Originally published on June 5, 2009 during my Big Trip to the Middle East.
By today, B and I were a little worn out after three solid days of sightseeing and dedicated today to casual neighborhood walks and the Turkish Bath – the Hamam. In the morning after yogurt and olives for breakfast, we walked out to the main street and through the bazaars, the grand bazaar at first and then the spice markets and then the markets for every day things like straps and rivets and kitchen appliances.After two hours we were done, ready to head back and prepare for the Hamam – our first Turkish Bath experience in Istanbul.
B had researched the bath place online and found it in Frommer’s and Rick Steves – it was the Suleyman Hamam, the actual Hamam used by the emperor in the 1500s. I came out of the bathroom, packing up some things…“It’s coed,” she remarked. “Men will give you the bath… and you have to be covered up.” OK…thinking that a bath would not be really relaxing in my tube, figuring condensing swimsuit, I began to strategize. “They provide bottoms and a bikini top for the women,” Bethany supplied. I had no idea was to expect, but was pretty sure any provided bathwear would not cover the girls fully.
We walked for 20 minutes and found actual signs to the bath, it was a legitimate historical site. There was no one around at 3 p.m., the street was deserted and had stores on one side and the wall of Istanbul University on the other. The building was a gray brick and had a small dark wood door. I opened it slowly, half thinking I was going to surprise some bathers on the other side. The inside had a manish, hunting lodge feel. It was an open space with two stories opening onto the central area. Red fabric covered cushions lined the walls and we sat down for tea as we waited for our bath. This was the “cold room” but not really bath like, more of a lounge. B and I were alone for about 15 minutes and then a couple and a lone woman came in.
The Cold Room: Stage 1 of The Turkish Bath
A man in traditional Turkish Bath uniform (?) led us to the changing rooms. On the bed were our bathing costumes – a pair of red plaid boxer shorts and a string bikini top. Both mine were understandably larger than B’s. The boxers fit fine and I was relieved not to wear my boxers, but the top. It was like to folded napkins that covered about 1/3 of what they needed to. I wore my bra and wrapped the plaid towel around my midsection. They gave us these clog like shoes, a wooden platform with one leather strap ala Dr. Scholl’s shoes. They felt less sturdy than walking barefoot on the marble and I took each step very cautiously. No matter what, B and I had decided to let our inhibitions go because a) we were walking around in a version of underwear and b) a dude was going to bathe us in front of other people. It was no time to be shy.
The Warm Room: Stage 2 of the Turkish Bath
From the cold room, the guy led us into the warm room, which felt humid and hot, but really just a stopover for us to use the bathroom. He pointed to a door and like Snow White opening the door to the dwarf’s house, I pulled the tiny wooden door and step hesitantly inside. On the other side was the “hot room,” the actual baths.
The Hot Room: Stage 3 of the Turkish Bath
It was all marble and square with tiny washbasin rooms jutting from each side. The first step, and one that we were partially alone for, was to draw water from the marble basins into silver dishes and pour it on ourselves, we did this timidly at first and then with flourish. The room was a sauna, the cool water felt nice.
After about 15 minutes, another couple joined us, the one we had seen in the waiting room. They were clad in the same plaid ensemble, but the guy had his towel wrapped around his waist, I guess the boxer shorts were only for the women. They laid out on the large marble platform in the center and then BOOM. In both B and my view was this dude’s junk. It was out and proud for the bath to see. There was now confirmation that the men did not have boxer shorts. And the dude didn’t move. He just lay there. Every sound we made echoes in the high ceiling room so we can’t obviously say anything like, “Hey dude, cover up your bits.”
Instead we got creative with puns:
+ “I left my sarong in my large sack, I should go get it.”
+ “There doesn’t seem to be a vas deferens between here and a sauna.” (Nice.)
+ “How are your cousins, Big Jimmy and the Twins?”
+ “I’m hungry for some Long John Silver.”
We lost it. We were laughing so hard, we shook. We had to be silent because the echo was loud and the balls out dude was right there. Instead, we shook, sweated and shook with laughter some more.
The Actual Turkish Bath or “Hands off my Hamam”
We calmed down and about 5 minutes later (Dude had covered up and switched positions so our eyeballs were no longer burning.) two Turkish men swathed in similar plaid sarongs motioned for us to follow them. We were led to the exact bathroom that Suleyman the Magnificent had used, but I didn’t feel grand, the inhibitions were coming back. I pushed them away. My bathman shook my hand and we began. First, he poured more water on me, this time cool. Then was the “peeling” the exfoliation part and first of three bath parts. He wanted to use his loofah, but Rick Steves had warned me about this – they don’t use new loofahs and I wasn’t about to be scrubbed using an old one. I gave him my loofah that I had bought in Jordan. He rejected at first, but agreed and then he scrubbed. I was sitting down and he grabbed each limb and rubbed it down. The feeling was sandpaper at first and then refreshing. After each section, he covered my in cool water and that created a nice prickly sensation on my skin. He even rubbed down my belly. I don’t usually let anyone touch my belly, but when in a Turkish bath, I figured.
The second part was the washing and took place on a flat marble slab. I lay down on my stomach and he started splashing himself with water, violently dishing out plate after plate of water. I guess the bath men get hot too in the bath room. He started with the legs and did a typical massage routine and then the “pummeling” He slapped and pounded my legs and then the rest of my body after rubbing it down. In between, he poured suds and soap all over and swished it away with his hands. I would be lying there all blissful with massage happiness and then BAM, SLAP, POUND the pummeling began and these sound made echoes that sounded a lot worse than they felt. I turned over and he soaped and massaged the front of my body. He started to sing and it was lovely. It could have been Rubber Ducky song (you know…Rubber Ducky you’re the one…you make bath times so much fun) for all I knew, but in Turkish it sounded relaxing with the rubdown. I looked over at B – she had a look of joy and excitement on her face. I later learned that she’s very ticklish and was doing everything she could not to giggle at each touch.
The third part was soaping and rinsing. I sat back down next to the basin and he shampooed my hair and gave me a wonderful, relaxing scalp massage while working in the soap. He streamed the water over my head and shoulders (coincidentally the name of the shampoo he used) and I was rinsed off. The bath man section of the bath was complete. I felt relaxed and delighted – the perfect combination of massage and a bath.
We laid out on the marble platform, drained and jellylike. The sauna was the perfect temperature and I didn’t want to move. Slowly, we made our way out of the bath and was greeted another bath man who drapped us in large towels that looked like dish towels, in fact B actually had a set like the ones around our bodies. Our heads were covered in a Bedouin-style wrap and we went to enjoy tea in the warm room, all wrapped up in our dishtowels. We looked ridiculous and belly-laughed when we saw each other.
The final step was changing and leaving a good tip for our very talented bath men. The sunlight was garish outside, our bodies floated. We felt relaxed but a little dehydrated and tired, the message left us light and happy, but our bodies didn’t want to work. There was a quick dinner where we couldn’t talk too much through our happy haze and then back to the hotel. Tonight, if we make it, a wine bar is on the plan, but after the bath, our bodies might take this relaxation thing seriously.