The Blue Mosque in the snow, Istanbul, Turkey.
I., the witty, dry Ukranian I was supposed to travel to Burma with, was helping someone order a cup of coffee at lunch. “You see, everything here is ‘Turkish’. Unless you want to drink the Turkish coffee, you need to ask for ‘Turkish Nescafe’ and for ‘Turkish milk’. Do you take ‘Turkish sugar’?”
Obsessive nationalism aside, the Turks have a point. Turkish coffee is something entirely different from what I drink every morning. And Turkish baths are a phenomenon unto themselves.
I decided that I was going to be a good tourist this trip, taking whatever spare moments I could to expore the sights, ignoring incoming email and finishing the trip with a 24-hour vacation. In that spirit, I decided I had to explore the Turkish baths. So I put together a posse – T., a Danish hacker who’s become a good friends, J., my closest colleague at the Foundation, who is rapidly becoming a close friend, and D., the administrator of the Foundation program I advise. Ditching the planned dinner – yet another tourist restaurant for the eighty conference attendees – we piled into taxi and headed to Cagaloglu Baths.
Cagaloglu advertises itself as “the oldest taxpayer in Turkey”. They’ve been in operation for three hundred years. The phenomenon of the baths, though, is hundreds of years older. Both D. and J. live in Budapest, roughly as far as the Ottoman empire made it to the north, and they report the city has several baths, products of the conquest hundreds of years before.
Somewhere in the last half millenium, the baths metamorphosed from a way from someone witout running water in the home to get clean to a complex, strange, wonderful ritual. Cagaloglu is well configured for those unfamiliar with the ceremony, as you’re guided through every step of the process. Arriving through a nondescript door, down a marble hallway, we found ourselves in a large room filled with low tables. At one, women demurely sipped tea and read magazines. At another, muscular Turkish men wearing towels around their waists and tracksuit tops smoked foul cigarettes. The menu of services was in English and Turkish, and after some contemplation, T. chose a bath and scrubbing, no massage, to protect his bad knee and back. J., citing sensitive skin, chose a bath and massage, no scrubbing, and D. and I went for the $20 complete service – a massage, bath, scrubbing and shampoo.
J. was led to the side entrance for women, and the rest of us checked into rooms 7,8 and 9, wooden cubicles, where we traded our clothing for a red and white-striped cloth, wrapped around the waist, and a pair of profoundly akward wood and leather sandals. We teetered into the back room, through a hallway filled with benches and racks of towels, into the main room.
Dimly lit, it looked a bit like some of the mosques I’ve been visiting – an octagonal room with a domed roof, pierced with dozens of small, circular windows. We were led past the central dais, a huge, octagonal slab of marble, into a sauna. Three by two meters, it was cooler that most saunas I’ve been in, though much wetter. Water was probably pumped under the floor – I couldn’t rest my feet against it without the wooden sandals. After fifteen minutes of discussion about the comparative merits of Hungarian, Russian, Scandanavian and American sauna experiences, a large figure appeared in the sauna doorway.
He was a Turkish guy, perhaps forty, roughly my size and shape (which is to say, quite large). He beckoned to me, and I followed him to the marble slab, where he put down a vinyl cushion, gestured for me to lie down and proceeded to rub the living hell out of me. My first thought was, “This guy’s really strong.” My next was, “This guy’s really good.” And my next was something roughly like, “Hmmmmmmmmmm….”
I remember when I was about nine years old, I was obsessed with horses, in no small part because two of my older, female cousins were obsessed with horses. Jen had a horse, and I remember her teaching me how to comb and brush it. “They’re really big, so what feels hard to you feels good to them. If you comb them too lightly, it tickles.” And that’s exactly my experience with most massage – either it’s entirely ineffectual but pleasant, or it tickles.
This didn’t tickle. It hurt, in wonderful and positive ways. Somewhere in the process, he grabbed my elbows and crossed them across my chest in a way that cracked my spine in two directions. Some time later, he gestured that I should move over to the side of the room, where marble half walls surrounded a washbasin. Before I figured out what was going on, I was assailed with bowls full of scalding water, thrown strategically at different areas of my body. My masseur used his one phrase of English – “sit tight” – to get me to the floor where he began scrubbing me thoroughly with a loofah-like mitt.
At this point, I was somewhere in a state of animal bliss – warm and happy, though deeply disoriented. My guide leaned down and began some sort of negotiation with me. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was agreeing to, but would have agreed to almost anything at that point. In retrospect, and in consultation with with my male companions, it appears that I agreed to pay 20 million Turkish lira – around $15 – for the “special service”. (I’m guessing the special service was pretty standard, as my two companions were talked into similar deals.)
So then I was laid on my back near the marble tap and swabbed with an enormous, soapy brush that resembled a horse’s tail. This led into an extended version of the previous massage, this time more focused on pressure points in my calves, armpits and other surprisingly painful places. This proceeded to a shampoo where my masseur rubbed soap into my hair, face and neck, rubbing with fingers and thumbs all the way.
More than once in the process did I find myself thinking, “I’m nearly naked, coated with soap suds, lying on the marble floor in the dark basement of a building in Turkey, with my foot extremely near the groin of a nearly naked man who doesn’t speak my language, and he’s rubbing my thighs with abandon.” And for those of you reading this and thinking, “Well, that’s rather homoerotic,” my only response is, “Well, yeah.”
But the truth is, the experience was much more like a reversion to childhood. From the lack of knowledge of what was going on, to the absence of common language, to the sheer strength and competence of my masseur, my overwhelming sense what that of happy incapacity. As more buckets of hot water washed the shampoo and soap off me, I thought of my mother bathing me as a child with a pink plastic bucket in the gold bathroom tub, pouring warm water over my head, washing off the baby shampoo.
Almost to remind me that we hadn’t just shared an oddly intimate experience – which we had – my masseur helped me to my feet, allowed me to refasted my towel and then gave me a firm, hearty handshake. He led me to the interchamber where he wrapped me with several dry towels, then led me to cell #8, where he waited for me to produce the promised lira. I did, dressed myself (do I really have to dress myself, mommy?) and floated over to a couch for a cold beer.
T. reported the same transcendent experience I’d had, minus (thankfully) a back cracking that would have totalled his slipped disc. D., a massage afficianado, was more critical, feeling he’d gotten half-hearted service until he’d agreed to the special treatment. But J. floated in a few minutes later, perhaps the happiest of us all.
We pressed for details and she deadpanned, “Well, you know, it’s different from the men’s side – we sat around and talked about our feelings.” She relented, and told us that she’d gotten the best of the deal – not only did she get massaged and scrubbed, “but it was by a doe-eyed, Rubenesque Turkish girl.”
Evidently, the clothing rules on the women’s side were different as well. On the men’s side, there was all sorts of complex manuevering with a towel to ensure genital coverage – J. reported that no towels were issued for bathers on the female side. “But the masseurs didn’t really seem to have a dress code. One was in a bathing suit, some were in house dresses, and one older women was naked. My masseuse came over to me in a housedress, told me to start washing myself with a bucket and returned naked. Then she gasped, apologized, pulled a pair of purple panties out of her bucket and made herself ‘decent’.”
We agreed that, somewhere, there’d probably been a bad experience with a tourist who’d been shocked by the nudity – probably Cameron Diaz, prominently featured in a newspaper article in the entrance. “Somewhere there’s a manual,” J. speculated, “that says ‘If the chick is white, put your panties back on.'”
And then we piled into another cab – more fluidly this time – and sped off to a Turkish restaurant where we stuffed ourselves with Turkish kebab, drank a good-sized bottle of Raki (Turkish ouzo) and headed home to our Turkish hotel. And if you ever have the chance to treat yourself to a Turkish bath, I recommend that you Turkish jump at the Turkish chance.
My Turkey photos live here.