Turkish Delights – Istanbul, Turkey

Turkish Delights
Istanbul, Turkey

As a veteran world traveler and at an age when my attitude and appreciation of others had both softened and wizened, I envisioned myself “sporting” enough to engage in most local customs. When it came to bathing however, I was a very private person. For example, back in high school Physical Education class I pretended to have my period everyday for 2 years so that I wouldn’t have to strip and shower with my peers.

It was time to conquer this aversion. No longer would I be the only one in the steam bath and hot tub wearing a bathing suit.

In late December, as the winds whirled around the minarets of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and the cold air hosted snow flakes, I relished the prospect of warmth and comfort from most any quarter. Upon seeing my reddened cheeks the hotel desk clerk humbly suggested that I consider the Turkish hamam experience.

I chose to visit one that began operating in 1584, featuring 16th century Ottoman architecture. It was a two-chambered bath with separate enclaves for women and men. After paying for the bath and massage I was presented with a cotton “pestemal” (towel) and a locker. I discreetly eyed the others to discover the ritual and degree of disrobing. The much larger, much older and fully-clothed woman in charge spirited my bare body toward another door. I entered it and was face to butt with about 50 women mostly laying on this colossal round heated marble platform, some on their backs, some on their fronts and some just sitting around. Everyone was completely naked other than the workers who donned underpants. There were washing areas around the platform although most of the women were being massaged and rubbed down right there on the group table by singing masseuses with skinny breasts hanging and swinging in their potent strokes. Big soap bubbles overflowed their cloths like a washing machine overdosed on detergent.

I approached the stone stage and timidly sat at the edge with my body wrapped securely in my towel until a person in panties moved me to another part of the stage. I geared up for my Old World experience but was quickly awakened when she asked if I wanted a bikini wax. I politely declined, thinking that while this friendly and professional woman probably did not harbor any anti-American feelings, there was no need to give her an opportunity to prove otherwise.

Sound bounced off the high ceiling as the washer-women employees sang. With the floating bubbles, dancing motions and happy melodies it was easy to drift into a momentary dreamland.

For twenty minutes I was scrubbed and turned like a pancake on a griddle. With a spotless and sparkling body, I was paraded to a little marble sink situated around the perimeter where my hair was washed. Once again I was displayed on the slab as part of the people pizza to dry in the ambiance of relaxation.

Energized, I was ready to conquer yet another fear: crowds, crowds and crowds of people, tourists and locals, shopping!

Author Buying Her Magic Carpet
Author Buying Her Magic Carpet
A trip to the famed Kapali Çarsi was preordained as every morning at breakfast my waiter persistently invited me to visit his “brother’s” carpet shop. Each day I would leave a tip and he would leave a card. On my last full day I accepted his map and promised to stop by. It would have been easy to get lost in this microcosm of a virtual yellow page book, as supposedly there are some 4000 shops.

The sales pitches rang through the air like firecrackers after a ballgame. “Everyone buys a carpet after lunch, how about you?”, “I’ve been waiting for you, ever since last night”, “I can help you spend your money.” This Grand Bazaar is a shopper’s paradise or nightmare depending on the size of your wallet and your determination.

As fate would have it, I ran into my waiter and he led me to Mozaik Carpet where I talked with another “front” man who inquired about my tastes and needs. I had not done my homework and had no clue what a good price was or what constituted a good carpet. They were not in a rush and while the private showroom was in use for another customer, they simply led me down the hall, moved a hanging carpet and a secret door where another display area miraculously appeared with a sofa, hard wood floor and incredible works of carpet art. I was served tea as they taught me about wool, workmanship, cleaning and of course beautiful areas of Turkey. The “hook” was set. I wouldn’t be leaving without a purchase as I could no longer even ascertain where the door was.

My beautiful 2′ by 3′ wool 20-year-old handmade “runner” from the central Anatolian region was $175 USD. Back home I was told more than once how I overpaid for my prize purchase, but like the MasterCard commercial, how could you put a price on that experience?