The Ultimate Scrub Down

August 14, 2012 12 Comments »

I lay on the hot marble all alone taking deep labored breaths. My breathing seems to echo throughout the white dome. The two large old women who were wearing panties only had left me about 25 minutes ago from what I could tell – or was it 10 minutes – I felt as if I couldn’t think straight anymore.

The hot steamy marble bath
The hot steamy marble bath of a Turkish Hammam

When I initially walked in with my little wrap covering my naked body I had no idea what to expect and was surprised at the sight of the old woman. Wrinkles crossed the landscape of their faces like Death Valley and gravity had taken hold of their bodies a long time ago. Their demeanor was all business as they pointed out our instructions and talked to me rapidly in Turkish. They turned me like a sack of potatoes and scrubbed me with a rough pad. It felt like it took off the top layer of the epidermis as if they were sanding a piece of wood. They washed off the dead skin by throwing small pails of water at me leaving me slick and strangely refreshed.

Now I lay here where they left me 25 minutes ago – or was it 10 minutes? I could feel the beads of sweat form on my body and roll down to the hot marble and my mind drifted in and out of lucid thoughts. I thought that Giancarlo said I was supposed to get a massage, but nothing was happening now since my scrub down by the old ladies. No one ever did come to get me and I finally decided that if I didn’t want to pass out – I should just leave and go back to the changing rooms. I slowly rose and draped my wet cloth back around me – it stuck to me like saran wrap. I mustered up all of the energy I had and made my disoriented mind find its way back to the changing rooms.

inside a hamam
Inside a Hammam – old-world charm

This was my first experience in a Turkish Bath (also called a Hamam or Hammam) over 12 years ago – at the time I had no idea what to expect or what to do. I went into it with my traditional American definitions of a spa and massage, and I left feeling a bit cheated, beat up, bewildered – and strangely joyful. I remember leaving the Hammam and walking down the street bubbling over with happiness – so much so that I even let out a few audible laughs. I was happy about experiencing something new, confusing, and ultimately exciting. I had no idea what I was doing, or what people were saying – but all I did know was that I was in another world – one which I didn’t know, but was excited to discover no matter how disorienting it was.

It was moments like this that addicted me to travel.

Read about Rome’s dirty little secret

However, since then I’ve come to learn that what I experienced was what a Turkish bath IS all about – or at least the bath/cleaning part. The part I was missing was the socializing part of Turkish baths since I happened to be the only bather in the Hammam 12 years ago.

Since I was visiting Turkey for the second time, I knew that a Turkish bath (or two) was on my list of things to ‘do over’. This time I knew what to expect – I knew it would be rough, it would involve being scrubbed down by nearly naked women, and it would be stifling hot. I knew it would be confusing and disorienting – yet I would come out the cleanest I’ve ever felt.

The reception area to the Turkish bath I visited in Goreme
The reception area to the Turkish bath I visited in Goreme

I went to the bath with a group of other travelers and female friends from my Intrepid Travel companions. Once again there was very little English spoken, I was handed a towel and some plastic slippers and pointed to a steam room first and then a big marble room that was stifling hot. The room had sinks around the perimeter and marble slabs in the middle as well as a hot bathing pool. We bathed with little pans dipping water out of the sink and then one of the women who worked at the hammam pointed to me to come over to the marble slab for my scrub down…or at least that’s what I imagined she said in Turkish.

As the robust woman smiled at me she pointed for me to lie down on the marble and then the ‘sanding’ began. She forcefully removed a few layers of dead skin I had been carrying around for months. At one point as I was sitting up and she was holding up my arm in the air to scrub every inch of it, she started laughing. I looked at my arm and saw brown gook on my arm – the dead skin no doubt. Yes – I was a dirty girl I guess.

The soapy foam came next – mountains of bubbly foam to wash off my new layer of exposed skin until I was squeaky clean on the front and back. She slapped my ass and used her only two words of English she knew – or cared to use – “Turn over” she said gruffly. I let out a little laugh and as I turned over she smiled again. She sat me upright and filled pail after pail of water and threw it on me making the bubbles disappear unveiling the new me.

A soap bath
A mountain of foam is part of the typical process

She pointed to the pool where I was apparently supposed to go next I dutifully followed her finger and did as I was directed – I had learned to simply stay calm and follow orders. I sat in the hammam with my saran-wrapped wet sarong and I chatted with my friends. But I was most intrigued and fascinated with watching other local women interact, and I even got the nerve to go ask one of them if I could borrow some shampoo. Of course, she smiled and graciously (and slightly eagerly) said yes. The socializing added a dimension to it that I had never really experienced before. Just hanging out naked in a bathhouse with a bunch of women – Turkish, American, New Zealand, and Australian were represented in our global hammam. However, I was most intrigued by the Muslim women as I got a rare glimpse of their lives without their headscarves and traditional garments.

I spent the next 20 minutes going in and out of the hot pool and laying on the hot marble stone until I couldn’t take the heat any longer. My body longed for cool, crisp, air. I finished the experience with a glass of tea and finally stepped outside and let the cool air and sunlight shock my new layer of skin – it was exhilarating!

A lamp chandelier at the hamam's reception
A lamp chandelier hangs in the reception

If you are traveling to Turkey and want to experience a Turkish Hammam, then let me just set your expectation now – a Turkish Bath is not a comfortable process. It’s not necessarily relaxing and in fact, it’s more about being uncomfortable than comfortable. However, you will walk out of the experience feeling amazing…and maybe slightly confused. But if you are like me, you’ll want to go back for more.

You can also learn more with this informative article about How to visit a Moroccan Hammam 

Disclosure:  I was a guest of Intrepid Travel for this experience, however, the opinions expressed are all mine.

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