A Turkish Bath

Upon arrival at our lovely boutique hotel in Istanbul, the first thing I spot is the listing of massage services for the in-house spa. Well, I’m tired and sore and in desperate need of a massage and I had always intended to try a Turkish bath. So, when I spotted the entry “Turkish Massage: Lying on a hot marble stone and get soaped and massaged. After that you will receive a full body oil massage. In the end you may enjoy the Turkish bath a bit more.” Accompanying this description was a photo of a man in a towel lying face down on a marble platform, covered in suds; attendant busily covering his legs in more suds. Perfect, I thought. I won’t have to be in a communal bath where I might embarrass myself by not knowing the ropes, and there’s a massage included afterwards. Just the thing for a novice bather!

Previous to our arrival, I had done some reading on Turkish baths and the appropriate etiquette. I wasn’t entirely sure that public bathing was an experience I really wanted, but everyone insists that “YOU MUST TRY the Turkish bath.” So, geek that I am, I read up. Apparently the typical drill is you enter the bathing chamber which has a big heated marble slab in the room and some washing stations round the edges. You either have an attendant wash you (eep) or you wash yourself (YES!!). Then, once you’re all clean, you lie on the slab and have a back massage. Well, that doesn’t sound too bad, but what about all that public nudity? Well, the guidebook is a little more vague on that one. Some places you get to wear your undies under your towel, some places just the towel. Oh well, I think, you still get a towel that’s the main thing! In Scandinavia, you had your choice of towel or no towel in the sauna so probably this is the same thing. The one thing it DOES insist is that there are separate facilities for men and women and that “no self-respecting Turkish woman would let a male masseur anywhere near her.”

So, armed with my book knowledge and the comforting idea of a personal bathing experience rather than a public airing of my ignorance, I head off for my late-night massage. I’d waited until 11pm because the gentleman at the front desk had suggested having a massage on a full stomach was not an ideal situation. We’d had a late dinner and the place was open 24/7. Given our recent two hour time change I was still wide awake so decided to go for it!

I entered the spa area and there was a traditional massage table directly in front of me, mood lighting, soft music, a sauna tucked into the corner, clean towels stacked up on shelves: a fairly typical set up for massage. However, it turns out that I’m to have a masseur NOT a masseuse. The short man who greets me upon my arrival is dressed entirely in tight white clothes and has a cheesy tattoo wrapped round his left bicep. Well, this is a little disconcerting as I’m not too sure about the whole bath bit. Not to mention that we’re all alone in this basement room and it’s the middle of the night. I’d certainly be more comfortable with a woman. But I have a masseur at home who is fantastic, and I presume the hotel would hire a professional and be quick to get rid of anyone who acted inappropriately. There’s also a bunch of framed certificates on the wall attesting to the ability and professionalism of the masseur. Comforted by this (and the thought that Grant is MUCH bigger than him and could certainly kick his ass if something icky should happen) I enter the room.

The masseur (I’m going to call him “Mustapha” because I forgot to get his name) tells me to go into this small cubicle and take off all my clothes and stuff them in this closet. He then hands me a small box with “TIPS” marked on the top and tells me to put my valuables in this, motioning to my watch, etc. This is a bit odd because the box just goes into the unlocked cubby with my clothes and simply makes it easier for a thief to grab all my valuables at once. Oh well, I only have my watch and room key with me anyway, and it’s obviously a shameless ploy to remind me to tip him….upon opening the box, the fake $100 American dollar bill pasted to the bottom confirms this suspicion nicely.

I look round the little cubicle and there’s no sign of a towel: “Take off ALL my clothes,” I say. Mustapha nods vigorously. I point to the towels on the chair outside the changing cubicle and ask for one. Mustapha grabs a length of light woven cloth from the back of the chair and hands it to me, shaking his head. I duck into the cubicle feeling a bit awkward. I remove my clothing and place it into the cubby; stowing my “valuables” into the tip box. I’ve forgotten to bring money to tip – the massage is charged to the room. Oh well, I’ll run up later and grab some cash to tip him. Now naked, I turn round to grab the cloth he’s provided and I’m confronted with a full length reflection of myself – naked. The entire wall is mirrored. Great, a moment to lament over cellulite and saggy bits, and I wrap the cloth round me. Sheesh – good job I’m not any taller because it BARELY covers all the important bits.

I sidle cautiously out the door to where Mustapha is waiting for me. He waves some shampoo in my face and says: “for your hair?” I nod, so he tucks it under his arm. He asks me if I’ve ever had a Turkish bath before. When I say no, he says: “It is a good place.” He points to some wooden Japanese-looking sandals and tells me I can use them if I like. So I put them on and follow him into the bath room; walking gingerly on a slippery wet floor in ill-fitting wooden shoes, whilst trying to keep my cover intact.

The room is warm and there is the anticipated round marble table in the centre and wash buckets round the edges. Mustapha spreads some more of the cloth things across the edge of the table and makes a slight pillow out of one for my head. He tells me to lie down. How, exactly, am I going to lie down without flashing him? Well, I guess quickly is the best option! I awkwardly kick off the slippy wooden shoes and dive onto the table still wearing the wrap. I tug it off whilst lying down and leave it covering my bum…as I’ve seen in the photo. I sense some amusement from Mustapha, but I don’t care – I’m covered….mostly.

Mustapha turns my head to face the stone and gruffly tells me to keep my eyes SHUT. Then he proceeds to douse me head to toe with bucket after bucket of warm water. My hair is trapping water around my head, which is quickly pooling deep enough to go up my nose. This causes me a problem for a few moments until I work out a method of pushing my nose into the cloth to block the water and cautiously breathing through the corners of my mouth. Once I’ve got this worked out, it’s not so bad. The marble table is pleasantly warm and the buckets of water sloshing over me were quite invigorating. I could see why I was given this light woven cloth rather than a towel because a towel would be soaked through and uncomfortable by this point while this cloth is…..er…gone?!? Mustapha has just taken my cloth away!!!! I’m now completely naked!

Well. THIS is not what I’d had in mind, and I’m kind of trapped now. If I get up, I have to walk across the room nude and also explain why I’m running away. How, exactly, is it that I’m in a predominately Muslim country and I’M the modest one? If I stay, at least only my bum is really showing. So, it seems staying put is probably my best option. As I’m thinking this all through, the buckets of water are getting noticeably colder. Soon, they’re freezing cold, but just as I’m about to say something, they start to warm up again until they’re scalding hot. Eventually, they cool off to a comfortable temperature for a while. Then he pours an entire bucket of freezing cold water very carefully over each of my feet. Ok, I think, that’s just plain cruel.

Now comes the soap. Once again admonishing me to keep my eyes firmly shut, Mustapha begins to work up a lather using (I think – I had my eyes shut) one of the cloths. He covers my body completely in a big foamy lather about a foot deep, all without touching me whatsoever. I’m starting to relax just a little bit, telling myself that this is all totally normal for this guy and that I should just chill out. Plus, all the bubbles are now covering my nakedness and the foam is kind of cool. Then he starts in on the massage. He begins with my calves, but because of the way my feet are hanging off the edge of the table, all this does is ram my kneecaps into the marble table beneath me. This is unbelievably excruciating. I manage to last through the first leg by flexing my thigh muscles for all I’m worth, trying to protect my knee. When he started on the second leg, which was positioned even more poorly, I yelped. Mustapha says: “you have pain?” Yes, I have pain! I tell him this hurts my knee, and, obviously disgusted with this foreign woman’s lack of tolerance, he moves to my back.

The back massage is not much more comfortable than the leg massage, given that it drives my ribcage and shoulders into the marble. Probably, the massage would be better if I wasn’t quite so tense. I manage to tolerate it without yelling this time, and he begins to rinse me off, again with the warm/cold/scalding combo. Whew, I think, ok – hang in there kiddo it’s almost over. Soon enough I’ll be off this wretched table and we can start the more familiar oil massage. Then comes the fatal: “Ok, turn over.”

Is he serious? Turn over? Yep. The command comes again: “You turn over!” Shit. Now what? Again, the go vs. stay options flash through my head. What else can I really do? I turn over, and lie completely rigid – which isn’t exactly comfortable on the marble surface. I keep telling myself to relax, but now I feel like the proverbial virgin (well PRETEND for a moment) sacrifice laid out naked on a stone slab. I half expect to hear chanting.

Now the water up the nose issue is much more of a problem as buckets of water in varying temperatures are hitting me full force in the face and I start to have Chiang Mai Songkran flashbacks. The varied temperatures of the water are also causing other, more embarrassing issues now that I’m lying on my back. Any way you slice it, this is somewhat painful. Again with the soap, but even with a foot of bubbles covering me, I’m still feeling extremely vulnerable. He washes my hair, which for some reason feels even more personal than the massage although I’ve certainly had my hair washed by a million strangers. Now everything is freaking me out, it seems.

He starts with the front massage and, thankfully, I’ve got more padding on the back of me so it doesn’t hurt quite as much. He works on my thighs a moment and then, standing at my feet, facing me, proceeds to lift each leg at the ankle, hold it at up high as it will go and SHAKE it for all he’s worth. Every bit of me that can jiggle – is. I think this is now in the running for one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, and I cringe thinking of the view I must be presenting from that angle.

As I’m still reeling from all the jiggling, Mustapha begins massaging my chest; accidentally ramming his fingers into my throat in the process. I begin to choke. Then he washes my face and, to rinse it, plugs my nose and dashes a bucket of water into my face. Unfortunately, he releases my nose at the most crucial moment and I catch a bucket of water DIRECTLY up my nose. Now I can’t breathe through either nose or throat. Coughing and sputtering, I endure yet another cold/warm/scalding rinse cycle, and – mercifully – hear: “Ok, you get up now.”

Mustapha is standing there in a pair of board shorts holding out a nice fluffy robe for me. I leap into it, and ‘accidentally’ forget the wretched wooden shoes. I follow him into the main room where the massage table is, and he hands me a towel for my hair; asking if I would like tea or coffee or anything. I just wanna get OUT of there. He looks kind of hurt and confused when I politely decline a drink – he even clarifies that it’s free, but I still refuse. I sneak a peek at the clock and I’ve only been there about half an hour. So now what? Another massage? At this point I don’t really want one. As he’s leaving the room I ask him what I’m supposed to do and he points to the massage table, saying he’ll see me in ten minutes. Mercifully, there’s a towel draped across it. Hurrah!

I dry off in the changing cubicle just in case he comes back early, doing a test jump in front of the mirror to check out the jiggle factor – hey, maybe it wasn’t THAT bad…nope, major jiggles. Sigh. Oh well, now I’m armed with a towel at least. I jump onto the massage table praying there’s no more surprises in store for me. Mustapha returns dry and dressed back in the tight white outfit. He asks whether I am comfortable, adjusts my head rest, and begins his oil massage. Somewhat surprisingly, he is an excellent masseur and I get to (more or less) keep my towel for the duration of the session. The only slightly weird moment was when he was working on my bum and suddenly says: “You are – what – 28?” He can tell this from my BUM? And, if he’s looking for a big tip – he’s not guessed low enough!

The rest of the massage was actually quite good and worked out most of the stress caused by the bath. Maybe that’s why they combine the two for tourists! I was a bit uncomfortable when presented with a comments form at the end. After waffling for a bit, I ended up writing: “a truly memorable experience…” I dashed back upstairs to grab a tip for him because I felt bad returning the tip box empty, and then beat a hasty retreat to our room.

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