Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

The weirdest bath you’ll ever take October 25, 2008

Fresh pomagranate juice is sold on all the streets of Istanbul

Fresh pomagranate juice is sold on all the streets of Istanbul

I’m uncomfortable with people handling my dirty laundry. This is a new neurosis, but as of this trip, I feel awkward about sticking someone with my stinky clothes and making it their problem to clean them. But in that case, at least the ‘dirty work’ occurs when I’m not there. In light of this strange hangup, you can only imagine how I feel about someone vigorously cleaning the resource that makes that laundry dirty – my body.

That’s what made my first true Turkish Turkish bath a bit off-putting. In Budapest, I went to the Rudas Baths in Pest. Once inside, an overly flirty Hungarian man pointed me toward a cubicle and explained I was to change into my bathing suit and take the key to the door with me (so that my belongings were secured while I was soaking). Then he offered to come in and help me change. He also set me up with a cubicle where the door wouldn’t stay closed, AND carried on in a manner overly reminiscent of ‘Wayne’s World’ about, “You are too good for me!” when I came out in my suit. Nothing like keeping it subtle.

After effectively evading the cubicle assistant, it’s off to the showers, and then the baths. At Rudas, there are five pools of varying temperatures – 23, 27, 32, 37, and 42, as well as a small cold dunk, a dry sauna, and a steam room.. At first I did the ‘gradually increase the temperature’ soaking series, but I eventually got hooked on going from the 42 degree tub and the cold dunk, or for even more of a thrill, between the 55 degree steam room and the cold dunk. The steam room was so hot that I couldn’t see, and it burned my eyes. I was glad I hadn’t worn my contacts (until I tripped and almost fell in the dry sauna) because I started to think they might have melted onto my eyeballs. Anyway, it was quite enjoyable, and I stayed there for several hours.

The Istanbul street dogs are very handsome, but their predicament makes me sad.

The Istanbul street dogs are very handsome, but their predicament makes me sad.

Last night, I was taken to a bath in Bodrum…but there was no soaking to be had. Rather, I was given a menu of options (soap, scrub and soap, or scrub, soap, and massage – kind of like a human car wash) and I decided to go for the whole enchilada. At the baths in Turkey, the men and the women are completely separate, and you’re expected to strip down naked. Then they give you what can only be described as a table cloth, and send you to the showers. I wandered around and saw some large women lying on a huge marble slab. It was a little mortuary-esque. Otherwise, there wasn’t much to see. Where were the baths? Unsure what to do with myself, I went and sat in the stinky sauna for a while. It wasn’t very hot, and it smelled like mildew, but what are you gonna do?

After a while in there, I went back out to the main room and studied the small sinks lining the walls, and then tried a couple doors that turned out to be locked. FINALLY a woman came in and said, “Lay down, Lady.” She was a larger girl in a bikini, and she pointed to the giant marble slab. She rinsed it off with water several times, and I laid down. The wrong way. I guess it just didn’t occur to me to put myself face down on a totally unforgiving surface. I attempted to arrange myself comfortably, and she put some kind of mitt on and began vigorously scrubbing me all over. A RIDICULOUS amount of skin was scrubbed off of me. A couple minutes into this disgusting spectacle I realized there is not enough money in the world to entice me to work as a scrubber. I resolved to leave her a very large tip.

Then I turned over, and she repeated the process on my front, my arms, and even my face. Then I was instructed to, “Get up, Lady” and she threw several bowls of water on me and the slab to clean it. Then I laid back down again, and she poured bowl after bowl of soapy water all over me and lathered me up. Every time she’d touch me, I’d slide about two feet on the slick marbl, and the whole thing seemed kind of ridiculous. I tried to maintain what I hoped was a pleasant, yet friendly look on my face, in lieu of the combination of self-conscious and slightly hysterical that I was feeling on the inside.

All clean now, I was sent back to the showers to wash my hair. The girl who did my scrubbing got into the stall next to me and cleaned up too. This might have been a nice gesture BEFORE my scrub, and I considered gesturing toward my armpits as if to say, “You might want to apply some special attention there?” My tablecloth was getting pretty wet by now, and another woman came and led me into a small room where all the female employees were watching a Turkish crime drama. I watched along with them, and tried to follow along despite not understanding a single word.

Finally, the commercials came on, and one of the girls said, “Come, Lady.” She led me up to a room with a proper massage table and oiled me within an inch of my life. It was a short, but extremely vigorous rub down, which made me realize I have been living in denial about the toll that bag takes on my body. It occurs to me to add that if you are uncomfortable with full nudity or have a strong streak of modesty, the Turkish Baths are NOT for you. I grew up swimming and naked in front of strangers in the locker room on a daily basis, but even I felt a little self-conscious. Particularly during the part where she was massaging my stomach while standing above my head, and more or less smothered me with her bikini-clad boobs. Too bad I’m not a lesbian. As it stood, it was all I could do not to laugh out loud.

Meanwhile, I was awoken by the incredibly loud Adhan (Islamic call to prayers, which is broadcast everywhere over speakers five times a day) at 6:30 a.m. Dawn, my ass. The sun isn’t coming up around these parts until at least 7:30 a.m. After listening to a bunch of people rustling around for a while, I finally fell back asleep.

Later today I fly to Istanbul, and tomorrow morning is the race! My friend tells me she thinks I’m better prepared and in better shape for it than she is. If so, we’re in trouble. Maybe we can treat it like a relay race and take shifts? On the other hand, she did run a full marathon last year, so she at least has proof her body can survive it! As for me? Well, wish me luck! In light of the levels of attention I’ve been attracting here in Turkey, I half-expect to be fending off pick-up lines and invites to go for coffee the whole time!!! Maybe I could talk someone into carrying me for a portion? Does that count?

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This is Your Home October 24, 2008

Bodrum harbor

Bodrum harbor

Wow.

The Turks know how to treat a guest. I am sitting here with Orhan, his brother, and his mother. We are eating dried garbanzo beans (not much better than they sound and causing some FEROCIOUS heartburn) and pistachios and watching The Assassination of Jesse James because it’s the only English-speaking movie they own. The Southern accents are tough, even for my American ears, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who has a clue what’s going on. As I result, I keep sharing these elaborate explanations about the “wild west” (and just making the bulk of it up as I go along) in order to keep them involved. Did you know Jesse James invented moonshine? Yeah, well, as far as my new Turkish friends go, that’s a fact. Don’t go blowing my rep…

Meanwhile, Orhan himself has admitted to me he can’t understand what any American says, let alone the men in this film. His impersonation of an American talking is, ‘Dontcha think, Dontcha think, Dontcha think, ummmm, ummmm, ummmm, You know, you know, you know” (which ain’t half bad. You could take that act on the road.) He has commented that I don’t talk like an American (add that to “don’t look like an American” and I hope they let me back into the country next week!), but that is a deliberate act. When in the presence of someone whose English is intensely difficult for me to understand, I slow way down, simplify my vocabulary, and annunciate with a slight British accent. Basically I try to sound like the tapes they learned English from. I figure it’s the least I can do since my Turkish is so rusty.

Case in point, while being driven to the Turkish baths tonight, we stopped to pick up Orhan’s relatives. His aunt and uncle and their young children piled in, and after a moment of discussion, everyone was enthusiastically saying ‘VaNESSa.” I turned around to smile and wave, and the aunt told me, “My name is Sophia,” the same way I must sound when I say “Je m’appelle Vanessa” to the French. Then the kids were instructed to say, “How are you?” To which I responded, “Fine, thank you. How are you?” and we all happily took turns like this for five minutes.

In the same vein, my vulgar Turkish is rapidly improving. Orhan has printed out a list for me, and I can now hold my own in what could only be described as a very alarming conversation while in Istanbul. I can’t say ‘good morning’ or ‘how much does this cost?’, but I have learned that the number 81 is pronounced “sex and beer.” I have my fingers crossed that I’ll end up in room 81 in Istanbul. For tonight, I’m bunking in lucky #13, and that number didn’t make it onto my vocabulary sheet.

Bodrum in the distance as seen from the Kos-Bodrum ferry

Bodrum in the distance as seen from the Kos-Bodrum ferry

Otherwise, in addition to being the lavished-upon American guest, I suspect that tonight I am the only guest. I arrived here around dinner time, and was asked if I was hungry. Unable to face the buffet this last day, I ate pretty sparingly and had to admit that I was. Before I knew it, I had a hot bowl of what I would describe as mint and garbanzo bean soup in front of me. Then my dinner of barbecued chicken wings, rice, and a heaping helping of yogurt arrived.

After two weeks with the Greeks, I thought I wouldn’t be able to look at yogurt again for months, but it was a surprisingly pleasant combination. The Turkish – people after my own heart – are big eaters. While snacking on a substantial amount of garbanzo beans and assorted nuts, we’re drinking tea that is being kept warm on an elaborate kettle set up. Although I don’t know this for certain, in most countries it’s quite rude to reject any hospitality, so I am – despite being very tired and not really hungry for a third tangerine – going with the flow.

For example, i was poured a couple glasses of raki (Turkish ouzo). I was also told that I had to toss it back. It was ‘the way.’ After chugging my second gasoline-strong glass, I was informed through peels of laughter that raki is drunk like ouzo – slowly and mixed with water. Great. Now that I’ll burst into flames if anyone lights a match within ten feet of my breath…

However, despite treating me a little bit like a trained chimp, I would still rate this family highly in terms of hospitality and warmth. It’s not every day I find people that are wiling to spend two hours of their life watching a movie they don’t understand, while continually urging me to eat and drink more because, ‘This is your home.”