Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Hamam

We're scheduled to be taken to the airport in about 45 minutes, and oh! do I have a story to tell! I'll type fast.

This morning, our last in Cappadocia, we decided to go to a Turkish bath. After breakfast and packing up and checking out, we dropped our luggage in the storage room and headed into town to the hamam our travel agency suggested for us yesterday.

We walked in, and were followed through the door by a mustachioed gentleman in a white embroidered shirt. "Turkish bath?" he asked.

"Yes," we replied.

"50 lira each. 100 lira total," he said (about$32).

As we reached for our respective cash, he smiled, "Ah, 50-50!" and took our money. He pulled out two keys from a drawer and turned to go down the marble spiral staircase. "Follow," he said, waving us in. So we did.

He took each of us to our respective dressing rooms, and showed me the cupboard with a "towel" and some pink rubber slippers. He nodded, and then left to show Jason the same.

I took the towel into the changing room, stripped down, and tried to find the most modest way to wrap myself in the towel. I had asked Jason before we left if he was going to bring a bathing suit. "Nope!" he cheerfully replied. "Okay then!" I though to myself. The towel was long enough to wrap around myself, but not as wide as I would have liked. I squeezed my arms to my sides to hold it firmly in place and decided that if I dropped anything, either Jason would have to pick it up for me or it was going to stay put since there certainly wasn't enough towel down there for me to be bending over anytime soon.

I left the changing room and had one of those moments of panic as I stood in the hallway, stark naked aside from my little towel, wondering if this was in fact what I was supposed to do. Jason emerged then, with his towel wrapped sportingly around his waist, extending comfortably all the way to his knees. "Yup," I thought, "he can pick up my stuff."

An older man dressed only in a towel like ours and some blue rubber slippers met us in the hallway and beckoned for us to follow him. He led us to a sauna, pointed at the wooden benches and said, "Sit. Sit." We sat, and he left us.

Immediately, I began sweating profusely. We speculated as to how hot it was in there (as I constantly tightened my towel about me and kept my legs tightly crossed). There was what appeared to be a mercury thermometer on the wall, but it said it was "15", so we assumed that was not actually a thermometer. We found a meter behind Jason that read "49" (so, about 120 degrees), which made much more sense.

The old man let himself back into the sauna, carrying a small pot filled with clay and a paintbrush. He hopped up on the bench next to Jason and proceeded to paint Jason's face and neck with the greenish-grayish clay. I was next, and as I kept my eyes firmly shut and my arms tightly clenched, he coated my face with the soft brush as I felt his sweat dripping onto my leg.

The old man then hopped off the bench, flipped what we had supposed to be a thermometer upside down and pointed at it, then at the door. Ah! A timer!

So we sat and sweated and chatted for 15 minutes as the clay masks ran in rivulets down our chests. About 7 minutes into it, an attendant stuck his head in and asked if we wanted some water. "Yes!" I cried as Jason nodded, too.

When the timer ran out, we sat for a moment, wondering if the old man was going to come back in with more instructions, then got up (me first, after I instructed Jason to avert his eyes) and went out the door into the main room.

The room was octagonal in shape, with a marble bench running all along the side and marble basins at regular intervals along the bench. There were faucets above each interval and metal bowls floating in the water in each basin. In the center of the room was a large marble slab, which the old man met us at and patted, "Lay down! Lay down!"

"Oh, great," I thought, letting Jason scoot up on the slab first and arrange himself so I could clamber up away from his glance. Once Jason was in place, I scooted up above his head, doing a rather dexterous job of keeping my towel around the important bits as the old man slapped down two flat cushions for our heads.

We lay down on our backs, our heads on the cushions, and wriggled a bit until we found the heated spots on the slab. Then, staring firmly at the ceiling and hoping Jason was doing the same as I kept my legs tightly crossed, we waited and dripped.

After about ten minutes, I heard noises as people entered the room. I should point out there that the best part of going when we did, in the later morning, was that we were the only ones there at the time. It was much easier to have the entire place to ourselves, I think. In any case, the new comers were our masseurs - an older gentleman with a salt-n-pepper mustache for Jason, and a petite, somewhat muscular young woman who only knew one word of English for me. She lead me to the marble bench on the side ("Okay?"), indicated that I should sit there ("Okay.") and then used the metal bowl to scoop up some of the water and dump it over my head ("Okay!") She rinsed me off, including my clay mask, and then put on a rough-textured black glove. She grabbed my arm, stretched it out as I grabbed the towel with my other hand and hoped Jason (who was sitting directly across from me) was too preoccupied with his own attendant to look my way, and proceeded to scrub me down with the glove.

She exfoliated both of my arms, my legs and feet, and my upper back. She then had me lean forward ("Okay!") and loosened my towel to scrub my lower back. I managed to keep ahold of the ends of it enough to stay covered in front, until she finished my back and went for my sides. She took the ends of the towel from me and opened it up to scrub my Netherlands. I really, really hoped Jason was preoccupied, since there was nothing now between me and him except our respective attendants. I couldn't see anything of him, but that was probably because I was keeping my eyes screwed shut at that point, like a two-year-old who thinks that if she can't see you, you can't see her.

When the woman finished scrubbed me everywhere (and I do mean everywhere), she rinsed me off a second time with fresh water, then lead me back to the marble slab. "Okay!" she said, and I lay back down on my stomach, as she indicated. She rearranged my soaking wet towel, exposing far more of me than I had expected based on the photos of hamams I had seen and based on my earlier massage experience in the states, then disappeared from the room. I could only hope that Jason was looking face down, since there was quite the breeze at this point, if you know what I mean.

The woman reappeared with a bucket of water, some white pillowcases, and two bars of soap. She plopped the bucket next to my head and proceeded to work up quite the lather with the pillowcases and the soap. She would swirl the pillowcase around in the soapy water, stand to the side, flap the pillowcase full of air, and the ring out a stream of little bubbles all over my legs and back. With the bubbles tickling and popping all over my skin, she then gave me a good long massage as I listened to the sounds of Jason getting similarly soaped up and pounded.

Once she finished my legs, back, and arms, she had me flip over ("Okay, okay."), waited until I finished squirming to arrange my towel modestly over myself, then flipped the towel off. She graciously picked up two corners of it and pulled the edges over my... parts, making the towel into a shape rather like the cresent moon on the flag. Seriously, Botticelli's Venus is more covered up than I was at that point.

Another good massage on the front (during which I hear noises as Jason left the room, keeping his gaze either up or down, I fervently hoped), and then a final rinse off ("Okay!"). She pointed me towards a different room, and I followed her gesture to find a series of steps that lead up to a swimming pool. There was Jason, swimming along gleefully in the water. I was surprised at his freedom of movement, until I discovered that he was, in fact, wearing shorts!

"You cheater!" I cried, as I tried to figure out how one gets into a 5' deep swimming pool with only a towel on.

He shrugged, quasi-sheepishly, "Yeah. I decided I better keep something on. And good thing, too! He had me totally exposed in there!"

"Yeah, I know!" I said, as I submerged myself, using one arm to keep myself covered horizontally and one to keep the towel down vertically.

We drifted about in the pool for a while, talking about the experience, and then figured that it must be like the celestial room of the hamam - you stay as long as you feel necessary. We climbed out (well, first I had Jason turn his back, then I tried to climb up the ladder, then my towel slipped, then I slipped, and then Jason turned back around to see why I was splashing and giggling so much as I cried out "Don't look yet!"), rinsed off in the showers next to the pool, and then went back to the hallway area.

Another attendant met me there and asked, "Towel?"

"Yes, please," I said. He came at me with the towel and proceeded to rub my hair, face, and arms down before holding it open expectantly. I dropped the previous towel and wrapped myself up as quickly as I could, then departed for the dressing room.

We met up again in the hallway, thanked the workers we passed on our way out, paid for the water ("That's where they get you!" Jason pointed out), and headed back out into the sun and the civilization.

Overall, I loved it. Yes, it was awkward and totally different than anything I've done before, but I would and hopefully will do it again soon.

And now I've got to run to the airport. Here's Jason's version of the story, for your reading pleasure:

You probably thought you were done hearing from me for a while -- at least until I got to Istanbul, right? Well, so did I, but now there's news: the Turks may not have grasped the concept of deodorant, but they have definitely got bathing down to an art!

Faced with a morning of unscheduled time between checking out of the hotel and leaving for the airport, Amanda and I decided to go to a hammam, a.k.a. Turkish bath. Unlike Christians in Western Europe, who at one point thought that bathing was bad for you, Muslims have been bathing for centuries; apparently being clean is an important element of Islam. Given the general lack of indoor plumbing, they developed these elaborate community bath houses called hammams, with saunas and pools and the various accoutrements for intense bathing.

Here's how it worked for us:

We arrive at the hammam, check in, and are directed to changing rooms where we are given little sandals and a towel to wrap around our nakedness. (Not being entirely confident that the towel would remain around my nakedness, I opted to keep on some quick-drying travel underwear I'd brought for this sort of situation; the people who designed garments weren't exactly thinking of hammam.)

Once sandaled and toweled, we were shepharded into a sauna. A man came in with a vat of green mud and a paintbrush, which he used to smear the green mud all over our faces. Then he pointed to an 15-minute hourglass on the wall and gestured in a way that made it clear that we were not to leave the room until all the sand had run out. Then he closed the door and we sat.

We sat, and we roasted. Boy was it hot! The thermometer registered about 49 degrees Celsius, which I think comes out to about 120 degrees Fahrenheit! Needless to say, within seconds I was running with sweat. And for those of you who might be concerned about my virtue, given that I was sitting there in nothing but a towel in seclusion with a girl who was similarly dressed, let me just point out that there is nothing glamorous or sexy about profuse sweating, especially when it also involves rivers of green mud running from you face down into your bellybutton. Eventually I had more or less acclimated to the heat and felt I could hold out for the full 15 minutes more or less comfortably. But then the guy came back in and ladled a bucket of water onto the brazier that was heating the room. So now not only was it 5 million degrees in there, but it was also super humid! Ay!

Finally the sand ran out and we headed back out into the main room. This room was a large octagonal room entirely of marble. Around the perimeter were benches with personal water basins and bowls for pouring water over oneself. In the center of the room was a raised marble platform. We were directed to lie down on this platform and relax for a while. Turns out, lying flat on your back on hard marble is pretty comfortable. The marble was heated from within, and the gentle heat radiated through my back and limbs and felt great. After the intense heat of the sauna, I was ready for this relaxation -- it kind of felt like the relaxation pose at the end of a good yoga workout. By the time I had relaxed to the point of nearly dosing off, the man came back in the room for the next phase.

This phase was the washing/exfoliating phase. The man took me over to the bench on the outside of the room and filled a basin with water. He took the bowl and poured the water all over me. Then he pulled on a large, rough glove, and started scrubbing me. To get the proper emphasis, maybe I should say SCRUBBING me. First my back, then my arms, legs, chest and stomach -- everything was subject to the most vigorous scrubbing I've ever had. It didn't hurt, fortunately, but it was definitely vigorous. The effect, as you might imagine, was amazing: SO much skin came off! I had no idea I had that much skin to lose!

After the scrubbing, and a rinse to get rid of my newly shed skin, the guy directed me to lie back down on the central platform. I lay down, and he immediately pulled off my towel. Yikes! Good thing I'd thought to leave my trunks on, or I'd have been there naked as a jaybird! (Amanda, on the other hand, hadn't anything on under her towel and now claims that I "cheated.")

Thus stripped down of both my extra skin and my modesty blanket, I was ready for soap and a massage. The guy lathered up huge mounds of soap suds (think giant watermelons) and dumped them on top of me. He then used what felt like a big loofa to rub the foam around my body before starting in with the massage. Like the scrubbing, this soap massage was extremely vigorous -- no delicate day-spa treatment here! He started with legs and feet, then worked up my back to my arms and shoulders, then went back and started all again. In addition to the rubbing he would occasionally give me these great slaps on the back or thighs; I never could tell what the point of the smacking was, other than they made terrific echoes in the giant marble chamber. Once my backside was sufficiently soaped and massaged, the guy turned me over and did the front side. The best move was when he pulled my arms across my chest and rubbed the underside -- it gave a delightful stretch in the triceps. My least favorite move was when he was washing my stomach. Think of how you might scrub a floor on your hands and knees: you'd lean on one arm for support, and scrub away with the other. That's basically how he approached my stomach, which would have been fine, except that the support arm was planted not on the marble slab, but my chest! So with each effort to scrub my stomach he forced out all the air from my lungs!

When the soapy massage was done, I was taken back over to the basin for one last rinse and then directed to jump into a cold pool that was at first a shock to the system, but eventually felt very good. Eventually Amanda joined me (fortunately they'd let her keep her wrap -- which was more than they'd done for me) and we chilled in the pool for a while reflecting on what had just happened to us and wondering what we were supposed to do next. When no one appeared to direct us to any further scrubbing or massaging, we got out and showered off. We were met at the exit by a man with towels who dried us off and sent us back to the dressing room.

Now, sitting here at the computer, I have to say that was probably the best bathing experience ever. I feel incredibly clean and refreshed and invigorated -- especially after so many days of heat and sweat and dust. I'm glad we went in the morning, since we were the only ones there so we could figure it out without the awkwardness of a million stares. On the other hand, I can now appreciate the tradition of having men and women separate in the hamams. Amanda and I are planning on going to another one in Istanbul, and we're definitely going with the non-mixed option.

Okay, that's it for now. I've got to run to get to the airport for Istanbul. Woot!

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