Pam has a week of holiday from her pre-school teaching job in Istanbul. We decide to go away together: a little hitching holiday. Pam hasn’t hitchhiked much before so it will be a real adventure; and we have no idea where we’re going as we leave her flat not so early on a Tuesday morning and cross Istanbul by bus, boat and train.
We are following the directions on Hitchwiki and pass through Gebze on the way to Eskishehir jetty, get an easy ride onto the boat across the Sea of Marmara estuary to Topçular Jetty on the other side. Here our truck stops and we extend our thumbs again. A car stops, but it’s unclear where he’s headed. We don’t want our drivers to know how indecisive we are, so we just say ‘yes’ when he asks if we are going to Bursa. Ok then, Bursa it is!
Actually, he wasn’t going to Bursa. Or maybe he was. At any rate, he seems more indecisive than we are and I’m not sure if he just doesn’t want to take us further because of the Turkish boyfriends we have invented to wait for us in Bursa, or because he really is stopping here. At any rate, we find ourselves in Gemlik, which seems like a nice little place. The sun is low in the sky and we’re hesitant to hitchhike in Turkey in the dark, so we watch the sun set from the rocks by the sea and take a dolmuş the rest of the way.
Unfortunately, it’s now late and there are no wild camping spots in sight. Walking the streets of Bursa for a few hours with heavy bags in search of internet is no fun and I’m sad to think Pam has discovered what my exciting-sounding lifestyle is really like. Strangely though, she’s still having a great time. Finally we find internet in a hotel lobby, which they kindly let us use for free. We make some couch-requests, but decide to break all my rules and pay for a cheap hotel – at about the time that somebody calls my phone and offers a couch on the other side of the city. Too late, we have decided on a hotel and Hotel Güneş (“Hotel Sunshine”) is the one. A lovely friendly old grandpa greets us warmly at the door and shows us to a room. White sheets! Mmmm… it’s like heaven!
Hotel Güneş is more like a hostel than a hotel. There’s space downstairs for people to hang out and past guests have covered the counter with suggestions for future ones. Apparently we should meet the school principle and visit a cafe nearby at 5pm to watch live music.
Bursa is a vibrant, colourful, musical city with with a real community flavour. It’s famous for it’s silk, plane trees, Turkish baths (hammams) built on thermal springs and special (vegan) Bursa chocolates with chestnut filling. No wonder everyone’s smiling.
The thing about silk is, despite being beautiful and despite being a cottage industry here in Bursa, I am still aware that you have to boil silk worms alive to make it, and so when the men try to lure me into their shops “real silk, only five lira!” I politely refuse. It’s a shame Bursa isn’t famous for it’s cotton industry, because I really need to buy a headscarf for Iran.
After some walking around we find ourselves back at the ho(s)tel around 5pm and who should we find waiting there, but the school principle. Apparently he comes every day after work and takes the guests out, purely for the fun of it. His favourite place is the cafe we read about earlier and this is where he takes four other guests as well as Pam and myself.
We’re all squashed in tightly to the small square room in the back of the cafe. A man brings çay for everyone and we balance glasses on knees. The men have already started playing. These men gather here at 5pm every day and play music together. I’m guessing these are Turkish folk songs because everybody seems to know them. A couple of men in particular have very strong, interesting characters and are especially talented. Occasionally one will signal to those of us not playing that we should clap along and after an hour or so a man gets up and begins dancing in the centre of the small square room. Before long lots of us are dancing. Oh, I love dancing. I haven’t danced in such a long time.
There are so many hammams (Turkish baths) in Bursa, there is even a hammam district. The one we’ve chosen is for women only, all of the time, and we are the only foreigners. We haven’t a clue what to do and have to ask in our terrible Turkish whether to wear underwear or not. We’re given a towel and a little scrubber each, like a coarse sponge-mitten. There are lots of rooms, like a steamy maze, and I frequently lose my way back to Pam after fetching water or using the toilet. My favourite thing here, apart from the wonderful hot pools and sauna, is the care the young girls take when scrubbing their grandmother’s backs and the calluses on their feet, removing the dead skin and sloshing hot water over them. “Never in England” I think to myself again.
I go to fetch water and find myself in the middle of a spontaneous hammam dance-party. One of the women grabs me and forces me to dance. More dancing? Well, if you insist! Pam needs no such encouragement and is already shaking her well-endowed thing to the drumming of the other women.
We love Hotel Güneş so much, we decide to stay another night and put our out of town couchsurfing host off until the third night. The second day is a rainy one, but not to be deterred, we begin a search for “that perfect cafe” and find one close enough in the shape of Papyrus, right around the corner from the hotel. Here they have Nargile pipes, Turkish Monopoly, Jenga and an abundance of tea and Turkish coffee, the perfect recipe for a rainy afternoon.
Somehow, this is my first time in a mosque. I don’t know, there aren’t so many in Brighton. Ulu Cami (“The Great Mosque”) is as large as it’s name suggests, with a multi-domed ceiling creating a grid effect of arches and pillars covered in calligraphic Arabic writing. According to the school principle, this mosque is 600 years old and the calligraphies are each from different time periods. A gaggle of head-scarved women sit on the opposite side of the section I’m in, which seems to be the women’s area. They chatter quietly and show off their new shawls and head-scarves. The ceiling of the mosque is approximately three times higher than necessary, and large yet simple chandeliers hang low on long wires, almost scraping the heads of those who walk beneath. Beads hang in convenient places, ready for use in prayer. A woman to my right counts hers off, rocking gently back and forth, muttering her prayers.
We have heard all about Cumalıkızık, the 700 year old village. Straight off the dolmuş we’re greeted by three very excited women in head-scarves, asking if we want to go to a hammam. “Oooh, hammam,” says Pam, “maybe later.” They continue chatting on about hammams in Turkish, patting their heads and wiggling. We are very confused until it finally dawns on us – these are the women from the hammam dance-party! We didn’t recognise them with their clothes on.
That excitement over with, we go for a walk around the village and are followed by a strange boy. I try to ask what he wants. First he asks for a photograph, then money, then he wants to touch us. Finally I try out my newly learned phrase on the boy – “Sikter git!” It works a treat and he slinks away immediately. This roughly translates as “fuck off” and is my new secret weapon.
We were planning to camp the night somewhere in the village, but seeing the exhorbitant prices for everything and being warned off doing so by the people who run the cafe, we decide to go back to Bursa and find another host. The cafe people are lovely. The girl wants to go to London, and is excited to meet someone from England. She links my arm when she escorts me to the toilet. We drink a couple of çays and a coffee, then the woman orders gözleme for us from over the road – getting the cheaper traders price. This is probably the best gözleme in the world and I am now an addict. Then we try to pay and they refuse to take any money from us – not for the gözleme, the çay or the coffee. What lovely people. But what’s the problem with this village? An older girl keeps repeating one word. We check it in the phrasebook: “young” Wow – we’re being warned about the youth!
We have two couchsurfing hosts in Bursa. The first, Serkan, is a well-travelled Turkish guy who gives us his last Belgian beer and a special glass to drink it in. He also lends Pam his cuddly frog for the night, which please her immensely. Our second host lives in the student area on the West side of town. Ekrem has two flatmates – one Turkish, one Kazakh. The Kazakh guy is particularly nice and he and Ekrem cook us a delicious breakfast in the morning, battling over who can make the nicest. Sweet.
Our week is over. We hitch a lift almost the whole way back to Istanbul with a truck driver named Aslan – Turkish for “Lion”. It’s Pam’s first time in a proper big truck and she grins the whole way home.
Silk and plane trees, chocolates, sweets, music, and an every-happy Pam: these will be my memories of Bursa.