Ottoman Turkish Bath

Every 20 feet, heavily accented invitations are called out to me as I walk past each shop on the cobblestone pedestrian streets of Kusadasi, a small town on the western coast of Turkey.  “Lady in blue jacket, come in here.  We have the nicest ceramics,” calls one Turkish man.  Several others offer “free Wi-Fi for you”.  And others promise they were “recommended shops” and that I will be best served if I shop in their store.  Locals and tourists flock to an old Turkish bath.  In the background, I can hear music playing softly and small tea glasses clinking on ceramic saucers.

Shop keepers sell silk carpets, wool carpets, leather goods, shoes, t-shirts, designer purses, tea, Turkish delight, bracelets, hanging lamps and other items.   Currency exchange shops, tourist information booths, pharmacies and restaurants line the streets as well.  A few large, lazy dogs nap in the sun.

Eventually I see an advertisement for a traditional Turkish bath and within minutes I have a reservation at Ottoman Turkish Bath. Apo is the short, green eyed, cigarette smoking Turkish sales agent who discusses options with me, and ultimately calls and makes the reservation at the hamam. I pay $25 USD in cash, and Apo escorts me to the corner where I meet Abdullah, a non-English speaking driver who will take me to the Turkish bath.  I am delighted to meet Melissa from Malaysia who is in the car as well.

Once at Ottoman Turkish Bath, we change clothes in the lockerarea (not quite an actual locker room), and are each given a thin smallish towel to use as a wrap.   After our brief tour, we settle into the dry sauna.  Melissa has just arrived on a ship cruising the Aegean Sea and is nervous about her first Turkish bath.  Next we enter the not-yet-hot steam room and turn on the steam ourselves.  Both the sauna and steam room are similar to what Westerners are accustom to, and the heat feels good.

The salt room comes next.  The 8 x 10’ floor is 3” thick in coarse salt, and two empty brown plastic buckets are on the bench.  I call out to an employee, and am relieved that he brings back the buckets filled with fresh salt.  We were hoping they wouldn’t scoop from the floor!  In true DIY fashion, we scrub our own skin with the salt, and help each other with our shoulders and back.  It is tricky to hold the towel with one hand and scrub with the other.  The salt room feels too crowded when two Brits join us, and I take the opportunity to rinse off in a private shower stall.

Salt Room - Ottoman Turkish Bath
Salt Room – Ottoman Turkish Bath

Alas, it is time for the main course!  In broken English, Zara invites me to lie down on the warm marble slab/platform in the middle of the room.  Every few feet around the room is an individual washing station, each with a hot and cold spigot and a big marble sink.  Over the next half hour, Zara will repeatedly run hot water into plastic containers to then pour on me.  She drizzles a 10” high mound of thick soap suds on me, all as result of squeezing special soapy water through a thin muslin cloth.   She alternates between rinsing, “sudsing” and scrubbing me and when she is finished my skin is pink, shiny and very clean.

Ottoman Turkish Bath
Ottoman Turkish Bath

I slosh across the lobby to return to the locker area and retrieve my clothes.  A few shirtless Turkish men lounge in the lobby on plastic lounge chairs, and they invite me to join them for tea and lounging.  Not in the mood to make small talk and practice my seven Turkish words that I’ve learned, I politely decline and request a ride back to the main section of Kusadasi.   Soon Melissa, the two Brits, and I are driven back to town and we part ways.  It turns out to be a good experience and is fun to refresh my memory from my first Turkish bath over fifteen years ago.   It is not surprising that not much has changed, given that Turkish baths date back to the Ottoman Empire.

Byzantine This, Ottoman That

Thick sour cigarette smoke welcomed me at the Istanbul Ataturk Airport and it was umm….not welcome. Trying to escape the fumes, I ducked behind one offending smoker and instead met an invisible wall of bus and taxi exhaust. After traveling for nearly 24 hours, I simply wanted a fresh salad, a hot shower and a tasty adult beverage – and not necessarily in that order. But the assault on my senses meant that fresh air quickly jumped to the top of my Want List.

Soon I arrived at my hotel and was relieved to breathe the fresh air that drifted in from the Sea of Marmara. Located just across the street from the water’s edge, the hotel’s rooftop restaurant is the perfect place to unwind from the red-eye flight. It overlooks much of the neighborhood in Sultanahmet where the ancient Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia are beautifully lit at night.

When it was time to explore, I knew I would not learn all the rich (and lengthy) history of Istanbul, but I would appreciate all the beautiful architecture, mosaics and art. First came Byzantine church architecture, Byzantine Empire history, and Byzantine gold mosaics. Then came Ottoman Empire history, Ottoman opulence, and Ottoman antiquities. Visiting places such as Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Spice Bazaar, and Hippodrome provided a good history lesson that I summarized as too extensive to master! I visited about 112 of the 5,000 shops at the famous Grand Bazaar – founded as a simple marketplace in the Byzantine times and then upgraded in the Ottoman times. It flourishes today with often over-priced carpets, scarves, food, ceramics, leather goods, shoes and purses. Shoppers are expected to haggle.

  • Blue Mosque Istanbul
    Blue Mosque Istanbul
  • Face of Istanbul
    Face of Istanbul
  • Grand Bazaar Istanbul
    Grand Bazaar Istanbul

Not far from Galata Tower, which provides a great ariel view of the city from about 50 meters high, friends wandered into Taksim Square and enjoyed “participating” in a mild protest/demonstration. My Turkish guide, Shilo, told me that demonstrations are often peaceful and seemingly scheduled, so it is not uncommon to see a special interest group set up a table and hand out pamphlets for a few hours.

Istanbul is a busy city, thriving on more than its fair share of Byzantine and Ottoman history. The locals seem friendly, the streets have the most uneven cobblestone I have ever walked across, and the prices for the good food are reasonable. The sites I see and the stories I hear fall into the “wow” category and I cannot pick a favorite. If shown a map of Istanbul, I will simply close my eyes, point to different areas of the city, and aptly say Byzantine This, Ottoman That. It will be fitting.

Boulder Ironman Finish

I couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear as I jogged across the finish line at the Inaugural Boulder Ironman http://www.ironman.com this summer. Earlier in the day, the Ironman staff and volunteers had laid bright red carpet along the 13th Street finish chute and had lined the runners’ path with metal crowd control stanchions. My friend Ann was on the other side of the line, snapping photos as I crossed under the digital clock and celebratory signs.

Crossing the Boulder Ironman Finish Line
Crossing the Boulder Ironman Finish Line

Thousands of elite athletes, regular athletes and their support teams descended upon Boulder, Colorado that week, all with one thing in mind: get the athlete successfully across the finish line. The 140.6 mile route was the classic Ironman journey of pain: 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and 26.2 miles (yes, a full marathon!) of running.

The morning had started early for me: the swim start line was not too far from where I lived, and a man’s voice over the loudspeaker traveled across the Boulder Reservoir as he organized the first wave of swimmers to get ready to start. Note: I was still in bed when I heard the loudspeaker; oops, I was going to be late…

So Ann and I met at a street corner and cycled our way towards the first transition area where athletes would switch from swimming to biking. Since we were too late to see the awesome athletes, we improvised. We started out on our own version of the Ironman. Florescent orange tape marked the official route and it was easy to follow along.

Boulder Ironman Road Sign
Boulder Ironman Road Sign

Obeying the rules of the road, we stopped at all stop signs and red traffic signals. I enthusiastically waved at the stopped drivers and exclaimed, “Hi! We’re in the Ironman, can’t you tell?!!” They all took half a second to realize I was facetious, but most played along and yelled back, “Yeah, of course I can tell! Keep up the good work, and good luck!”

We made our way to 13th Street, where the finish line was ready and waiting. However it was at least 6 hours before the first uber athlete would officially cross the line to win the race, the digital clock had not yet been turned on, and no crowds had gathered. That meant the coast was clear: I stepped on the red carpet, and in my cycling cleats, I jogged 20 yards across the line for my own personal photo op. I couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear.

My 12 Hour Visa

Once upon a time there was city in Germany called Berlin, and it had been divided into two sections, East Berlin and West Berlin, thanks to the Soviets not wanting the East Germans to escape into a free and prosperous Western society. A 12’ tall concrete wall had been erected around West Berlin, effectively closing it off to the world. However, a handful of entry/exit points along The Wall allowed people, including backpackers like me, to come and go from the city.

As a college kid studying in Switzerland and traveling around Europe for the summer, I had been using the economical and practical Eurail Train Pass to traverse back and forth across the continent with my friends. We tried to spend one night a week sleeping on a train in order to save spending our precious dollars on youth hostel accommodations.

On one such warm summer night, our train left Copenhagen, Denmark and headed towards our destination: East Berlin, the “scary Communist” city that we had heard so much about. During the night, our train conductor drove the train into the belly of a ferry. Apparently this was how trains were normally transported across water. It sounded like the sky was falling in; the noise was terrifyingly loud. With all the screeching, scraping, clanking and banging, I was at a loss as to how I had slept through this process the previous week. This time I was fully awake and seeing other trains, buses and vehicles in the ship’s belly was surreal.

Somewhere along the journey we had heard that we were supposed to get off the train and get our Visas for East Berlin, but we had not done so. When a guard asked us for our passports and visas, we explained we did not have visas, and he issued them on the spot. We deciphered the German stamp and learned we had been issued a 12 hour visa. A whole twelve hours. With so much to do and see, what were we to do with permission to stay for only 12 hours?

Watch tower at the Berlin Wall, 1983
Watch tower at the Berlin Wall, 1983

Signs were not evident for entry into East Berlin, yet after asking other travelers we finally figured out how/where to enter. We passed through the famous Checkpoint Charlie, and immediately we felt deflated. None of the immigration officials smiled. Scowling, they had stamped our passports and brusquely waved us away. We were in. We had 11 hours and 45 minutes left.

We were required to exchange our currency into East Deutsche marks, which was the equivalent of about $10 US dollars. That didn’t seem too unreasonable, but the caveat was that if we didn’t spend all our East Deutsche marks during our 12 hour visit, we had to give – not exchange – them back, when we left East Germany. Surely, we thought, we could spend $10 during the day.

The local streets were mostly deserted. The few cars we saw were smaller older models, and they seemed to be made of thin metal, like that of a tin cup. People were dressed in dated clothes, and we deduced that all the ugly shoes that had not been sold in the United States must have ended up in East Germany, because their shoes were the clunkiest and ugliest we had ever seen. The East Germans stared at us; most did not smile. One young boy was friendly, and he spoke some English and German with my American friend Barbara, who had studied German for several years. He wanted her address so he could write her.

We wandered around and window shopped. It was a Sunday and most shops were closed, but we could see price tags and realize that anything we could have bought – T-shirts, shoes, purses, etc. – would have been inexpensive. The five of us finally came upon a restaurant that was open. Restaurant Moscow was the name, and we were treated to a chilly reception. The waiters were formally dressed in their jet black uniforms, complete with waist length jackets and long white aprons. We wore well-worn jeans and dirty white tennis shoes. We had not showered for a day or so, and I suspect they knew; the maître d escorted us to a table in the very back of the empty restaurant. We took our time over lunch, eating a whole chicken while trying to politely discard its oily and flavorless skin. The cola we drank was simply terrible and of course tasted nothing like Coke, the real thing. We tried our best to run up our bill, and were delighted that we had managed to spend nearly $8 each!

Bombed Out Building in Berlin
Bombed Out Building in Berlin

A vanilla ice cream that I later bought in a small bakery tasted like plastic, and cost about a dime. We wandered some more and finally found a museum that was open. The entrance fee was an affordable 25 cents, and its exhibits failed to capture my attention or give me any inkling of wonderment. (The museum at Checkpoint Charlie later turned out to be captivating.)

By this point we had only spent about 6 hours in East Berlin and we had seen enough. Perhaps our 12 hour visas had been a blessing! As we made our way back towards Checkpoint Charlie, we were very startled when three uniformed and armed border guards stopped us cold. Yelling at us in German, I gently offered up Barbara to be our translator. Later she told me her heart was pounding and she was really nervous answering their questions. Who wouldn’t be, surrounded by scary Communist uniformed men holding semi-automatic weapons?! It turned out we had jaywalked, and it was time to pay a fine or be arrested.

Lovely graffiti on the Berlin Wall, 1983.
Lovely graffiti on the Berlin Wall, 1983.

I had already decided that I would not return my few remaining East German marks upon exiting the country. I wanted a few coins as souvenirs, which I had carefully hidden, prohibited as that was. The guards took us to an office, wrote out our tickets and demanded another $10 from each of us. Well, I wasn’t going to stand for that (I was 20 years old and mostly fearless), so I started counting out my $10 in Swedish kroner, Swiss francs, French francs, British pounds and Danish kroner. The guards were none too pleased, and I made sure they got their $10 one way or another, but I was not about to give up any more US dollars. I won, and they let me leave. (That “ticket” they gave me is still secure in a 30 year old scrapbook.)

We boarded our train for the West, and I shortly found myself in trouble again. A heavyset grey-hair-pulled-back-in-a-too-tight-bun type of lady barked at me and slapped my camera when she saw me taking a photo out the window. Apparently we were still in the scary Communist side were photography of some buildings was verboten.

So while I was originally surprised and disappointed with a measly 12 hour visa, I ended up being thankful that we would not have been in East Berlin long enough to even spend the night. No doubt that suited our budget as well.

 

Best of Africa Photographs (Round 1)

Enjoy this short video highlighting a few best of Africa photographs taken during the 2014 summer in South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland.

Photos were taken with a Nikon D7000 as well as a Nikon Coolpix P510.

Note:  This YouTube video can be viewed full screen, and is best viewed in high definition.  (Hover over lower right corner of video for these controls.)

An American Safari

Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a herd of llamas grazing on the dewy grass during a recent Saturday morning bike ride. Other than their jaws chomping away on the grass, the llamas hardly moved and I could have easily missed seeing them.   I whipped my head around to confirm what I had seen, and then few hundred yards down the road a dozen chocolate brown cattle roamed around and baked in the sun.

That was when it dawned on me that I could embark on a new kind of safari – an American safari – right here in the good ‘ole USA.  I have been lucky enough to have been on many African safaris, and while a safari near Boulder, Colorado would not be the same as an African safari, it would be a fun way to spend an early morning in June.  So in order to fully appreciate my new American safari, I began to pay attention…

With llamas and cattle checked off my list, I tried to spot other animals, birds and interesting plants. As the miles passed under my wheels, I noticed similarities and differences between the safaris.   Drivers passed by at a steady clip, nearly oblivious to the llamas and cattle (and us cyclists).  Yet on African safaris, drivers would slowly putter along in their game viewing vehicles desperate not to miss the next animal sighting.

When a bunch of prairie dogs scurried in front of my bike, it reminded me of when dozens of African helmeted guinea fowl darted out from roadside brush and briskly waddled across roads in Kruger National Park.  While their appearances certainly vary in color (prairie dogs are beige and helmeted guinea fowl have colorful bright blue heads), they both have the ability to stop traffic.

  • African Helmeted Guinea Fowl Stopping Traffic
    African Helmeted Guinea Fowl - Stopping Traffic
  • Prairie Dogs
    Prairie Dogs - Getting Ready to Stop Taffic

Once when I was driving on a two-lane highway in the Kingdom of Swaziland, I saw over three dozen small white birds that were perched on the tops of wooden fence posts, one bird per post.  I instantly envisioned those bright white birds when I cycled past another set of fence posts in Boulder – only on top of these were white porcelain insulators (caps), which allow  for electrified wire to be attached to the posts without losing any electricity through the posts.  From a short distance away, the birds and the insulators looked the same.  See for yourself.

  • Birds on a Wire
    Birds on a Wire (or are they insulators?)
  • Insulators on a Wire (or are they birds?)
    Insulators on a Wire (or are they birds?)

Taking a break from cycling, I stopped and looked up at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and had a little déjà vu.  The mountains were so similar!  Kruger National Park in South Africa shares part of its eastern border with Mozambique and it is the Lebombo Mountain Range that straddles this border.   The height of the mountains in the Lebombos span from about 1,500 – 2,500 feet.  The foothills in Boulder are about 1,500 feet tall.  From where I stood, it wasn’t hard to interchange these two mountain ranges.

And so it turned out that paying attention gave me a whole new perspective on cycling in Boulder, and the many comparisons to my recent African safaris brought back fond memories.  Of course the main items that couldn’t be compared were animals such as lions, zebras and rhinos, but I’m pretty sure I would not have wanted to cross paths with them while on my bicycle!   I wonder what I’ll see on my next American safari adventure…

Freedom to Choose (Because I Can)

How much freedom to choose or independence do you need when you travel? Freedom to choose where to go and when to go? And independence to have the ability to not follow a trip leader or do what “everyone else does”.

African fish-eagle soars his own version of freedom
African fish-eagle soars his own version of freedom

For people traveling with an organized tour, freedom to choose is generally diminished since the trip leader will make and implement most decisions.  You can just imagine the leader’s typical morning update: “Our plans for today include breakfast at our hotel, a guided walk around the historic district, buffet lunch in a local restaurant…” Having decisions made by someone else can be comforting and allow a traveler to sit back and relax. Or, having a group leader could cause a trip participant to feel like a puppet because the participant is basically controlled by the leader and simply follows the leader by just going along for the ride.

Friends or family traveling together (but not with an official tour group) could also have diminished freedom because expectations and peer pressure to stay together for the day’s activities may dictate that everyone follow along with a group decision. I once stayed and visited with friends in South Africa; we shared all our travel adventures until I was left on my own for a few days. I had an epiphany as I quickly realized that every decision I would make would have zero impact on anyone other than myself. I would not need to help co-ordinate meals or activities, I would not have to stick to a schedule. I could come and go as I pleased and if I changed my mind about my plans, it would not matter. It was not a case of “too much togetherness”, and it was not the first time I’d traveled alone in a foreign country, but I felt the excitement of freedom of choice.

On my first day alone I caught up on reading, wrote stories, and sorted through thousands of digital photographs. Uninterrupted and focused, I accomplished much. But time passed and I needed to explore. Thankfully I had my own Chevy Spark rental car (http://www.traveltalesandstuff.com/?p=180) and I had driven around town enough to be comfortable with a safe route. Yes, I was nervous for safety and security reasons (http://www.traveltalesandstuff.com/?p=144), but nonetheless, I wanted to explore. I was free to make my own decisions and had the opportunity, ability and courage to do so. So when a friend called to check-in and make sure my solo days were treating me well, he asked what my plans were for the day. “I’m going in to town,” I happily replied, “because I can.”

Another time I was traveling on a group tour in Tibet. (At that time, China did not easily allow individual travel in Tibet, so group travel was required.) While our adventures and group leaders were wonderful, I really wanted time alone to explore. Group constraints limited me to half a day, so I raced out of the hotel after breakfast and walked into town, into Lhasa. I wandered for hours and had time to see and appreciate typical daily life scenes that I could have easily overlooked if I had relied on someone else to point out the interesting bits.

  • Alley with Prayer Wheels in Lhasa
    A Tibetan woman spins prayer wheels near her smoke-filled courtyard
  • A Tibetan woman sews prayer flags in her small workshop

Taking advantage of my freedom, I befriended a woman sewing colorful prayer flags in her corrugated metal work room; I peered down an alley and snapped a photo of a woman spinning her prayer wheels as she entered her smoke-filled courtyard; I spied armed Chinese military guards pacing up on rooftops. I had grabbed what freedom I could and loved every minute of it, even when I lost my way. (Trying to decipher Chinese and Tibetan maps, even transcribed into English, is another story.)

Does it matter if we have the opportunity, ability and courage to chart our own course when we travel? It matters if we prefer to have freedom to choose and independence when we travel. Technically, someone on an organized group tour could say he has freedom to choose because he chooses to follow along and have decisions made for him. For some, that would be enough. For others, it would not. Traveling decisions are neither right nor wrong, they are just different. As an experienced traveler, I generally relish my freedom and independence. I personally appreciate the freedom to choose, because I can.

Not all who wander are lost

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