Rick Steves' bus tour through Turkey provides American tourists with a front-row seat to local culture, religion.

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ANTALYA, Turkey — The Turkish bath wasn’t our idea.

We couldn’t see ourselves lying stark naked on a marble slab as big as a king-size bed while muscular Turks wielding bristly luffas scrubbed us raw, sudsed us clean, oiled us down and gave us a bone-bruising massage.
But to Mine (say MEE-nuh) Karahan, our guide to all things Turkish for a week and a half, a visit to a 700-year-old bathhouse was a cultural experience we shouldn’t pass up.

So were the stop at a village market to buy the one-size-fits-all baggy pants Turkish women in the countryside wear, the lessons in how to tie our scarves the way Muslim women do, and the dinner party where we all did our best imitation of a belly dance.

None of this was especially pretty. But it was fun.

We two had never taken an organized tour. Who wants to be trapped inside a bus all day, we sniffed, isolated from the locals, herded from museum to market, mosque to church and on to another town, another market?
But our previous foreign trip, an independent visit to Japan, had been a bear to arrange and we were ready to kick back on this one. So we put our preconceived notions about group tours aside and signed up for a Rick Steves bus tour. Most of us were middle-age, although two recent college graduates were aboard with parents. We covered 1,750 miles in 13 days, with 10 major stops.

Many of the sights we visited were ones we would have done on our own to markets, museums, ancient ruins, mosques, churches and fast-food joints. (Don’t knock the dilli kasarli, the roasted-tongue sandwich served up by a Turkish chain, until you’ve tried it.)

But we also had that Turkish scrub-down, visited with the leader of a rural Muslim congregation, ate a luncheon stew slow-cooked by a widow whose oven is a 3-foot-deep hole dug in the dirt outside her house, and listened to Mine, a Muslim, tell stories of the Apostle Paul in the Ephesus arena he was kicked out of for preaching Christianity to the Romans.

And, lest anyone think we were segregated from the “real Turks,” Mine pushed us off the bus more than once, pointed us in the direction of a market, and said, “Go mingle with the people, go talk to them. They’ll be nice to you, even if you don’t speak the language.”

She was right.

The locals strained to hear words they recognized from our fractured attempts at Turkish. The phrase for “Thank you” (tesekkur ederim) is supposed to sound something like “Tea, sugar, a dream,” but every time we tried it, people would look puzzled and then, when it dawned on them what we were trying to say, howl with laughter.
So we adopted a modest French, “Merci,” which Mine assured us everyone understood.

Bathhouse visit

The guide books had warned that Turkish-bath attendants can be especially rough on female tourists.
But figuring there’s safety in numbers, nine of us (five men, four women) made our way nervously down a cobble-stoned hillside from our hotel to the bathhouse.

Rose, the sturdy attendant in the women’s side of our bathhouse, had shed her Muslim head scarf and high-necked cardigan sweater in favor of a black lace bra and panties. She grabbed our hands to lead us through the process, which wasn’t gentle but wasn’t unbearable, either. When one of us remarked in English to the others on her firm biceps, she grinned, flexed her arm and said, proudly, “Keek-boxing, eh?”

As we rolled along from Istanbul through Turkey’s rural center and along the Mediterranean seaside, Mine, who has a political-science degree from a Turkish university, read aloud from newspapers she picked up each morning or answered our questions about life in Turkey.

In the village of Guzelyurt, we woke early to a concert of Middle Eastern sounds: roosters crowing, doves cooing, dogs barking, donkeys braying, and the minor-key call to prayer from the minaret at the mosque that once was the village’s physical and spiritual center.

In the mosque, we met Ramazan, the young imam, who sits regularly with Americans traveling in Steves-sponsored tours to answer questions about Islam and Turkey’s religious culture.

Ninety-nine percent of Turkey’s population is Muslim. The government is secular, but appoints and pays the clergy.
Ramazan’s mosque dates from the 4th Century and is being shored up by the government, which considers it something of a tourist attraction, despite the fact that Guzelyurt is a little off the tourist track.

Ramazan doesn’t preach about politics at Friday services. Provoking controversy is not part of his mission, he explained. His biggest challenge? The young people of Guzelyurt are moving to the city for better jobs, and the mosque isn’t the center of activity it once was.

Cultural connections

Mine rescued some of us from one of those cross-cultural clashes that sometimes turn into learnable moments for travelers.

We had hoped to see an evening prayer service in Konya, the spiritually conservative home of Mevlana Rumi, Turkey’s beloved poet and mystic, and the whirling dervishes.

A man in the market said we all could go but the women must stay at the back of the sanctuary. We women adjusted head scarves, put our shoes in bins inside the door, and moved quietly to the back of the room. Suddenly an angry man came out of the crowd of male worshippers, shooing us behind a drape into an area set aside for women.

The area was overflowing with women bowed to the floor in prayer, and it soon became clear we Westerners needed to find our way out. As we stepped by the worshippers toward, we hoped, an exit, they gave us understandably dirty looks. About that time Mine showed up and led us quietly out through three sections of scowling women.

The men in our group emerged from an uneventful (to them) experience, only to have to re-enter the mosque to retrieve the women’s shoes from the bins.

When we weren’t making nuisances of ourselves, the people we met were eager to help us appreciate Turkey’s place as a gateway to the Middle East.

In rural Anatolia, we lunched with Fahriye Ozbek in her large sitting room, where she dished up a country stew made with white beans cooked over an open fire in a hole about a foot in diameter and three-feet deep, dug into the hard-packed dirt outside her kitchen.

We asked if she had words of wisdom for Americans.

“Be glad you have an education,” she said. “And always be respectful of the people who are older than you.”
Thanks to Fahriye’s rural wisdom and Mine’s loosely structured guidance, we’ve decided we probably experienced as much of Turkey’s rich culture as we could have on our own. And we did it from the cocoon of a tour bus.

Sally and John Macdonald are retired Seattle Times staffers. Sally was a reporter, John was travel editor.