Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Great Soapy Turkish Hamam Adventure

I have a confession to make: I was a Turkish hamam virgin until last week.

Yes, I had heard about Turkish steam baths and how the tradition had passed through the Romans to the Byzantines, and then onto the Turks. The Moroccans have a similar system, although for some reason unbeknownst to me, I declined to have one when I was there over Christmas.

Anyway, three weeks in Turkey gave me absolutely no excuse not to try a legendary hamam, and it was really just a matter of finding time in the busy tour to schedule one.

A free afternoon in the small town of Selcuk presented the perfect opportunity.

We had been roaming all morning around the ruins of Ephesus – the mother of all archaeological sites in Turkey. It was an extremely hot day, and we’d been clambering down ancient cobbled streets amid hordes of tourists. One nearby cruise ship alone had offloaded 51 busloads of passengers into the site, and we then had to battle our way through the throng of eager vendors on the way out of the site. It was nothing short of hot, sweaty chaos.

Little did I know that the theme of hot, sweaty chaos would continue...

Linda and Bill, a lovely Canadian couple from my tour group, decided they were up for trying the hamam. We agreed to set off into the town’s centre later that afternoon.

I had read and heard various things about the protocol for bath houses. There were typically separate bathing rooms for men and women, and men attendants massaged men and women attendants massaged women. Sometimes there were even specific days and times for men or women to use the hamam. Also, it seemed that in some bath houses you stripped of completely, while others gave you towels or sarong-like gizmos to wrap up in, while others recommended you wore underwear or a swimming costume throughout the whole process. I erred on the side of caution and wore my swimmers.

The bath house was near the police station, and we greeted a man who was sitting outside smoking.

Inside, the lobby was dimly light and there seemed to be few people. We explained what we wanted – the sauna/steam bath, loofah wash down and oil massage. It all seemed to be quite straightforward.

We were issued with a tartan-like sarong and ushered into a small change room, where we could leave our clothes. They placed our valuables in a rickety old safe.

The man then nodded in the direction of the steam room. At this point, I thought Linda and I would move into a separate area from Bill, and that women attendants would appear...

There was in fact one large steam room, with two men already in there. Linda and I were making rapid eye movements to each other and Bill, as the logistics of the situation started whirling, dervish like, round our minds. At that point I was saying a million silent thank you’s for my swimming costume, and also that I’d not come alone.

A large octagonal marble platform, about knee height, sat in the centre of the room. Smaller cubicles with showers and curtains lined one wall, and there were two higher marble slabs at the back of the room.

The high domed ceiling had small light holes that cut through the steamy haze. I don’t know what the temperature was in that room, but it seemed hotter than it had been at Ephesus...

A third man – a huge Turk wearing only the same sort of sarong we were wearing, entered the room and motioned for Bill to sit on the slab at the back. Linda and I watched on. The Turk filled up a bucket of water and, without warning, unceremoniously dumped it over Bill’s head. He motioned for Bill to move over to the central slab and lie face down with his head in the centre of the octagon. Bill apparently wasn’t in the right position, so the Turk shunted Bill’s feet with his huge hands, sliding Bill into the right position. I was desperately trying to hold back nervous giggles.

Linda and I got the same treatment, and then the water man tipped water over his own head and joined us on the slab.

At this point, four of us – two men, and two women were lying on a hot marble slab in a wet sarong. We visitors were not quite sure how long we were to stay there, or what would happen next.

The Turk broke the silence and uttered the words “makes good photo. Photo?”

Linda and I stared at each other at about the time our jaws hit the marble...In hindsight, that would have been the perfect photo.

“NO. No – no thank you. NO PHOTO,” we both sputtered. It was hard to relax after that. I was checking out the steam room for hidden cameras.

We lay face down on the marble until the Turk rolled over onto his back. That seemed to be a natural cue for us all to do the same –when in doubt, copy the locals! It was then completely silent except for four people’s breathing and the dripping of water, and my sarong decided to make fart-like noises. Under the circumstances, I felt the need to explain that it was the sarong. Oh god...was I ever going to relax?

As I wondering how much longer I could restrain myself from (1) laughing hysterically; and (2) suffocating on hot steamy air, another sarong-wielding Turkish man came into the room, patted the slab at the back and motioned for Bill to lie face down on it.

SPLASH went another bucket of water over my Canadian friend, and then the Turk began to use a hand loofah to start sloughing apparent grime off him. I’d heard that this part of the process was particularly rough and that people came out feeling raw but very clean. Linda and I were attempting to keep flat on the central slab, but ended up cocking our heads and straining our necks to observe what was going on. She asked if I would like to be temporarily adopted as their daughter, and I very quickly agreed.

We each followed suit with the loofah-ing. It was the ultimate exfoliation! My skin tingled – probably due to my newly-acquired Ephesus sun burn, as much as the fact that the top three layers of my epidermis were being scrubbed away. Actually, it wasn’t painful or remotely uncomfortable.

After more time back on the central slab, our attendant motioned for Bill to head back to the “work bench”.

This time, he had what looked like a huge net bag full of suds, and dumped it all over Bill. Very quickly, Bill was hidden in soap. This went on for some minutes, and once again, Linda and I followed suit.

I shall point out the obvious – marble, water and three tonnes of soap suds make for extremely slippery conditions – especially when two very large hands are loofah-ing you within in an inch of your life. The attendant asked me to turn over, and I swear it was nothing short of a miracle that I actually made it onto my back. Think of a beached whale laughing hysterically, incapable of rolling itself over, and you should get an image that just about mirrors my experience.

We were then told to shower off and head out to the lobby. Once in the lobby, a dry sarong was wrapped round our middle, a different coloured towel draped around our shoulders, and yet another towel twisted around our heads, turban style. We were then offered hot tea.

And that’s when it dawned on us that we were missing the perfect Kodak moment. There was not a camera amongst us, so we simply chuckled at the memory that we will collectively file away into amusing travel moments folder.

The tea was surprisingly refreshing and no sooner had we drunk it, we were being ushered upstairs for the oil massage. I’d almost forgotten that part of the order.

Once again, it was male masseurs – two of the guys who had been in the steam room. The Turkish style of massage was far more brisk than what I learned in Swedish massage. It was certainly firm, although my masseur went fairly gently. Not so for Bill, who was apparently pounded.

After the steam, wash and scrub, the massage was heavenly. Perfect conditions for the oil to work into the skin and ease my sun burn. I came away feeling like a newborn!

I couldn’t help myself, and had a quick chat with the masseur about various massage techniques – his style of percussion, and the one I’d learned etc. I always find it fascinating to compare different styles of massage.

The whole process lasted about an hour and cost us 35 Turkish Lira each, or about £12-14. Ironically, I read my Lonely Planet Guide Book when I got back to the hotel, and its report on Selcuk Haman was very good - "Everything is thoroughly clean and respectable". Indeed it was.

The Great Soapy Turkish Hamam Adventure was one of the most nerve-wracking, memorable and (eventually) relaxing experiences I’ve had while travelling.

Thanks to Bill and Linda for sharing the memory, though I’m kinda glad there’s no photographic evidence. :-)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I burst out laughing when I reached the part about the farty sarong!