I can’t believe it has already been 6 months since I moved to Turkey!
In some ways I feel like I’ve been here forever. At the same time I feel like I just got here. But one thing is certain: I have a life here, in another country, something I’ve always dreamt of doing. And that’s pretty amazing.
I have certainly slacked off on my writing. The past six months have been incredibly busy ones, without any travel. We’ve only left the city a handful of times since we arrived!
In many ways, it’s not been as expected. My Turkish is still at the level of a small child, and I’ve added Arabic to be able to communicate with the Syrian refugees I volunteer with. Despite living in Turkey, it sometimes feels like we don’t interact a lot with Turkish culture. We interact with Syrian culture frequently, and with the international hodgepodge that makes up our fellow volunteers, but living in the most liberal, laid-back city does mean we don’t see the real Turkey.
A couple of weeks ago, our friend Allie was staying with us, and I took the opportunity to experience a truly Turkish custom: the hamam.
In the US, a trip to a spa is an expensive, personal luxury, something that would be hard for a frugal poor girl like me to do. But in many other cultures, going to the bathhouse is a common, social experience. You relax, take care of yourself, gossip, spend time with friends and family. And since I’d been to the Korean spa in Los Angeles before, the idea of being naked with my friend in a room full of other naked women wasn’t weird to me. Having worked as a costumer in theater, I have long since abandoned all concern for modesty!
Regardless, the Turkish hamam was still very different. Allie and I went on a Saturday around 1. Hamams are open at different times for men and women, and the recommended Karataş Hoşgür Hamamı is open for women everyday from 11:00-17:00. We excitedly approached the building, parted the lace curtain draped in the doorway, and were immediately greeted with the sight of a larger, middle-aged naked woman getting a rubdown with traditional Turkish music in the background. Welcome to Turkey.
A woman that worked there came up to us, and through limited English we communicated what we wanted. She gave us each a striped pestemal, the traditional hamam towel, and assigned us a dressing room. After changing, we locked our things inside, and were led to the sıcaklık, or hot room, the main place where the action happens.
The sıcaklık is a large, steamy room with a central dome with small glass windows that allow a half-light to filter down through the steam. In the center is a large marble slab where the scrubbing and rubbing happens, and around the walls are niches with marble fountains with gold taps. A tiny Turkish woman in a colorful bikini (the uniform for all the hamam attendants) sat us at a tap and gave us some plastic buckets to splash hot and cold water on ourselves. Before getting worked on, you’re supposed to allow the body to get warm, loose and relaxed, and there’s a certain order to the splashing of hot and cold water, but we didn’t know what was going on so just dutifully splashed away randomly. The hamam is not so much a relaxing environment as it is a social one, and at this haman most of the socializing was being done by the attendants. They chatted, laughed and jokingly splashed each other with water, all while briskly scrubbing and soaping the willing bodies of their clients at hand. And they even got a bit nasty with each other. One attendant beckoned Allie to go to her, but it seemed she had cut another woman in line. A loud Turkish catfight ensued between multiple attendants and patrons, with Allie unsure of what to do. But somehow the matter was resolved, and Allie was laid on the marble slab for a good cleaning.
After what felt like a long time, but was probably only 5 or 10 minutes, the tiny woman in the colorful bikini beckoned me. My turn! I was so excited. I was a little confused though when she led me to a side room with showers, laid me on the marble there, and left- I suspect to have a smoke break. But she returned, and got to work.
The first thing that happens is the scrubbing. Using a rough mitt, she proceded to energetically scrub my entire body, motioning for me to turn or putting me into whatever position was necessary to slough away my dead skin. It is a bit like being attacked by sandpaper, but I actually found it to be quite enjoyable. The scrubbing was finished by a dousing with tepid water. Next, and I’m really not sure how they do this, she took a bar of soap and a wet towel, and by swirling the towel in the air, produced a giant foam mountain that covered my entire body. With her tiny, skilled hands, she massaged that lather into every pore to give me the best cleaning of my life. After dumping a few buckets of cold water over me, she wrapped me in a new, dry pestemal and beckoned me upstairs for the oil massage.
Upstairs, I was reuinted with Allie, and we were laid on adjacent massage tables. As we were vigorously rubbed with oil, our attendants gossiped away, and the reason for the catfight became clear. The two were friends, and Allie’s attendant cut the woman in line so that they could have this time to talk, away from the other ladies in the sıcaklık.
After it was all done, we laid there for a while, then made our way downstairs to the central waiting area for some water. I felt fantastic, with super soft, new skin that shone from the oil. It may not have been the most relaxing spa day, but it was an insider’s peek into traditional Turkish culture and an awesome experience.