My last full day in Istanbul it rained. Not gentle summer droplets that cover the grass in National Geographic dew, but an all out assault on the pavement, alley cats, and umbrellas. The kind I’d been warned about in the opening pages of The Bastard of Istanbul, the eBook I’d read one chapter of on the plane. The sort of rain Californians have been praying for. Sigh.
I watched the clouds dump from the dining room. As long as it was warm outside, I didn’t really mind. Besides, my schedule was light – Dolmabache Palace, a hamam, and dinner with Andrew. I could have added a dozen more activities to my plate, but I felt about the same as the weather: pretty shitty. Apparently 12 hour days on one’s feet are not a prescription for Hungarian flu.
The commute to Dolmabache proved trying. Not because it was difficult to navigate (eight stops on a single train), but because the rain forced half of the city onto the subway. Which caused it to smell. HORRIBLY. I know people complain about Frenchmen, but let me tell you, Turkish men really take the cake. And by cake I mean cowpie. This ride was rank. I tried burying my nose in my sweater, but all this provided was comic relief for the local girls next to me. I am nothing if not transparent.
However, the rain did afford one major tourist advantage – no ticket line at Dolmabache. I’d heard horror stories of waiting over an hour, but I breezed right in through the insanely ostentatious gates. And like some sort of royal miracle, the clouds broke as soon as I did. Happy Sunday!
I wandered around the grounds for a bit, snapping photos of the fountain and palace with mouth agape. Whenever I see exorbitant displays of wealth like this, I can’t help but wonder how many people died during its construction. Less than the Pyramids, more than Little Hagia Sofia, I surmised.
Satisfied with my iPhone shots, I ascended the stairs for the tour.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” an adorable blond girl apologized for almost bumping into me.
“You’re totally fine,” I smiled, then took the opportunity to interrupt her conversation with her friend. “Where are you guys from?”
Presley, the blond, was from Canada, which explained her immense agreeability. Her friend Deema also hailed from Canada, but it was a bit more complicated.
“I’m from Syria originally, but I grew up in Saudi Arabia, then moved to Canada with my husband,” she explained.
“We can tell you that because you’re American, but it’s tricky here right now,” Presley said, giving me a knowing look. I felt instant sympathy for Deema. I wanted to ask her more questions about her feelings on the current situation, but I also didn’t want to be insensitive by prying.
“How long are you guys traveling?” I asked.
“Two weeks. We’re here with some of Nima’s family, then we head to Dubai. We’re staying with my friend’s family there,” Presley replied excitedly.
“I love Arab culture,” Presley said breezily, reading my mind. “I’m applying to jobs in Qatar.”
The tour started, but our conversation didn’t stop. I listened hungrily to Presley’s story, how she’d fallen in love with Arab culture after attending a school predominantly made up of Arabs and Somalians. I’d always been so appalled by the treatment of women in many Middle Eastern countries, particularly places like Pakistan and Iraq, that I couldn’t comprehend a Western woman being drawn to it. But I held an open-mind and passed no judgment. They were both bright, friendly, warm-hearted women.
I learned more about Presley’s conversion to Islam as we walked through room after room of decadence. Multi-ton chandeliers, sitting rooms larger than my childhood home, gold everything. The Sultan clearly had wanted to slap Versailles in the face. (And the Turkish economy – according to Wikipedia, the construction cost over a billion dollars in today’s currency, about a quarter of the country’s yearly tax revenue.)
When we got to the Ceremonial Hall, all I could do was laugh. It was, in a word, absurd. Presley tried to take photos secretly, but was quickly reprimanded and forced to delete them from her phone. I just stared in disgusted awe. It took one percent to a whole new level.
We toured the harem after, and while not as impressive as the Sultan’s residence, his women still lived lavishly if not oppressively. I tried to withhold my aversion, but I couldn’t help shuddering at the thought of being sequestered for a man. How fortunate to have been born a woman in the 80s in the United States…
Back at the entrance, I invited Presley and Deema to come out with Andrew and me later. Our random gathering had worked so well the previous night, I wanted to continue in the more the merrier tradition. Presley and I exchanged information, and we parted ways.
For a moment I considered walking the three miles back to my hotel now that the rain had stopped. But after about ten feet my body reminded me that it was sick, so I hopped back on the train, sleeve over nose. The longer I stood there, the more I wanted chicken soup, 7-Up and my mom.
I settled for mint tea and my hard hotel bed. I fell asleep almost immediately, and woke up nearly two hours later, giving me ten minutes to get ready for my hamam. Should I cancel it? I wondered. At 85 Euros, it was my biggest splurge on any activity of the trip, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to drop that cash if I couldn’t enjoy it… But how many opportunities would I have to visit a 500-year-old Turkish bath? And wasn’t hot water and steam exactly what I needed?
I got to the Ayasofia Hurrem Sultan Hamami right at 4. I’d chosen it after reading endless reviews comparing the types of hamams offered in the city: modern vs. traditional, functional vs. extravagant, budget vs. not-budget. Rather uncharacteristically, I’d opted for one of the most expensive bathhouses in the area, mostly because it was a sure bet. I usually go for the deal, but when cleanliness is a factor, I don’t want to cut corners.
And thank Allah I didn’t. The famous mosque’s hamam far exceeded my expectations. In fact, it was my favorite thing I did in Istanbul. Sensual, peaceful, restorative, it transported me to a whole different plane of being.
The experience began in the beautiful vaulted reception, where a large, maternal woman escorted me to a wooden changing room. She handed me a disposable thong, towel, lilac shower shoes, and a comb. I stripped down to nothing, slipped on the thong, and wrapped myself in the towel.
I waited on one of the cushioned benches in the reception, and a few minutes later a thin, young Turkish woman with a soft smile came and took my hand. She seemed to me a sort of angel, guiding me into a spiritual realm.
In the bath, afternoon sunlight flooded down from the top of the dome, bouncing off the white walls through the steam and infusing the space with an ethereal quality. It was surprisingly empty, with only a single girl, no more than eight years old, being rubbed down by an older woman.
My attendant led me past them into the main room and up onto an elevated marble cubicle. She smiled sweetly as I wobbled on the wet stone, gripping my hand as if to say “don’t worry, I’ve got you.” Once situated, she disrobed me and sat me down next to a golden basin. She turned it on and began pouring hot water over me with a metal bowl. My body immediately surrendered to the heavenly liquid. Sometimes I forget the magic of water.
After a little while, she handed the bowl to me and indicated I should continue bathing myself. She left me to this, then returned a few minutes later, to take me to the next stage: the actual cleansing.
In my research, I’d read about people having their skin rubbed raw in hamams, new skin sloughing off alongside the dead. I experienced the exact opposite. My attendant firmly but carefully scrubbed at my limbs, under my arms, along my thigh.
At first I kept my eyes closed, flashing back to childhood baths with my brother. When was the last time I’d been bathed by another person? Four years old? Five? I opened my eyes and looked at the girl rubbing my naked body. We hadn’t spoken a single word, and yet I felt a profound connection with her. The intimacy of this moment will never leave me.
Once my skin had been turned into butter, we made our way onto the central marble platform for the final part of my treatment: the bubble bath massage. I am not exaggerating when I say this was one of the most incredible sensations I’ve ever felt. The scent of jasmine, the gentle weight of the bubbles, the press of her hands, the hypnotic echo of the soft murmurs unable to escape the dome. I had jumped into another dimension, or perhaps back to my mother’s womb. Time, space – nothing seemed to exist in this embryonic state.
And then it was over. My attendant took me back into the reception, where tea and Turkish delights greeted me. Never had anything tasted so sweet. It was like an infant being given ice cream for the first time.
“Thank you for this gift,” I heard a woman close to me graciously tell her attendant. I smiled. What a gift indeed.
Rejuvenated, I floated back to my hotel and got ready for my dinner with Andrew. We met at the train stop near his place, and walked to a neighborhood restaurant he’d been wanting to try – Naïf. Presley messaged me she would join us for a drink later.
Once again, Andrew did not lead me astray. I let him do all of the ordering, then relished in the shared plates of octopus, homemade pasta, and zucchini fritters. Sauvignon Blanc flowed, and so did the conversation. I learned about his Turkish girlfriend who was currently living in Paris, his passion for food, and the time he slept in a car in a garage that did not belong to his friend in Australia.
“’What are you doing, mate?’” Andrew reenacted the neighbor’s surprise. “’What are you doing in my car?’”
The drunken escapade had a happy ending – the man gave him a ride to his friend’s place – but we both agreed we’d entered a new phase in our life, one that no longer contained space for such wild, (un)memorable nights. Oh, the virtues of growing up.
But that didn’t mean we couldn’t go enjoy a cocktail on a rooftop overlooking the city. Presley met us at the restaurant, and we made our way up winding streets to Balkon.
The bar was incredible. Sure, the drinks were awful (Presley’s dirty martini contained neither olives nor vodka and my sauv blanc tasted like it’d been fermented in my grandmother’s closet), but the view was spectacular.* The first twenty minutes, I hardly said a word – I just stared at the blood orange crescent moon hanging right over Suleymanye. How could this even exist? For the second time that day, I had entered another realm.
The arrival of Toby, Andrew’s journalist friend, brought me back to the rooftop (along with a resident stray cat – so cute!!). Toby had lived in Istanbul off and on for a decade, working for the UN, and was currently staying at Andrew’s for a month.
“And how do you guys know each other?” he asked, swigging from a pint.
“Well, I met Andrew last night at dinner through our mutual friend, and Presley this morning at Dolmabache Palace.”
Toby stared at us in disbelief, then started laughing. “That is…”
Random? Synchronistic? Awesome?
“What happens when you travel,” I smiled.
Although guarded at first, by the end of the evening Toby was part of my traveling crew. We laughed, we cried, we braved the grungy after-hours streets together. As we walked Presley to her hotel off Taksim Square, he slung his arm around me like an older brother.
“You know, you’re alright, Amy. You’re really cool. I hope we can be friends,” he said, his accent thick with beer. “Can we be actual friends?”
“Of course,” I grinned. “I’ll add you on Facebook as soon as I get home.”
We dropped Presley off, and then walked the mile back to Andrew’s, where the boys knew of a reliable taxi service. (If that sentence concerns you, trust me, I was concerned too.) Toby spoke to a driver in Turkish, and arranged my safe return home. I hugged them both goodbye, and got into the cab.
As we sped through the empty streets, I thought about all of the wonderful, diverse people I’d met over the last eleven days in Budapest and Istanbul. Steve, Heather, Brandon, Leifennie, Ren, Toby… Could we be actual friends?
The reality was, I probably wouldn’t see most of them again. There was a chance our paths would cross, like the Ketchup customers I had lunch with in Paris, or the friend I hadn’t seen since middle school in Phnom Penh. But most likely, this would be the extent of our time shared together. And while this made me cry in the taxi that night, I knew that there was a certain beauty to it. Because the point was not whether we would see each other down the road, but that we had met on it at all. What a gift.
*I didn’t take a photo of it because my iPhone would never have done it justice. Sorry Apple, I still love you!