At the coffee place. The name translated to 'a water buffalo won't sink in it.' Turkish coffee is thick.
We would never have found that hamam in the end had it not been for the guy that walked us there. We’d spent over an hour wandering the streets and the markets around Kardikoy, on the Asian side now because we heard the baths were cheaper (they are), and ended up going around in circles. Nobody spoke English, but I had the place written on a piece of paper and kept asking people anyway. Even the guy hawking brochures for the British-English language academy didn’t speak English.
People kept pointing us in different directions. We almost gave up – Ryan was getting ansty and I wanted another coffee – but we persisted and finally somebody from one of the cafes just walked us to the entrance.
The place was down a couple of steps and had only a small sign that said ‘sauna’ on it, and was crammed between two vendors on the main street, which was bustling. It really is impossible to describe the volume of people in this city. I can’t.
Inside it was quieter. A couple older Turkish men greeted us near the door. Nobody spoke a word of English, but just gestured for us where to go. I had done no research on what to expect in a hamam. Mia only told me that I had to do it, and that she had been topless with a towel around her waist when she and the swim girls went to one in high school. I expected a scrub and expected to be naked, but had no idea on the etiquette or how the chain of events worked.
This is how it worked. One of the Turkish guys took our shoes and gave us plastic slippers to wear. Another gave us thin red-and-white checkered towels and directed us up a small staircase to the right. This part of the building was painted off-white, and light filtered through some windows and a skylight, and it was generally bright, but felt old, dusty. It was clean, but cozy clean, not hospital clean. Upstairs another man gave us each a key and directed us into private changing rooms, each with a small shelf, a couple hooks and a narrow cot to lie down on. There were small square windows on the doors, and I noticed a couple guys inside in towels, apparently napping.
The antique map store.
We changed into our towels, wearing them around our waists and nothing else, and went back downstairs. The three of us had kind of indicated that we wanted the works, whatever that was, so the men directed us into the actual bath. We went through a small wooden door and into a sort of antechamber, blue marble wall, floors and ceilings and water running along a channel in the floor. It was steamy, but not overly hot. Inside an inner door from this room was the bath itself, one central marble room with a white stucco roof, rounded on top with small round skylights letting in the light. The room was maybe fifteen paces square, with channels in the floor that let the water run out. Along the walls were marble sinks situated on the floor, each with a hot and cold spigot and little plastic dishes that resembled dogfood bowls. Three smaller rooms, also with similar sinks, were connected to this main room by low, narrow passages.
A handful of older Turkish men were seated next to the sinks on small marble ledges, sitting crosslegged, and would douse themselves with water scooped up in the plastic bowl. Another was laid prostrate on a large marble slab in the center of the room, getting a scrub. We took cues from the others in the bath and started pouring water over ourselves.
Fifteen or so minutes went by. I was hot. The bath wasn’t quite sauna hot, but it was still a sauna. I started with cold water over my head and eventually Ryan followed me back out into the antechamber, where it was refreshingly cooler, but also where our three Turkish friends who first greeted us were now waiting in towels, directing us back inside the bath for our treatments.
They escorted us into the smallest room in the back of the bath, through the low passage – I had to duck – and sat us down, each next to a sink, and each with a big hairy Turkish man in a towel. They sat us down and started dousing us some more with the water. They wore a blue glove, more or less a big scrubby pad, and began rubbing the dead skin off our backs, arms and legs, and vigorously. Black streaks of water ran off my shoulders and a disgusting amount of skin peeled off. It felt wonderful. After a rinse and few slaps on the back – Ryan’s guy was more enthusiastic about the slapping, and pounded hard several times on his back. I couldn’t actually see Ryan, but only heard the noise, like hitting a bass drum, and only knew what was happening when my guy gave me a big whack.
View from the barbershop window.
After a rinse, they directed us back out into the main room and onto the marble slab. There was room enough for all three of us, myself next to Nate, Ryan laying perpendicular to us and by our heads. The massage started with us crossing our arms and getting an enormous back-cracking, totally unexpected but incredibly enjoyable (for me at least, I love that). On our backs, they used a bar of soap and a stiff washcloth and basically scrubbed us all over, the towels only barely covering our nether regions. Soaped up, the scrub was followed by a violent massage. The men were big. They gave us more or less a normal massage, but did so with decided fervor. My right shoulderblade is actually sore right now, a day later as I write this, but in a good way. The only disagreeable part of it was when, on my stomach, my guy used his elbow to dig into my back. That was painful.
Then it was back to the smaller room down the low, narrow passage for a head and face scrub (I had trouble breathing because the suds kept running into my mouth). They finished us off with several buckets of cool water over our heads and directed us out of the bath.
Again in the antechamber, another man greeted us with dry towels, wrapping us right up after we handed him our wet ones. He in turn directed us back upstairs, where the man who gave us the keys to our rooms dried us off completely and let us go change. I have never felt nor actually have been any cleaner than I was in that moment before I put my clothing back on. Afterwards Nate and I went and got haircuts at a local barbershop down the street, and he had a shave.
Not sure what to say about it. It was easily the most exotic city I have ever been to (Mia was reminded that I had never visited an Arab country before when I excitedly relayed everything I just wrote to her over the phone). Maybe it’s par for the course in Arabic areas, but I had never experienced it before.
Thumbs up for Turkish bira.
For me, the weekend transported me again back to the first time I ever left the USA. Everything was so different. Some things are the same – there are still McDonald’s and Starbucks’ there, and the bar scene is basically like any other bar scene in any other city in the world – but despite all that the world to me remains an incredibly diverse place. I’m probably a bit jaded when it comes to traveling – I counted 81 stamps in my passport this weekend when Nate asked – but this weekend sort of temporarily erased that, sort of reset my expectations and reminded me not always to have any.
The people in Istanbul were undeniably friendly, if not pushy in what they were selling, but given the volume of potential customers and the volume of the competition, it’s understandable. And it was never rude (except for maybe that rug guy in the bazaar who told me he didn’t like my shoes when I said I didn’t want to see his rugs. I think he was joking. I told him I didn’t like his shoes either). The level of service, even at the local pub we watched the soccer game at yesterday was excellent. Not stuffy, just warm and friendly.
Having a hookah and watching soocer.
The bath was immediately the single neatest cultural experience I have ever had. I’m positive people are going to joke about getting scrubbed down by a fat hairy Turkish guy in a towel, but you have to experience it to appreciate it. The hamam itself was originally built in the sixth century – that’s the 500s! – and doesn’t appear to have changed much since then, and neither did the ritual. It was not strange or uncomfortable for one second having that bath, and I found myself wishing we had similar rituals, ones that involve such intimacy and respect, such tradition.
My view of the world seems optimistic again somehow. And my time with my two best friends in the world, on the other side of the world, is something I won’t soon forget, hopefully the start of an annual tradition that we’ll continue in the years to come. We talked about where we’re going next, but I think ultimately we’ll decided based on whatever Nate’s computer suggests and just wing it.