Tuesday, November 8, 2011

my turkish bath

kule hamam, galata, istanbul, turkey
kule hamam, our neighborhood turkish bath in istanbul. talk about a humble doorway. if we hadn't read someone's positive review of this place kindly left behind in our rental apartment, we would have avoided it like the plague.

by the way, it's good to be a man in turkey. hamams, if they take women at all, only provide a few hours per week for them to be abluted (it's kind of a word), scrubbed and massaged. i, however, was welcome any hour, any day of  the week.

i entered and all eyes fell on me. clearly not a local. the dude behind the counter asked in turkish "are the penguins full featured in autumn?" i think. to which i confusedly replied, "no, no, i'm here for a hamam and massage."

he pointed down the stairs to a sweltering changing room and into a stall with, for some reason, a nearly full window in the door. facing other full-windowed changing stalls. what was the point? i could clearly see some other men and they could clearly see me. i haven't been around such naked machismo since the marine corps.

the "new" mosque (built in 1597!), istanbul, turkey

i was handed a sarong-like thingie (a pestemel) and i dutifully stripped, wrapped myself in my sarong and stepped out. then, with several more grunts, was pointed in the direction of a door with the word "hamam" on the front. "sweet," i thought, months of traveling, not a hot tub to be found (we miss ours back home so bad), and we walk everywhere. the body will enjoy this, big time.

the magic door opened on to a square 20x20' gray marble room with five or so marble stalls along each wall with stone basins, tiny water taps and plastic bowls. in the middle of the room was a large flat, two foot high, maybe 10x10' marble platform. splayed out smack in the middle of that was, what appeared to be, a heavily sweating tony soprano flat on his back in a plaid sarong.

the door closed behind me.

i had no idea what to do. i laid on the marble thing, tony soprano looked at me. i got up, fiddled with the taps a bit, some tepid water leaked out. i thought it would be a sauna in here. nope. i stepped back outside and was grunted back into the room. next thing, the sarong-wrapped dude who pointed me in to the hamam followed behind, opened the tap of water, had me pour water over my head, pushed tony soprano to the side and gestured for me to lay down. "on the marble?" i thought. well, yes, yes. he left, i laid on my back, looked over at a couple of younger turks who laughed and made a gesture that conveyed "roll over, freak, you should be on your front." OH!

turkish delight, istanbul, turkey
in comes mister hairy guy who starts making a HUGE pile of suds in a basin, shoves a towel in it, turns to me and masterfully showers down an amazing array of warm, soapy suds. aaaaahhhhh... now we're talking. after being covered in suds this guy went to work. legs, back, shoulders, pinning my arms behind my back and working on the shoulder blades. he spoke two words of english "YOU OK!?" i spoke one word of turkish, at the moment, "evet!" (yes) through gritted teeth. i think it sounded more like eeehhhhvvvvveeeettt...

all the while, men are coming in, splashing themselves with water, sitting there sweating, inches from where i was being beaten. i kept trying to steal peeks from behind all the soap and towels but one thing you don't want to do is be caught eyeing other men in a turkish bath.

ok, two more words of english, finally. "sit up." and dutifully i sit up, swing my legs over the side... and *SPLASH!* "holy freaking cow, what the HELL was that?!" i was hit in the face with scalding hot water from a plastic bucket. i guess i was now being rinsed. then, just as suddenly, pushed to the corner, water tap turned on and it was clear, we were done. rinse yourself. i staggered out, somehow managed to put my clothes back on, paid some cash, uttered some rudimentary turkish that went something like "hhffruummf kishduhmmm, vroom, bye," and walked out in to the cool, november, istanbul air.

in the end, i'm not completely sure what happened but, wowza, i'm glad it did. i felt like i just stepped off of "the sidewinder" ride at the carnival when i was a kid. remember that thing?

travel is weird. weird in a very cool way.


  1. Great description, Russell. I felt like I was there, only I couldn't be because I'm a gal. I did indeed laugh out loud. I love how you and Michelle embrace every adventure with appreciation and awe.

  2. Definitely takes some cojones (so to speak) to venture into the hamam all alone, with rudimentary Turkish, not having any idea what's going to happen in there - except assuming that there might be some heat and washing involved. Good on ya!

  3. it may have been one of the strongest moments i've experienced (at first) that felt like "was this a good idea?"

  4. I love it. Travel SHOULD be weird, right? If it's not a little bit weird you're probably not doing it right. And it sounds like you are.

    Next stop - hookah bar?

  5. hookah bars everywhere. oddly, we haven't tried yet. in sarajevo, it was a thing of the hipsters. here in istanbul, it's most usually some older dude sitting outside his restaurant waiting for business.

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