Wham, Bam, Thank You, Hammam

Justin Wegiel February 7, 2013 16

Travel isn’t always pretty, nor should it be. Those creature comforts of home—the kind you so often take for granted—can’t and won’t save you from that feeling of being so completely vulnerable and out of place when you find yourself in such a weird and twisted situation such as I had experienced deep in the heart of Turkey.

This is what travel is all about: The challenge, the adventure, the unknown. There are times when you will, and in fact should feel so uncomfortable and unfamiliar with your surroundings that you can only wish you could pinch yourself and wake up. Escape the madness and the depravity.

Exhibit A: The traditional Turkish bath, or hammam as they’re known as to those of us in the know. Now, don’t let the cute name fool you; there is nothing cute or sensual about a Turkish bath, Nothing.

We were somewhere outside of Göreme in the heart of Cappadocia when the fear and loathing began to take hold. I was told we were to visit a traditional Turkish bath—an ancient ritual dating back to the time of the Romans—that was not to be missed.

One of the oldest traditional bath houses in Turkey

One of the oldest traditional bath houses in Turkey, photo by Justin W.

Who am I to argue with tradition? I was feeling a bit tired having just spent a banger of a weekend in Istanbul, and I remember thinking: “What better way to relax and unwind after a long day on the road?” I couldn’t have been more wrong.

As I blissfully skipped off to the changing room, I could already hear grown men crying for mercy. Like the bumbling Roman fool who entered the lion’s den thinking it was the brothel, my world crashed all around me when I came to the sad realization that this was no pleasure cruise. My heart sank like a stone and my mind began to race with fear, anxiety and regret.

With a world of apprehension, I accepted my fate and made my way into the changing room. After slipping into the standard-issue uniform—paper thin boxer shorts and flip-flops—I stumbled into the first stage of the process. Step one is a walk in the park: a hydrating facial. Once dried, you are then lead into the sauna where (according to common belief) you sweat out all the toxins in your body. After that weekend in Istanbul, I may have needed an extra few minutes in here ;)

It was a real international affair that afternoon at the hammam: three Canadians (myself included), a group of older Indian fellows on business, a group of French tourists on holiday, and a Japanese sumo wrestler flying solo. So here we are from all corners of the globe, sweaty and panting in this hot and dry sauna.

As you start to sweat, the facial slowly melts away and runs down your face like a sorority girl’s makeup after a long night out on the town. After what seemed like an eternity at the time (although it was closer to ten minutes) I had to get out of that sauna. I simply couldn’t take the dry heat any longer.

Gasping for a decent breath of air, I left the sauna and was directed to go sit in the steam room. This is when the real madness began. The steam room was at the opposite end of the “massage” room. I caught a glimpse of what was to come and couldn’t help but have my regrets. One of the poor old Indian men had his leg wrapped up around his head like a pretzel, another one was being worked by a masseuse who was driving his thumbs deep into the man’s calf muscles. Both of the massage recipients were screaming in pain.

I passed by one of the masseuses and, with an odd and crooked smile, he gave me this funny wink. I felt like fresh meat walking into a maximum-security prison, and it was all happening in slow motion. These guys could sense my fear and were not at all about to give me any special treatment.

I flopped myself onto the steam room’s bench and could only shake my head in disbelief—what have I gotten myself into this time? I sat in the steam room cursing our tour leader for talking me into this and began to muster up the mental strength needed to proceed with this whole thing.

I left the steam room and asked one of my fellow Canadians, “Now what?” He pointed across the room and said, “Plunge pool, and it’s cold!” He wasn’t joking. The pool is a drastic contrast from the hot and humid steam room, and your entire body tightens up in the freezing cold water. Once you happen catch your breath you’re ready to move onto the main course, and the real torture.

“Hello, my name is Riza,” he said. “Riza?” I asked, “Like, from the Wu-Tang Clan?” I laughed. He looked at me blankly, having no idea what I was talking about. “Here,” he said, slapping his hand on his thin blue mat spread out on this massive marble square in his corner of the room. He then flashed that crooked smile again as I sat down in front of him and he motioned that I lay on my stomach.

Wu Tang Logo

Definitely, not the same Wu Tang.

He began working my shoulders and back like any typical massage, but things got hairy in a hurry. He drove his elbow into my lower back and, using it as a fulcrum, grabbed me by the legs and bent me in half—the wrong way. I could hear and feel every last vertebrae crack one by one all up my spine, and once again he flashed me that silly grin. He moved onto working my legs and feet, at one point squeezing my foot so hard I thought my big toe was about to pop like a champagne cork straight off my foot.

After dousing me with a couple of buckets of hot water, Riza then flipped me over and continued to go about his bizarre business. Stretching each arm across my chest with all his weight, he bounced on my elbows until cracking each shoulder, still grinning at me from ear to ear.

Next came the bubble treatment, which involved slowly lathering me up with an extra-bubbly lotion that foamed me up like a human sponge. Just as I was about to enjoy myself, he came down on my stomach with a big slap, leaving my belly with a bright red handprint. Then, he flipped me over and continued with the same routine on my back.

After splashing me with a few more buckets of hot water, I found myself in a complete daze and headed off to the showers. At last, it was over and I was done with this place. I tried to cleanse my mind of what had just transpired and to make sense of what I had just spent good, hard-earned money on, but ultimately couldn’t do either.

16 Comments »

  1. Lorraine February 7, 2013 at 8:14 pm - Reply

    Just experienced a “local” hammam in Morocco, Seven female aquaintances from my travel group and something like 40 local women were in the hamman at the same time. Besides feeling as if I was entering a gas chamber, I was not prepared for the incredibly rough scrubbing, the lady trimming her pubic hair with what looked like a garden shears, and the lady brushing her teeth and spitting onto the same floor we were all sitting on. Needless to say, the retelling of my hammam experience has been a lot more fun that the camel ride the medinas, and the casbahs. I loved your story.

  2. jolene February 7, 2013 at 11:13 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the warning, Justin. I’m off to Turkey next but will NOT let the cute name fool me!

    • Sableagle August 8, 2014 at 5:09 pm - Reply

      Cute name? It’s from the Arabic verb “hamma,” meaning “to be hot,” and is also, for some bizarre reason the Arabic word for “pigeons.” They use the same word for “Turkish bath” and “pigeons.” What’s cute about it?

  3. Justin February 9, 2013 at 9:14 pm - Reply

    @Lorraine, it makes for a good story at parties.

    @Jolene, don’t let my exaggerated story stop you from the whole experience, you only live once ;)

  4. Les February 12, 2013 at 2:09 pm - Reply

    I laughed so hard reading this, especially the Wu-Tang member-named masseuse, which I think is cool! I’m female and my experience at a hammam in Antalya was somewhat more relaxing, even though I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I first walked into the changing room. It’s definitely an experience I’ll never forget!

  5. Justin February 13, 2013 at 11:55 am - Reply

    Thanks Les, glad you enjoyed laughing at my misfortunes :)

  6. Lynn February 16, 2013 at 5:22 pm - Reply

    I too had hammam in a couple of Turkish cities and although I was a bit taken aback by the male masseuse massaging my bare breasts (not the least sexy!) at one of them, I loved the whole experience and felt wonderful after. The mud bath was incredible too at Pamukali.

  7. Esther February 24, 2013 at 3:37 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing your “experience”! I had to read your blog after you mentioned it at Europe day.

  8. Rod July 10, 2013 at 9:10 pm - Reply

    Too funny……..what’ even funnier is you finding a masseuse or masseuses in a HAMMAM on men’s day. I think the proper word is masseur. No wonder Lynn “find it not the least bit sexy” male masseuse????

  9. matt May 9, 2014 at 4:11 pm - Reply

    Well done Justin, prefer to live this experience through you, i’ll pass.

  10. Michele May 9, 2014 at 4:21 pm - Reply

    I think it’s usually worse for the guys. I have never had an unsettling experience in a non-tourist hammam .. in Tunisia, Turkey, southern Spain, and even in Berlin. You just need to understand and maybe be prepared. Neighborhood hammams are about getting cleaned up and yakking it up with your girlfriends. Not about lolling around getting ready for the Sultan to make his evening pick! Maybe the men’s side is not as fun!

  11. vicky young May 9, 2014 at 7:07 pm - Reply

    I miss hammam so much. It’s one of those pleasure-pain things. You never felt so clean in your life. And admittedly you feel amazing once the torture is over. I want to get back to Turkey :)

  12. Suz May 11, 2014 at 11:14 am - Reply

    The Turkish baths were one of my favorite parts about visiting turkey…I was spoiled on my first experience as I was the only person in the bath…all others were with other bathing women, which took a little time to get use to. I went to several baths in Istanbul and each was a different experience. I hope to get back to turkey, good food, friendly and helpful people,,and OH THE BATHS. !!!

  13. Kelly May 12, 2014 at 10:10 am - Reply

    Had me laughing out loud Justin. Oh my.

  14. Erin May 12, 2014 at 12:09 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the warning Justin. You’ve always got my back. ;) Loved the ‘fear and loathing’ inclusion. Looking forward to Turkey in October!

  15. tark June 21, 2014 at 2:20 am - Reply

    Nothing better than a Turkish hammam, especially one that is not on the tourist trail of over-restored and over-priced ones that are advertised in the hotels and tourist offices. Though even some of the more humble establishments, in the right locations, are getting into this game, it is worth the effort to try a few funkier neighborhood ones. The difference is completely in the approach, in the tourist joints you are processed, after paying a fortune, in the humbler ones you are left to yourself, to relax, meditate, get away from the world and your life, your wife, your boss, whatever while eventually cleaning yourself with some assistance as needed. No shorts allowed, certainly no shorts are offered to you, as you are expected to wrap yourself in the small hammam towel, obviously and unavoidably, the crown jewels will be inadvertently flashed in the course of one’s towel dance amid awkward attempts at sluicing and bathing but as long as you do not appear to be vulgar or purposeful, no one cares. I believe masseur is the way to describe a male who gives massages and masseuse for the female professional, to have a masseuse in a real Turkish hammam for men would be unthinkable unless she was another type of professional (and it was another type of hammam) . For a moment, I had this image of a hairy transvestite he/masseuse descending upon me with crooked smiles hiding malicious intentions of unnatural contortions to be inflicted. Next time, check out the funky ones there are still plenty, go in the mid-afternoon, give yourself plenty of time to relax and you will understand this dying piece of classical urbanity, a great tradition of shared peace among brothers (bring your own supplies to these places and you must let the middle-aged but incredibly strong masseur slap you around for ten minutes or so on his marble slab, a small tip after you change is welcome…warning, there is no avoiding this, no English is spoken and they will manhandle down to that slab if needed)… I have heard that the woman are much more chatty and boisterous during their hammam visits and go there more in groups but will seriously engage visiting women and befriend them. Guys often go stag or with a close friend and are more circumspect While polite intercourse occurs, it is usually nothing beyond formalities and even between friends conversations are muted. I have encouraged friends to try the very expensive couples only hammams but they usually are very disappointed in them.

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