Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Inside a Turkish Bath

I went to the Cemberlitas Hammam in Istanbul. There were separate sections for men and women, so I can't tell you what happens on the boy's side, but here's what's what for the gals.

Put away all modesty. You will be naked in front of other people. Deal with it. The only people who wore swimsuits were some Americans and they wore these huge one piece suits and it just looked stupid. . They did not stay long. So, yeah, there were naked women, everywhere, all laying around on this big marble platform in the middle of the room. All lying there sweaty and soapy and lazy like. It did, indeed, look EXACTLY like what you imagine a Turkish bath to look like. I was also quite proud to note that, bodywise? I got nothing to worry about. I was definitely in the top 15% of the body attractiveness scale. This means, obviously, that no matter what you look like (or think you look like) there is gonna be someone there that makes you feel good about yourself....and someone who won't. I think I am not all that modest a person, because I felt entirely comfortable. Maybe it was just the essentially feminine feel of the place, but I really just wasn't bothered at all. Hey, we all have the same stuff, just at different levels and with different resistance to gravity.....it would have been very different if it was unisex, obviously.

The bathing room was beautiful. All greyish taupe marble, with a huge octagonal marble heated platform in the middle of the room on which all the naked ladies lounged, building up a sweat. The ceiling was domed with circular holes pierced in it that looked like bubbles (there were star shapes, too), that let the light in. It streamed into the room in swirly rays. Around the room were alcoves with washing stations in a variety of water temperatures. There was no decoration, just the dominant sculptural shapes in the room which gave it a restful appeal. The eye could wander without pausing, or could focus on the light rays. Calm, peaceful. The building was built in the 16th century.

Pretend like you are 4 years old and your mom is giving you a bath. That's pretty much what it feels like to get washed. From the minute you enter the 'hot room' you are in the capable hands of the very "seen it all" women who scrub you. And scrub they indeed do. First, after about 15 minutes of obligatory "lounge and sweat" time, the lady came over to me and dumped a bucket of warm water over me. Just...splash. Then she grabbed a scrubby hand mit and scrubbed me. First my backside, from toes to ears, then, when she wanted me to flip over for the front, she smacked my ass with a loud "pop" noise as a sign for me to flip. That surprised me a bit, and also explained the occasional smacking noises I heard as I lay in my sweaty snoozing lounging phase. I hadn't been spanked in...well, ahem, anyhow.... I flipped. She scrubbed the front of me next. She didn't exactly ignore the naughty bits, but they aren't exactly concentrated on, either, so it never felt wierd or uncomfortable. Just...motherly. It was thorough, and pleasing, and just very soothing.

After the scrubbing came the soaping. She took this thing that looked like a gauze bag (I was never sure what exactly it was) and somehow with that thing she created this HUGE bubble of suds that she sort of whisped over my body, letting the suds go where they wanted. It felt fizzy and strange. I was about 6 inches deep in bubbles. I looked around the room and some other women were also in the sudsing phase and it looked like nothing so much as a car wash, except people were getting sudsed instead of cars. She doused me with the suds, front and back with yet another smack on the ass to flip. When I flipped this time I felt like a greased pig and nearly slid right off the marble platform. It was SLIPPERY.

Once I was all soaped up she got some more buckets of water and unceremoniously dumped them over me to rinse. You know how fish look when they are dumped out of a net and onto the deck of a fishing boat? They kind of slide around and flop? That was me getting rinsed. I was a wet flopping sliding gasping fish, slithering around on that big marble platform. There was nothing to hold onto except the edge, which I did for dear life or I would have washed across the damned thing and ended up in a puddle on the floor across the room. It was like being in a soapy tsunami. Graceful I was not.

She then helped me up and took me over to one of the many and beautiful side alcoves. They all had troughs of water in three temperatures (hot warm cold) and were not ornate, but were very sculptural and elegant. (The link to the baths actually has pictures of most of what I am describing, so you can see it. No nekkid people, it's work safe.) She sat me down on the floor at her feet next to one of the water troughs and proceeded to wash my hair, using the bucket method. That was not actually all that nice, as I am very particular about shampoos and always use conditioner, so my hair ended up feeling very tangled and rough. But still, it was cute, sitting there at her feet while she washed my hair just like my mom did when I was 5.

After she washed my hair she took me to the drying room and wrapped me up in a towel. I told her thank you in Turkish (phonetically it goes Tesh uh KUR eh dehr em, and took me three days of practice to say right). Apparently, and rightly so with the difficulty of saying it, not many people make the effort and after I thanked her she broke out into a huge grin and patted my cheek just like a mom. I swear I wanted to hug her. The Turks love it if you even TRY to speak their language.

The women who washed us wore only underwear. They were also, well, zaftig. None of them would have won a Miss World contest. However, the lady who washed me had the softest skin I have ever seen, or felt. My god, that woman was glowing. I think, working in the humid environs of the baths with not much in the way of work uniform to wear, that on breaks they just scrub themselves. And I'll tell you what, the results were amazing. To a woman, they had soft, blemish and cellulite free skin. Smooth and lovely. I would kill for skin like that.

After the cleansing I had a massage in an adjoining room. It was ok. Oddly enough a Russian woman was the massage therapist. There were TONS of Russians in Istanbul. I haven't figured out the connection, but it was surprising how strong the Russian element was in the town.

After the massage I went back into the main room to have a final rinse, and then got my clothes back on and met my father (who had his own bath in the men's section) for the walk back to the hotel. We both glowed with cleanliness and relaxation. It was cool.

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