Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bathhouses, Boobies and Istanbul

“Why yes, by all means, let your larger-than-life ta-ta’s rest on my forehead as you bathe me.” 

My mom, Tina and I recently returned from a weeklong visit to Turkey.  We spent the last two days of our trip in Istanbul, which is by the way, not enough time.  We saw all the usual things visitors would be hard-pressed to pass up, such as the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Sultanahmet District, Golden Horn waterfront, Grand Bazaar, museums, and of course we absorbed much history, architecture, and enjoyed the food & shopping... And absolutely, a Turkish bath!

I feel an authentic Turkish bath at an actual bathhouse is an essential if you plan on visiting Turkey.   Even though I hadn’t done much research on all that a Turkish bath entailed, I knew this was on my “must-do” list.  A spa treatment in a country famous for them, what could possible go wrong??  Seemed like a no-brainer, especially after backpacking the several days prior through the countryside.   Well, there is something to be said for being armed with information… and I most certainly was not.

When you first enter the Çemberlitas Hamami you choose oneof several bathing options, and are given a token for what you have selected and paid for.  You are then pointed towards the direction of the ladies side. Historical note: apparently back in the day, being caught on the wrong gender side was punishable by death. Needless to say, we avoided exploring.  Lord knows we were probably already on the jihad list for our other skin bearing sins i.e. wearing normal clothing. As you adapt to the environment of the bathhouse, one cannot expect any English or any instructions that maybe deemed helpful. You must be prepared to navigate your way with only grunts and nudges.   We ended up choosing to have the traditional bath as well as the oil massage. As a result, we were given three items: a token for each service, and most noteworthy of all… a pair of black panties.  I always love it when my adventures lead to a free pair of panties… and I didn’t even have to peel these off anyone.

Once in the dressing room area, we stripped, put on our new matching panties and wrapped ourselves in a thin, checkered, cotton towel (peştamal) sarong style.  We wandered our way out and other patrons pointed us towards a doorway that led into a large octagon shaped steam room with a high domed ceiling and marble floors.   The steam room had a heated marble platform (sıcaklık) in the center.  Surrounding the marble platform were bathing basins (kurna) and private bathing cubicles (halvet).    This particular bathhouse is open until midnight; we arrived a little before 10pm.

When we walked into the steam room the women working there made it very clear they were not happy about having three more people arriving at such a late hour (some sentiments are not lost in translation).   They demanded to see our tokens, no doubt hoping we had wandered into the wrong section.   Once they realized we hadn’t, they pointed for us to lie down on the giant marble platform and began speaking loudly to each other in Turkish. These were definitely not words of affirmation, but more like words of disgust from over-worked 60+ year old women. I’m thinking the labor unions never made it to Turkey.  There definitely doesn’t seem to be a Department of Labor presence to enforce wage & hour laws, that’s for sure.

Now I don’t know if this is true for you… but when I’m naked, especially in front of a stranger (not that I have tons of experience here), I lose a bit of my edge, I feel slightly vulnerable.   So here we are, exposed to the world, hoping we’re in the right spot, and directed to lie down next to each other in a giant room.   The attendants are in the same black panties that we are, and some are wearing black bras, and some are wearing nothing at all.  

What a scene! It’s rather confusing, and to this point not as relaxing as I’d hoped. After some time passes, my mom is the first of us to be called. This makes me chuckle as I’m not sure what the older Turkish hamam ladies will think about my free-spirited, tattooed, firecracker of a mother.   Meanwhile, Tina, myself, and some random Japanese girl lie practically naked on the marble platform and start to giggle; this experience is so strange already.  Next up is Tina, we say our goodbyes, God only knows if we’ll see each other again.   Awkward, check; uncomfortable, check; my turn, check. Upon being summoned, I am rushed to a different area of the platform and directed to lie face down. As I do so, the attendant begins to bathe me with an exfoliating scrub and a bubble wash.  She grunts and taps my legs when I am to roll over. Then she leads me to a basin and abruptly, without any warning, dumps water over me as I sit on the stone.  Wow, that’s not what I expected. Next I am led back to the platform where another product is rubbed over my body.  Then again, without warning, I am pulled up and led to another room. My new Japanese friend is watching me as I depart. My soggy undressed body waves back with a smirk… ha!  I know what she is in for.  Little does she know…

All in all, I am sure the 15 minute bathing process removed my dead skin, cleansed my pores, facilitated better skin breathing, and improved blood circulation, yada-yada-yada.   However, the abrupt and callous manner in which I have been handled has left me a little shell-shocked. I most definitely was not at Bonneville or one of the other spas I love back home. 

Just as I was feeling like a child who had misbehaved and was awaiting a lashing, a different, kinder set of arms came from behind and wrapped me in a huge towel.  She hugged me, still from behind, and walked me into the next room. There she helped me up on a massage table.   She then began to sing the most angelic song (albeit in Turkish) as she artfully massaged my body.   I enjoyed every moment of her soothing celestial voice, nodding along as I tried to absorb her joyful emotion.  I fear I might have unknowingly paid homage to Allah, but I figured I could repent later to my God, who seems to be slightly less angry than Allah. And it must be said, that under the circumstances, this was probably the safer response knowing full well the angry naked bath attendant was still in a room nearby.

After the massage I was offered a shower to rinse. I then met Tina and my mom in the large jacuzzi / pool area... where we laughed long and hard about our individual and completely unique experiences.

I really wish I had taken the time to read about the Turkish bath experience before going… I think it would have made the process less confusing and I would have managed to stay longer and better enjoy soaking up all the beautiful facility had to offer.  Regardless of an angry old half-naked bath attendant or two – the experience was amazing!! 

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