Monday, September 12, 2011

A MAD MOMENT IN ISTANBUL


A STEAMY BATH HOUSE IN OLD ISTANBUL



Istanbul stood high on my wish list of places to visit and explore.  Some years ago now, I made a sudden diversionary trip to Turkey.  Another of those last minute decisions where the Reluctant Traveller had not the slightest idea where I might be.

At the small hotel where I stayed I met Betty, an American nurse taking a weekend break from a Saudi hospital and we decided to share our first visit to a Turkish bath house.  

Believe me, a Turkish bath house is not for the shy or the easily embarrassed.  There are mixed Hamman’s where some decorum of nudity is observed and advised.  The one we chose to visit had two segregated sections, one for men; the other for women.

This Hammam was just as elaborate as the one I visited.

After first opening the wrong door, the one into the men’s bath house we were directed around the corner to the women’s section and given a choice of treatments.  We settled on a wash, steam and massage, deciding not to take the oil massage.

Shown to individual change rooms, given slippers, mini towel and a key to the rooms where we would leave our belongings, we wandered down a corridor.  I felt decidedly uneasy, the skimpy towel barely covering strategic parts I would rather have kept hidden.

The vestibule and change rooms had been utilitarian, even dingy then a door opened into a cavernous marble bath house with a high domed ceiling, lavishly decorated with elaborate alabaster reliefs.  I imagined harems and seraglios and trusty eunuchs. 

The guide instructed us to sit on marble slabs beside gushing fountains and to ‘water’ ourselves with dippers full of hot water. Towels hanging above us, there we sat, naked as new born babes,  Betty and I trying hard not to laugh. 

After half an hour of hot water dipping, the door opened and in walked a lady who was obviously the head washer woman, perhaps late 50’s early 60’s, wearing only baggy knickers, her ponderous breasts hanging free, and a scarf incongruously wrapped round her head.  A bit like a London cleaning lady with bare boobs.

She began dousing Betty in even more water, then motions her to lie down on the central marble slab.  A younger woman enters and approaches me.  We are then thoroughly soaped, instructed to turn on our tummies and the soaping resumed.  It is a lengthy, relentless kneading of strong hands on every section of our body, legs, arms, neck, face, head, stomach.  Deep massage that has me wanting to say enough, cease, my body can’t take any more. 

In between all this we’re doused with more hot water followed by the shock of cold, before being towelled dry, hair combed and left to sit again in dripping steam.  The women depart, we’re left alone.

We soon realise we’re no longer captives and can leave at any time. I breathe a sigh of relief; this chook is well and truly cooked.

After a quick session with the hair dryer I feel incredibly fresh and rejuvenated, hair shining, face rosy red.  As we leave, the wash ladies approach for tips, a firm insistent but silent request.

They certainly earned a tip, to be honest though, I wouldn’t have been game to refuse.

________


Robyn Mortimer ©2011