilderment.  Was this a common thing for them to do here?  Was it just a Uğur thing?  Did he think we ourselves had just been particularly messy?  He did it like it was the most natural thing in the world, grinning at us back and forth as though if not this, then what could a dust buster have possibly have been invented for?

After giving us a thorough dust busting, we believe he asked us if we wanted any dessert.  We were pretty full so instead I did the best I could to ask him for the bill, and he seemed a little disappointed.  After paying and leaving him what I thought was a reasonably generous tip, I watched as he went inside and had an exchange with a younger man working behind the counter inside.  I believed I saw the younger man ask Uğur how the tip was, and he seemed to give a shoulder shrug and raise a hand palm up as if to say ‘enh, adequate I guess.’  I imagined him asking himself, ‘I vacuumed their table, what else could I have done?’

We soon left and spent much of the rest of the night revelling in our befuddlement.  Over the rest of our stay in Istanbul we ate in several restaurants, and not one other time did we ever see anyone else break out the dust buster.  I guess it was just a Uğur specific eccentricity…  Our last night in Istanbul we went back there to have dinner again, but it was Sunday and the restaurant was all shuttered up.  So we instead wound up having dinner at the restaurant in our hotel and although it was an excellent meal with a story all its own, there was no dust buster.  Cenk Uygur has something he calls his Uygur Manoeuvre, but I’ll always remember the Uğur Manoeuvre to be pulling out a dust buster on unsuspecting Canadians.

The Greyhound Incident

I almost died that day…  Well, not really.  Actually, overall it went about as well as anyone could have hoped for, if it had to happen at all.

The Coquihalla highway was closed due to severe avalanche risk so Greyhound had been taking the longer but very scenic Hope-Princeton Highway to Kelowna.  The extra time it took created a passenger backlog though, and by the time of my scheduled trip, they’d had to charter a second bus.

I made the mistake of choosing to ride on the charter bus because it was supposed to arrive earlier than the regular bus since it wasn’t making most of the stops along the way.  Since I’d loaded up with snacks and drinks ahead of time, fewer stops wouldn’t be a problem for me.

Once in the snowy mountains, we were coming around a bend, and a semi-truck travelling in the opposite direction came over the centre line, and forced our driver to veer to the right to avoid a collision, and we wound up in the ditch.  As we ran over the rumble strips at the side of the road and started going over, I thought: ‘oh, okay… well THIS is happening.’

We landed on a 45 degree angle, with me on the high side and sitting on the arm rest.  A number of bags had flown out of overhead compartments and one wanged a woman on the head pretty good.  ‘Ok,’ I thought, ‘well THAT just happened.’  I resigned myself to the reality that my day was ruined.

We were on the outside of a bend in the road on a wide curve to the right, and we’d gone into the ditch at the base of a tall hill.  The scariest parts were the cars and trucks coming up over the hill ahead of us, and finding it very difficult to stop.  We watched several near misses until a different semi-truck stopped beside us and offered to help.  Before cluing in to using road salt and tire chains, he very nearly slid into us as he tried to get moving again.  Even with chains his tires idly spun around and around as he inched over the next hill. People who stopped to help were sent on their way to call in the accident when they could since we had no cellular signal.

Our driver tried backing up onto the road again which worried me, since all that was behind us was oncoming traffic blindly coming around the bend.  He only succeeded in backing up in the ditch and created a bus shaped trench ahead of us.

We’d effectively rolled over onto our exit door.  We could have broken a window, but then we’d be exposed to the cold.  Instead we stayed inside risking carbon monoxide poisoning as the bus kept us warm by idling and exhausting into the solid snow bank behind us.  Aside from the smokers it was remarkable how calm we all were.  Yes we went off the road, but we’d landed on a large snow pillow and nobody had been seriously hurt.  If it had to happen at all, it really couldn’t have gone any better.

Around this time a Shriner hospital bus happened by, and the driver offered us a lift since he was empty and already headed that way.  It was such a kind offer; I have no idea how we would have carried on once we were rescued if that bus hadn’t stopped and offered to help us.

When the first paramedic arrived, the brown haired woman squeezed her way through the pinned front door while joking about how she shouldn’t have had that ice cream earlier.  She assessed the woman who’d been hit on the head and a couple others who had concerns.  Not long after the ambulance showed up, so did everyone else.  One of the good natured rescue guys came onboard to figure out how they were going to get us out, and when someone complimented him on his solo mustache, which he proudly proclaimed “oh yeah, 70s porn ‘stache.”

It had now been two hours since the crash, and it was dark outside.  They decided they were going to break the already cracked right front window and file us out through it.  They easily smashed the window out, removed the rubber stripping, and placed a matt over the bottom for us to safely climb over onto a step ladder on the outside.

Since I was sitting near the front, I was one of the first out after those with medical concerns.  After hopping through and having my bag handed to me, I thanked the crews profusely, and then climbed out of the bus-shaped trench onto the highway.  I could see a long snaking line of lights from the vehicles stopped behind us.  The scene was absorbing, the flashing lights, the fresh snow piled a meter high, and a series of people being helped out of a bus through a smashed front window were mesmerizing.  After a little playful sliding on the icy roadway, I helped some of the others transfer our baggage from the crashed bus onto the Shriner one.

My second big mistake of the day, was allowing most of the other passengers onto the new bus before me, despite being one of the first off of the last bus.  I figured there would be as much room on the new bus as there was on the old, but I was wrong.  After climbing aboard, I made my way past some very comfortable looking, but very occupied recliner chairs.  Further up the aisle were hospital beds with three people sitting on each and as I passed them it dawned on me that there was absolutely nowhere for me to sit.  I was one of the last people on the bus, and there was hardly even any floor left for me to sit on.

The best I could do was to find a square half meter of floor for myself between the coffee machine above my head, the bathroom ahead of me and its door frequently opening into my leg space, and a cabinet latch digging into my back.  Not long after I’d resigned myself to this bitter situation, an endless parade of inconsiderates stepped in my space to help themselves to the expensive single cup coffee maker and bottled water over my head.  The kindness of the bus driver giving us a ride, was being repaid with theft.

Twenty minutes after finally getting underway again, we were stopped for another two hours due to yet another accident further up the road.  Only now did I lose my sense of humour with the situation.  So far it was an easily bearable interesting adventure, but after we were stopped again for an unknown length of time, I was now fully embittered.

When we finally started moving again, after twenty minutes travel, we were stopped again for yet another hour.  After this, our three hour trip the rest of the way to Kelowna continued on uninterrupted.

At some point, we started getting phone service again, and as I coaxed my phone into sending a simple ‘I’m ok’ to Joyce, all at once I received increasingly concerned messages from her, ending with a desperate sounding: ‘I don’t know what to do…’  It was bittersweet to have someone worry about me like that.  It was comforting, but at the same time knowing she was worrying about me was the worst part of the ordeal since I couldn’t reassure her until the phones started working again.

My next fun adventure was dodging the feet of all the people trying to use their phones plugged into a power bar behind the coffee maker over my head, which didn’t stop other people from nearly scalding me as they still tried to use the coffee machine over my head which was now down to only having hot chocolate inserts.

Finally I saw Okanagan Lake, and I knew I was almost home.  People cheered as we finally pulled into the bus depot eleven hours after leaving Vancouver.  Some clueless management guy stood at the front of the bus, blocking our exit only to offer apologetic platitudes.  After everyone who’d had comfortable seating got off the bus I was finally able to exit, and I rushed through the terminal into a big hug with Joyce.

In retrospect, what really stands out for me is how well it all went.  Nobody flipped out or was hurt, and another bus was able to give us a lift.  Aside from irritation and discomfort on the second bus, the worst part was just the hours of my life the incident consumed.  I wasn’t left with a fear of bus travel; I was just the victim of a statistic; there was nothing I should have done to avoid it, and it’s nothing I should ever expect to happen again.  Like so much of life, it was just some stuff that happened.