The Turkish Bathhouse Experience

Nov 7, 2014

Credit Skippy Mesirow

Safronbolu - Cappadocia

“You will have the skin of a baby on you” a middle aged man with darkening teeth and cigarette breath proclaims. I look to the women to my left as if to say, “do you think they are actually going to cover us in the skin of dead babies!?”

It seems plausible.  

The man has just hurried, with a plastic paddle, a group of 50 German tourists into the basement of a dank bathhouse with the skill and mercilessness of a Beijing subway attendant. He runs us through the procedure they offer and insists we try it. I ask if another time would be better, all those tourists generally stoke an assembly line mentality.

“Experience or enjoy?” he asks.

“Both!” we reply in unison.

“Ok, tomorrow morning you come, best experience I make for you… and, good price.”

“Good Price? I ask,” to clarify.

“Good price, promise,” he responds.  

The foreign bath/spa/message/detoxifying is an almost obligatory traveler experience. And, it almost inevitably ends in disaster.  

A tiny lady walking on you as you lay on her washing machine in her kitchen, a masseuse who’s body odor far outweighs the extra-cost scented oils, bruises and a limp that last weeks from the name-the-country-secret-cleanse-procedure. Yet, despite the high failure rate, you feel obligated to persist. It’s a fun game, you never know what to expect, and it always provides a parallel insight into both a cultures traditions and its present state of being. Plus, at a few dollars for an hour or two of treatment it’s totally worth the risk.  

The traveler’s wellness experience is not too different from a scratch-and-win lotto ticket. You know your chances of scratching a jackpot are near zero, but if you just get those two apples you’ll still make more than your money back. While the gains are small and the likelihood of loss is great, the price of entry is so low, and the scratching is just so satisfying and if you win!

10am in the morning. Here we go.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

As I enter the bathhouse I am greeting by my new friend, at his side is today’s masseuse, a large, gaunt and hairy man in a wife beater who expels a prodigious odor. He insists he is the strongest man around, sheer mass and leverage seem to guarantee that. Three little tags on my wristband serve as tokens for services redeemable. A Turkish Bath, a 30 minute sport massage, and a 30 minute relax message. He leads me down the dirty marble stairs.

To my pleasant surprise the inside is traditional Hamam style. Beautiful stonework lines the walls, a tall vaulted ceiling finished with spaced porticos bathing the hall in natural light. I place my belongings in a locker and tie on the traditional, plaid wool sarong. Walking upstairs in my multicolor covering, station one awaits. A 160 degree dry sauna. A new man meets me outside, walks me in and flips an hourglass mounted on the wall, a nice touch. Thirty minutes later, having sweated out all toxins, it’s a quick dip in the massive marble hot tub. Built to accommodate thirty or so it is parallelogram shaped and filled with natural spring water entering from vents below. The water is warm and calm.  

Five minutes pass and my gentleman returns, walking me into the next room. Square in shape each side is home to four equally sized enclaves separated by small roman columns. At the center of each section is a three gallon or so punchbowl with a gold faucet above it. In the rooms center is a large central platform. The entire space is built of thick white marble, appearing to have the mass of the solar system.  

The man has me lay on the central platform. To my delight, it’s heated, sending a surge of excitement down my spine as my skin comes in contact with its surface. Flipping on of the faucets he grabs a little plastic bowl. Filling it he dumps hot water over my face, then torso, then each limb. It’s hot and amazing. Next he grabs what looks to like a stocking out of the tub, wet and limp it hangs from his hand about 3 feet towards the ground. He runs it through an adjacent tub then begins to throw it outward as you would with a wet sheet you were preparing to lay on a clothes line. As he does it puffs itself outward like a massive pillowcase made of delicate white lace. He spins it wildly tying the top and trapping the air inside. He then moves the massive sheep’s bladder towards me.  As it contacts the skin is bends and flexes, coming into contact with every single skin cell, working its way into each curve and crevasse. As it touches down it explodes with bubbles that push through its porous surface. The soap is thick and luxurious. It’s like being kissed all over by a velvet tongued dog.

It’s fantastic.

“Turn over!”

“Sit up!”

“Turn over!” He barks commands. With each turn more bubbles, and more water.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

Next step, an elbow length mitten goes on, its top decorated with two stripes reminiscent of a fruit of the loom tube sock. I lay back down, and he goes to town. The palm side is deeply abrasive and he digs in witht he fury of an angry badger. No place is spared as I can feel each successive layer of skin depart my body. A split second before we reach my pancreas he stops, and bathes me in a final bath of soap, then another prodigious hand scrub, then one more rinse.  

Back to the hot tub, this time for 20 minutes with the bubbles on. So ferocious is the air emitted from the bottom jets that the vibrations echo off the marble domed ceiling and amplify themselves; a positive feedback loop that ensues turn the entire room into a deep shaking baseline, like some natural late night rave party.

Back downstairs and my original portly masseuse is there to greet me. He pulls my sarong off with the efficiency of a well-practiced high school senior and begins lightly patting me dry with puffy towels as his man odor screaming out from his underarms as he works. Off to the massage room we go. No time for modesty here, he stands gruffly and tells me to drop the towel and get on the table, I obey.  

Immediately he leans in, slathering my entire body with a thick layer of tiger-balm-like mentholated paste. My skin quivers as he begins to move about applying deep consistent pressure. Oil is next, lots of oil. The oil feels like its being ladled on. His strokes are smooth and powerful, my skin now frozen and on fire at the same time. I have entirely forgotten his body odor. This is really great.

It gets more intense.  

At some points he clumsily mounts the table, walking on my back with all 240+ of his loosely formed pounds. He uses stones soaking in a hot oil bath to warm my skin and digs deeply into each muscle. When he works my shoulders his massive belly engulfs my skull as if he’s trying to suffocate me with his gluttony. As he cracks my joints my limbs almost dislocate. Like Rhianna, it hurts so good.  

He finishes with a unique flourish. Covering my body in a thick, hard wool blanket he pinches my skin and twists repetitively form skull to heel. It’s a painfully seductive pleasure like chewing pen caps with loose teeth in the third grade.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

The whole body comes alive.

He slaps my back “OK, Done.” Off to a recliner with apple tea.

Three hours after I entered, I exit into the light of day. My hair and skin are thick with oil, my mind is flighty, my walk slow and lazy. I wear a big smile and a fresh new outfit – authentic baby’s skin.

I think I’ve finally hit jackpot on my scratch-and-win.