Turkey 2019 Day 21: Antalya: Hamam Holly Winter
“Do you have any questions?” the receptionist asked in perfect English.
This was my first time to a Hamam or a Turkish Bath. My friend Violet had told me some things about it, but I still had a lot of questions. I said, “What do I need to know?” He said a few things and I tried to follow him, but I was thinking about the website that said a woman should never, ever go to a Turkish Bath and get worked on by a man. This bath which was in the old quarter of Antalya was just a five-minute walk from my hotel; convenience and more than 400 excellent reviews on the internet made me override that website’s warning. Was my curiosity about another culture putting me in harm’s way? They gave me two pieces of cloth and told me to go and change. I was given a small changing room next to the reception area and a key to lock the door to keep my things safe. I picked up the cloth, it was just a towel. I thought it would be a bathrobe. I stepped out of the cubicle and said, “I don’t know what to do. This is only a towel…” The receptionist said, “Some people wear bikinis. You can do that, or you can wear nothing. It’s up to you.” “I didn’t bring a bathing suit.” I said. Should I run back to my hotel to get it? There are many places to get a Turkish Bath, but I liked the idea of having one so close to my hotel. If I waited until got to Istanbul, I might have to take two subways and a taxi to find a place. I returned to my changing room, removed my jewelry and tucked it into my purse. I covered the purse with one of the pieces of cloth and wrapped myself in the other piece. I felt too naked, so I put my underwear and shorts back on then wrapped my upper half in the towel. I stepped back into the reception area. A man appeared and he motioned for me to follow him. I went through the 600-year-old building, with marble floors and arched ceilings. We ducked through a small door, up two steps, down one step. He walked me across a small room and into another room. I was the only one there. I thought Turkish baths were brimming with people. Anything you read about them claims they are a social center. This was a party of one: me. We entered another room. Hot. Dry air. Different than the hot air outside, but uncomfortable all the same. There was a large marble slab in the room and a series of water taps around the edge of the room. The man motioned to the giant marble slab and motioned for me to sit on it. Really? I sat; he motioned for me to lay down. Keeping the towel tucked around me, I lay back. The slab was hot. Really hot. I wished I hadn’t spent the last hour walking around outside in the one-hundred-degree day. This wasn’t relaxing. I was sitting in a giant sauna wrapped in a towel laying on a hot slab. Isn’t this supposed to be a relaxing day? The man pointed to my forehead and then to some taps on the wall. He walked over to a tap, mimed filling a plastic bowl with water and pouring it over himself. Either he was miming that I need to pay attention to when it gets too hot so I can leave, or that if I get too hot, I can pour water over myself. If only there were other people around who I could watch, so I would know what to do. The man walked out a small “Hobbit” door next to the spigot and I was alone. Man, it sure was hot. Too hot. Uncomfortably hot. I loosened the towel and lay it over me. This is so much hotter than a sauna. I pulled off my shorts and my underwear and put them in my bag of writing supplies I’d brought with me in case there was “down time” and I could get some writing done. The last thing I wanted to do right now was write anything. I put my clothes in my bag went back to the slab. Too hot. Maybe fresh water would help? I left the towel there and walked over to the spigot, filled a bowl with water and poured it over my head. Oh, that’s better. Relief from the heat. I refilled the bowl and poured it over my head again. Refreshing. This was better. I returned the slab and lay down, keeping the towel next to me in case someone walked in. I wondered if there were cameras in the room, recording; I was too hot to care. I have low blood pressure, so saunas aren’t a good idea for me. I poured a few bowls of water over my head and went into the next room. A smaller room. Not hot, hallelujah. I wrapped the thin Turkish towel around and around me and lay down on the marble slab. This experience would be improved with a nice mattress under me. This slab was cold. It reminded me of the time I went for surgery, and they put me on a metal table in the operating room before they put me to sleep. That cold was uncomfortable. This cold marble was just right. A man walked into my room. I didn’t know this was a coed experience. Ok. No worries, I was wrapped up. The man was about my age and the only thing he was wearing was a towel around his waist. He moved around the room. I figured he was going to lay on the other marble slab. No. This was my worker.
A naked man wearing a towel was going to give me my treatments: a rubbing down, a soap massage and an oil massage? My Turkish friends swear by these treatments. This wasn’t about that term, FOMO or “Fear of Missing Out.” I wanted the relaxation and spiritual renewal these treatments offer. I’d been having trouble sleeping on the road and could only rest for a few hours at a time, so I was perpetually tired. Maybe a treatment would help me rest? My worker moved my writing bag out of the way and asked me to lay back on the slab, which surprised me, when did I sit up? He put on a white--glove, kind of like an oven mitt made out of coarse material and began “buffing” my right arm. He made little circles with the glove, like he was polishing me, one inch at a time. He worked quietly; head bent towards my arm. Polishing. Polishing. It fell somewhere between good and uncomfortable on the spectrum of skin care. I relaxed. This wasn’t so bad. I watched him work, methodically. He moved from my arm to my leg. Lower leg first, then upper leg. The reviews on the internet swore that this Hamam was different because there were only male attendants, but that women should not worry; the men never cross a line or touch you inappropriately. I figured they wouldn’t be in business for long if they did, right? I’ve had massages by men before, but they do so much draping with sheets that I never really felt exposed. My worker asked me something in Turkish. I had no idea what he was asking. He pointed to the towel. Oh, so he wants to move the towel, you know, drape it better. Ok. We can do that. He gently unwound the towel and had me lay down without it. Hello, towel? Then he twisted it into a diaper-like shape. My lower private area was covered, the rest of me was exposed. Oh. So, really? He continued polishing. My stomach. My upper chest. Methodically, carefully. I turned over and the diaper was repositioned--a hint of modesty. He polished my back, one inch at a time. I was pretty sure that my back had never had so much attention. He knew when to stop buffing one area to move to another before too much skin was removed. Every bit of my body was rubbed, except the area under the diaper and my breasts. May I recommend a butt polish to anyone who’s never had one? It was strange to have a man work this intimately on my body. A man I didn’t know. He showed no interest in me. He didn’t try to talk or meet my eyes. His focus was on my skin. For the past three weeks I’d been traveling full time. I’d walked for up to ten hours a day as I explored new places. My shoulders were sore from picking up my suitcase and putting it in a bin over my head or wheeling it over cobblestones or carrying it up three flights of stairs. I slept in a different bed every few nights and any routine I followed during normal life at home was not any part of my travel life. I had no complaints; the excitement of travel drives me. But my body was open to working out some of the kinks. He poured bowls of warm water over my body to wash away the dead skin which explains why I couldn’t have a mattress on the slab. More water, and more again. He poured some soap into a large bowl in the sink, then filled it with water. He put a piece of material that looked like a pillowcase into the water and ‘scooped’ up a bunch of bubbles. He held the material over me, and gently squeezed it; foam came out of the cloth and covered me. I laughed. How did he get so many bubbles from simple soap? He could sell this formula. He dipped the cloth back into the bubbles and squeezed them over my body. You know how when you bathe a small child, you mold some bubbles and place them on the kid’s chin and give them a soap beard? That’s what I had, a soap beard, only it covered my whole body: a mountain of bubbles over my body. If anyone took my photo at this moment, you would see zero skin or limbs: I was a giant bubble mountain. He started massaging the bubbles into my arms and legs, then pouring water over me and adding more bubbles to do it again. This? This was relaxing. All of the places that got buffed were massaged with the foam. He spent extra time working on my feet. Could he tell they were sore? He worked diligently, focusing on the soap and adding more bubbles when necessary. I was so relaxed that I might have fallen asleep here on a marble slab in a random Hanam in the south of Turkey. But then he had me turn on my stomach, repositioned the diaper and placed a round pillow under my ankles which helped take the pressure off my knees. He covered the back of my body with soap until there was a mountain of soap, and then my back got the same soapy foamy treatment. If you had told me that a massage with soap would be relaxing, I would have doubted your ability to define comfort. This was an ancient tradition dating back to the Ottoman empire; I was an instant fan. And though there was a practically naked man (!) working on me, there was nothing sexual about the touch or the movements any more than going to the dentist is sexual or having a dermatologist scan your body looking for lumps. This procedure was work. Cleaning. Massaging. Skin care. There was more to come, not bad the price: a two-hour treatment for under $40 including the tip. After the massage, he rinsed me with bowl after bowl of water. Some bowls of water were room temperature. Some were unexpectedly hot. The cold one shocked me. Then he wrapped me in three different towels, one for my body, one around my shoulders and one for my head. I followed him back to the reception area. Wait, I’m going to sit here, naked under my towel? But then they put a tray of fruit out for me, and a cup of the famed apple tea and I forgot about my discomfort and started eating the perfectly ripe fruit. I felt a little dehydrated; the fruit was just what I needed. I talked to the receptionist, a charming twenty-something. He was Turkish and had worked here for a year and a half. He sat in a wheelchair and had the use of one hand. As a special education teacher, I loved that this man was given a job. And where did he learn to speak English so well? As I inhaled the fruit, he told me his story. Mid-twenties. Graduated college with a math degree two years ago. His uncle owned the place. He traveled with his family to different countries. I asked what nationality came to the Hanam most often and he said Russian, followed by European. He told me that they leave his wheelchair at the desk and carry him to the car every night, which is a great way to deal with working in a building with so many staircases. I told him that I was a special education teacher and that he was #2 for being the best English speaker I’d met in Turkey so far. “Who was number one?” He asked and we talked about English acquisition skill and became Facebook friends; he wanted to read about my adventures in Turkey. When it was time for my oil massage, my same worker came to get me. He was wearing clothes. Clothes! I was led to a different room for a fairly typical half hour oil massage. I'd been exfoliated, cleaned and now an intense oil massage. I'd read online that people get addicted to these treatments; I can see why. At the end of my session, he suggested I lay on the table and sleep for a while. So I did.
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