On a blustery, freezing night in March, a fat, bald Turkish man in sweatpants opened the door to the Sultanahmet hammam in Istanbul and pointed at the menu: “regular” (bath, scrub, soapy massage), or “extra” (all of the above with extra oil massage). I decided I could make do without the oil massage, so I chose the former.
The Turkish hammam is an institution in itself. You’re committing a travel sin if you go to Turkey without stepping foot on one. So on my last night in Istanbul, before I boarded my night bus to Selcuk, I decided to have a good cleanse, Ottoman style.
The bald man – who I discovered at this point didn’t speak English - now took me inside the 17th century hammam. He showed me the toilet, a couple of Asian-style squat toilets. He waited. I looked at the toilets. I looked at him. Ahhh, he thought I wanted to go to the toilet. "I already went today," I said. Damn it! That was too much information; the guy didn't need to know my bodily function schedule. A simple "no need" or a headshake would’ve sufficed. The man smiled, then pointed to the door that said "bathroom". I went inside.
There was not another soul in sight, just a maze of deserted rooms with stonewalls and narrow, wet alleyways. Although it was snowing outside, it was warm in there. I was poking my head around when I finally found someone, a young, scrawny woman in lilac knickers who promptly got up, smiled, & said "Aaaah, wash, come, come, wash."
Is she the assistant? Or just a helpful fellow guest? She guided me to another room deep inside the hammam where three other women were already sitting beside marble sinks. The woman gleefully said "Wash, wash", but I couldn't concentrate because the thing that was on my mind after seeing her and the other women was that I made a terrible faux pas. You see, I thought since hammam is a traditional bathhouse – and I would reckon that one has to be naked to take a bath – I had, ahem, dutifully stripped down to my birthday suit. But it was obvious to see that I thought wrong. So now I would be the only one sitting au naturel while the others were still in their bikini bottoms!
The woman who was guiding me, thinking I did not understand her, grabbed my towel. Not in a Soviet-prison kind of way, mind you, more like an elderly-sister-in-a-whorehouse kind of way. As I gaped in horror, she laid my towel on a marble slab right next to an unoccupied sink. "Sit, sit!" I sat. She gave me a plastic bowl and turned on the tap. Then she left.
As the sink started to fill out, I took my cue from the other ladies and started scooping the water from the sink, and pour the nice, warm water on to me. The water was good: warm enough and never too hot. The other ladies alternated between sitting still and splashing water on their bodies, so I followed suit. Without anything else to do, I scanned the room. The room was small and bare (unlike the hammams in tourist brochures – no intricate tilework, no colourful mosaics), with a high dome and marble floors, sinks and bench. The air was muggy but pleasant with a hint of a soapy smell that permeated the rooms.
But how long was I supposed to sit there and pour water on myself? I suspected that this is a very social activity in daily Turkish life, where women sit around and gossip about whatever it is women gossip about at such occasions – the rising price of aubergines, which of the recently deposed dictators was fitter (I visited during the Arab spring), or, considering the view, where to get the best wax job? But with strangers around me, what to do? Staring at the wall got tedious after the first 5 minutes, and staring at the other people in the room was obviously unacceptable because I didn’t want to be the nude Asian who stared. I did notice, however, that the other ladies had more belly fat than me.
Because I left my watch in the room, I didn't know how much time had passed before the woman who guided me came back to the room and ushered me to another, much smaller room. I was asked to lie down on my stomach at the table in the middle of the room and she gave me a good scrub. Then came the best part, the so-called “soapy massage”: she took a towel covered with soap suds, then hovered the towel on top of me while flicking it just so, making copious amount of suds rained down on my skin.
The feeling was heavenly, like millions of soft feathers touching your back at the same time. As I lay there covered in suds, she gave me a quick, vigorous rub, which was painful as hell on my scrawny legs and arms. She again dipped the towel into a soapy bucket, and repeated the process with the suds. After about 10 minutes of heaven-hell-heaven-hell, she shampooed my hair, poured water to clean me up, and we're done. The tense feeling in my shoulders from wearing a heavy winter coat for a full week was now gone, and I felt fresh and sleepy at the same time.
I was led outside, wrapped in my wet towel. I changed into my clothes and was given a piping hot apple tea while I lounged around in the lobby with locals and tourists alike, watching Turkish TV.
That night I slept the best sleep I had in weeks.
When not on the road, RL writes everything from avant garde porn to low brow politics from her comfortable middle class home in Jakarta. Finds toilet humor amusing and has an unhealthy obsession to computer games, useless trivia and The Mighty Boosh.