Life in a Turkish bath

A few months ago, I wrote a post called “Out of Our Comfort Zones” while traveling through Costa Rica. My travel companions and I engaged in every adventurous activity we could find from zip lining to repelling to swinging 300 feet in the air on a rope through the jungle.

Today, I spent 69 Turkish Lira ($37.99) for an old topless woman to bathe me with some bubbly Turkish soap. I was out of my comfort zone in a whole new way. And, it was wonderful.

We had heard from multiple other Istanbul travelers that it would be a mistake to miss visiting a Turkish bath, or Hamam. This method of cleansing and relaxation involves a body scrub and bubble wash, which remove dead skin from the body, clean out the skin’s pores and help a bather’s skin breathe while also regulating blood circulation.

A person taking a Turkish bath first relaxes in a hot room, which allows the bather to perspire freely on a hot marble platform. After receiving a full body scrub and bubble wash from an attendant, bathers retire to a hot tub then a cooling room for a period of relaxation.

Perhaps the biggest debate of our entire two-week trip was what we would wear into the bath. To wear our bathing suits, or not to wear our bathing suits. That was the question.

Traditional bath attire includes wearing – at the most – the Hamam’s provided bathing suit bottoms. Women may wear full bikinis, but few do. In fact, those wearing a full bathing suit stand out more than the topless women who freely walk amongst one another in the hot room.

We decided to stick with tradition. “What are they going to do, rip the towels off of us?” I asked my friend Jessica as I pulled the black provided bikini bottoms out of the small bag.

Yes. This is exactly what they did. When we entered the dimly lit hot room, two mostly naked, overweight women attendants approached us and guided Jessica and I to two open spaces on a large marble pedestal. I watched one woman rip off Jessica’s body-wrapped towel, which distracted me just enough to lose protection of myself. Before I knew it, my towel had also been torn away and laid flat on the pedestal. The attendant pointed at it. “Down!” she ordered me.

I laid on my stomach and looked around. Jessica was on the other side of the pedestal, also face down, amongst a sea of mostly naked women. She mouthed to me “what the hell is going on?” and we laughed, until Attila the Hun came and pushed my head down onto the towel. My attendant wanted me to relax.

I peeked over at Jessica again a few minutes later and pointed discretely at the attendant wearing only bikini bottoms. “I hope you get the topless one,” I mouthed to her.

She replied with some affectionate profanity, then continued by explaining her bathing plan: “I’m just going to close my eyes and pretend my boobs are not exposed to the world.”

After about 10 minutes of pedestal-laying and pore-opening, my attendant returned. With two taps on the ass, she demanded my attention. I turned my head up at her. “Down!” she told me again. But, this time her hand motions told me to scootch down the towel.

It was time. Attila opened up my individual pack of soap and got to work.

One bubbly (and might I add relaxing) scrub of the back and two more ass taps later, I received my next command. “Turn!” my attendant said as she made a roll over motion with her fingers. I knew that motion well from when I trained my now-deceased dog as a puppy many years ago.

At that point, I had no other choice but to embrace the full-out chest exposure and enjoy the frontal scrub portion of the program. After that, I moved to the sitting position on the pedestal’s edge, so my arms and underarms could also get a proper scrubbing.

“Come!” I followed Attila toward one of the many faucets built into the surrounding wall. She had already been filling a bowl of water from the faucet and, as I approached, Attila unexpectedly lunged the cold water from the bowl against my body. If I hadn’t been awake by that point, that certainly did the trick.

“Sit!” I sat on a small ledge next to the faucet and waited. Before I knew it, Attila was sitting behind me, like a mother bathing her toddler, whirling her hands through my now-sudsy hair. At one point, she reached her hands around to my tightly closed eyes and rubbed them, making sure to remove all remnants of my makeup. I just sat and enjoyed my hair and face wash, staring at occasional childhood bath-time flashbacks behind my closed eyes and gasping for air each time my soaked hair parted enough on my face to breathe.

After this, my dear Attila the attendant guided me to the hot tub, where she gave me no further instruction other than not to bring my towel. So, I just sloshed behind her in my provided rubber man-sandals and little black bottoms and stepped into the heated pool.

About 10 minutes later, when I could no longer breathe cool air and my hands had reached the too-pruney-to-be-healthy stage, I exited the hot tub and took a seat in the cooling room. Here, I waited for Jessica in my new, larger-than-life warm towel and relaxed.

As we sipped our orange-pomegranate juice just before exiting the lobby, we reminisced about our experience. While new and awkward at times, we agreed that missing it would have been a serious mistake. I would not have even traded my dear, demanding Attila, as she left no room for error during my first Turkish bath experience.

In the end, Jessica summed it up best: “I’m glad we sucked it up and went topless.”