You probably thought you were done hearing from me for a while — at least until I got to Istanbul, right? Well, so did I, but now there’s news: the Turks may not have grasped the concept of deodorant, but they have definitely got bathing down to an art!
Faced with a morning of unscheduled time between checking out of the hotel and leaving for the airport, Amanda and I decided to go to a hammam, a.k.a. Turkish bath. Unlike Christians in Western Europe, who at one point thought that bathing was bad for you, Muslims have been bathing for centuries; apparently being clean is an important element of Islam. Given the general lack of indoor plumbing, they developed these elaborate community bath houses called hammams, with saunas and pools and the various accoutrements for intense bathing. Here’s how it worked for us:
We arrive at the hammam, check in, and are directed to changing rooms where we are given little sandals and a towel to wrap around our nakedness. (Not being entirely confident that the towel would remain around my nakedness, I opted to keep on some quick-drying travel underwear I’d brought for this sort of situation; the people who designed garments weren’t exactly thinking of hammam.) Once sandaled and toweled, we were shepharded into a sauna. A man came in with a vat of green mud and a paintbrush, which he used to smear the green mud all over our faces. Then he pointed to an 15-minute hourglass on the wall and gestured in a way that made it clear that we were not to leave the rooom until all the sand had run out. Then he closed the door and we sat.
We sat, and we roasted. Boy was it hot! The thermometer registered about 49 degrees Celsius, which I think comes out to about 120 degrees Fahrenheit! Needless to say, within seconds I was running with sweat. And for those of you who might be concerned about my virtue, given that I was sitting there in nothing but a towel in seclusion with a girl who was similarly dressed, let me just point out that there is nothing glamorous or sexy about profuse sweating, especially when it also involves rivers of green mud running from you face down into your bellybutton. Eventually I had more or less acclimated to the heat and felt I could hold out for the full 15 minutes more or less comfortably. But then the guy came back in and ladled a bucket of water onto the brazier that was heating the room. So now not only was it 5 million degrees in there, but it was also super humid! Ay!
Finally the sand ran out and we headed back out into the main room. This room was a large octagonal room entirely of marble. Around the perimeter were benches with personal water basins and bowls for pouring water over oneself. In the center of the room was a raised marble platform. We were directed to lie down on this platform and relax for a while. Turns out, lying flat on your back on hard marble is pretty comfortable. The marble was heated from within, and the gentle heat radiated through my back and limbs and felt great. After the intense heat of the sauna, I was ready for this relaxation — it kind of felt like the relaxation pose at the end of a good yoga workout. By the time I had relaxed to the point of nearly dosing off, the man came back in the room for the next phase.
This phase was the washing/exfoliating phase. The man took me over to the bench on the outside of the room and filled a basin with water. He took the bowl and poured the water all over me. Then he pulled on a large, rough glove, and started scrubbing me. To get the proper emphasis, maybe I should say SCRUBBING me. First my back, then my arms, legs, chest and stomach — everything was subject to the most vigorous scrubbing I’ve ever had. It didn’t hurt, fortunately, but it was definitely vigorous. The effect, as you might imagine, was amazing: SO much skin came off! I had no idea I had that much skin to lose!
After the scrubbing, and a rinse to get rid of my newly shed skin, the guy directed me to lie back down on the central platform. I lay down, and he immediately pulled off my towel. Yikes! Good thing I’d thought to leave my trunks on, or I’d have been there naked as a jaybird! (Amanda, on the other hand, hadn’t anything on under her towel and now claims that I “cheated.”)
Thus stripped down of both my extra skin and my modesty blanket, I was ready for soap and a massage. The guy lathered up huge mounds of soap suds (think giant watermelons) and dumped them on top of me. He then used what felt like a big loofa to rub the foam around my body before starting in with the massage. Like the scrubbing, this soap massage was extremely vigorous — no delicate day-spa treatment here! He started with legs and feet, then worked up my back to my arms and shoulders, then went back and started all again. In addition to the rubbing he would occasionally give me these great slaps on the back or thighs; I never could tell what the point of the smacking was, other than they made terrific echoes in the giant marble chamber. Once my backside was sufficiently soaped and massaged, the guy turned me over and did the front side. The best move was when he pulled my arms across my chest and rubbed the underside — it gave a delightful stretch in the triceps. My least favorite move was when he was washing my stomach. Think of how you might scrub a floor on your hands and knees: you’d lean on one arm for support, and scrub away with the other. That’s basically how he approached my stomach, which would have been fine, except that the support arm was planted not on the marble slab, but my chest! So with each effort to scrub my stomach he forced out all the air from my lungs!
When the soapy massage was done, I was taken back over to the basin for one last rinse and then directed to jump into a cold pool that was at first a shock to the system, but eventually felt very good. Eventually Amanda joined me (fortunately they’d let her keep her wrap — which was more than they’d done for me) and we chilled in the pool for a while reflecting on what had just happened to us and wondering what we were supposed to do next. When no one appeared to direct us to any further scrubbing or massaging, we got out and showered off. We were met at the exit by a man with towels who dried us off and sent us back to the dressing room.
Now, sitting here at the computer, I have to say that was probably the best bathing experience ever. I feel incredibly clean and refreshed and invigorated — especially after so many days of heat and sweat and dust. I’m glad we went in the morning, since we were the only ones there so we could figure it out without the awkwardness of a million stares. On the other hand, I can now appreciate the tradition of having men and women separate in the hamams. Amanda and I are planning on going to another one in Istanbul, and we’re definitely going with the non-mixed option.
Okay, that’s it for now. I’ve got to run to get to the airport for Istanbul. Woot!