I didn’t know much when I was 21, but one thing I did know was when you’re in Turkey you must visit a Turkish bath.
Turkey was a side trip added on after the Naked in Greece incident so I was already going by the name of Tripper when we stayed near the picturesque coastal village of Ölüdeniz.
The Turkish bath was in the nearby town of Fetiye and our cultural experience didn’t start off well.
First me and my university friend Daisy decided to hitch-hike to Fetiye to save money. No sooner had we stuck out our white thumbs than we were picked up by two transvestites and an older woman.
But it took us a while to realise they were transvestites. At first we thought they were just a regular mother and her grown up daughters out for a drive.
It’s a story about three big mistakes I made during that trip that experienced travellers still make.
1. Play it safe
As soon as our bags were in the boot and we were squashed into the back-seat with one of the girls-who-turned-out-to-be-men the mother-figure, who was driving, and the transvestite in the front seat started looking around at us and laughing. A lot.
So it didn’t take us long to realise the two “daughters” were actually men dressed as women. Soon the gay trio were gabbling away in Turkish cracking each other up while the one in the back peered closely at us and prodded us as if we were goats being taken off to the market.
He seemed to be fielding questions fired by the other two and finding out the answers to queries like: Did we have our own teeth? Were our ears pierced? Since our feet were so big maybe we were we men dressed as chicks too?
Since they didn’t speak any english, nor we turkish, Daisy and I soon became paranoid. Obviously they were laughing at us not with us which was awkward. Then Daisy became convinced that they planned to murder us, dump us in the middle of nowhere and drive off with our bags.
Suffice to say the journey to the Turkish bath was confusing and stressful.
At first we pretended to laugh along with them although we didn’t get the joke. Then we sat rooted to our seats shooting each other worried glances and covertly whispering escape plans. Finally we gripped the door handle and each other in silent fear, praying that, even if they took our bags, we’d escape with our lives.
But they turned out to be your average happy, harmless Turkish transvestites.
Eventually we swerved to a stop right outside the Turkish baths where they handed us our bags before careering off in a cloud of dust and cacophony of laughter.
We thought hanging out with locals made us superior to travellers who insulate themselves from local life by avoiding dangerous areas and stay in western hotels where they’re sealed off from true cultural exchanges. But reading guidebooks and hearing other people’s travel disaster stories had left us constantly suspicious, always expecting the worst of other people.
2. Believe guidebooks when your instincts are a better guide
At the Turkish baths we met our two travel friends and were swiftly denuded of all our Turkish lira then ushered into a tiny changing room.
The windowless box had stunning floral mosaic tiles, a urinal-like low basin that ran all along one wall (which may actually have been a urinal) and cockroaches swarming all over the floor.
There was no doubt that this was not some tourist trap, a Turkish bath created and used only by tourists. This was the Old Turkish Bath, the real deal, so we were equally thrilled and repulsed by what we saw.
Despite the warning bells we took off all our clothes as instructed and wrapped ourselves in the towels provided which seemed clean enough.
Following a maze of corridors we found our way to an enormous hexagonal room with a raised platform in the centre. Every surfaced was covered in in white tiles and the room was bare apart from a raised tap that sat high against one wall.
We perched together on the platform clutching our towels tightly. Just as we were all about to run away a small lithe Turkish man, clad in an even smaller white hand, minced into the room.
We spent three hours in the Turkish bath taking it in turns to lie on the platform, remove the towel and take a pummeling from the masseuse. This wasn’t a relaxing rub down. It was an intense ordeal which reduced two girls to tears. Not me with my stiff British upper lip though.
It wasn’t a pleasant experience but I could tell he was working out some of the tension after our stressful journey. And anyway, enduring a rough massage was nothing compared to being robbed and beaten up by transvestites which was how I thought my afternoon would pan out.
I even enjoyed the final hair wash. It seemed as if the Turkish bath man was satisfied that he’d given us a good enough beating and contented himself with a gentle scalp massage to finish things off.
No one spoke English at the Turkish bath and we barely spoke to each other we were all so traumatized, either by the pummeling of the near death experience on the way there.
So it wasn’t until we got back to our guest house and told people about our Turkish bath experiences that we heard that a man should never ever see a woman naked at the Turkish bath and that the two sexes are normally strictly segregated.
A little fact which none of our guidebooks had mentioned.
3. Try to impress other travellers
It all felt so wrong getting naked there in the Turkish bath but we called those guidebooks our bible, every traveller did, and we relied on them fully.
Still, looking back I can see there were plenty of reasons for pulling out and times when we could have: after we escaped from the transvestites, when we saw the cockroaches, when we had to get naked and when the masseuse hurt us.
But we carried on anyway because no one wanted to be the first to admit that they just weren’t enjoying themselves, that things didn’t feel right and they’d prefer to hang out on the beach reading a book.
So we got taken for two rides that afternoon in Turkey.
Still, we decided to extend our trip with a jaunt to the Oktober Festival in Munich. It’s as if I was trying to get in the Guinness Book of Records for stupidest backpacker ever and the follow-up story Hitch-hiking, Camping and Kitchen Towels is evidence that’s a title I deserved.
I didn’t make any little mistakes traveling in Turkey like losing my passport, getting pick-pocketed or the Turkish trots. I thought I was an experienced traveller, pushed myself out of my comfort zone and then made far greater errors.
Two decades later I’m still at it. Still pushing myself out of my comfort zone to avoid living an average life and still making mammoth mistakes.
Often I feel like a failure for doing that because we’re think when we’re forty our lives will be sorted and we’ll be infallible.
But it turns out no matter how much wisdom you amass or how old you get you’ll still stuff up constantly if you overcome your fears and keep pushing your boundaries.
It’s either that or stagnate and I’m choosing to carry on making more mistakes.
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What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made when travelling?