Thursday, October 30, 2014

My Turkish bath! Women are packing their bags and seeing the world

"Paris is always a good idea,"  --  Audrey Hepburn, British actress and humanitarian, 1929-1993.

By JULIA ANDERSON
Let me tell you about my Turkish bath.
This was a real Turkish bath (hamam) in Antalya, a city on the Mediterranean southeastern coast of Turkey where I found myself on a Rick Steves' "best of" 13-day tour of a country about which I knew next to nothing until going there.
The Turkish bath experience was among my favorites during a 30-day adventure that began and ended in Greece but included six days in Crete as well as a loop around Turkey that started in Istanbul and continued to Ankara, Cappadocia, Konya, Antalya and Kusadasi. My excellent traveling companion? My husband, Ken. But I could have made the trip on my own or with a friend. In fact, six of the 21 people in our Rick Steves' tour group were women traveling on their own. So back to the Turkish bath.
We were into the final five days of our tour when our well-informed guide gave us the bath opportunity in Antalya, a stop with free time options meant to be "a vacation from our vacation."
"It would be authentic," he said about the bath experience as he gave us enough detail to make sure we knew what we were getting into and that only the most adventurous would sign up. Bottom line: You need to be okay with being totally starkers in front of a lot of strangers (other women, of course) who don't necessarily speak English.
Four of us raised our hands.
In late afternoon, a taxi whisked us to our bath house, which didn't look like much from the outside; Just another two-story building in a city of chockablock two-story buildings on narrow meandering streets. A hostess signed us in and directed us to upstairs changing rooms where we exchanged all our clothes for a nice large, but thin, bath towel. From then on things became a bit blurry because there was so much to take in and because I wasn't wearing my glasses and because I had my eyes shut a good part of the time so as not to get caught staring or being stared at.
As we walked into the "real" bath area, we found all sorts of unclothed Turkish women in stages of steaming, washing, rinsing and massage.
That Roman connection
Right away, it occurred to me that this was likely the closest experience one could have to what the Romans enjoyed 2,000 years ago with their central baths. While only Roman men enjoyed the public baths of ancient times in modern Turkey both women and men have their separate public facilities. (Wikipedia.org on Turkish baths, click here.)
Stage one meant being rinsed off with nice warm water while still wrapped in our towels. We then were guided into a large (and very hot) room where we were directed to spread our towels on a large circular marble slab (called a gobektasi) in the center of the space and lie face-down on the towels. Try imagining a synchronized swim team in a pinwheel formation, heads toward the center. You lie there enjoying the heat from the marble that soaks into your body but after a short while, you think you're being cooked.
Soon one of the attendants -- dressed in black panties and bra because of the heat -- asks you to return to your feet and directs you to marble benches on the room's perimeter where you sit, meditate and rinse using a small pan that you can fill from adjacent hot and cold faucets. The idea is to endure as much heat as possible while splashing cooler water on yourself to regulate your comfort level. Other women in the room were in various stages of washing and grooming.
Looking around, it turns out that we were a bit under-dressed. The Turkish women all were wearing thongs. Who knew? Our young male tour guide hadn't mentioned that particular detail. I'm thinking I could write a little (women-only) handout that would contain a few Turkish bath tips for the uninitiated. Ideally, I would have done some advance research on Turkish bath etiquette because there are certain procedures and courtesies. (For more, here's a first-person story written by Erlend Geerts for Witt Hotels magazine, click here.)
After about 20 minutes in the "very hot" room with the marble slab (gobektasi), we were led one by one to another room where we were laid out on tables for a thorough scrubbing -- front and back -- with sudsy water. Then there was the scrap-down with really rough scouring sponges (I think).
I say, "I think," because I had my eyes closed a lot of the time, so I don't know what these sturdily built bathhouse workers were using. It might have been sandpaper. At one point, my attendant tapped me on the arm to show me how much dead skin she was rubbing off of me. It looked like, well, dead skin...a lot of it. Who knew? Again the Roman thing. I was definitely getting cleaner and maybe a shade lighter.
Our guide who had arranged the bath opportunity had told us earlier in the tour that only men went to public baths in ancient Roman times where they exercised, bathed and talked politics. Roman women had their bath parties at home. No wonder the Romans built viaducts to supply water to their cities. It mostly went to the baths or to public fountains.
At our bathhouse, once we'd been scrubbed within an inch of our lives, we next enjoyed a few relaxing moments wrapped in towels while being served Turkish tea in glasses on saucers. This was while we waited for our massages with olive oil (or something akin). Oh, so Roman.
This was no la-te-da massage...these women meant business with every muscle they "attacked" crying for mercy. My back and shoulders were better for the pain.
Then it was over. We returned to our changing rooms, dressed and looked wide-eyed at each other as we paid our bill and left,  thanking and waving goodbye to our hosts. All this took about an hour and cost about US$50 to US$60 including tip. It seemed a bargain even for Turkey because this was not a tourist facility but catered to local women.
(By the way, I am hoping I have the sequence of the bath experience in order. My companions may have different recollections.  I claim being a bit overwhelmed by it all.) I do know that all of us thought the Turkish bath outing was not to be missed ---- an original experience for both its cultural and historical aspects. Truly unique.
Women traveling solo
Which gets me to my broader point. Two women in our group of 21 were traveling solo and paid extra to have rooms of their own. Four others were sharing rooms . All seemed to have a great time.
There's some debate about whether single women traveling with married couples is a good way to go. Those I spoke with about that issue on our tour found no problem with the interaction or compatibility.
The oldest among our independents was a woman (retired nurse) age 82 who was a joy to have along. Another was retired and married who said her husband's lack of interest in travel was not going to hold her down. There were many opportunities to get to know these women over dinner when we dined as a group or on nights when we could dine out for smaller encounters our own. On the tour bus we exchanged book recommendations and shared our personal stories. Most of us were retirement age or older, so that created some automatic sympatico. Meanwhile, more tour companies are catering to single female travelers. (For my blog post from 2011, "Women traveling solo? You're not alone," click here). According to 2013 data from Intrepid Travel, the global travel market now is 64 percent women. In the past 10 years, travel agents report an estimated increase of nearly 60 percent in female clients travelling by themselves.
Rick Steves devotes a page on his Web site to Tips on Traveling Solo. He is passionate about how travel allows us to meet people, hear their stories, find out what they think, how they live.
"You'll run across vaga-buddies every day," he writes. "If you stay in hostels, you'll have a built-in family (hostels are open to all ages). Or choose small pensions and B&Bs, where the owners have time to talk with you. If you're feeling shy, cameras are good icebreakers; offer to take someone's picture with his or her camera," he says.
He suggests playing with kids as a way to interact. He suggests connecting with other solo travelers through social media such as  Meetup, an app that links like-minded individuals. Or join a hospitality-exchange network such as couchsurfing.org. Or of course, consider a Rick Steves tour or other similar tours that cater to the more adventurous by organizing smaller travel groups and off-the-beaten track itineraries. That way you get a built-in group and some structure around a travel plan where you can add days at the beginning or at the end.
Travel services that cater to women-only.
Try gutsywomentravel.com, operated by April Merenda, president and founder.women-traveling.com, which offers 30 women-only tour destinations..some in the U.S., some abroad.wanderlustandlipstick.com, which offers both women-only and co-ed tours of exotic places such as Cambodia, Burma or Bhutan, India. Journeywoman.com is a Web site offering travel resources for women -- tips, advice and ideas. 



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