Back in the day, before most Turks had nice bathrooms in their houses, everyone went to a hamam, or community bathhouse, to clean up, relax, socialize, and gossip. One of the things I wanted to do most in Turkey was to visit a hamam. Why? I've gotten quite dirty from traveling for a year. Like, really dirty. And why not? (For your own sake, note that this sentiment most often leads to humiliating and/or grand adventures.)
There are a few tourist-oriented hamam that charge waif-like French visitors 75 Euro. But I (stupidly?) wanted the real deal: the "local experience" with "local women" at the "local price." Our couchsurf host pointed us to Çenili Hamam on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.
I walked inside and was met with three blank stares. A grey-haired, heavy-set woman said something—I caught the word Turkish--I replied Inglish. Turns out this lady is The Boss, and she doesn't speak a word of Inglish. Boss started at 30 TL for "the works," including peel, massage, towel, soap, etc. I had brought my own towel and soap, so Boss told me that I'd pay 24 TL. I get the feeling that no one bargains with Boss. Boss handed me a key, told me on iki (twelve), and pointed upstairs. She all but slapped my ass on my way out. Thank God I'd studied Turkish numbers.
|my only photo from the experience, taken from inside one of the changing rooms upstairs|
OH SHIT I'M WEARING GLASSES. As soon as I put my nose through that door, the steam hit my face like a left upper cut. I was instantly and completely blinded. I took off my glasses—ok, now I can see blurry outlines instead of NOTHING AT ALL. I stumbled toward the side of the room and returned to standing around awkwardly.
My glasses warmed up in the steamy air, and soon I was able to understand my surroundings. The room was an octogan, about 10 meters across. Around the outside of the room were four alcoves with three marble basins in each, as well as two small, doorless marble rooms with more marble basins and what appeared to be a sauna. A large, octagonal, raised marble platform occupied the center of the room.
Six to eight women were already in the room. Some were being soaped and scrubbed on the octagonal platform. Others sat in alcoves, splashing water over their heads. The uniform of choice was panties, and... uh... that's it. Ok, I'm dressed appropriately (i.e. not at all), so why is everyone staring at me? Oh right, I'm the only one standing around awkwardly.
A woman indicated that I should fill a basin and pour water on myself. I focused my attention on this: total absorption in pouring water over my body, with enough gusto to demonstrate that the foreign woman was no longer standing around awkwardly, but not so enthusiastically as to splash water on my alcove-mate.
Let me tell you, you can only dump so many buckets of water over your head before you wonder what the hell you're doing. I held my razor to my leg and looked questioningly, pleadingly at my alcove-mate. She glanced at my legs, nearly did a double-take, and immediately said evet (yes). I, uh, didn't get a chance to shave while trekking in Nepal, resulting in what can only be described as "yeti leg." With my continually fogging glasses, it's a small miracle that I didn't cut an artery.
When I was done with my legs, my alcove-mate made a shaving motion at her crotch. Apparently Turkish women like to be clean-shaven. Like a kindergarten teacher leading a five-year old, she walked me to a rectangular room with a series of partitioned marble basins. It was a little (a very, very, very little bit) less steamy than the octagonal room, so I touched up where I'd missed on my legs and doused myself with more water.
Returning to the octagonal room—WHOOSH, there go the glasses again—a middle-aged woman with a stern face, a plum-shaped body, and breasts like the pendulums of grandfather clocks waved me over to the marble table. Let's call her Bubby, because that name fits her well. We played a quick game of charades. Saved from more awkwardly standing around! I correctly guessed that I was supposed to lay down on my back.
Without warning, she attacked me with a Brillo pad in the shape of a winter mitten.
I lifed my head and discovered why it's called a "peel" and not just a "scrub." You see, when you're a dirty trekking hippy traveler, like yours truly, you don't do things like exfoliate your skin. That would require carrying more than soap and a toothbrush in your toiletry kit. That would also require running water, which is not a given in the developing world. Hot water? Hah hah hah. Speaking of the developing world, you don't want to know what type of pollution and dirt will stick to your skin.
Well, I found out. As I was scrubbed errrr peeled, rolls of tarry grey sludge flaked off my skin. They looked like black inchworms crawling all over my body. "That's coming off my skin?" I thought. Actually, I was more like, "Holy SHIIIIT what the F***!!!" And also: "This woman is getting a very large tip."
Dear Bubby flipped me over and peeled the other side. No hesitation in pulling up and pushing down my underdrawers. Yes, she peeled my butt. With some of the bus rides I've taken in SE Asia, I'm sure it was necessary.
She sat me up and WHUMP there goes my head right into those grandfather clock boobs. I hadn't been that close to my own mother in, oh, let's say about 27 years, but I'm now intimately familiar with this strange Turkish woman's bosom. She washed the back of my neck and shoulders, then scrubbed my arms. I was covered in turd-like caterpillars of dead skin cells and Third World pollution. Bubby brought me to a marble basin and indicated that I should rinse off. In fact, I was so gross that she rinsed herself for good measure, and took that opportunity to throw a few buckets of water in my direction.
Back to the marble slab for soaping and massaging. I handed her a small bottle of shampoo and a bar of soap and obediently laid on my back. Bubby ignored the bar of soap and squeezed a blop of shampoo onto my chest. Like Boss, I don't think anyone talks back to Bubby, so I let it go. She soaped and massaged my front, from neck to feet, then flipped me over and did the same on the back. Sat me up—WHUMP, boobs—neck, shoulders, arms. And with that, Bubby told me fee-nish, and walked away.
I was a little disappointed in the service. The massage was the type of massage I'd give Dave if he were pestering me for a backrub—half-hearted and perfunctory. At the very least, I expected my hair to be washed, like the other women on the marble slab. I laid on the slab for a few minutes, but I felt tense and awkward.
I shuffled to a marble basin, filled it with hot water, and washed my own hair. I wandered into the sauna, which was so hot it made my heart race. Rather than more standing around awkwardly, I wrapped my damp towel around my chest and returned to my changing room upstairs. I still had over a half hour before I had to meet Dave, so I took my time drying off, getting dressed, combing my hair, packing my backpack.
Down the stairs to the waiting Boss. I handed her the key to my changing room and 30 TL, receiving a grunt and 6 TL in return. Then I stood around awkwardly (damn, I'd wanted to avoid more standing around awkwardly), looking for Bubby, but she was nowhere to be found. Boss looked at me blankly. Just then, Bubby materialized from a spacious changing room on the ground floor. I handed her two folded 5 lira bills, and I had seen another woman do. She smiled. At least during I did one thing correctly, gracefully even, during this experience.
After nearly 90 minutes in the hot, humid environment of the bath, the December air stung my nostrils and chilled my wet hair. I was certain that was the cleanest I had ever been, could ever be. It was as if I'd shed my skin like a reptile, leaving behind a tender, brand new casing.
I rounded the corner at the same moment as Dave. He looked pink and content and a little dazed, like a newborn after its first suckling. We smiled knowingly at each other and walked, hand in hand, toward the Eminönü ferry.