Before I hop on a plane to Vietnam, I thought I'd leave you with a little story— a story of a crisp Istanbul night, a night of bizarre luck and nudity.
After a busy couple of weeks which knotted my muscles into burls, my friend Gabby and I decided we were desperately in need of a very Turkish cure for many woes— the hamam. The hamam is the famed Turkish bath, which strikes fear into many a foreign heart, and conjures up images of bizarre rituals involving pain and sweaty, moustachioed men named Mustafa.
Gabby and I met for a pre-hamam kahve and debated which hamam we should go to. There are Turkish baths hidden all over Istanbul, the most famous being the old Çemberlitaş Hamamı and Cağaloğlu Hamamı in Sultanahmet. Since Çemberlitaş has a hot pool, and the thought of soaking to our necks in hot water made our cold toes wiggle with delight in our boots, we settled on the extra tram stop to Çemberlitaş. As we got off the tram, we noticed the front of the hamam was unusually brightly lit, with people hovering about— apparently something was being filmed, and the bath was closed for two days. Of all the nights!
Shrugging our shoulders, we headed to the smaller and quieter Cağaloğlu. The last hamam built in the Ottoman Empire, Cağaloğlu is far more intimate than Çemberlitaş, which can be overrun with tourists, and feel a little impersonal. We were greeted with kindness, handed our own exfoliating kese mitt, and shown to the women's camegah, an entrance room with small changing rooms on its perimeter. We came armed with little sketchbooks and a supply of tools (as Gabby is also a sketcher), with the intent to sketch this cherished of Turkish culture. After stripping down and wrapping ourselves with thin, cotton peştemal towels, we slid our aching feet into wooden sandals and sheepishly asked one of the hamam attendants if we could draw inside the hamam. I tried to explain we were artists, and merely wanted to draw the architecture, but no, we could not, as it was very private. So we returned our sketching gear to our changing rooms, locked them up, and click-clacked into the sıcaklık, or hot room. The sıcaklık is where all the action happens; this is where your muscles get pummelled into submission, and you sweat out everything your poor body has absorbed over the past few weeks or so.
In the centre of the steamy room stands a large, heated marble slab called a göbek taşı, where fellow bathers are stretched out in the nude upon their unwrapped peştemals, being worked into putty by their attendants. Ladies, please note that your attendant must always, always be female— and you should double check to ensure that there is a women's section of the hamam or a 'ladies only' day. This is a different culture; men and women do not bathe together here— in public, at least.
While you wait for your attendant to prepare her fingers for the delicious torture she is about to inflict upon you, you have a seat in one of the little alcoves with a marble sink to sweat a little. Here you can relax, and pour some hot or cold water on yourself before you hear the inevitable "Lady! COME." Your attendant beckons to an empty spot on the slab, and then either gently or violently, pulls the peştemal off you, spreading it out on the hot marble. She motions for you to lie down, demands the kese mitt from you, and goes to fill up a silver bowl with warm water. Once soaked, the scrubbing begins. This can either be exquisite or your worst nightmare, if you have sensitive skin, and within minutes, grey ribbons of dead skin come rubbing off your body. Gülistan, my attendant, took pleasure in taking my hand and rubbing it on my belly to show me all the dead skin she successfully sloughed off. We chatted about where I was from, how long I've been in Turkey, and how my Turkish wasn't so bad (she was being kind), while she scrubbed and rinsed, then reached for the soap.
This is my favourite part of the whole experience— the earthy, citrusy soap foam that is lathered from chin to toe and massaged into every muscle— even between your toes! I looked for Gabby, to see how she was doing, but couldn't see her past the bubbles. Gülistan had the most magical fingers and thumbs, and worked out all the stress from parts of my body I didn't even know were tight. After the soapy massage, she led me to a marble sink, where she splashed cold, then hot water on me, and commanded me to sit down for a hair wash. I felt like a doll. Head rubbed, hair scented with coconut shampoo. Heavenly!
Gabby and I reconvened in the nude by the sinks, to gush over our experiences. After a little while, we exited the sıcaklık, wrapped our happy bodies in some fresh towels, and grabbed our sketching gear from our rooms in the camegah. We sat on red velvet stools and began to draw— if we couldn't draw inside the hamam, we'd at least draw each other.