Bathing in Bodrum

Trip Start May 05, 2005
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Trip End Jun 08, 2005


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Flag of Turkey  , Turkish Aegean Coast,
Sunday, May 22, 2005

Bathing in Bodrum
Cruising into the Bodrum Bay is quite an experience: you have the Castle of St, John on one side of you - ancient and mysterious, built during the Crusades - and the pretty little town of Bodrum ahead of you, with all it's bright flowers, white houses, restaurants and bars hugging the blue water, and a bowl of white buildings that hugs the hill in the middle of the city - the Old Town, with it's market, the maze of streets that hold everything you could ever hope to buy in Turkey, and of course, there are people everywhere.
All around us, as we sail into the harbor, are boats - big boats, fishing boats, little boats, and yachts : multi-million dollar yachts, spectacular in their beauty, gleaming and shining in the Turkish sun. Everything here seems to be very well cared for: people, boats, buildings, statues. It's all good.
As we glide past the Castle on the hill ( which is now a great museum ) Alan is sitting under our red and white Turkish flag, unfurled behind us, and he purposefully tugs down his Aussie Wanker Beer baseball cap: Alan's been here before, and he's getting ready, or at least it seems so, from the way he sets his body..............just so.
We pull up to a dock just under the ramparts of the castle. Captain Hassan and Suat go through the re-entry-into-Turkey process with customs, and we motor deeper into the thousands of boats clustered and piled into the marina, which is huge. The Captain's usual 'parking spot' is taken, so we go further and further into the marina, finally settling for a spot between two other magnificent handmade-gulets. Suddenly, our one hundred footer doesn't seem so big. We are parked alongside some spectacular second home here. Once docked, we're all off the boat: we all head through the marina, into town, then up the hills, until some of us find a little teensy beauty shop for manicures and pedicures. I sit inside the shop by myself, getting the first nail-job, while Donna and Ruby go in search of beads and a camera store. They promise the owner that they will return in half an hour or so.
It's hilarious to walk behind Donna on the streets of these little Turkish towns. She has been coming to Turkey for thirty years; her husband is a Turk, and her children hold dual citizenship. But the guy on the street doesn't know this - and they are mostly guys on the streets. They see a tiny, very pretty, American dressed a little crazy - she's a boat person, after all - who walks with a very purposeful stride. Personally, I think this is a Big Clue to the way Donna is going to interact: she's not going to be taking anything but names on this promenade. Many men ignore this signal, enter her personal space from the front of their shops, and pitch her on whatever it is they are selling. Donna gazes up at them through her sea-colored eyes, opens her mouth, and for a split second, the guy looks like he's seeing Linda Blair spin her head and spit pea soup in The Exorcist.
She's back at them in perfect Turkish, idioms and all, and suddenly they are on shaky ground.
I love to watch it every time.
Now, I'm crammed into a small, hot room, maybe twelve feet deep and ten feet wide, along with nine other people. Women and children, operators and customers - it's Saturday, and they are dressing up in Bodrum! Hair is being sprayed, makeup is being applied, nails are being painted. Even the kids are getting the treatment. A little girl of about seven gets me a tiny cup of thick Turkish coffee ('half-sugar') while my toes are worked on. Almost every person in the room is smoking, so I'm getting a little of a buzz from that, too. They have me tucked in a corner, on a tiny stool, and the woman doing my toes sits on a very small low bench. Every time a ahead gets a coat of spray - more like varnish, there's so much of it - my lungs contract in defiance. A couple of women getting their mustaches waxed look at me and smile, and we manage to communicate a few pleasantries over the next thirty minutes. ( "Hollandaise? Aleman? Ah - American! Very good. George Bush - very bad man! " ) I do a lot of smiling and nodding.
When Donna and I change places, I head down the street to find Ruby and The Princess, who are trying on beaded bracelets with silver charms strung in between the beads and eating doner kebab - the Turkish wrap, delicious, juicy, and spicy.
We walk the streets until dark, peeking over walls of vines and flowers into courtyards, people watching every foot of the way. What is it about tourists that makes them lose all sense of decency in a beach town? Both men and women walk round us in various stages of undress, in bras and short, shirtless, dirty and disheveled, dressed like their teenaged children. Men go unshaven, with huge bellies hanging over ill-fitting swimwear, roasted to a lovely shade of red by the hot sun. I am surprised by the large number of pregnant women, bellies exposed to that same sun, who are dressed like thirteen year olds in heat, wearing fancy bras and low-slung Brittany jeans.
Walking through the bazaar, I get the feeling that this is very much like some other tourist towns I have recently seen - Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, really strikes me as a match. Does every country in the world make silk pillow cases by the thousands?
As we wander back to the Blue Booze Cruise,( which it is starting to become ) I hear the call to prayer from a seaside mosque.
That night, Donna takes us in to the hamam - the traditional Turkish bathhouse. Neither The Princess nor I have ever been in the hamam, as we don't know quite what to expect. We are a bit suspicious, as we are noticing a discrepancy between what we have been led to expect on this trip, and the actual experience. This is going to be true of any human experience, I realize, but that gap is widening here, and neither one of us is particularly happy about it.
We approach the Bodrum Hamam, on a small hill overlooking the old city, set in a quiet cul-de-sac. We are invited to sit and drink some cold water or apple tea before we go in - which we happily accept. Donna starts to tell us what to expect as we enter the solid marble building. She is speaking quietly, and I'll soon see why.
" We change up here. Take off all your clothes and put on these rubber slippers. The floors get really slippery, especially with the water and the oil." The oil? In a few minutes, we are all wrapped in cotton sarongs, carefully making our way down marble steps into what I call the Slab Room.
The center of the downstairs room is filled with an enormous slab of thick white marble. The air is hot, filled with steam, and the marble is hot to the touch. In a circle around the Slab Room are running faucets that spill into bowls set over a gutter. If we get too hot, Donna whispers to us, we should go to one of the faucets and pour cold water over our heads. Right. We are all laying down on the hot marble, staking out our spots, starting to sweat out a week of boat grit and booze.
Time begins to blur in the heat, and before too long, we are sweaty naked babes, stretched out on the sarongs, which are now sopping wet. No one is hiding boobs any more, folding arms over poochy tummies, or worrying about a zit any more : there's flesh everywhere, from a Mom with her two little girls, to Grandma's with ancient bellies. There are middle-aged women, teen-agers, singles and families. Our nakedness is not important any more: we have become part of the process. Women have been coming to this hamam for centuries; it's neighborly, it's relaxing, it's cleansing, and it's a bonding ritual. Once you've been through the hamam with a friend, you have no secrets.
I close my eyes, sweat, and feel like I am regressing through time, going back through my years, and it's an oddly cathartic feeling.
The Princess and I both raise our heads as The Washer comes into the hot room. She is short, thick, and dressed in a bikini. Right there, she's set apart, as the rest of us are stark naked. Her powerful arms hang at her sides as she surveys the slab of bodies, checking us, like so much meat on a grill, for signs of readiness. When the muscles are relaxed and the pours are open, and have released their toxins, it's time for her to go to work.
Her eyes rest on a large Turkish woman to our left. She nods at the woman, and flicks her head, almost imperceptibly, to the right. The woman rises, and lays down like supplicant in front of The Washer, no cotton sarong beneath her. With a coarse mitt, The Washer begins to scrub every inch of the woman's flesh, head to toe - am I'm talking scrubbing like I've never seen before, except maybe on a three-day old lasagna pan. In moments, the woman's top layer of skin is coming off, like the sludge on the surface of that Turkish coffee. The Princess and I , still hanging on to our American ideas of anti-bacterial gets and Lysol, are looking at each other, horrified, as the stuff continues to slough off, in clumps, as the demonstration continues: legs, arms, stomach, butt, armpits, neck, hands, feet.
The Washer nods again, the woman sits up, and buckets of warm water are poured over her head to rinse her off. ( I think the water is warm; my powers of perception have changed in the last hour. ) The sludge goes into the ancient marble gutters that criss-cross the floor.
The woman lies down again, and The Washer takes a long filmy piece of gauze from a bucket of soapy water. It's a magic pillow case, that suddenly balloons with air, and as The Washer stretches it over the body before her, clouds of foam are squeezed onto flesh.
After a thorough washing with this olive oil soap ( that smells like the leaves of a lemon tree ) the woman is rinsed again, and she is suddenly gone.
The Washer is looking at me, hands on her plump hips. It's Showtime!
I lay face down on the hot marble, wondering just how much humiliating crap is going to come off my own skin, and all of a sudden - it just doesn't matter. I am being washed, really scrubbed, by a woman - mid-wife?- who is giving me a fresh look, a new chance. She is my guide, my deliverance from a recently murky and unpleasant past, full of tears, anguish, pain and confusion. I am laying on this hot marble, being cleansed, and thinking: why am I here? Why am I in this fertile valley of the planet, climbing ancient hills, touching ancient statues, seeing lessons offered to men and women for centuries, lessons that could guide them through murky darkness into the light?
Am I here to clean up my act?
Two hours later, after several glasses of apple tea, and an olive oil massage in a dark room, open to the sound of night birds and murmurs of conversation drifting up the hill from the bazaar below, my newly exposed layer of skin glows, reveling in the soft Turkish night, the breeze off the water cooling my skin as I sit on the front porch of the hamam and sip more apple tea. No make-up, no shampoo, no shower - please! I don't want this feeling to go away down some shower drain.
Women birth each other. Over the last year, my dear friends have listened to my pain, have held my hand and rubbed my shoulders when I cried, and now, I feel like I've had a ritual cleansing. I'm hoping this can be the start of a new part of my life.
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