In early November 1986 I had arrived in Turkey on a whim, with no idea of what I would encounter. A handful of fellow backpackers had suggested it as the next stop east from Santorini, so I joined them on a ferry ride to Rhodes; a ferry ride that took about 22 hours instead of the regular 13 because one of the engines broke down.
We found a cheap hotel in the heart of the old city but because it was the weekend not much was open. We did however, find the famous Popeye’s Bar where we feasted on a wonderful and traditional roast lunch with all the trimmings. This food was a welcome change from all the Mediterranean food we’d been eating for so long. In the late afternoon we headed to the port to buy our tickets for the trip to Turkey. We had been told that we could get discount tickets if we purchased them as a group, but despite meeting up with 37 other backpackers to take advantage of this wonderful marketing strategy, we all only got a discount of 10% – the Greeks don’t like to part with their money.
On a Monday afternoon, after spending only 2 nights in Rhodes, we took a boat to Turkey – it took just 2 and a half hours to cross this little piece of the Aegean and reach the stunning Turquoise Coast. I arrived with 2 others from the big group whom I’d met in Greece plus another Australian couple we met on the crossing.
I had no expectations of what I would find in Turkey but, like nearly everyone of my generation, I had watched the movie Midnight Express years earlier with wide-eyed horror, so armed with those images, I stepped onto Turkish soil at Marmaris.
At the dock many happy hotel and hostel hawkers awaited us with their best deals but lost out to a well-spoken local called Ismail, who offered us a better deal for mattresses on the floor and home cooked meals.
There were various occupants present in ‘the house of Ismail’, including two shifty-eyed divers who couldn’t speak English, who were called Ali and Sali (I’m not making that up) as well as Ismail’s 5 year old daughter, Didem, and a Japanese girl called Bam, travelling on route to Israel. I will always remember her as the girl who sold me her second-hand Sony Walkman.
I only had one cassette that I played over and over on the Walkman. It infused music into my memories and gave new meaning to my travels.
After 3 days of resisting the charms of the abalone divers my companions and I said goodbye to Ismail and his house guests and took the first of many smoke-filled bus trips through Turkey. We headed north-east to Kusadasi where I experienced my first, and only, Turkish Bath.
In an old part of town we entered the Belediye Hamami at the Hotel Akdeniz where my companion and I were told to wait in a curtained cubicle while all the male clientele were ushered out for the arrival of this white western woman waiting in the wings. When the coast was clear the enormous but enthusiastic masseurs, wearing nothing but loin cloths, went to work on my male friend and me.
When the lights suddenly went out in our windowless room our only means of self preservation was to reach out for each other’s soapy hands across the cold marble slabs, as we waited for the worst to happen. (About this time I was having those flashbacks to the movie Midnight Express…)
Candles were quickly found and lit and the men continued to lather us up in our underpants whilst we waited for the electricity to be restored. Perhaps as recompense for the worry of being semi-naked, trapped in a dark, underground cavern, covered in soap suds somewhere in Turkey, my burly masseur lifted his leg to me in the candlelight, revealing all his manhood beneath the towel.
The hotel gave us a little card that read: ‘You will feel completely relaxed after a Turkish bath’. I certainly hope the masseur was relaxed after my massage because I was not!
This rather intimate look at Turkey in the bathhouse steeled me for any future suprises but instead, as we headed slowly north I was continually disarmed by the friendliness and hospitality of the Turkish people. They all wanted to practice their English and continually filled us up with lashings of hot apple cay as we came into their shops, their lives, and then left again.
One of these friendly people was Erol, an international man of commerce who spent his time between the sleepy seaside town of Kusadasi and the windy city of Chicago. He owned a carpet shop (what else?) and he and his friends entertained us with an impromptu barbeque outside his shop one evening in Grand Bazaar Street. He massaged my icy cold feet by the open fire and gave me thick, beautifully crafted woollen socks from the store to keep me warm.
The next night they took us out to dinner at a nearby restaurant and we all ate more wonderful food while Erol translated everything for us. After dinner we were treated to a belly-dancer who danced on our table but she looked a bit scrawny and desperate to me.
Because of this special bond we had forged over a several days, Erol naturally gave me a great deal on the two carpets I bought from him!
From Kusadasi the ancient town of Ephesus was only a short dolmus (mini-bus) ride away but the epic history of the place was lost on this young backpacker and the memory of hitching a ride back to town on a cotton bale truck is more readily recalled than the ruins.
The next bus ride took me east – inland to Pamukkale. A picture perfect town, famous for the beautiful white pools and basins forming cliffs along the hillsides, made from years of calcium deposits.
Here we met even more backpackers from all over the world. We spent our days in the magical cotton castle thermal pools and, for a token price (about 85 cents) we could access the “Sacred Pool”, located inside the Pamukkale Hotel at the top of the hill, where we sat and frolicked amidst the historical ruins of Hierapolis, until our skins were pruney with the pure warm water.
When night fell the chill set in as winter was on its way. We would settle in to the best (and only) pizzeria in town and share travel stories with the English, Canadians, Swedes, Americans, one Japanese and one Kiwi before dispersing to our individual accommodations. I would go to bed in the cheap pansiyon wearing my clothes, woollen socks and a scarf whilst I kept my fingers warm by writing letters home.
I wrote of the euphoria I felt in Turkey (and a bit about the cold) and about the bond between the backpackers – the sanctity of strangers who were all spellbound by this wonderful land. Intrepid as I was, I piked out of the pilgrimage to Goreme, five hundred kilometres away in the middle of Turkey. It wasn’t the long bus trip, nor the primitive conditions of the fairy chimneys and accommodation in the region that deterred me. It was the first hand reports from fellow backpackers of temperatures reaching three degrees below zero that froze my fate. I headed north instead.
Four hours away by bus, I found more food, more friends and more festivities in Izmir. After getting another cheap room in yet another cheap hotel and emptying the contents of my backpack, I got word that some dear friends in Australia were marrying (quite suddenly) and I would miss their wedding. Serendipity arrived in the form of a new Turkish friend, called Vile, who immediately invited our little group to a huge wedding in town.
In a restaurant in the middle of a big park we sat at a table amidst lots of floral arrangements and coloured balloons. Because we arrived at 10.00pm we missed the main course but filled ourselves up sweet cakes and alcohol. We were overwhelmed with the joy and love that marked this special occasion and I suddenly became very homesick – or perhaps it was all the baklava and wine I consumed.
Despite my new found love of everything Turkish, I started to look forward to returning to England where I would spend Christmas with my own fiancé, who was flying all the way from Sydney to meet me.
(to be continued…)