Istanbul with Andrea - A week of laughing. Andrea and I met in Vietnam last year: we spent a couple of days cycling through the rice paddies in Nimh Binh. She is 35, Dutch, works for government, lives in the city of Arnhem and is an only child. Her parents live in a tiny village between Arnhem and Amsterdam and they are adorable.
The Dutch election was on while I was in Amsterdam. Andrea had lots of election related tasks and had been working long days so was happy to have a break. She is also an intrepid traveler – ready to go anywhere, anytime: she has an energy about her that is unique and charismatic. Saturday morning I hopped the train from the Central station in Amsterdam and headed off to Arnhem – near the German border, about one hour away. She picked me up, went to her beautiful house, got caught up and as Saturday was her Mom's 60th birthday, we drove to the small town where her parents live, about 45 minutes away. Nice to see Dutch small town living – so orderly and perfect. Her Mom and Dad live in a small row house – as does most of Holland – 61 million people in a country the size of Rhode Island. They have lived there for over 40 years and it is a little perfect everything. Their little courtyard is immaculately planted and cared for – they have expanded their living space by putting an outdoor living room in the yard and it is just cozy and nice. Her Mom speaks very little English – her Dad more, but we had no problem sharing some laughs. Her mom, Andréa and I went for a stroll through their neighborhood where they showed me a little petting zoo - right in the middle of the neighborhood – common in the Netherlands – very cool. They had little donkeys and goats and wallaby’s and lots of ducks – all cared for by one of the neighbors and enjoyed by all the whole community.
We returned back to her parent’s home and had a great Italian birthday dinner, after which they all wanted to see my months of photographs – all of them!!!! I popped the memory cards into the TV and had a few hours of viewing. Mom and Dad live with a 24 year old parakeet - who knew they live so long?? and a fat cat that snored along with me......In the morning her parents drove us to the Amsterdam airport for our four hour flight to Istanbul. Really really sweet people.
The tour package Andrea found included the option for a guided tour. We decided to pay the 99 Euros - about $125 for the three day guided tour. We were staying 5 nights and four days and figured it was the best value to see lots for a little. The issue I hadn’t considered –the whole tour was all in Dutch!!!! We were met at the airport, transferred with our group to the Hotel, and I realized how easy this kind of travel is – you don’t even have to think – just follow. Very easy!
The airport is over one hour outside the city and as we came into Istanbul by night – it was really really beautiful with the numerous mosques and bridges lit beautifully.. Turns out our hotel was in the "Red Light" District - same same from Amsterdam, but different. The sex workers here are also nearly all Russian or from other Eastern European countries, but there was definitely less diversity in age. Seemed most were in the over 40 age group and the 'johns’ shopping were pretty well aged as well. Not Pretty Woman on this street! All of this activity in the ‘hood’ made for some really funny encounters every time we walked out of the Hotel and definitely every time we sat at a street side restaurant. The Turkish men everywhere we went were so aggressive it was hard to even walk 10 feet without getting hassled. Really got tiresome quickly – déjà vu to Egypt. Andrea was particularly targeted and she delighted in the celebrity.
The rest of our little Dutch group on the tour were really nice – most could speak English and touring this way allowed us to cover most of the city and the river in the short time we had. As easy as this kind of travel is, I found it difficult to try and march to the beat and schedule of a different drummer. Definitely I prefer to travel at my own pace, on my own steam even if it is much more difficult to do. A mix of organized and independent travel is the optimum blend for me and it is when we were on our own did we have the most fun.
Our five days in Istanbul were a series of hilarious encounters with men….. so many stories....
Oh yeah, and one huge, floppy titted, mostly naked, old Turk woman. I am not a spa person. Most of my friends love the whole spa thing, spend copious amounts of money on massage and manicures and pedicures etc. Me? I hate all of that stuff, so when I learned that we had, included in our package, a trip to the most famous Turkish Bath of Istanbul, I was far less excited than Andrea. As we were driving around I saw lots of Turkish Bath houses and imagined them to be replicas of Thai or Cambodian “Boom Boom” rooms. Andrea had been in a Turkish Bath before and convinced me that I was mistaken.
The Turkish Bath House we attended was built in 1548 – can you believe that? And has been operational since. Crazy for Canadians to even think of something 200 years old – we have such a miniscule view of history – let alone a business that has survived for over 500 years.
The building – just adjacent to the Grande Bazaar – is a marble wonder. It looks like a mosque. Bathing is offered for both men and women but services are done separately for each sex. We entered, were told to strip off, handed a little facecloth like scrub thing and a mini cloth for a towel and ushered into a magnificent domed marble room – ringing the outside was individual open marble spaces with water spigots and marble tubs. The centre of the huge space was a round slab of waist high white marble where naked women were laying about relaxing. The staff was comprised of grisly looking Turkish women, wearing only panties. No signs anywhere, so directions consisted of grunts and pointing by these women. I had no idea what to expect, but knew right away I would much rather just marvel at the architecture than be poked and prodded by one of these old gals. Andrea was in her glory and a tiny little skinny woman was assigned to her. One on one. I watched as this woman prepared a bubbly scrub and fetched a bunch of buckets and started going to town on the scrubbing. When I looked up to see if my assignment had been made – I saw this really big, fat, old women heading towards me. Her breasts were so huge and old and stretched that they were swinging just above knee height.. I think she sensed the terror on my face as she approached. I was sitting on the marble slab with my feet hanging down. She motioned for me to lie on a little towel, which I did. She then reached over and grabbed the edge of the towel and swung me towards her – my body sliding across the wet marble like fresh fish on the kill floor of a canning factory. Then as I got closer to her, she leaned over and the old boobs swung against my back, slapping me in a most bizarre fashion. Before I could react – she dumped a bucket of warm stuff over my body and started scrubbing every inch of me with her mitted hands. Yuck! Then buckets and buckets of water thrown over me, each time making me slide on the warm marble, further away from her. Each time, she reached over and grabbed the towel I was laying on and whipped me back into arms reach for her. Again – big tit slap across the head. Next it was time to roll over. I was not really looking forward to a frontal slap but was in her grip so …..yup. More buckets of water and she started on my front. I started laughing and just couldn’t stop. A combination of the tickling and the bizarreness of the experience, I just could not stop laughing. I could see Andrea across the massive room – loving the massage and the scrub and I wondered how long this torture could possibly last. Answer – really long. My laughing alarmed my personal Turk and eventually she started laughing too and I had to sort of beg her to stop the tickling. Not wanting to short change me – she grabbed my head and started washing my hair and massaging my head. …eventually, after lots more buckets of water thrown at and on me – she stopped and pointed to one of the open marble rooms. There I found Andrea and a couple of very deep pools. One really hot and the other a little hot. Andrea was loving the whole dip thing and I had had enough so I just went into one of the marble rooms and threw water on myself and got out of there. Outside of the Bath room is a lounging room – also circular, where the women who have already been pummeled and scrubbed, hang around and lounge on cotton loungers. It all looks very exotic and would be if real women look like magazine women but ….they don’t and personally I just do not want to sit around with a bunch of other mostly naked sweaty women I can’t even talk with. (nearly all Turks).
The weird thing about this ritual is the fact that Turkey is a very Muslim country – many of the women are in Burkas, most wear at least the Hijab, so while it is refreshing to see women have a place to be real and fully free of external coverings, I don’t think I will be rushing back to redo this particular experience.
Istanbul was hot and sunny and really fun because of Andrea. The tour was really great value and we were able to see and learn so much. It was the perfect way to see this amazing City that straddles two continents - one side of the river is in Asia and the other is in Europe!. I am sure that if I had been by myself, the hassle from the men would have been unbearable and make touring less than enjoyable. It had been quite difficult for some of the other women on our tour.
Although the time was short we went from sun up to way past sun down finding new adventures around every corner and we came away with possibly the coolest cowboy boots ever. Yes, even cooler than my pink lizard ones from Guadalajhara.