Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Great Soapy Turkish Hamam Adventure

I have a confession to make: I was a Turkish hamam virgin until last week.

Yes, I had heard about Turkish steam baths and how the tradition had passed through the Romans to the Byzantines, and then onto the Turks. The Moroccans have a similar system, although for some reason unbeknownst to me, I declined to have one when I was there over Christmas.

Anyway, three weeks in Turkey gave me absolutely no excuse not to try a legendary hamam, and it was really just a matter of finding time in the busy tour to schedule one.

A free afternoon in the small town of Selcuk presented the perfect opportunity.

We had been roaming all morning around the ruins of Ephesus – the mother of all archaeological sites in Turkey. It was an extremely hot day, and we’d been clambering down ancient cobbled streets amid hordes of tourists. One nearby cruise ship alone had offloaded 51 busloads of passengers into the site, and we then had to battle our way through the throng of eager vendors on the way out of the site. It was nothing short of hot, sweaty chaos.

Little did I know that the theme of hot, sweaty chaos would continue...

Linda and Bill, a lovely Canadian couple from my tour group, decided they were up for trying the hamam. We agreed to set off into the town’s centre later that afternoon.

I had read and heard various things about the protocol for bath houses. There were typically separate bathing rooms for men and women, and men attendants massaged men and women attendants massaged women. Sometimes there were even specific days and times for men or women to use the hamam. Also, it seemed that in some bath houses you stripped of completely, while others gave you towels or sarong-like gizmos to wrap up in, while others recommended you wore underwear or a swimming costume throughout the whole process. I erred on the side of caution and wore my swimmers.

The bath house was near the police station, and we greeted a man who was sitting outside smoking.

Inside, the lobby was dimly light and there seemed to be few people. We explained what we wanted – the sauna/steam bath, loofah wash down and oil massage. It all seemed to be quite straightforward.

We were issued with a tartan-like sarong and ushered into a small change room, where we could leave our clothes. They placed our valuables in a rickety old safe.

The man then nodded in the direction of the steam room. At this point, I thought Linda and I would move into a separate area from Bill, and that women attendants would appear...

There was in fact one large steam room, with two men already in there. Linda and I were making rapid eye movements to each other and Bill, as the logistics of the situation started whirling, dervish like, round our minds. At that point I was saying a million silent thank you’s for my swimming costume, and also that I’d not come alone.

A large octagonal marble platform, about knee height, sat in the centre of the room. Smaller cubicles with showers and curtains lined one wall, and there were two higher marble slabs at the back of the room.

The high domed ceiling had small light holes that cut through the steamy haze. I don’t know what the temperature was in that room, but it seemed hotter than it had been at Ephesus...

A third man – a huge Turk wearing only the same sort of sarong we were wearing, entered the room and motioned for Bill to sit on the slab at the back. Linda and I watched on. The Turk filled up a bucket of water and, without warning, unceremoniously dumped it over Bill’s head. He motioned for Bill to move over to the central slab and lie face down with his head in the centre of the octagon. Bill apparently wasn’t in the right position, so the Turk shunted Bill’s feet with his huge hands, sliding Bill into the right position. I was desperately trying to hold back nervous giggles.

Linda and I got the same treatment, and then the water man tipped water over his own head and joined us on the slab.

At this point, four of us – two men, and two women were lying on a hot marble slab in a wet sarong. We visitors were not quite sure how long we were to stay there, or what would happen next.

The Turk broke the silence and uttered the words “makes good photo. Photo?”

Linda and I stared at each other at about the time our jaws hit the marble...In hindsight, that would have been the perfect photo.

“NO. No – no thank you. NO PHOTO,” we both sputtered. It was hard to relax after that. I was checking out the steam room for hidden cameras.

We lay face down on the marble until the Turk rolled over onto his back. That seemed to be a natural cue for us all to do the same –when in doubt, copy the locals! It was then completely silent except for four people’s breathing and the dripping of water, and my sarong decided to make fart-like noises. Under the circumstances, I felt the need to explain that it was the sarong. Oh god...was I ever going to relax?

As I wondering how much longer I could restrain myself from (1) laughing hysterically; and (2) suffocating on hot steamy air, another sarong-wielding Turkish man came into the room, patted the slab at the back and motioned for Bill to lie face down on it.

SPLASH went another bucket of water over my Canadian friend, and then the Turk began to use a hand loofah to start sloughing apparent grime off him. I’d heard that this part of the process was particularly rough and that people came out feeling raw but very clean. Linda and I were attempting to keep flat on the central slab, but ended up cocking our heads and straining our necks to observe what was going on. She asked if I would like to be temporarily adopted as their daughter, and I very quickly agreed.

We each followed suit with the loofah-ing. It was the ultimate exfoliation! My skin tingled – probably due to my newly-acquired Ephesus sun burn, as much as the fact that the top three layers of my epidermis were being scrubbed away. Actually, it wasn’t painful or remotely uncomfortable.

After more time back on the central slab, our attendant motioned for Bill to head back to the “work bench”.

This time, he had what looked like a huge net bag full of suds, and dumped it all over Bill. Very quickly, Bill was hidden in soap. This went on for some minutes, and once again, Linda and I followed suit.

I shall point out the obvious – marble, water and three tonnes of soap suds make for extremely slippery conditions – especially when two very large hands are loofah-ing you within in an inch of your life. The attendant asked me to turn over, and I swear it was nothing short of a miracle that I actually made it onto my back. Think of a beached whale laughing hysterically, incapable of rolling itself over, and you should get an image that just about mirrors my experience.

We were then told to shower off and head out to the lobby. Once in the lobby, a dry sarong was wrapped round our middle, a different coloured towel draped around our shoulders, and yet another towel twisted around our heads, turban style. We were then offered hot tea.

And that’s when it dawned on us that we were missing the perfect Kodak moment. There was not a camera amongst us, so we simply chuckled at the memory that we will collectively file away into amusing travel moments folder.

The tea was surprisingly refreshing and no sooner had we drunk it, we were being ushered upstairs for the oil massage. I’d almost forgotten that part of the order.

Once again, it was male masseurs – two of the guys who had been in the steam room. The Turkish style of massage was far more brisk than what I learned in Swedish massage. It was certainly firm, although my masseur went fairly gently. Not so for Bill, who was apparently pounded.

After the steam, wash and scrub, the massage was heavenly. Perfect conditions for the oil to work into the skin and ease my sun burn. I came away feeling like a newborn!

I couldn’t help myself, and had a quick chat with the masseur about various massage techniques – his style of percussion, and the one I’d learned etc. I always find it fascinating to compare different styles of massage.

The whole process lasted about an hour and cost us 35 Turkish Lira each, or about £12-14. Ironically, I read my Lonely Planet Guide Book when I got back to the hotel, and its report on Selcuk Haman was very good - "Everything is thoroughly clean and respectable". Indeed it was.

The Great Soapy Turkish Hamam Adventure was one of the most nerve-wracking, memorable and (eventually) relaxing experiences I’ve had while travelling.

Thanks to Bill and Linda for sharing the memory, though I’m kinda glad there’s no photographic evidence. :-)

The Dervishes whirled...

We sat in circular bays in a large, cool underground cavern. In the centre of the room, a knee-high fence created a circular stage. In one quadrant, there was a long white sheep-skin rug, and in another quadrant, a smaller red rug. Once the lights dimmed, chatter and flash photography were forbidden, and we were simply asked to observe.

Four men in long dark cloaks and tall, cone-shaped felt hats entered from a side door and took their positions in front of various instruments on a long bench.

A drum sounded.

Another man in similar attire entered the stage area, followed by five more men. The mood was sombre and slightly eerie. We had read about this ceremony, and had been told about it on the brief drive out through the bizarre lunar landscape to Avanos, home to the cave in which we were now sitting. But nothing could quite prepare us for the actual ritual that was the Sema.

Sema is the inspiration of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, and is an important part of Turkish custom, history, beliefs and culture. It symbolises in seven parts, the different meanings of a mystic cycle to perfection. The ceremony is performed by the Whirling Dervishes – the five men who entered the room last.

It began with a eulogy to the Prophet, and was then followed by another sounding of the drum. The Whirling Dervishes were all kneeling in prayer position on the long white rug.

The musicians then began an instrumental, with the focus on a “ney” – a simple string guitar like instrument which apparently takes a lifetime to master. According to the brochure, this phase represents the Diving Breath – the first breath which gives life to everything.

Next, the Dervishes gave silent greetings to each other, in a circular walk round the stage area, called the Devri Veledi, accompanied by music called “peshrev”. This symbolised the salutation of soul to soul concealed by shapes and bodies.

And then the Dervishes began to twirl – or whirl on their own axis to the beat of the ney. This is the actual Sema, and consists of four salutes or “Selam’s”.

The five men had removed their black cloaks to reveal long white gowns underneath, which flared when they whirled. It was hypnotic except for the constant and strong “whoosh” as their gowns whizzed by us.

How they didn’t get dizzy or lose balance was amazing. They were in an intense meditative state, as they silently communed with their God.

According to the brochure, “the Sema ceremony represents the mystical journey of a man’s spiritual ascent through mind and love to the Perfect (Kemel). Turning towards the truth, he grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth, and arrives to the “Perfect”. Then he returns from the spiritual journey as a man who reached maturity and a greater perfection, so as to love and to be of service to the whole creation, to all creatures without discrimination.”

As they whirled, the Dervishes’ arms were open, their right hands directed to the sky, ready to apparently receive God’s gifts; and their lefts hands were turned toward the earth. It is said that the revolution from right to left, around the heart, allows the Dervishes to embrace all humankind with affection and love.

The whirling went on for about half an hour, and was followed by a reading from the Quran. The ceremony concluded with a prayer for the peace of the souls of all Prophets and all believers. After the completion of the ceremony, the Dervishes returned to silently to their rooms for meditation.

A sole Dervish then came out and whirled for our cameras.

The Sema was an incredibly moving experience. It didn’t matter that it was not spoken in English – little was said anyway. It was like watching meditation in motion – which is curious, because meditation is usually associated with stillness.

If you ever get the chance to see some Whirling Dervishes, it’s really worth a look – particularly in the atmospheric cavern out in Avanos, in the middle of Turkey’s Cappadocia region.

See for more information.

Friday, May 9, 2008

A colourful life – Aura Soma can reveal all!

I’d seen Aura Soma long before I knew what it was. When I worked at Wynyard a few years ago, each day I would walk to my bus stop and pass a little shop with shelves stacked with small glass bottles full of beautiful coloured liquid. No – it wasn’t the local bottle shop, but it was where Aura Soma readings took place.

While I never ventured into that particular shop, I came across it again at the Mind, Body & Soul show last November in London. Once again, I was drawn to the beautiful coloured liquids and had a chat with the people at the stand to find out what it was about.

They explained that this system was about how the colours you chose at any given point reflected your being’s needs. Like tarot readings, Aura Soma practitioners were trained to “read” the bottles and colours that a client selected and provide guidance in the way that the tarot cards might.

The Aura Soma system, they explained, was developed by Vicky Wall. She was an apothecarist during the the Second World War. She later became a chiropodist and opened a clinic with her friend Margaret Cockbain. Vicky suffered from diabetes and later became blind from this ailment. In meditation she was told to separate the waters and so Aura-Soma was born.

The Equilibrium bottles are used for readings and consist of dual coloured bottles (although some bottles do only contain one colour). The bottles contain living energies through crystal energies, colour, herbs and essential oils. The top fraction is oil based while the bottom fraction is water based and carries energies from the Glastonbury Well.

I had a 30-minute reading at the show and was intrigued at how a complete stranger could tell me so much about my personality and what was going in my life at the time, just by looking at the combination of four bottles I had chosen. I bought one of the Equilibrium bottles and continue to use it each day.

I was then given a gift voucher for a full reading, which I had this week at Dolphins & Angels in South Croydon. Simone, who trains Aura Soma practitioners, did my reading and I’m really pleased to have met such a lovely, sensitive lady.

Once again, I was asked to pick four bottles from the full set of 103. Simone explained that these four bottles represented my mission and life purpose, my gifts and talents, the here and now and the possible outcome or future based on the rest of my colour selection.

The rest of the reading then involved her analysing each bottle choice. Throughout the reading, it was really interesting to hear the odd creak. I thought it was the building, but Simone said that it was actually the Equilibrium bottles creaking. She said they did this often, and not to be concerned if one of the bottles actually shattered of its own accord. Being infused with crystals and essential oils, the Equilibrium bottles apparently respond to the energy in the room. Sometime the creaks were really loud – as if the bottles were talking to us. Ok, ok – that may sound odd, but you have to check it out if you don’t believe me!

I have always loved the colour pink, so it came as no surprise when my first choice was a double magenta bottle – Number 67, which in the Aura Soma range, is called Love from Above.

Simone explained that this bottle was about connecting with the soul’s potential and bringing this into everyday life in a practical way. I could really relate to this – not necessarily because I would say I was a “spiritual person”, but because I have always believed in exploring human potential in myself and others. I feel that my recent decision to start my own holistic therapies business is one of the ways this desire to manifest my soul’s potential is singing loud and clear right now. She also said bottle #67 represented grace and abundance. I’m not sure if I could relate so much to the grace aspect, but certainly the abundance aspect was something that resonated. I feel like I have a lot to be grateful for – great family and friends, and lots of choice and opportunity. That, to me, is what abundance is about.

My second bottle choice was called Oberon, which was clear on the top and turquoise on the bottom. This, Simone explained, was about freedom, listening to the inner teacher, and identifying really what the heart really wants. Once again, all of that resonated with the changes going on in my life at the moment, and it helped to put a few things into perspective.

Meanwhile, the bottles over on the backlit shelf creaked away. I giggled each time it happened. I was really hoping one would explode – just to test the energy thing!

My third bottle was called El Morya – Number 50. It was pale blue on pale blue, which kind of surprised me. I love the colour blue, but would usually go for something darker or more vibrant. I loved the peaceful feeling of this bottle though. El Morya was about a readiness to live life from now on in harmony with the greater whole. I thought that was pretty fitting, having just made a fairly major decision to leave corporate life.

And finally, my fourth bottle was called The New Messenger, which was the stunning turquoise once again, over an equally vibrant violet. This colour choice also surprised me – but I was again drawn to the amazing colour combination. Simone explained that this bottle represented a deep transformation. She also said that it was about “creative communication of the heart in the service of others.” Wow! That to me sums up everything I want my holistic therapy business to be about – the physical massage, marketing courses for therapists and a range of other ideas I’m dying to get back to Australia and get going.

Simone summed it all up and said that she felt like there was an incredible flow to my bottle choices. I felt great – very happy and peaceful. And once again, I was amazed by how much this stranger and these bottles could reveal about me in just over an hour and a half.

The voucher entitled me to a product, and Simone recommended a Pomander and a Quintessence. She showed me how to use them both, and after I tried the samples, I decided on the Deep Magenta pomander. Not surprisingly, it was pink – but I chose it before Simone told me it was deep magenta...the pink think sure is alive and kicking in my life!

As we were finishing up the session, the creaking over on the shelf went a bit mad, and one of the bottles literally cracked and shattered onto the floor. My jaw hit the ground at about the same time, and I felt the urge to apologise. Simone laughed and said had expected it. She checked out which bottle had exploded, and it was one that corresponded with tarot – and represented the return journey of the Fool.

I laughed. It seemed completely fitting. The Fool in tarot does not necessarily represent an idiot, but the spirit in search of experience. I like Wikipedia’s definition of The Fool:

“He represents the mystical cleverness bereft of reason within us, the childlike ability to tune into the inner workings of the world. The sun shining behind him represents the divine nature of the Fool's wisdom and exuberance. On his back are all the possessions he might need. In his hand there is a flower, showing his appreciation of beauty. He is frequently accompanied by a dog, sometimes seen as his animal desires, sometimes as the call of the "real world", nipping at his heels and distracting him. He is seemingly unconcerned that he is standing on a precipice, apparently about to leap, engaged in the supremest act of idiocy or trust."

I prefer to think that I am currently engaged in the supremest act of trust. :-)

Dolphins & Angels is based in South Croydon and also have a cool blog here.

Check out Aura Soma – who knows what your colours will reveal about you!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Inspiration through tragedy

About 6 years ago when I was mid-way through my MA in Journalism, an inspiring young woman - Cynthia Banham, who had done my course a few semesters before me came into our feature writing class to give us an overview of what it was like to work as a real journalist.

She had transitioned from a fully practicing lawyer from freelance writer to a reporter on one of Australia's most respected newspapers - the Sydney Morning Herald. I followed Cynthia's work ever since, because I completely admired how she decided she wanted to be a journalist, and then worked her butt off to become one - on a top paper no less.

Last March, I remember reading in shock, about how Cynthia had somehow made it out of the horrific plane crash at Indonesia's Yogyjakarta airport that claimed the lives of 25 people including 5 Australians.

Cynthia suffered horrendous injuries, including the amputation of her legs, and after what must have been an incredibly long, painful and emotional recovery, she began to write again for the Herald.

This lady has such tremendous courage and a determination to push on - she's now the Herald's diplomatic editor, a huge achievement for a journalist in normal circumstances, let alone after such a life-changing tragedy.

I noticed a story in yesterday's Herald called A friendship forged in tragedy, about how Cynthia had recently met Gill Hicks. Gill survived the London bombings in 2005, but was so badly injured by the bomb blast that her legs had to be amputated below the knees.

Five months later she made international headlines when, on prosthetic legs, she walked down the aisle of St Etheldreda's Church in London on her wedding day, just as she'd planned to do before the bombings.

The article is a wonderful example of human spirit - of two courageous Australian women who are learning to move forward in a life without legs.

Like Cynthia, I found huge inspiration in Gill's perspective on life.

"Our physical selves have changed, but we are alive," Gill told me. "It's important to be here and to, I think, make a difference to everybody's life who comes across our paths and to value life in a very different way, because we've had a great reminder that it can all be taken away in a breath, and not only taken away permanently but it can be changed in an unimaginable way.

"By no means am I saying I wouldn't turn the clock back because I would without hesitation - but that's not a reality and the reality is that we're here and it's about what we do now."

When I read stories like this, I'm reminded of how easy it is to take things for granted, and how easily and quickly life can change - for the better, or for the worse. But as Gill says, its about what we do now, in our current reality, that's most important.

*NB, Picture is copright of the Sydney Morning Herald