Fear And Bathing In Istanbul

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Fear And Bathing In Istanbul

Seeking a true cultural experience, Cameron immerses himself in some uniquely Turkish hospitality in Istanbul.

By Cameron Fergus

Face down on the cool, smooth marble slab, I lay hot, sweating and uncomfortable. The air’s humidity has formed into huge balls of condensation which plummet from the domed ceiling high above. When the drops don’t hammer directly onto my head and body, they bombard the slab all around, showering me with tiny staccato splashes. In a desperate attempt to adjust to the heat, my pores open and emit a seemingly endless supply of moisture.

I am alone, and virtually naked. Out of my depth. Unsure of protocol, I shift uncomfortably in the gathered pond of condensation and sweat — and wait. I sense movement around me. At first it is near my feet where they dangle over the rounded edge of the slab, and then alongside my hips, body, then shoulder. Just as I expect it to make contact, the presence retreats. I am tense, alarmed, but not yet scared. But I am absolutely out of my comfort zone. I am out of my comfort horizon. Out of my comfort hemisphere.

To find some sense in the uncertainty I recall all that I know for sure: I am partially covered, but not clothed. I am lying on a marble slab, with my body giving up the last of its essence. I feel abandoned, but a presence lurks just out of reach. My verdict: I am dead. The adventure ends here. Without a fight, without a whimper. But other factors conspire to contradict this conclusion: I am not cold — as I would expect to be in death — but in a warm place. My body does not give up blood and excreta, it only offers sweat.

But as I begin to think that I may not yet have reached the end of my life, the presence returns, this time beside my head. The first words are deep, husky, and tobacco-stained: “I am here”.

Is this the voice of death? The gruffness, the nicotine, the impatience confirms what I’ve always suspected: that when I die, as I may yet have done on this day on this lonely marble slab, then I am not heading upwards to the guy with the long white beard. Because the voice in my ear is surely the voice of the other guy. The underlord. The devil himself.

Before surrendering to an afterlife of sweat and toil, of misery and labor, I awaken to recall my circumstances more clearly: the smell of diesel and the shisha pipe, the street noise of cars, carts and bartering, and the deep rumbling of Arabic-laced debate. I am far from hell. I am in Istanbul, near the Kapali Carsi, the Grand Bazaar. In a hamam — a Turkish bath house. And rather than being banished here to pay for my sins I came of my own free will — albeit nervously — for an authentic Turkish experience, and to escape the alma chai (apple tea) and hounding of the carpet sellers.

hamami2Hamami are found in most major cities and towns in Turkey. While hamami in the city are larger and more elaborate than those in the smaller towns, all typically feature private, individual cubicles for dressing and undressing, with a central and communal bath house. The hamam in which I endure Hamid’s attention has a grand central chamber with an ivory-white, curved marble stage which easily accommodates more than 30 bodies.

When seeking out a venue for this experience, I had sought the guidance from the manager of my hostel who strongly advised that I visit a “tourist” hamam. Uncomfortable with further questioning on the subject, he simply re-iterated: “For tourist, only. Please.” Perhaps the “tourist” masseuses spoke English (clearly not), or perhaps they provided an abbreviated and less vigorous version of a traditional Turkish bath. I can only wonder what the traditional service entailed.

Relieved that my end is not yet at hand, I relax back into the puddle of condensation and sweat, breathing in the hot, retching stench of dozens of perspiring bodies. Brilliant white light streams through the star-shaped holes in the domed ceiling, illuminating the strange, exotic chamber of maleness around me.

The voice of death turns out to be Hamid, my appointed masseuse, who’s English is on a par with my Turkish, which is to say next to zero. Our conversation is sparse. Even if we’d had a shared language I wonder how we’d ever find anything at all suitable to discuss in this odd situation: a large, dark, hairy, Turkish man, scrubbing from head to toe a somewhat anxious (but fast becoming very clean) blonde Australian wearing only a small piece of patterned cloth and nervous smile.

Called a pesternal, the cloth wraps around my waist with less than an inch overlapping — making any form of fastening marginal — and extends barely beyond my now trembling buttocks. The cloth is a futile effort at dignity, and Hamid appears to be wholly ignorant of its purpose as he works around, over and underneath it. The pesternal is a largely redundant adornment and affords little modesty in the bath house. Despite the texture and atmosphere that it might add to this story, the sight of dozens of sweaty men, each wrapped in a virtual handkerchief, is one best left undescribed. But for the curious, be satisfied with this: the hamam is full of men of all shapes, sizes and fitness, in various stages of bathing, absolutely unconcerned about the sights they display when bending or sitting carelessly.

“I am Hamid. Ha-Meed,” he repeats slowly. I am only slightly comforted by his attempt at formalities, and remain in what I feel to be a very vulnerable situation. Aside from a guidebook explanation, I have little idea of what a traditional Turkish bath actually entails. Hamid’s next words push me over the crest of fear, into the abyss of panic. “I give you special service.”

I am terrified. I am defenseless. I do not understand. What exactly does “special service” mean? I lay there and nurse myself back into the now warm, safe idea that maybe I am dead after all.

Over the next half-hour Hamid — bare-chested, his own pesternal giving only partial coverage to his ample girth and undercarriage — washes, scrubs, and rinses my body with warm water that he collects in a plastic bucket. The temperature in the hamam has risen and condensation runs like a river down the concrete walls, drips off the ornate windows, gathers in the cracks in the floor, and drains away.

Scraping along my forearm with a short plastic tool that resembles a small ruler, Hamid holds up before my eyes a dark brown sludge that had until now resided merrily undetected in my pores, resistant to the more conventional washing arrangements of soap and hot water. Squirting shampoo from his small pink tube onto my head, Hamid proceeds to give my hair a vigorous and thorough wash. With my hands over my eyes, the warm water running over my face, I regress to infancy, Hamid replaced by an over-zealous grandmother with an obsession for clean children.

To describe the experience in full would be to lift the veil and remove the mystique of this most exotic experience. It is simply one of those times when you must suspend disbelief and discomfort and plunge in to find where the real cultural flavor resides.

Having survived the hamam I emerge back into the chaos of the street considering the idea that it is only by confronting fear — and potentially the devil himself — that we feel truly alive. After months on the road, the bath has provided a feeling of renewal and rejuvenation. I feel cleaner than ever before and am convinced that Hamid’s efforts have actually removed a number of freckles. The hamam is a revitalizing exercise, a confronting and potentially terrifying experience, and uniquely Turkish. And all for $30. Oh, and another $10, as a tip, for the “special service.” Whatever that was.


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