The next to last time a man gave me a bath, I called him “Daddy.” No, this is not the beginning of some tawdry sex tale…I called him “Daddy,” because he WAS my Daddy. And I was about five years old at the time.
The last time a man gave me a bath was about two weeks ago–in Urgup, Turkey. After a long day of touring and hiking the caves in the city of Cappadocia, my husband and I decided a relaxing, hedonistic experience would do us good. We were staying in a small town nearby and the local hamam (Turkish bath) was just down the street from our inn. I had done some prior research on Turkish baths and thought I had a good idea of what to expect. It’s a rub-down and a massage. How bad could it be? It was definitely on the bucket list of my trip, so I was stoked.
Back in the day, Turkish baths stood for much more than a mere cleansing. The baths were the site of rituals and used for purification purposes as well. The building itself was a place where young and old, male and female, rich and poor could come together socially, and in many cases to celebrate holidays and milestones. The hamam we chose looked as though it hadn’t changed much from those earlier times.
A wave of hot, humid air hit us as we entered the dome-topped stone building. “Oh good.” I thought. “There’s a woman already done with her bath. I will probably get the woman/masseuse who worked on her.” Two young male attendants, one fully dressed, and one wrapped in what looked like a skirt made out of a cotton tablecloth…for a very small table, were in the waiting room. One of them handed me a pair of plastic slippers, a wrap (pestemal) similar to the one he was wearing, and a key, and motioned my husband and me to one of the small private cubicles that lined the walls. Apparently we were going to share the room. As we both got in, undressed, and tried to figure out how to strategically fashion the wraps around our bodies, we also made a poor attempt at trying to stifle our nervous laughter.
After reading that the soap and shampoo used in traditional hamams were very basic and oftentimes harsh, I decided to bring my own. With the rest of my belongings locked in the cubicle, there I was, holding my two small bottles of “product,” padding around in my plastic footwear, trying to make sure that my little tablecloth did not reveal even one inch more of skin than was appropriate, waiting for my gal to steer me to my next destination. It was do or die at this point. The same attendant led us into a circular, tiled room that was even more warm and humid than the reception area. Surrounding this room were alcoves that contained shower heads, and an enclosed sauna room. In the center of the room was a very large, round marble platform, a gobektasi. We were told to shower, go into the sauna to work up a sweat, and then hop on the gobektasi.
After going a few rounds with the sauna/cool shower combo, we both plopped/sprawled out on the platform and waited. The platform, I discovered, was heated. And as I learned from my research, the tiles on the walls were supposed to remove static electricity from the air, and help to relax the mind and body. It was quite relaxing–and wet, since the condensation from the heat of the room dripped down on us from the high domed ceiling above. I would consider myself to be pretty adventurous. And going to a Turkish bath rated a very low score on my adventurous activities scale. But I have to admit that the longer I waited for “my gal,” the more adventurous this activity began to feel, and as a result, my love of adventure began to wane.
After what seemed like an eternity but was probably only fifteen minutes the attendant came in again and led us to a room that had what looked like two massage beds and two sinks. (Architectural Digest would have described it as having a massage room/torture chamber feel.) Next to those beds were our bathers–two young gentlemen wearing skirts. “This should be interesting,” I thought. Well, when in Rome, or, Turkey…. The next few minutes were a flurry of warm water, hot water, and soap. (And all of this while I tried my best to remain covered.) My attendant used
sandpaper a mitt to scrub my body that I swear fishermen use to descale fish. I knew they were supposed to remove layers of dead skin, but I didn’t know they were going to remove ALL of my skin. Then came the bubbles–LOTS of bubbles from some sort of “bubble bag.” Do you remember the Mr. Bubble commercial where they couldn’t find the little girl because she was lost in the bubbles? Well, that little girl had nothing on me. I was trying my best to forget that all the while I was going through this, my husband was right across from me getting the same treatment. After I caught the first dumping rinsing of water over my husband’s bubble-covered body, I decided it was best to keep my eyes closed for the remainder of the session. My only regret is that I did not have a video camera, but if Allen Funt (of Candid Camera fame) jumped out from the gobekta wearing his own pestemal, I would not have been surprised at all.
Following the skinning scrubbing came the massage. Just what I wanted…someone kneading and rubbing my body after he had removed all of my epidermis. This was a young, skinny guy. How intense could his massaging be? Whaddya think? If I knew how to scream, “Mother of God” in Turkish, I would have. ‘Nuff said.
Once we were done being tortured massaged, we were given fresh towels, dry wraps, and left to get dressed. As we exited the cubicle and went to pay, our two attendants were at the desk chatting and eating doner kebabi (gyro subs). Just another day at the office for them. You gotta love it.
I know that some of the other hotels where we stayed in Istanbul offered more sybaritic Turkish baths with fragrant oils, fluffy towels, and aromatherapy. As luxurious as those treatments sounded, we realized they could have been had anywhere. What we experienced was the real deal, and that’s what made it ever so memorable. I loved visiting Turkey and hope someday to return. I may even take a Turkish bath again…hopefully my skin will have regained its natural color by then.