Mehmet the tinsmith speaks to Haldun the translator.
Visiting a Turkish bath in Turkey is just the sort of thing a gal like me finds enticing. I'd already sampled Turkish delight and used a Turkish toilet, so it seemed like a natural progression.
The entrance to the women's Hamam (Turkish word for Turkish bath) snaked its way to the base of a low concrete staircase in the centre of Safranbolu, Turkey, home for our first rest day of the Silk Route. Two heavily scarfed women sat cross-legged on a bench picking sunflower seed shells out of their teeth and flicking them into a sizable pile beside their pretzled legs. Business was slow. They stirred when I approached and one nonchalantly got up and led me inside.
The rhythmic sound of slow, constant drips echoed through the ancient marble chamber and the smell of mildew crept from a cathedral ceiling, making my nostrils feel mouldy. The scarfed woman led me to a clean little private change room, instructing me in rapid-fire Turkish to remove my clothes as she thrust a large piece of folded fabric into my hands (at least, that's what I gathered from her tone and expressive hand gestures, though for all I know she could have been lamenting the price of beef). I obliged, and met her outside where I was ushered into a steamy fortress of white marble. More than a dozen evenly spaced brass taps lined the walls above marble basins.
The place could easily have accommodated 30 Turkish bathers; but I was the sole patron that day. She twisted the taps and adjusted the temperature until it was just right, then poured a few demonstrative basins of water over my body before handing me the pail and exiting the steam room without a word. “Do I get naked?” I asked myself. I decided to keep my fabric on and stretch out over the thick circular slab of marble in the centre of the cavernous room. It seemed like the thing to do, and I remember Ricardo (Assistant Tour Director) telling me how great his Turkish bath-marble slab stretch out had been. He was right. Though after about 20 minutes I was starting to get hot and mildly claustrophobic. “What if she never comes back?” I thought to myself. “Will I have to survive off Turkish bath water and mildew scrapings?” Just then, a robust topless Turkish woman breezed into the chamber and entered a smaller adjoining room. Muscling a long padded table into the centre of her workspace, she slapped its vinyl top, instructing me to remove the fabric. It was then I realized this was not another Turkish bather, but the same scarfed woman, minus all the scarves.
Her efficient, no-nonsense manner gave her the quality of an “I've seen it all” mother hen, and I wasn't weirded out by (yet another) highly unusual Tour d'Afrique nude situation. What happened next can best be described as being exfoliated by a belt sander and then beaten by a sack of potatoes. She scrubbed off my skin memories like sanding the paint off an old Chevy. I didn't think it were possible for skin to squeak. It is. Seriously. Next came the “massage,” though her style was more akin to a chef tenderizing a steak with a mallet. It was surprisingly effective. I left the Turkish bath feeling sparklingly clean and relaxed.
Dazed and exfoliated, I floated through the streets looking for a taxi to take me back to the pension where we were staying. I located a cluster and hopped into a cab belonging to a Abdulekaddir, a man tiny as a sprite and eager to practice his English. We drove to a corner store to get some change for the fare and I bought him a sour cherry juice (my favourite Turkish beverage), and then we drove some more. He turned the meter off and drove me through the cobblestone streets, pointing out landmarks and scenery, asking questions and telling me about life in Turkey. Eventually we made it to his home where I had a cup of chai (tea in Turkey) with his mother and met his dog, a scrappy little pooch with an unpronounceable name.
A few days ago we stayed in a town called Sebinkarahisar. On the drive in I saw a bustling market and I took a walk there later that afternoon. I bought a bag of strawberries from a giant cart made with bicycle wheels, and caught the eye of an old man sitting outside a nearby shop. He was leaning back in his chair with his feet up on a table wearing a serene, welcoming smile. I said hello in Turkish and he invited me to join him. His name was Mehmet and he must have been 80. Mehmet made things out of tin and wore a smart-looking navy vest, brown cordoroy pants and a fine looking silver moustache. He only spoke Turkish but I understood that he wanted me to join him for tea. I smiled and shook my head vigorously. A few minutes later a man arrived with two delicate hourglass-shaped tea cups on tiny red and white saucers. Mehmet took a sugar cube between his age-worn teeth and brought the cup to his lips in small sips. We sat in companionable silence amongst the tin and old hammers and nails, unable to understand each others words. Mehmet scanned the streets for young people, calling one over every few minutes in the hopes of finding a translator. Then it dawned on me that a Turkish interpreter was just a phone call away. I called Haldun, our Turkish support staff member, and explained the situation, asking him to thank Mehmet for the tea and explain the story of the bicycle tour and that I was from Canada. Mehmet was surprised and delighted when I handed him the phone, though he seemed unsure of the best way to use it, keeping one hand on his ear and the other cupped over his mouth while he spoke. This was probably one of the sweetest things I've ever seen.
While the two Turkish men had a good long chat, another man approached me with a handful of peanuts and plump dried raisins as big as cherries, cupped my hands together and shared a generous sample before continuing down the street. When their phone call was over Haldun explained that Mehmet wanted us to come to his home to eat a fish supper and see his garden.
This is how things happen in Turkey. Conversation, hospitality and a genuine interest in other human beings is a pervasive attribute of the people I've met. Going to the market is not just going to the market. It's meeting the man that produced the olives you just bought (and gave you a scoop or two of his favourites as a gift) or the old woman who picked that lettuce this morning (then threw half a dozen cucumbers and a bushel of parsley in as a present). A visit to a hazelnut farm is not just an agricultural show and tell, it's an invitation to marry a Turkish farmer's grandson (their land boasts high yields, and I do come with a cow…). Turkey has charmed me into a giggling fit with a cheese maker while eating mouldy blue shreds of village-made dairy delight in his tiny shop, its walls lined with scarlet jam and ashy golden honeycombs from floor to ceiling (then watching as he tears wads of his cheesy concoctions into a bag, wraps them in newspaper and sends me on my way, refusing to take my money).
Take my advice and give yourself extra time to accept the tea the butcher offers you at the grocery store, and enjoy it's warm glow as he grinds you fresh minced beef while you browse chicken livers.
We cross the border into Georgia in just a few days. I'm going to miss Turkey. Though all of the spices I bought in Istanbul have Turkish names, which is a nice reminder of my time here. As I type from an old wooden table in the restaurant at the Green Piece Camping Pension in Yusufeli, a young girl periodically stops to watch the strange language appear on my screen. She drapes her arm around me and rests her head on my shoulder as though we've known each other for years. She brings me cup after cup of chai, delighting in saying my name and exchanging pleasantries in English (she was thrilled when I understood her attempt to discuss the weather). Earlier she showed me her cardboard box full of ducklings, nestled in newspaper in the laundry room. Sometimes the simplest things are the most charming.