By Deepthi Nair
They were ubiquitous: outside the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, on Istiklal Avenue, Taksim Square, aboard a Bosphorous cruise, on Galata Bridge, taking in views of the sunset or sitting beside me at that roadside kebab joint in Istanbul. At first sight, I was disgusted by what I saw: men with blood-soaked, bandaged heads with a triangle of red spots on their scalps. But later as I realised how common this sight was, it piqued my interest: was it a religious practice? Some kind of offering where they tonsured their hair and submitted it to deities?
The sheer numbers of men wandering the streets of Istanbul with gauze around their heads and headbands on their foreheads led me to make some enquiries. I realised that these men were not just in Istanbul to take in the sights, but to also get a new head of hair. They represent the cornerstone of one of Turkey’s booming industries: hair transplants. Men with receding hairlines are making a beeline to Turkey to take advantage of cheaper prices for hair transplants. These are mostly Arab visitors from the Middle East, particularly the Gulf. I was told by the staff in my hotel that transplants came in the form of a package deal. Book a hair transplant and the cost includes, besides the surgery, a pick-up from the airport—a luxury car arranged by the clinic, hotel reservation in a central location, some sightseeing thrown in and drop-off to the airport. What’s to complain about?
CHEWY ICE CREAM, ETC
Turkish ice cream and the talented street vendors are another sight to behold. Not only was I surprised by the chewy ice cream that refused to melt, I was also subject to the vendor’s sleight of hand, the tricks he performed which attracted curious onlookers in the busy Eminonu junction. The sight of hundreds of Turks assembling along Galata Bridge and casting their fishing lines into the Golden Horn below is something of an anachronism. The tram plies in the background. Liners of the Bosphorous cruises chug along the waters below, yet all these anglers worry about is getting their catch for the day and going back home with their buckets full. It is also common to see these amateur fishermen sell their mackerel or catch of the day to passersby.
Another item on my to-do list during my Istanbul sojourn was the authentic hammam or Turkish bath. This ritual goes back to the Ottoman period when no one in Istanbul had their own bathtub. The story goes, groups of women or men would visit the hammam, scrub well, catch up on all the gossip, strike business deals and even perhaps, find a daughter-in-law. Although hammams are aplenty in Dubai spas, I realised that the traditional facilities in Turkey are a big deal. I loved it when my therapist immersed me in a frothy cloud of soap suds and proffered a bubble massage. Be warned though, modesty has no place in a Turkish hammam.
I also visited Cappadocia, the land of surreal rock formations. Besides the ethereal beauty of drifting in a hot air balloon above the clouds over the Cappadocian valleys and mountains, a guide who navigated us through an underground city in Kaymakli remains etched in my memory. Traversing the low, narrow caves and alleys in a crouched position turned out to be physically cumbersome for my (tall!) husband and I. Yet, intrigued by the history of settlers, we managed to emerge from the subterranean city in one piece. Our guide’s revelation that he had been going about his job, crouching and manoeuvring his way through the underground chambers for 30 odd years had us stumped. It lent us a new perspective and taught us to count our blessings. As Ulysses wrote: “I cannot rest from travel. I will drink life to the lees.
Deepthi writes on Dubai property, but loves to be in the thick of all that’s fun in this great city