Sunday, September 22, 2013

Buses and Taksis

After reading about driving in Turkey and the hassle and expense of registering a car here, I decided to rely on public transportation during my year-long assignment.  I was pretty anxious about riding the trains and buses.  I'm not a fan of people - smelly, germy, impatient people - and I don't read the language, which makes timetables and instructions fairly useless.  Nevertheless, my anxiety about driving here overrode my anxiety about taking public transport.

Public transportation is extensive, cheap, and very easy in Izmir.  One magnetic card - the Kent Kart, which I can reload pretty much anywhere - will get me on any train, subway, bus, or ferry.  One trip costs 1.85 TL (Turkish Lira), and I can transfer anywhere for free within 90 minutes.  I've actually taken the bus from my apartment to the city center, completed my business there, and caught the train home all for 1.85 TL.  On the whole, I don't mind taking the public transport - plus it's a very ecofriendly thing to do - but it can be...interesting.

I woke up this morning at 0715, after going to bed at 0300 (I finished Graceling, very good book), read until 1000 (Raven Boys - I recommend it) while drinking a Starbucks mocha frappuccino, goofed around for a bit, and finally set out around 1200 for free brunch at the All-Ranks Club and shopping at the Commissary.

I decide to give the bus another chance, although I prefer the train, because the trip generally takes less time and involves less walking.  The bus stop down the street from my apartment is empty, suggesting I've just missed a bus, so I settle on the bench to wait.  A young woman soon arrives, examines the electronic board displaying when the next bus is due, and turns to me:  "Blah blah blah, yetmish blah blah?"  Oh, I know this one - I'm quite good with my numbers, and I'm waiting for otobus 70 too!  "Avet" I say, with an authoritative smile and nod, and point to the board, which has helpfully changed to show that bus number 70 is indeed on its way.  She seems satisfied by our exchange and thanks me.

Our bus arrives a few minutes later, and the woman jumps on first - and then the bus driver closes the doors and starts to pull away.  Like a true Turk, I jump in front of the bus and wave at the driver, who stops again to let me on.  The bus is packed and standing room only.  The sign shows the bus can carry 54 seated passengers and 114 standing passengers, and I assure you, that's how many people were already on this bus.  After threading my arm around one guy's waist and under a woman's arm to scan my Kent Kart, I am standing at the very front of the bus, nothing between me and the broad windshield.  It's awesome.  We're at my favorite spot on the bus ride:  the top of a hill with an incredible view of the Gulf of Izmir.  The bus is swaying and bouncing as it speeds along, and I have the urge to throw my arms wide and cry, "I'm king of the world!"  Okay, no I don't.  But you get the picture.  Then the bus stops and the doors open, pinching my heel; the pain quickly subsides to total numbness, I limp back a few paces, and 10 more people get on the bus.  None get off. 

And we set off down the road, and stop, and more people get on the bus, and none get off, and the bus driver yells something and we all shuffle around, and the people who got on at the middle-of-the-bus-doors pass up their Kent Karts and someone scans them and passes them all back.  (This is extraordinary to me.  Everyone trusts they'll get their own card back, and the bus driver trusts everyone to pay for the ride.)

At this point, we are packed into this bus with every inch of everyone mashed into every inch of everyone else.  And some of us stink.  Not me; I don't stink. Other people do.  And this is when I realize I've been up for hours, I'm bouncing along on a bus mashed against stinky people and I haven't had anything but a Starbucks Frappuccino.  I'm feeling a little green...and I don't mean ecofriendly.  I break out into a cold sweat, followed by a hot flash, and I'm desperately planning my exit strategy - my bus stop is in sight, but I'm still crushed in the middle of the bus.  "Lutfen, lutfen!"  Please, please, let me off this damn bus NOW.  A couple of kind women realize the situation and call something out to the driver.  Maybe, "Let her off here, before she pukes on us."  Once on the street, my head clears and I feel a wet warmth in my heel and realize the pinched spot is now bleeding freely - I'm leaving bloody footprints.  Fortunately, I'm a Girl Scout, and I have wipes, Neosporin, and Band-Aids in my purse.

My visit to the American center in Izmir is tasty, brief, and easy.  I'm not about to tackle a bus or a train with eight bottles of Starbucks, a bottle of wine, and a bottle of Grey Goose - not to mention the various canned goods and cleaning products - so I catch a taksi home. 

Taksis are plentiful in Izmir; you can't cross a street without nearly being hit by one.  Like any elementary school kid, I have proudly memorized my address, so I recite it to the taksi driver.  He repeats it back to me correctly and takes off at break-neck speed, honking at every other vehicle and living thing on the road...while entering my address into the GPSr because he doesn't know where it is.  Unfortunately, my street doesn't exist in the digital world - it's not on Google maps, nor is it in the driver's GPSr.  I'm able to point him in the right direction by asking for him to take me to Nah-to.  Once Nah-to is in sight, I tell him to turn left, turn right, left again, go straight, stop here. 

And this, this, is the highlight of my day.  I was pleased to learn "Hello, how are you, my name is, what's your name..."  but I'm just tickled pink that I can give directions to my apartment in my rudimentary Turkish.  My pleasure is only slightly dimmed when this taksi driver doesn't offer to help me carry my groceries to my door (most of them do), but hey, I made it home, and that's what really matters.

This post brought to you by the children laughing and screaming at the park, who I can hear because I don't have my A/C on; it's finally starting to cool off.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

An Afternoon at the Spa

So after a week of working hard and working out, I decided to treat myself to a massage at the Swissotel spa.  I'd enjoyed a massage there soon after arriving in Turkey, so I felt safe going back to them again.  Rather than tackling an appointment over the phone, I dropped by to make the appointment in person.  I lucked out and was able to get a one-hour Balinese massage that very afternoon; my massage therapist would be the same one I had before, a very nice Balinese woman named Waya. 

Although my session wouldn't be for an hour and half, the massage "experience" includes the sauna, steam room, hammam, various showers, and a relaxation room.  I had plenty of time to try it all - again.  Last time, I tested these luxuries out with Andrea, and I don't know about her, but I felt like a little kid playing at being an adult.  This time would be better, very relaxing and enjoyable because now I'm familiar with the equipment, procedures, dress code...

The staff at the spa - the entire Swissotel, really - are all incredibly professional, polite, and kind.  The woman from the service desk showed me into the ladies changing room and instructed me in using the locker and the facilities, and provided me a robe and rubbery/plastic-y sandals.  I changed in a little changing room, rather than out in the open, and discovered my robe, which fit me nicely, had no belt.  No problem.  I locked up my clothes and sundries in my locker - lucky number 13* - and went to find another very nice staff member, who gave me a new robe, complete with belt.  This robe, of course, was more suited to the typical Turkish spa-goer, that is to say model-thin, and not at all suitable for a grown woman with, shall we say, child-bearing hips.  I was in serious danger of flashing my crotch to the room.  Five minutes into my spa experience and the robe business was beginning to damage my calm.

Well, we're all girls here, and many of the women, while not buck-naked, were flashing a whole hell of a lot.  Settle down, Sacha.  You're a adult among sisters.  Deep breath.  Read the instructions for using the rooms.  Reading instructions is always re-centering, the translations are amusing, and your well-covered back will be to everyone else.

So, the instructions say to take a shower before using the sauna or steam room.  I'll try the Adventure Shower!  I step in, slip the robe off, and snake my arm out the door to hang up my robe.  And then snake my arm out again to slip my underwear into the robe pocket.

There are three buttons:  Mist, Caribbean Forest, and Atlantic Ocean.  I start with "Mist" - that sounds gentle and refreshing.  I push the button, the lights dim, and I am deluged with ice cold water.  Holy *&^%!  That was not expected, and not particularly nice.  "Caribbean Forest" has to be warmer, at least.  I push the button, the lights turn foresty green, and a gentle mist descends from the ceiling.  This is good!  I like this!  The lights change again, and the chamber echoes with the screeches of agitated monkeys.  I feel a little...unsettled...I don't care for monkeys...and I am deluged with buckets of ice cold water.  F&*k!  Yeah, this is an adventure.  "Atlantic Ocean" can't be worse.  While I'm already standing here naked, cold, and soaked, I might as well give it a try.  I push the button, the lights change to an oceanic blue, the chamber roars with the ocean as heard from inside a diving bell in a tsunami, and again ice cold water buckets from the ceiling.

Feeling more like a disgraced dog banished to the back yard in a storm than a sophisticated spa patron, I shrug into my robe, slouch out of the shower, and shiver over to the sauna.  My last sauna experience was rather abbreviated; I didn't like the hot metallic air singeing my nostril hairs.  Today, the sauna is mercifully empty and the temperature somewhat south of Saharan.  I flip the sand-timer so I can have a visual gauge of how long I've been in here and settle onto the wooden bench.  I'm actually enjoying the heat after my shower adventures, and the music piped in - bells that make me think of a Buddhist or Zen monastery, although I've never been to one - is relaxing.  I feel like I can handle a sauna, at least, when a couple of Turkish women come in.  They smile and wave, strip to the waist and settle onto the benches chattering away.  Calm again damaged.  I smile, looking firmly at faces, and slip out of the sauna, flashing them, I've no doubt, because I loosened my death grip on my robe in my efforts to open the door.  Humph. 

I check the time in the locker room, since there are no clocks in the relaxation areas.  (How am I supposed to relax with a deadline but no timepieces or alarms?)  15 minutes have passed.  Seriously?  I have about an hour left, and I've already tried out all three Adventure Shower settings and the sauna...

I hear the traditional Turkish hammam experience is supposed to take about half an hour, and I have plenty of time for that, so I go to that room next.  I wish I had a camera to show you that room - I love it, well at least the ceiling.  The ceiling is curved and starred with color-changing fiber optic lights.  I would love a ceiling like that.  The fixtures are marble: a large oval knee-high table in the center of the room, a marble bench curved around three walls, with four brass faucets arched over marble basins, beautiful brass or copper bowls resting on each.  The fixtures are a mystery, and will remain so for now.  No one came in to take charge of the hammam, so I will schedule a session for myself sometime.

I head into the steam room.  Again, it's mercifully empty, so I settle onto a tiled bench and try to enjoy the heat, sticky humidity, air too thick to breath, hot water dripping from the ceiling in large splats onto my head and down my collar.  This is not relaxing...  I try to spend a reasonable amount in time in here, in case anyone observed me entering, but I leave within what was probably two minutes or less.  I take a seat on a bench in an alcove and wave to the two Chatty Cathys from the sauna, now cooling themselves down with handfuls of shaved ice from the most elegant ice maker I've ever seen.

With 45 minutes still to kill, I next try out the Swiss Shower; after all, the instructions said to shower after the sauna or steam room, and I'm now covered in sweat again from the steam room.  The Swiss Shower has no buttons, colored lights, or music.  This chamber is equipped with three large knobs, a huge shower head on the ceiling, six shower heads arrayed on the walls to attack the bather from all sides, and a shower head on a flexible hose.  I'm leery of that ceiling showerhead, and huddle next to the knobs on the wall.  I don't want another ice bath, so I figure I'll get the temperature right on the hand-held shower head first.  I think I spent 20 minutes fiddling with those three knobs before I got water where I wanted, at a temperature I liked.  The Swiss Shower is (eventually) nice, and I highly recommend it.  Once I'm ready to leave with my robe back on, I can hear the other ladies wanting to use the shower.  I drop the soap six times before I finally step out, wave gracefully, and go to check the time again.  Yes!  Only 15 minutes left!

I try out the Relaxation Room next.  The room is a nice temperature, dimly lit, with four chaise-lounge style chairs.  There's a towel on some chairs where one's feet go - indeed, each towel has a cute little picture of feet.  Am I supposed to pick up a towel from somewhere?  I don't see any.  I grab a towel from outside the room, and it's actually some sort of body or hair wrap towel, with elastic and Velcro.  There's no attendant in sight...  I can't even get a Relaxation Room right. 

This whole spa experience thing really isn't terribly relaxing, and I'm seriously in need of a massage to get rid of the tension all of this relaxing has built up in my shoulders.  The Balinese massage itself was wonderful; well, aside from the special disposable massage underwear the masseuse has me wear.  That was...uncomfortable.  Not a fan of butt floss.  I am, at last, relaxed.  I enjoy a second Swiss shower to remove all of the massage oil, hang out in the Relaxation Room again

and discover I can't re-open my locker.  I swear I know my passcode, it was only four digits.  So with my locker sounding an alarm like a siren and no attendants in sight, I head into the lobby with my crotch-flashing robe to find help.  Because I want to leave now, thank you.  I'm  all relaxed out, and I really just want to head into the streets of Izmir, 4 million people strong.  I want to ride the ESHOT bus with 37 sitting passengers and 108 standing passengers, all of them sweating as much as I do in our lovely Aegean weather and half of them coughing the next plague.  I want to shove my way through my fellow passengers to the bus exit, and Frogger my way from the bus stop across the street with no crosswalks.  So thank you, yes, I'll sign the form indicating I'm an idiot who can't figure out a locker so I can get my clothes back.

This blog brought to you by Mumford and Sons, particularly Little Lion Man, which my neighbors must all know the words to by now.