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Kayla’s Travel Journal

Hammam III

by Kayla Summers


Another divine day in Istanbul. I got a call from an American friend who had just relocated to a little town outside of Izmir called, ' Manisa'.

" C'mon down! You'll love it!"

A night bus ticket for the nine-hour journey south cost twenty million Turkish lira or about twelve US dollars. These are nice busses. A shade up from Greyhound, they have a 'steward', who will serve you coffee, tea or bottled water, and squirts of lemon-scented water are offered as a refresher throughout the journey. The bus generally stops every two or three hours to let off and take on more passengers and for toilet breaks. This leaves the issue of sleep. I had two seats to myself, which was fairly rare. Being very short and fairly limber due to Yoga practice, I was able to wedge my torso across the seats and rested my legs on my "carry-on" in a modified L position. I rested until about 4:30am, when the steward gently whispered, "Manisa".

Manisa is a small stop on the way to Izmir. A disembarkation is handled thusly: As the bus cruises slowly down the boulevard, you stand with the steward at the rear exit of the bus. The door opens and the bus pauses. At that point the steward says "now" and you jump off.

I think the bus actually does stop, but I got the feeling of rolling as I hit the ground.

If I had had luggage it might have been more of a stop, as the steward would have had to get out, too, and open up the compartment under the bus to retrieve my suitcase. (I have seen this done while the bus kept up a slow crawl.)

As the bus drove off at full throttle, I began piling on the sweaters I had used earlier for pillows. There are few places in the world that are warm at 4:30 am! The few cabbies there (and awake) rushed to offer assistance, but I had a cell phone, and within half an hour my friend arrived .

Today was Pazar day. The one in Manisa is smaller than the one in Bostanci. It is also less commercial, more like an American flea market. Lotsa junk.

Still, it has all the stuffs that attract the eye: redone woven saddle bags, over-rugs and kilims

. Lamb pelts hanging on the eaves of a shop to be cured were for sale for 10 million lira or about 6 dollars. The dealer would wash the fur for you after purchase.

I bought some pomegranate vinegar sauce, "Nar Eksisi" (Ex-shee-see) . I also bought some golden dried figs, soft and chewy, and some of the famous Smyrna sultana raisins. In addition, I bought an old chandelier with a very worn frame for 20 million lira, intending to use the crystals (or glass) for a curtain later. I adore the way they sparkle with the least movement.

We made our way up hill to view more mosques, and we stopped at the Ulu Camii, built in 1366 . It is a simple building with an open-ceilinged, walled patio, surrounded by a portico with one doorway, through which you get a 'slice view' of the city. As I sat in the serenity of the patio, I felt as if I were on the threshhold of both worlds. Outside the Ulu Camii there was a tea garden, overlooking all of Manisa. As we sat and sipped tea, it was late afternoon, the weather hinting of spring. I was a tired puppy.

I spied the Sultan Camii (the location of the hamam) below us. We had inquired about the hours earlier, and was told that the hours for women were from 9- 6 pm. Realizing that the time was already 4:30, I began squirming. My companion, given to inertia and chainsmoking, (the hill had left him breathless and pale), was saying, "What's the hurry? You can do it tomorrow." He had never gone to a hamam, so it was pointless to explain how great it feels after an all night bus trip and Pazar day. But I resolutely pressed on. He waited, stationed outside yet another tea garden, sucking down smokes in between wheezes.

On my arrival the door was locked, and there was a little two-line note in Turkish. I couldn't find the word "closed" (kapali), so I figured it was a "back in a minute" or "around the corner" sign. No time factors were mentioned, so I went around the corner, and sure enough, there the bath women were, soaking up the remanants of the glorious afternoon sun. One of them understood despite my poor accent that I was looking for the bath.

She jumped to her feet, a suprise in itself, because she had to be clocking in at about 250 lbs.! She quickly ushered me back to the women's entrance, led me to a room with a cot, bade me undress. I had bought some incredibly nice red lacy underwear, as sometimes they want you to wear it, sometimes they don't. In this case the answer was, "Oh, they are very pretty; no, they are not necessary" Just strip, lady. A bath sheet and a pair of wooden clogs were given me, and I was then ushered into the great room .

The building where I was is about 400 years old, but the interior of the baths had been redone in the 90's . Glistening white marble rooms, all of them with domed ceilings with circular or diamond-shaped cutouts letting in the rays of the sun. Like most hamams, this one had a central pedestal, but instead of alcoves with marble sinks and flowing hot water, this one had actual private rooms off of the main one.

I'm not sure whether it was due to the lateness of the day or the fact that I was the sole customer, but the big pedestal was not used. Instead I was ushered to one of the smaller rooms. The room was the size of a standard bedroom, with a floor raised a half foot above a marble gutter. A marble bench lined the perimeter, and a marble shell-shaped sink graced each wall.

I asked how many people used the bath in a month. The attendant began describing scenes of women with their children all lined up on the marble benches, so who knows?

Oya (the bathing woman) began running hot water, which, if it becomes too much for the sink, overflows into the marble gutter below. All the soapy water that they rinse off this mortal coil also runs into the gutter, so while you are on the floor, you remain clear of all once it it is rinsed off. After Oya had rinsed me multiple times in hot water with a copper bowl, I sat below her while she washed my hair several times with olive oil soap, gave me a head and neck massage, then bade me to lie on the marble floor (which was heated), on my bathsheet. I had not been to a hamam since the sojurn to India. Although I had had many other baths, they were just not the same. I tried explaining that to her, as she scrubbed.... she replied something either having to do with the bark of a tree or calling me a liar. She said it very nicely, though.

Two months of grit (and tan) were briskly scrubbed off, accompanied by her exclamations. As I turned over, I saw a large amount of debris (from me!) on the floor. Oya was quickly rinsing off the floor to begin the soap scrubbing, done with a soft plastic puff ball, which included a half hour back massage. This was done too delicately for my taste, but it was adequate.

As I basked in the warmth and serenity of the room, the final rays of the sun penetrated through the holes in the ceiling, permeating my body like God's final blessing of the bath, I murmurred something to the effect that I could make a bundle if I introduced the idea of hamams to America. She said, "Maybe, but this is a four hundred year old building! Where you gonna find that?" So true, so true. And the amount of running water would make even a Southern Californian blush!

At the end, I realized I had spent an hour and a half there. My friend was probably cold and cranky, so I had to hurry through the end part, which is to drink some tea or water quietly. The bath was 10 million, and the massage was "whatever you think it's worth" . She thought it was worth 15 million (sigh). So it was still pretty expensive for Turkish standards, but this was the deluxe version, so I happily paid up and made my way back out to the world.

I met a woman in Istanbul who has promised to take me to her favorite hamams, so stay tuned for another soaking at the hamam....


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