Out of the Sauna And Into the Bath

A single exposed fluorescent bulb hangs 20 feet from the center of a large rectangular atrium. The bulb is not illuminated, as it is four forty-five in the afternoon and the sun’s rays pour in through the open doorway. Several horseflies purposely circle the light; their buzzing waxing and waning in intensity as they loop closer in my direction then continue their never-ending circle. They seem unfazed by the bulb’s lack of electricity; instead, they act like stock cars, roaring around each turn at terminal velocity with no end in sight.

Lower to the ground, a soccer ball is blasted around the room by a small boy. Playing by himself, the air is punctuated by each echoing kick and the ricocheting sounds that quickly accompany it. Two old men lazily eye the boy’s movements, but like a stronger magnet, their gaze is drawn to the television in the center of the room. Turkish music videos fill the screen. A female vocalist seductively dances, but her body is constrained by flowing clothes. It is a love story in the ultra-compressed timeframe of her three-and-a-half minute song.

Frustrated that everyone in the room is paying more attention to the television than him, the young boy squares up and aims a kick toward the TV set. The force would have been enough to knock the television over, but his power overtook his aim and the kick goes wide. One of the old men jumps to his feet and berates the child. Yet, he sees the entertainment in the situation and gingerly releases the boy to continue to play.

More minutes pass, and the boy shyly makes his way over to me. Speaking in Turkish, he clearly wants me to play with him, or maybe give him money, or toss him around the room. For a split second, I mentally rotate through the languages I know how to say “I can’t speak your language” in. Since Turkish is not one of them, I blankly stare back. He continues to talk. I continue to stare. Clearly, he is hoping I am not as dumb as I look. As the boy’s hopefulness withers, his interest in soccer becomes renewed and he bounds off to pass to imaginary teammates and score on invisible goalies.

Mike in HamamSweat beads on my body, slowly at first, and then after combining together forms small rivers that collect in a pool just above my stomach. I stare at the ever-growing ocean before dabbing it with the towel that I had swaddling my head. My wife should be finished at any minute from her hamam experience, so I suppose I should wrap up here, I thought. Yet, the battered couch that embraced me was unwilling to give up its grip on my body, and since I did not see her hovering outside the entrance, I figured I had a few minutes longer to wait.

Oh, right. This is a description of my first hamam experience. The problem of formulating a coherent play-by-play of what exactly transpires at a Turkish bath is that your brain does not work normally afterward. Stitching together a proper account feels exactly like a patchwork quilt. Going into the hamam, I felt lucid, but walking out, everything seemed altered, as if my spatial perception had shifted.

Only an hour earlier, Tara and I were being hustled into a taxicab bound for the hamam. Our guesthouse had arranged the cab and appointment, but said nothing as to what to expect. So with only a brief primer from an Internet article on Turkish bathes, we stepped into the taxi.

Turkish taxi drivers are only slightly crazier than other Turkish drivers, which actually elevates them to the designation of completely insane. They do not use their horns; instead, they mash their gas pedals to the floor in hopes that pedestrians, other vehicles and even immobile objects can hear the roar of their engine and interpret that as a signal to get out of the way. On our ride from the airport, we witnessed three separate car accidents, and as we were slingshot through the city, we had wondered where our odds lay. Thankfully, this ride was only a few frantic kilometers, and we piled out of the vehicle with a new lust for life.

Hamams are separated by gender, but since our cabbie indicted we had arrived, both Tara and I walked inside the building. Almost immediately, an older man, in what seemed like his sixties, set upon us. Tara was not to take another step inside the inner sanctum of this construction. Turning her around, the man walked her outside and directed her the women’s bath.

Alone in the anteroom, my eyes adjusted to the darker area. My first impression was one of astonishment as the ceiling was a good 60 feet from the ground; quite a surprise from its innocuous outside. Primarily comprised of wooden beams, the main room was two open-air stories of dressing rooms. The dressing rooms themselves had doors and windows. In the center of the room, a large marble fountain sat empty.

Turkish Hamam BrochureUnsure of what to do, I moved further into the room until I was only a couple feet from the fountain. A few coins littered the bottom of the basin, whether they were waiting to be covered with water or whether they had been forgotten when the fountain was drained was unknown. Another man, this one was in his fifties, began to walk toward me from the back of the room. Using hand gestures, he handed me a key and indicated I undress in one of the rooms and put on a pair of plastic sandals that lined the anteroom. Aware that I would be bathed, the idea of wearing underwear or a bathing suit seemed unappealing, so I stripped, using a towel I found in the room as my only cover.

Returning to the large chamber, I discovered the second man had assumed the same clothing style that I had, meaning we had only a towel protecting our modesty. Once again, the man communicated through hand signals, and I followed him through a heavy wooden door down to a marble hallway, and then into the actual bath. The immense bath was designed to accommodate a large number of people at one time – my guess, probably around 30. The hexagonal-shaped room has a vaulted ceiling with a sauna and sinks lining its edges. A giant six-sided marble slab sits in the center.

Once again relying on his own form of sign language, I was instructed to go into the sauna. So off I went for about 10 minutes. In that time, the sauna got blisteringly hot, and I, on the other hand, got incredibly sweaty. Although I hate humidity, I quite enjoy saunas. It is tough to understand or even explain, but I guess the difference between a sauna and a 100°F day with 60 percent humidity is clothes. With a towel, scratch that, a loin cloth tightly wrapped around me, the sauna’s environment felt lovely, and I suppose I would have stayed there forever had I not heard clamoring out in the hamam’s main room.

Peering out of the small glass window, I saw my guide fiddling with one of the sinks and a large plastic kidney-shaped bowl. I was not going to get any hotter, so I walked out of the sauna and toward the man. Since I do not speak Turkish, I never got the guy’s name, but for the sake of this article, we will call him Mehmet, which is one of the most popular Turkish names, and therefore, a good probability.

Mehmet was an average-sized Turkish man in his fifties, which meant he was slightly overweight, had a moustache that was competing with other facial hair that would qualify it more as a beard and was graying and balding on the top of his head, with thick black hair covering almost every other inch of his body. He had strong hands that he put to use by bypassing his sign language in favoring of manhandling me. If I had to describe my Turkish bath experience, it would rank between an adult who is incapable of bathing himself and the veal processing plant, minus the slaughter part at the end.

Splashing WaterTo begin with, the clamoring that Mehmet was doing as I roasted in the sauna was filling a two-to-three gallon marble sink with warm water. When I joined him, he had me sit next to the sink. Mind you, this meant that anyone who came through the room’s main doors were treated to my full monty. Fortunately, no one came in, and Mehmet was focused on the task at hand: splashing warm water all over my body.

After a minute or two of washing my sweat off, he put on a hand loofah and began to vigorously scrub me. First, my arms, then my legs, then my feet and finally my face.  I am sure in some ancient textbook there is some reason why it makes sense to scrub someone’s feet and then their face, but alas, that knowledge has yet to be passed to me. Instead, I stared at Mehmet like he just defiled a female member of my family, to which he continued to scrub my face extra hard. Satisfied with the amount of dead skin he exfoliated from me, he tossed more warm water on me.

Then Mehmet grabbed my arm and tossed me on the marble slab. Perhaps this is a slight exaggeration, but by now the heat, the water on, the water off and the scrubbing were eroding my motor functions and sense of what to do. First, I found myself on my back. Since lying on a marble slab without a pillow is not very fun, Mehmet shoved something under my neck to prop me up and went to work soaping me up. Once again, he followed the arms, legs, feet routine, but thankfully skipped my face in lieu of my chest. Soaping me up is a euphemism for greasing me up so he could massage me into a little doughboy.

The perk to going to a hamam in Turkey is – I am willing to wager – that there are no regulations. The man manhandling and massaging me probably had no certification, so when he flipped me on my stomach and cracked my back, I assume he was going by another ancient guidebook. Then, Mehmet was done. He indicated I wash myself off and use the sauna at my leisure, but basically the decision to get off the ride was up to me.

I retired back to the sauna for a while, then doused myself with water until I felt like I had gotten my fill. Also, without clocks around I was not sure how long I had been there. Was Tara outside waiting? Better to wrap up and find out. Peering out into the main room, she was nowhere to be seen, so I grabbed a spot on the couch and relaxed.

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