In my childhood we had an evening ritual. After a hard day at school, post-afternoon snack, lots of playing with my friends, and finishing homework, it was time for a bath. Every kid has heard it, “Cara, it’s time to take your bath.” (insert a bit of a singing voice with the last word , similar to “Cara, time to go to bed…”) Not a bad experience really. Often we were given fun toys to play with, while our moms would sneak in a body wash and then a head wash when you weren’t paying attention. If you were lucky, or a girl, you would also get bubbles during your bath! Eventually, as I grew older, I realized that taking a bath was not cool anymore so I graduated to showering. But fast-forward a few more years and taking a bath becomes more of a luxury. A sort of take-a-break-from-the-world type of experience: “Calgon take me away.” I like to take a bath. On occasion.
Today I went to a hamam. or Turkish Bathhouse. Bathhouses in my line of work are very different than this one (insert smile – that was for you CDIs). Going to the baths in Turkey is a weekly ritual for most Turks. The experience was one I will not soon forget. I mean, when was the last time that I paid someone to allow me sit in an ancient marble building practically naked, sweat like a pig, get dowsed in hot and ice cold water, then get suds up with bubbles, massaged, slapped, whacked, scratched, washed and dried? For me, that is never.
We were referred to the one hamam in Istanbul that allowed for men and women to be in the bath at the same time. It caters to couples and families who want to go together. We were taken to a small hut where we were allowed to change together into these small cotton wraps and wooden clogs, then led into the main hamam room. This place was composed of solid marble, from floor to ceiling, with a large dome as a roof, in what felt like the architecture of a mosque. It felt very royal. We were left to sweat for about 30 minutes. There was a large marble square in the middle, about 8×8 feet, heated, with smaller rooms sprouting out from the middle. Each of these rooms had a dripping fountain, that in my opinion, was there to help you THINK that there was cold water dripping, but of course there wasn’t. Now let me just say, I am a bit claustrophobic at times, and this feeling often hits me when I am either around a lot of people with no room to move, when the temperature is really hot, and/or when I feel as though I can’t breathe or get air. When I get into a steam room, I feel hot and like I cannot get any air. So needless to say, thirty minutes in a steam room was incredibly difficult for me! I concentrated on the sound of dripping (hot, no cold, no hot, no cold. No really Cara, it is hot.) water around me. I thought of nice thoughts. Plenty of places that I’d rather be at that moment, where it was cool and I could breathe freely. Now keep in mind that Casey and I were the only two people in the entire hamam, so there was certainly plenty of room and plenty of air around us! All I have to say is that those 30 minutes couldn’t go fast enough for me….
The look of relief must’ve shown on my face when the two masseuses appeared, as one of the few words they spoke to me during the entire experience was at that time. “Hot?” one asked me, then laughed.
Let me describe these two Turkish masseuses: they were about 14 years old, scrawny little guys (I’m probably double their size), wearing only a wrap around their waist, barefoot, and carrying a big loofa in their hand. So out the door went our idea of the giant, fat, hairy, old Turkish man throwing us around for our massage.
They led us into one of the small rooms (which had a sign above it saying, “This is the bath where Suliman the Great had a bath in 1465”) that contained another dripping fountain and two marble slabs about waist high. The fountain contained two spouts coming out of the wall and a pond area that caught the water. We were asked to sit on the ground against the wall, where we were each assigned a dude. The next thing I knew, we were being doused with buckets of hot water over our heads and bodies, then our dudes began scrubbing down our bodies with the loofa pads. Hard. My husband describes them as the “brillo pad gloves” (like those we use to scrub our pots and pans). Ouch. Apparently, we have a lot of dead cells on our skin.
To note, we were not the only ones being doused with buckets of water. Throughout this experience, our dudes would douse themselves off with buckets in order to keep themselves cool as well.
With no words, just pointing, we were told to lie on our assigned marble slab. Not comfortable, let me tell ya. And for those of you who enjoy getting massages in our country, you aren’t finding any comfy massage table or slit at the top for your face to lie into. You are literally lying on a marble counter-top with your head turned to one side while some foreign man rubs you down. Oops, I’m jumping ahead now. Our dudes then started covering us from head to toe with the biggest bubbles I’ve seen in years. It was like we were taking a bath in a big washing machine! It felt soft and tickly. They created these bubbles from a pot of “special sauce” and what looked like a cotton t-shirt (and likely was). It was great. At this point our bodies could barely stay on the table, as being covered in bubbles on marble was like playing on a slip and slide. Then, the massage began…
“ouch” arg. “really?” “good golly!” cringe. “ummm…” cringe again. “will I really make it through this?”
The massage was not for sissies. And this was when I let out a sigh of relief that I had a scrawny little 14 year old throwing me around and massaging my body rather than a big fat old Turkish man as we had originally imagined. This was beyond “deep-tissue or sport’s massage.” And though it included some stretching of muscles and massaging, it also included a bit of slapping, whacking and some scratching. Good golly. Every once in a while, I would sneak a look over to my husband to make sure that he too was getting the same preferential treatment. Sure enough, yes. I guess we’ll have to recuperate together later was my thought.
I was then pointed back to the floor, where I sat with my back against the wall again. I was doused with hot water, then ice cold water (ahhhh. There WAS cold water in there!), then warm water. I must’ve looked like a washed-up cat in the rain. My dude was pretty much finished when he looked at me and said three words: “you like shampoo”. I thought he was asking if I liked the shampoo he used for the bubbles so I smiled kindly and said, “yes”. But to my surprise, he proceeded to shampoo and massage my scalp and hair while I sat on the marble ground. Classic.
All four of us stood there. Each of us drenched from head to toe. We thanked them, “tea-sugar-a-dream” we said and nodded our heads with shy smiles. We were the left there. Alone. We weren’t sure what to say to each other.
After a few minutes of getting our bearings, my husband and I walked out of the hamam to a middle room. We were greeted again with our dudes who had already cleaned, dried and changed into a dry wrap themselves. They handed us dry wraps and motioned for us to go into the changing room next door. We put them on and came back out. Our dudes then dried our bodies off for us and put towels on our heads and led us to a room which could be none other than a recovery room. A quiet area where you could have tea or smoke a hookah.
You may be wondering why I would allow someone to do such a thing. The answer is that I wanted to experience Turkish life and do as the Turks do, and yes, I walked out of the hamam a bit battered and bruised, but I also walked out feeling better than I ever have felt walking out of an $80 massage back home in the United States. Besides, my hair was clean too. Just like mom used to do.