Sunday, July 26, 2015

Bodrum (Part II)

This is what I found when we first heard of Bodrum: 
"Bodrum is a charming and fascinating little port, 270 km. south of Izmir, on the Aegean coast of Turkey. It is located on the southern coast of Bodrum Peninsula, it faces the Greek island of Kos and at a point that checks the entry into the Gulf of Gokova. 
The center of an administrative district, Bodrum, has a permanent population of some 30,000 and stands on the site of the ancient city of Halicarnassus, once the capital of the kingdom of Caria. Located in the southwest corner of the Aegean region of Turkey, Bodrum is a major tourist attraction due to its beautiful coastline, excellent climate and a plethora of proximate sites of historical importance and natural beauty."  -

Who wouldn't want to visit such an exotic and historically rich sounding place? Also, the fact that we hadn't been before (and I really love visiting new places) and it was only a three hour and forty minute flight from Gatwick made Bodrum an attractive destination for part of our summer holidays. Originally I had also wanted to tag on Istanbul, a city which I hear is incredible, but as per my previous post, we decided against it because of the anticipated heat at that time of the year.

The region is indeed very picturesque and reminded me a lot of the Greek landscape. Ahead of visiting, I expected Turkey to resemble Morocco, which I had visited when our daughter was roughly two years old and I was pregnant with our son. There are certainly some similarities, like the food which is also quite like Middle Eastern and Greek food. Also the design of some of the crockery, fabrics,  and handicrafts in the bazaars are of a similar style. Moroccans favour the public bath houses where you get a good scrub down - much like the Turkish Hammam. However a stark difference for me turned out to be the shopping experience. Shop and stall owners in Bodrum do not hassle you in the same way I had been hassled in Marrakech. Obviously people will attempt to get your business and will heartily invite you into their restaurant or shops, but if you say 'no thank you' they give a jovial disappointed shrug of the shoulders, utter something to the effect of 'Maybe next time, enjoy your day' and it's left at that. In Marrakech you dare not glance at something in the bazaars, as you are set upon by an incredibly zealous shop owner or two until you feel forced to buy something just to shake them off. And when I took a picture of a boy in the market, he came up to me demanding a not inexpensive amount of money. It's also a demonstration of desperation and poverty I appreciate. 

In Marrakech there are tens of scooters weaving in and out of the narrow alleyways of the bazaars which means you are trying to fend off the insistent shop keepers, keep a hand on your small child who keeps wanting to wonder off, all the while keeping one eye open behind you so you don't get mowed down. And don't get me started on the not very charming snake charmers - one of which insisted on waving a snake extremely close to the face of my delighted toddler daughter despite me shaking my fist in his face telling him not to. In retrospect, it was ill advised to visit such a frenetic place being so pregnant and with a small child, but I suppose that is travel for you - you don't know until you do it. I say all of this and yet I had an incredibly congenial exchange in a shop with a man in Marrakech which included sitting down and drinking tea with many awkward silences and some polite chit chat, once a price had been agreed on that is. And we stayed in a beautiful riad guest house with baby tortoises and fountains in mesmerising courtyards, and we had this fascinating tour of the city by a local guide. But the shopping, well, that was pretty full on and hair-raising. 

Like Morocco there are a lot of stray animals in Bodrum, which is always distressing. But the strange thing was, although there were a lot of dogs lying about the marina they all looked quite fat. And I noticed water in bowls outside some of the shops. And while the stray cats looked a bit on the thin side, they also sort of lounged about outside of the shops in a non-plussed manner like small furry and not particularly friendly gangs. In Marrakech and Morocco I had seen some very put upon donkeys with mange, and a dog quite literally dying on its feet. I would like to say I set about trying to save all or at least one of these animals but the extent of need was simply overwhelming and I was heavily pregnant and afraid of getting bitten. I'm ashamed to say that even if I had wanted to I didn't know where to start. In my fantasies I return there, establish an extensive animal shelter, and attempt spay and neuter all the feral animals I can find, and provide a place to care for and feed them.

Back in Bodrum, on the one occasion we were mad enough to risk the day time temperatures in town, we sat down for a drink at a harbour side restaurant. My daughter spotted a thin-looking cat and asked if we could feed it. We had to explain to the waiter, who was so incredulous as to what we wanted to do, that he imagined he must have misunderstood us, and therefor called over his manage to translate. The manager listened to us patiently, with a surprised and amused expression on his face, clapped his hands together and explained to the now gathered and inquisitive party of about three staff that we wanted food not to eat, but to give to a stray cat. Soon a small plate with three pretty little raw fishes - completely intact from head to tail, were brought to the table. And then the staff watched with much delight, as my daughter and I called over the cat, presented the fishes, and watched as it grabbed them, one at a time, and raced off to enjoy them in solitude, before returning for the next one. Evidently this animal had some experience in needing to protect it's surprising bounty from other animals in similar need. The manager told me he was surprised that the cat had eaten raw fish as they tended to like cooked food, which explained why so many of the animals looked a lot less distressed than the ones I had seen in Morocco - they were being fed leftovers by the restaurant owners.

Travelling with my children who are now not so little - five and seven years old, meant that we were quite happy to experience some of the night life with them. The food in Bodrum is so very good - fresh fish everywhere including giant prawns, octopus and a variety of side dishes so delicious and sumptuous I'm amazed I didn't go up several dress sizes. The fact that you are served several sharing dishes encourages you to try a lot of new and different things, and it makes the dining experience extend over hours, rather than what so many of us are used to in more Westernised cultures -  where we get given a large plate of individual food which we wolf down, have a cup of coffee and leave a restaurant sometimes all within an hour. This sharing of multiple dishes system becomes a more drawn out, leisurely, and sociable experience which I thoroughly enjoyed.

There is certainly a very active and fun night life in  Bodrum, with lots of people eating on boats in the marina, and what looked like restaurants at the back of some of the boats. Alfresco dining on pavements, live music, and the shops are open until very late. And yes, in most of the shops and bazaars, you can negotiate on price and often have a very enjoyable and informative chat with the shop owners who not only like to sell but enjoy the art of conversation. We met some really interesting and nice people doing this, giving the place a genuinely welcoming feel to it.

Here is a transcript (with some amendments) of something I posted on FB following an evening out in Bodrum. I think it captures some of the festive nature of the place, the generosity of the people, and the lunacy of the taxi drivers:

"A truly crazy and chaotic evening tonight. Thanks to terrible traffic we wait over an hour for our previously arranged hotel car to collect us at our designated pickup spot. By this point we are stationed like well attired urchins on the pavement outside an Argentinian restaurant next to a life sized plastic cow, a live band, and tango dancers. Joined by the occasional stray cat and roaming dogs. Through intermittent phone calls (where we get the impression the driver doesn't really understand us nor we him) he keeps promising us that he is 10 minutes away. Or at least we think that's what he is promising. 
The children are exhausted and falling asleep in our arms. I am trying to be upbeat about things, as you do when you children are beginning to get distressed and you are trying not to show that you are too. So I sort of try and dance around with one of the children hanging off of me Pietà-style. On two separate occasions young men who are clearly on dates, get up from their alfresco seats at the restaurant and offer us help. One young man and his girlfriend offer us a lift home, and another offers to talk to our driver and translate if necessary. We thank them and say, while we genuinely appreciate it, our driver is just 10 minutes away.  
An hour later of waiting , we get fed up and are approached by an elderly taxi driver who grabs our shopping bags and frog marches us to his car. The traffic is indeed horrendous that evening, and our driver proceeds to not only mount islands but actually drive on them to get past the traffic. It's like being in a Die Hard film. Hard shoulders are similarly travelled on to get some advance. 
Eventually we are through the various traffic jams, and on the dual carriageway. And then our small somewhat banged up taxi appears to propel forwards into the night with lightening speed. Lots of tailgating and haphazard changing of lanes,  and I lean over to see our driver is travelling at 85 miles an hour. All the while using google translate (voice version) to chat to us in a jolly manner and ask us how much we are paying at our hotel. The children feeling my clenched knuckles are as I clutch onto their small hands, enquire as to what kind of driving this is to which I reply 'the illegal kind'. The driver laughs. I'm beginning to realise that my husband was right: forget possible terrorism, the most dangerous thing here is the driving."

I would like to say we travelled around to other towns, taking in the sites and absorbing the rich history while were there, as we usually like to do when we travel. However two things prevented this: For one it was absolutely blisteringly hot during the day. Full sun and temperatures at nearly 40 degrees celsius, meant sticking close by to an accessible body of water during the day, and visits anywhere else were restricted to the evenings, which were still pretty hot but without the unforgiving sun. Also, the driving was so appalling that I decided against it. Had it just been my husband and I, I would have been more relaxed, but I just didn't want to risk it with my children. A couple of days after our second hair raising taxi experience, my husband told me he had spoken to a couple at breakfast one morning and the young man, a race car driver, told him he found the driving absolutely terrifying. "See?" I told my husband, "It's not just me."

Friends of ours came and stayed at the hotel for a bit, and my girlfriend told me to get the Hamman - which is the traditional Turkish bath. She had done it the day before, and invited me to touch her leg, which was indeed incredibly smooth. I vaguely recalled hearing about the Hammam from my sister who had had one years before - performed by two men while she was stark naked. Anything with the word naked in it sets off alarm bells for me. This did not appeal to me in the least, but when I visited the spa and got assurances that I could have this experience with a woman, I decided to do it. 

My friend told me she had worn her bikini throughout the experience, but I have to confess although I am painfully shy of being naked (I fear and loathe changing rooms) I also thought to myself: If I am going to write about this, I have to have an as authentic experience as possible. So when the woman at the spa led me to the changing rooms and told me to remove everything and motioned to a pair of disposable g-string knickers, I thought: OK, here goes. The knickers resembled a paper loin cloth - the kind of thing Gandhi might have worn, were he, say, a stripper hoping to avoid tan lines. There wasn't much of it and I may as well have worn nothing, but mentally, I felt covered. It was effectively the fabric version of a rationalisation. 

I was given a small woven looking towel called a Peshtemal and told I could use it if I wanted to in the steam room - like it was an option for people who are weirdly shy about such things. I asked if the steam room was for both sexes and the woman nodded 'yes'. I found this surprising given I thought of Turkey as a Muslim country and imagined things like a steam room to be separate for the sexes. I clung onto my Peshtemal and followed her in, relieved that no one else was in there. Because really, what do you say to someone in a steam room apart from the obvious: 'Boy it's hot in here huh?' I was gearing myself up, somewhat nervously, for what lay ahead, and I genuinely wasn't in the mood for small talk.

The bath house itself looked like some strange inner sanctum - all marble and shaped a bit like a star of David. It reminded me of something I had seen in my one of my children's books on Ancient Egypt where the pharaohs and other important people got mummified.

I was led to a sort of chamber off the side of the central bit which consisted of a marble alter - again with the Ancient Egypt mental reference - which had a thin woven towel on and was told to disrobe and lie on it. Now I've had a few massages in my time, but this was not a nice soft massage bed - this was a flat solid piece of stone, but actually, once I lay down, it was remarkably and surprisingly comfortable. That is once I tried to get over (using attempted ancient Tibetan mind leaving body techniques) the fact that I was lying there with my breasts exposed and tiny disposable knickers in front of a stranger who was reading herself to wash me. I had not been washed by someone else since I had had a c-section with my children, and before that when I was a very small child.

And then it began: The small Balinese woman called Putu, who was herself wearing a bathing suit and a peshtemal around her waist,  began to run water in a large sink in front of me, water splashing everywhere on the floor which explained why the floors were also made of stone. And then she proceeded to pour small buckets of deliciously hot water over my body. The experience, on some strange subconscious level, took me back to being an infant. It was that sensation of being totally helpless and in someone else's care. And once I recovered from the knee-jerk reaction of wanting to get the hell out of there (the fact that I was now only wearing a very soggy and see-through loin cloth aside), I kind of relaxed into the experience. It reminded me a bit of how my cats react when they are on a very soft fleece blanket - they get their claws out and go into a sort of trance - rhythmically kneading it with their claws. I had seen our cat kneed his mother in this way when nursing as a kitten, and I understood it to be a sort of comforting regressive thing. 

What followed was a lot of exfoliating. It took me back to our visit to Morocco, where our guide -  a small pot bellied man in traditional dress called Mohammed, advised us to visit a bath house and said, with a somewhat disgusted look on his small brown face, that one couldn't possibly hope to get properly clean only with regular showers. That a proper exfoliating bath of this kind from time to time was absolutely vital. Putu then sort of swirled what looked like a pillow case into an urn of soapy water and then lot of bubbles were wrung out over me, and massaged over my body.  The massage was wonderfully relaxing and a welcome change from the exfoliating cloth which was more on the invigorating side and had a texture not unlike a cat's tongue. Lots more rinsing with hot water, and then an all over body mask was applied that felt both hot and tingly and incredibly cold at the same time. Oh and a head massage while the mask was working its magic, and having my hair washed. The hair washing was heavenly, and made me think of that scene in the English Patient where Kristin Scott Thomas is washing Ralph Fiennes's hair in the bath. Only in my case it wasn't Kristin Scott Thomas, it was Putu, who was probably thinking about how many more people she had to wash that day, and what she was going to make for dinner. 

To sum it up the Hammam experience was relaxing, invigorating, and at times mentally uncomfortable. It's safe to say I had mixed feelings about it, mostly I think because I didn't really enter the experience with much information. But sometimes, when I want to write about something, I do this purposefully. I don't research something too much, because I want to go into it with a sort of blind date approach, so that everything is new and I am able to be present, and experience it with fresh eyes so to speak.

Afterwards I felt exhausted, and clean, and a bit endorphin-like, but without any of the hard work required by exercise. As I was lying in the relaxation area on a similarly uncomfortable looking but actually quite comfortable curved and heated stone lounger, Putu offered me a card to rate the experience before scooting off to do the next Hammam. She was all business as she bustled off and I couldn't help thinking the experience had been intimate without being in the least bit sexual. I gave her a good rating.

The rest of our stay in Bodrum consisted mostly of hanging around in the area between the kids club and the pool, some shopping and dinner in town in the evenings, and enjoying the beautiful sunsets at our resort. There were a lot of people from Lebanon, Jordan and Dubai, some Turkish people and some Russian people. And apart from an American man and his young Russian wife and daughter, and possibly one other English couple at a given time, as Westerners were were in the minority. The Lebanese families arrived with teams of nannies who ate breakfast with the children and minded them at the pools. The women, beautiful with their incredible manes of long dark hair, arched eyebrows, and large sunglasses looking impossibly glamorous in their bathing suits.

The intense heat left my children with the demeanour and posture of wet lettuce but with attitude. That kind of heat is actually fairly debilitating, meaning my children were often uninspired (Kids: "But there's nothing to do in the kids club!" Me: "But there's air conditioning!") lethargic and somewhat sullen - especially when their little friends left. I perpetually looked as though I had stepped out of a sauna, and in all of the holiday photos, even those taken at night where I am wearing a nice dress, I look sweaty - like I have just engaged in a rather taxing, albeit elegant, wrestling match. In instances like this a good mascara that doesn't run pays for itself.

Breakfast at the hotel was a feast - hundreds of dishes of every variety including cooked dishes one tends to associate more with lunch or dinner time fare. Potatoes, cooked lamb, salads, an ice cream bar? My children loved that. One of the waiters at breakfast looked like a much younger, thinner, and dare I say it even more handsome version of Liev Schreiber than Liev Shreiber himself. And with his serious demeanour and smouldering good looks, from that point on he he became known as Liev Schreiber to us, well, to me that is. He appeared to be a stoic young man and not given to banter but I suspected, like a lot of the staff, this was a language issue. One morning I saw him talking to a Turkish family and actually laughing. "Look, look!", I said excitedly to my husband who was attempting to fend off my son from smearing chocolate sauce all over his nice white shirt, "Liev is smiling, he's actually laughing!" My husband gave me the kind of look that someone does when they are worrying about your mental health but don't want to say as much.

Google Translate was a heaven send. Interestingly enough, almost all of the shop and stall owners in the town of Bodrum had very good English, but in our hotel, not so much. I am never so arrogant as to expect people to speak my language when I travel, and rather I see this more so as my job to try and speak a bit of theirs, and along with some charade like gestures, meet each other half way. But I suppose when one is running an international hotel and hoping to attract an international clientele, which includes English speakers, you do need to take this into consideration in terms of your staff.  But what we might have experienced with the odd and sometimes humorous misunderstanding, was more than made up for by the willingness of everyone to make our stay a happy and enjoyable one, and everyone tried so very hard. It's safe to say that apart from the likes of the very serious Liev and a couple of the more senior staff who hoped to present an air of distinguished professionalism, most of the younger members of staff had boundless cheer and enthusiasm and sense of humour. Some of the young male waiters liked to steal my son's hat or ruffle his hair, and his grumpy demeanour was charming to them and an endless source of entertainment. Similarly the young women at the hotel were taken with my daughter and made a great fuss of her.

On the day we left our hotel in Bodrum most of the staff that had been involved with us in some manner or another during our stay, came and waved our car off as we wove our way into the chaotic traffic back to the airport. I was left with a resounding fondness for the warmth, humour, and eagerness to engage in conversation of the people we had met both at the hotel and in town. And the beauty of the place and those incredible sunsets over the Aegean sea. I'm already thinking of when we might next visit, but next time perhaps at a cooler time of the year.

For the first part of this post please see here: 
Off the beaten track drinking Evian: Or Bodrum (Part I)

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