August 21, 2004

Turkish Hamam

After visiting various Roman bath ruins in Israel and Turkey, I was excited when the day finally came for me actually to go to a modern-day bath here in Turkey. I don’t know the elaborate history of the thermal bath but basically I think it goes there were the Roman baths then the Ottomans took it over and now we call it a Turkish Hamam, well at least here in Turkey we do.

The Turkish bath is a public bathing sauna which uses thermal water naturally heated from the earth. I went just a week ago with Burak’s aunt and cousin, both have limited English, but we communicated with basically words in each others’ languages and a simple, small Turkish-English dictionary that we carried inside the bath.

Only one sex can be in the bath at a time. I get the impression that they are usually open to the men throughout the week except for certain few days allocated for the women.

We entered the entrance of the hamam and paid the fee of about 2.5 million lira or roughly less than $2 dollars American per person. We were each also given shower shoes and a key for locker inside for a nominal fee.

I was about to step inside a hamam. The air was already starting to get muggy. I had no idea what to expect but I brought my bikini just in case, to stay covered up. We entered inside through a sheet that was hanging from a door to keep the privacy of the women. I walked inside and my first thought was of shock because of all the naked women’s bodies roaming around.

Men’s minds are probably running wild, but let me stop them short. It was sort of scary, to say the least, because the hamam was mostly filled with over-50 women with really large breasts and bellies. These women looked like life has been rough to them. I am imagining they probably had about 8-10 kids each and had to work outdoors all their life. Well, it probably isn’t that drastic.

I tried my hardest to act normal in the situation. Of course, I am like the only blonde, Germanic looking person in group, so of course I am getting looks already.

Burak’s aunt, cousin, and I went to our lockers and started undressing. Everyone was naked so it was more or less assumed you could change in front of everyone. Burak’s cousin, Evrim, went somewhere to change into her swimsuit in privacy. His aunt changed into her bikini next to her locker so I decided to do the same. I figured they would never see me again. I probably shocked them with my thong underwear compared to everyone else’s tent-sized underwear.

Now we all put on our swimsuits to bath but I noticed most women just were topless and only wore a pair of white cotton underwear that was nearly see-through when it got wet. The women around us must have felt uncomfortable that we were too uncomfortable to go completely naked. Oh well.

So we enter into this middle room and the temperature is definitely rising. Women are sitting around on benches and some are even massaging others with scrubbing rags. I quickly think to myself, this can’t be the hamam – can it? It isn’t hot at all. But the women are sitting around looking as if they are sweating and panting for fresh air. Well I later learned I was right. I quickly saw that it was the cooling off and massaging room and that was why the women were panting for air.

We walked through this room and descended down some wet marble stairs slowly as I watched the beautiful scene unfold. I was finally in a hamam. “Yes,” I thought. It was a rectangular room made of marble with a rectangular pool in the center, with sitting room for about 40 people, filled with the water from a fountain elegantly placed at the head of the pool to create a graceful appearance as I walked down the stairs trying not to slip and fall.

All along the edges of the rectangular room are these bathing stations consisting of hot water flowing into marble sinks. Women and children were congregated together at various sinks with their shampoo, conditioner, soap, and scrubbing rags using bowls to scoop water from the sinks to rinse their bodies. In one corner of the bathing room were showers running with this same thermal water for people to rinse off.

In the middle room, for massages and cooling off, there was another small room called Tras but with the ‘s’ with the tail so then the words reads ‘Trash.’ I was wondering what the room was for. I didn’t think that the English word for garbage was that widely known nor would the hamam need a small room just for trash. I quickly realized that tras, with the tail on the s, means shaving. So it was the shaving room!

I figured I can take a bath in a public place with my bikini on. How hard could this be? I start to get in the pool of water and splash the hot water on myself and then soon my aunt is trying to tell me something. She is motioning to the bowl to pour water on me and giving me a wash rag to clean myself. It seemed at first she was trying to tell me to clean myself. I thought, I know, I get the picture. J But then she gently pulls me along and has me follow her upstairs again to the middle massage room. “What is going on?” I wonder to myself.

This older lady of about age 60 with graying hair was staring at me topless with her underwear on. I later learn she had been hired to give me a scrubbing down. She cleans the bench with a bucket of water and motions for me to sit down. What I don’t know is to sit facing up, facing down, sit up, lay down? So she sort of has to push me down to show me since we don’t speak the same language. She wanted me to lie facing down on the bench. She also pointed to my bikini top. “Uh, oh,” I thought. “She is going to make me take it off.” Well she did want me to take it off and to keep from fighting and from my getting the full benefits of the rub down, I took it off.

So basically I am rubbed with sandpaper, or something like that, all over my body. She even rubbed my face, armpits, and thighs. It was getting really weird because I have never had this happen to me before. I was in more pain than really enjoying it as well as having anxiety about what my next move was to be as she scrubbed all over. I knew she was talking about me to the other people getting rubbed down because she kept saying American something in Turkish. Maybe I was her first American to get the scrub down, I don’t know.

After she scrubs me down, I thought the torture was over. She takes me into the hamam where she walks me to the foot of the pool where the fountain runs with water and points to the pool. In so few words, she is telling me to get into the pool and swim around. “Yeah, right,” I thought in disbelief. But then it came over me, this would probably be my only time in a Turkish hamam for a long time, so I got in the water of a cool temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit and quickly swam to the other end of the rectangle. This is where she stood waiting for me to get out. “What now?” I wondered.

After my scrub down and immersion into the pool, she was hired to also massage me. So she takes me to one of those side sinks and has me lie face down, topless on the marble floor. Of course this takes some pushing because I don’t know what position she wants me nor do I really know what she is going to do to me.

The massage consisted of just soaping my body. I was hoping for what a massage means in America when you pay a good amount for an hour’s worth of deep tissue work. Well, it was entertaining at least. She soaped me up and then started washing my hair! At one point I couldn’t breathe because she had soap suds and hot water all over my head. I felt like a little kid with my mom washing me. After this round, I got to rinse off in the showers and she had finished her job.

I eventually spent almost one and half hours in the sauna and I hadn’t realized it until I started feeling weird. I went to the dressing room and started to breathe in big grasps of air. Then Burak’s advice echoed in my ears, “Don’t stay in too long.” I sat out for a while and cooled off in the dressing room where all the women, after finishing their baths, were sitting around half naked with various towels on their bodies cooling off and talking.

I rinsed off for the last time after my last dunk in the hot pool. I went to the dressing room again to change and for large gasps of air. I looked in the mirror a few minutes later and I was beet red. Anyone who has known me long enough or has seen me run knows that I can get really red. I was started to apply my lipstick and when I put the lipstick up to my face I realized my face was redder than the lipstick. It was almost redundant to put it on.

We finally left after about 2 hours when the massaging ladies turned into the cleaning ladies and the pool was started to be emptied out. The first thing I thought about was how cool it was outside but then I realized I was really hungry. Now I know I am on the South Beach diet, so forgive me, but we passed by an ice cream shop and I was offered a yummy treat. I figured it was the perfect end to my story. So I got chocolate chip, nuts, and something else really good. I ate mine in a few minutes. We giggled and frolicked the rest of the night. We were all very light headed and carefree. I loved the hamam!

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