“My friend is going to a hamam tomorrow if you want to go. But if you don’t want to, we don’t have to.” My friend Merve, whom I was staying with during my trip, dropped this bomb on me on DAY ONE.
I mean, I knew I wanted to do it. And I use that term loosely. “Wanted.” I wanted to be naked in a room full of people about as much as I wanted to join the Ku Klux Klan. I didn’t really want to, but I did want to see what it was like from the inside.
I thought it might take the whole week for me to warm up to the idea, and that I would eventually wander into a Turkish bath unassumingly on my own towards the end of my stay. But when opportunity presents itself, you must say yes. So I said yes.
We stopped and got me a bathing suit beforehand. From what I had read about Turkish baths, you had the option of wearing one or not, but it seemed like only the tourists wore them. So I said screw it and didn’t pack one. I’m a damn adult. My Turkish bath mates informed me that, oh yes, they would be wearing one, so I changed my stance on that idea immediately.
Merve packed us a hamam bag which included things like washcloths and towels, and shampoo, conditioner and soap. I threw in my vanity items as well, since I can’t be seen in public without makeup.
We drove around for what felt like forever, going down side streets that only fit one car at a time, me wondering if this was my ISIS moment after all.
Finally, we pulled up outside a building that I was unable to recognize as our destination (not that that was new), and whose entrance I couldn’t immediately identify.
We walked down a couple of steps and through a discrete door into a room full of topless, old Turkish women (bottoms are required), just hanging out. Watching the news. Carrying on conversations I couldn’t understand. We were directed to a “private” changing room full of windows where we changed into our bathing suits and locked up our belongings.
I’ll give you my best effort at describing what I saw and experienced without visual reference. It was questionable enough to be a foreigner in this very clearly old-skool hamam, let alone be taking pictures like some kind of perv.
From the main area, we went through a few heavy doors that opened up into a big, stifling-hot room full of more half-naked women laying on a round/hexagonal concrete slab getting their bodies beaten by still more topless ladies, nipples a-swayin’.
No turning back now.
We went into a side room with three sinks spewing out scalding hot water and used little bowls to drench ourselves, toeing the line between opening our pores and getting first-degree burns. Every now and then, we’d step back out of the room so we could get a fresh supply of oxygen so we wouldn’t pass out while we waited for our scrub down (though I kinda wanted to anyway).
At least 30 minutes later, I was summoned by the exact Turkish woman you’re picturing in your head, the same Turkish woman I never actually saw anywhere else in Turkey. The one that hangs her clothes out to dry three stories above the street, the one that shoos stray cats out her backdoor with a dishrag. That one. The mean one that probably cooks delicious things and prays five times a day.
I couldn’t understand her, of course. Merve translated for me, though she really didn’t need to. The disdain towards my bathing suit was written all over her face, so I lowered the straps. I knew I would have to anyway. How can you expect someone to wash you when you’re fully clothed? It’s counter-productive.
As much as I love to over-share things, I don’t exactly love my ladies* flapping around in front of more than one or two attractive men at a time, let alone a room full of ladies who aren’t even looking at me. I didn’t want to make Mama Turkey madder though–it seemed like she was, but maybe that was just her nature–so I threw my modesty out the door.
She took what was either a piece of sandpaper from the local hardware store or possibly a really rough loofa to my delicate American skin and mutilated every inch of my body. When she wanted me to flip, she gave me a three-finger jab to my ribcage and hissed some words at me with her signature frown.
Laying on my back was much different than laying on my stomach. I wasn’t sure where to look and I wasn’t sure what to do with my boobs. Should I hold them in place for her? (The way she swatted my hands away dictated no.) Was she actually going to touch them? (Oh yes, and there was nothing gentle about the way she handled those melons.) My eyes darted around the ceiling, trying not to meet hers until she was done.
I was certain I was bleeding after, whether accidentally or on purpose I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t locate any blood, just ripples of dead, grey skin that had been waiting for a moment like this for probably my whole life.
I went back and rinsed in the hot water, reflecting on how I had just been violated by a strange woman, though it was hard to be mad about my new, baby-smooth skin. I had initially opted to include a massage, but after my skin-stripping, I didn’t feel it was necessary. Language barriers didn’t allow me to change my mind though, and I found myself sprawled out on that concrete slab once again, receiving a lackluster massage from Mama Turkey who, at the end, gave me a hearty slap on the arm and a warm smile. Friends.
I quickly shampooed and conditioned my hair and we went back to our dressing room to, well, dress and beautify ourselves. And pay the $13-$15ish dollars to my new friend. I was glad to have my jugs properly covered once again and equally as glad when we finally left.
Should you try a Turkish bath? Absolutely, I’m very glad I did. Besides, I’d always be wondering about it if I hadn’t done it. Definitely have that experience if you find yourself in Turkey–it’s a very old practice. Will you want to do it a second time? Maybe not. I don’t. I’m good.
*Edit: I originally used the word “titties,” but I don’t even like using that word in real life. I apologize for the vulgarity.