I Survived a Turkish Bath

I saw the sign for the Turkish bath from a block away. It pointed down a dark alley. It looked kind of sketchy, but when in Istanbul, do as the Turks do, I thought.

turkish bath
The oldest bath in Istanbul.

The Tarihi Galatasaray Hamami bath started in 1481. It is the oldest Turkish bath in Istanbul. Not knowing what to expect, and ready for anything (well excluding getting naked of course), I pushed my way through the door. I was met by the manager of the establishment, a friendly gentleman who explained that I could leave my valuables in the locked changing room after I disrobed. I took off my clothes, wrapped a thin towel around my waist, and shuffled into the common area on wooden clogs that were too small for my feet.

“Please, go with Omar,” said the manager as he gestured to a man walking towards me.

Omar Sharif was a pudgy middle-aged man with large hands. He was wearing a towel and clogs like me. He looked eerily like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the notorious Al-Quaeda mastermind jailed in Guantanamo Bay.

“Come, come,” he said to me in his limited, broken English.

He led me into a large circular room with a domed ceiling. In the middle of the room was a giant marble slab.  The room was hot and humid, not quite as hot as a sauna, but close.

“Lie down,” said Omar as he gave me another towel and a pillow for my head. He then disappeared through a door.

Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, started in 537 AD.

I laid down on the hard marble, but soon relaxed as the heat seeped into my bones. My pores opened up and I started to sweat.  The grime that had accumulated on my skin as I had walked around the dirty city of Istanbul all day started to loosen in the sweat. I got drowsy from the heat and almost nodded off.

I was relaxed, but I was ready in case anyone attacked me.  OK, I was just dreaming about that scene in the movie called Eastern Promises where Viggo Mortenson fights some other Russian mobsters.

After a while Omar came back. While I laid down on the marble with just the scrunched up towel covering my groin, he starting rubbing me all over with a rough sponge mitt. He rubbed my skin very hard, scraping over and over. Removing dead skin I guess. Either that or this was some form of torture in the old Ottoman Empire.

Galata Bridge
The Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn.

Next, he started massaging the muscles in my arms and legs.  Hey, I thought, this feels kind of good. I normally don’t like people touching me and never get a massage. He had very strong hands and kneaded my muscles over and over. This was fine, until he starting digging his thumb deep into a muscle and pulling down the length of the muscle. He attacked my calves, my hamstrings, and my quadriceps. I grunted with pain. It was all I could do to not cry out like a little girl and start wailing. But, I couldn’t let him see me act like anything but a tough guy. I was in a Turkish bath, for crying out loud.

Wait, I was in a Turkish bath and I did actually want to cry out loud!

All during this torture session Omar sang songs and chanted to himself in Turkish or something. He must really enjoy his job. He gets to torture people with his strong thumbs.

Hookahs for sale in the Grand Bazaar.

Finally the “massage” was over. He took me over to the corner of the room and made me sit on a marble step. He then grabbed a big sponge mitt and soaped me all over. Next, he grabbed the top of my head to hold me still while he dumped buckets of cold water over me. More painful massage followed, including some half-nelson arm twists. Please don’t accidentally break my neck, Omar!

More soap, more cold water. The wash and rinse cycle was repeated several times. This was followed by more hard scrubbing. Omar kept singing to himself, stopping every once in a while to see if I was ok. Once in a while he would stop working me over and dump cold water over his own head. I guess he was working up a sweat and needed to cool off.

By the end I was certainly clean and went into the next room to take a cold shower for a cool down. I felt good overall, except for the bruises in my thighs from his massive thumbs.

Steve in the Turkish bath
After the Turkish bath.
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The Lost City of Ephesus

Temple ruins in Ephesus

Our new friend Giljan was eager to show us around the ancient ruins of the lost city of Ephesus in Turkey. Sure, it was her job as tour guide, but she was young and fairly new at her job and was still enthusiastic.  She kept mixing up the apostles John and Paul.  I cut her some slack considering that she’s a Muslim.

She met us at the port of Kusadasi and her driver took us 20 minutes inland to the entry gate high in hills near the city of Selcuk.  Ephesus was a thriving metropolis of approximately 250,000 people in the first century A.D.  It was largely destroyed by a massive earthquake and the ruins of the city were covered by dirt for centuries until partially excavated in the 20th century.

Temple ruins in Ephesus
Excavated temple ruins in Ephesus, Turkey

Entering the high gate and walking downhill through the main street of the town was awe-inspiring.  The wealthiest people of the time lived in a sophisticated fashion with many conveniences. Some of these people lived in fancy condos built into a hillside.  The walls were covered with painted scenes and the surviving floor mosaic patterns were very intricate.

Excavated remains of ancient condos in Ephesus
The ancient condos had painted walls and fancy mosaic floors

The leaders of the city owned slaves.  Of course the slaves did all the work, including cooking for the leader’s families.  Most of the condos did not have kitchens.  The food was “take-out” food prepared elsewhere and delivered by slaves.  The condos had private bathrooms for the women with indoor plumbing.  The men went down the street to a communal bathroom.  In winter, slaves were commanded to sit down and warm up the marble of the cold toilet prior to the master’s bowel movement!

toilet seats in Ephesus
Warm my seat for me!

One of the most important buildings in Ephesus was the library.  The library contained thousands of scrolls with all of the knowledge of the area.  In Roman times, Marc Antony pillaged the library by shipping all of the scrolls to Egypt as a present to Cleopatra.

library facade in Ephesus
The facade of the Library in Ephesus

Since Ephesus was such a large city, it was the major trading center for the entire eastern Mediterranean region.  The marketplace was a bustling place where goods were bought and sold from all over the ancient world.

Market gates in Ephesus
Gates to the marketplace in Ephesus

Just down the street from the market, a woman’s footprint is etched into marble on the side of the road.  It is the image of left foot, and there are two intersecting lines above it.  Farther down this road was the port of Ephesus on the Aegean Sea (the Sea is now eight kilometers away due to falling water levels in the Sea over the centuries).  Sailors and traders would leave their ships and walk up this road to the big city.  The footprint informed them that the brothel was on the left side of the road up ahead by the intersection.

The great amphitheater where Paul preached as described in the Bible is near the end of the road in Ephesus.  The amphitheater holds 25,000 people and is still in use for concerts.  They only allow classical and jazz now.  A few years ago a rock concert was held and vibrations from the loudspeakers caused a small landslide of part of the upper portion of the ampitheater.  That’s rock and roll!

Great Ampitheater in Ephesus, Turkey
The Great Ampitheater in Ephesus where Paul preached

After the tour of Ephesus we stopped at a outdoor café for a traditional Turkish lunch.  First came various salads with fresh bread, followed by grilled chicken skewers and meatballs.  Desert was a plateful of fresh fruit.  Giljan told us about her city of Selcuk and attending a university quite far away.

“Would you like to see how Turkish carpets are made?  They are a specialty of this region.” she asked.

“OK. I have no idea how that’s done.” I said.

We were driven to a local weaver’s co-operative where rural women were taught how to weave carpets.  A first demonstration showed how silk is harvested from thimble-sized pods.  The silkworm eats the leaves of a Mulberry tree and spins silk into a pod.  It must be an enormous amount of work for the silkworm.  The pods are harvested and put into a bath.  A worker teases the pod with a brush to get the outer silk thread of the pod.  A dozen or more of these first threads are gathered into one starting point and hooked to a spinning machine.  The spinning machine unravels all of the pods at once and combines all of the individual threads to make silk yarn.

The silk yarn can be dyed and are then woven by hand on a backing matrix of threads made from cotton or wool.  The work is typically done by a woman who sits hunched over the loom for months on end to make a single carpet. The price of the resulting carpet depends on the complexity of the pattern, the material used (lamb’s wool, sheep’s wool, goat’s wool, or silkworm), and the density of the weave.

making carpet in Turkey
This woman is making a carpet for me

Back at the port, as I was walking through the shopping area, I noticed this sign.  I’m not quite sure what it means!

Turkish watches for sale
I'll take two in case one breaks
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The World’s People on a Cruise Ship

spa on cruise ship

I have long resisted the idea of taking a vacation on a cruise ship.  I like to be an independent traveler, going where I want to go when I want to go.  No organized tours for me.  Being cooped up in tiny room with a small porthole, a worn out bed, and crowds of people smoking by the elevators didn’t appeal to me.

The bow of a big cruise ship
All aboard!

With some trepidation I booked a room on the inaugural Eastern Mediterranean cruise of the Celebrity Silhouette.  It was too good of a deal to pass up, especially since we were already going to be in Rome near the sailing date.  Somebody told me later that there were thousands of cancellations by Americans after Bin Laden was killed by Navy Seal Team Six.  People were afraid of a possible Al Qaeda backlash I guess.

From the moment I stepped on board my misconceptions evaporated.  This new ship was an enormous five star resort hotel on water.

spa on cruise ship
A rare bit of solitude on a crowded ship

The world’s people were represented on the ship.  They were not represented very well, and certainly not proportionate to size of population. The ship departed from Rome, so there were many Europeans, probably 80% or more, and not very many Americans (as compared to a typical Caribbean cruise).  A ride in the elevator or a trip to the café was like a meeting of the General Assembly of the UN without the translators.  You never knew what language you were going to hear – Italian, French, Spanish, British, German, Chinese, Polish, or something I didn’t recognize.

Americans have a reputation as being loud and obnoxious travelers, but on this ship there was no national monopoly on that behavior.

It started with the Serbian in the cabin next to me who started smoking on his veranda.  We were very near the front of the ship, and his cabin was just forward of mine.  This meant that because of the movement of the ship his smoke blew backward into my veranda.  He would also spontaneously burst into snippets of operatic arias several times per day.

The French and Italians jockeyed for supremacy in the high art of reserving deck chairs.  They would scamper out first thing in the morning and put their towel and book on all of the best chairs, ignoring the rule against this selfish act.  When I wanted to sit in a chair, I simply moved the towel on the deck and sat down.  Being an innate rule-follower, if I was confronted, my strategy was to invoke the rule and tell the chair hog to go see the pool butler.  I never had to follow through.

a ppol on a cruise ship
The Pool Deck on the Celebrity Silhouette

The British were continuously getting lost on the ship and loudly arguing among themselves.  I would walk through the restaurant to find my morning allotment of fresh squeezed orange juice to hear the following conversation.

“Where ya goin’ Luv?” said the man.

“I doan know, I’m looking for me tea,” said the woman. “Café is aft.”

“Yer bloody daft, woman, tis over there.  Can’t you read the signs.  Aft is that way!” said the man.

“Whats yer ass?” she replied.

The captain of the ship is a Greek with a dry sense of humor.  Every time he spoke on the loudspeaker he had some deadpan joke to throw into the daily report.  During the opening night show, he introduced the senior crew members and noted disdainfully that some of them weren’t Greek. He said the officer who was second in command had the responsibility to lead the ship when he went to party.

There was also a smattering of Germans, Russians, and Scandinavians.  However, I saw few passengers who were not white Western Europeans or Americans.

The crew was a different story.  The cabin stewards were typically Indians.  Most of the waiters were Filipinos.  The European crew was mostly from Macedonia or Slovenia.  South America was represented by Peru and Chile as coffee bar baristas.  The only black people on board were bartenders from Jamaica (Ya mon! Red Stripe for me!).  There were no Chinese among the crew.  Their poor young workers are stuck in China making all of the goods sold at Walmart.

There were no black Africans (other than a couple of South Africans), Arabs, Pakistanis, or Indonesians.  In these times of Islamist fanatical terrorism, I suppose it would be unsettling to American or Western European passengers to be served by someone like that.  It’s hard to enjoy your vacation and forget the cares of the world if you suspect the waiter might have a suicide vest.

The Celebrity Cruise Line probably has very tolerant employment policies which are open to all.  The workers have to speak at least some English, be willing to work for peanuts, and be gone from home for months at a time.  That must restrict their pool of available workers.  But as I noticed when getting on the ship, perception is everything.  The ship must be perceived by the passengers as safe, welcoming, pampering, and relaxing.  No potential jihadists need apply.

All of the service crew were excessive polite and gracious.  It must have been drilled into them nonstop during training.  It made me feel like a colonialist.  I was the Governor General of this colony and I didn’t have to make the bed or put my dishes away.  I did, however, put the toothpaste on my toothbrush.

The excessive politeness was robotic at times.

“Good morning, Mr. Steve.  How are you today?” asked the stateroom attendant as I left my room.

“Great, thanks.  How are you?” I responded.

“Fine, thank you,” replied the attendant.

After walking 10 yards down the hall, I realized I forgot something in my room, so I went back.  Less than two minute later I saw the attendant again.

“Good morning, Mr. Steve.  How are you today?”

“I am just as good as I was 120 seconds ago, but thanks for asking.”

grass on a cruise ship
The lawn on the Celebrity Silhouette

The advertising for cruises usually show some photogenic couple lounging poolside, eating gourmet meals, and dancing the night away.  The man is typically a distinguished looking CEO type in a GQ suit.  The woman is always quite a bit younger, a big haired trophy wife with a big diamond ring.  The ads are meant to convey the idea that cruising is glamorous, exciting, and extraordinary.  If you go on the cruise, you will enjoy yourself like them, look like them.  You will be them.

I didn’t see anybody like that.  I’m sorry, but I must call it like it is.  I saw lots of fat, ugly, old people.  They weren’t just Americans.  Europeans have definitely caught up to us Americans in the obesity department.

I saw few young adults, and only a handful of children. They were some honeymooners, but younger people typically can’t afford to go on a cruise.  They’re working hard to start a career, buy a house, and raise a family.  Only richer, older people can indulge themselves in a week or more of gluttony, sloth, and late night karaoke contests.

It’s funny how you see the same people over and over on the ship even though there are 2,800 passengers on board.  Like the old Chinese man with the mysterious scar on his head, the typically loud know-it-all New Yorker, and a Russian guy who looked like either a mixed martial arts competitor or the muscle for the Moscow Mafia.  We kept running into one particular American couple and one night had a long and interesting conversation with them.  We also got to know a very nice Portuguese couple.  It’s good to make new friends.  But what I want to know is why is it that I saw the beautiful young Italian supermodel-type woman in the string bikini only once in twelve days, but saw the current champion of the world’s ugliest woman contest three or four times every day?

I did see lots of fat old women in strange looking swimwear lying in the sun with their pale white wrinkly skin getting completely fried.  Here’s a beauty tip: given your age, body type, and weight, getting sunburned or even deeply tanned will not make you more attractive.

I saw old men with enormous tanned pot bellies protruding over their tiny Speedos smoking cigars while drinking beer and reading Italian men’s magazines.  Once per hour they flipped over and rocked from side to side on their rounded bellies with the movement of the ship.

One time I walked out of the café and glanced to one side and saw a large woman sunbathing topless.  She had large dark, flat nipples, and quite a pair.  Wow, I knew there were lots of French people around but I didn’t think this was that kind of ship…  On closer inspection (but not too close…) I realized that it was a man with his head covered by a towel.  Yes, he had man boobs! From a distance they looked almost like woman boobs.  Dude, either wear a man-bra or put a shirt on before some teen-aged boy takes your photo with his cell phone and it goes viral.

And please, Ms. Middle-aged Italian woman, if you’re going to wear that small of a bikini and lie on your stomach, please get a full wax job first…