| Gülay Basmaci, our guide, couldn’t believe I wanted to go to a public hamam—a Turkish bath. In a hopeful voice, she reminded me there was a nice hamam in our hotel.
I had seen the Turkish bath in the Falez Hotel, a glitzy establishment overlooking the Mediterranean in the Turkish resort of Antalya. Indeed, it did look nice. In fact, it looked like a Western spa. My traveling companion Antoinette and I agreed that we hadn’t come all the way to Turkey for an experience we could have had back home.
I assured Gülay that we’d rather go to a real Turkish bath.
Eventually, she sent us to the Nazir, a hamam tucked behind the Tekeli Mehmet Pasa mosque in Kaleiçi, the old quarter of the city. Like most Turkish baths, this one reserved certain times of day for women. We arrived in the mid-afternoon.
A plastic sign advertising RC Cola dangled over the Nazir. Below it, a threadbare cotton curtain hung in the narrow doorway. Pulling that aside, we stood at the top of a set of stairs opening onto a dim, round room that had the dank smell of a YWCA, minus the chlorine.
A slim teenaged blonde wearing a white bra and bikini bottom stood at a small counter near the entrance. On the main floor of the hamam we spied a beefy woman with cropped red hair who looked as though she would be more than a match for a Hell’s Angels gang. She wore only a black thong, a gold chain and flip-flops, and she looked up at us expectantly.
With many interjections of the few Turkish words we knew and a lot of hand signals, Antoinette and I indicated that we wanted a shampoo, bath and massage. The price for the package was 3 million Turkish lira, about $7.50 Canadian. “What a deal!” we assured each other as we made our way to the tiny wooden changing stall the young woman had pointed out.
Not knowing exactly how to proceed, we stripped down to our panties and wrapped ourselves in small cotton towels that looked more appropriate to drying dishes than covering bodies. Not thinking clearly, I kept my glasses and Antoinette left her watch on.
We entered the steamy main bath, an octagonal room lit by cutouts in the stone roof. Water gurgled continually from numerous taps, and sluiced away through open channels in the floor. The only other bathers, an elderly woman and a toddler, were naked; we immediately realized we were overdressed. I returned to the stall with our remaining personal possessions, while Antoinette submitted to the ministrations of the Biker Masseuse.
When I returned, I was glad Antoinette had gone first. That gave me time to mentally prepare.
She was sitting on a marble bench, desperately trying to retain her dignity as the red-haired woman scooped up bowls of lukewarm water from a running tap and poured them over her head. Spluttering, Antoinette shook the water from her eyes just as Biker Masseuse began vigorously shampooing her hair with a mixture that smelled suspiciously like Lemon Pledge. Another rinse with the plastic bowl, then Antoinette was led to a large marble slab in the centre of the room to await her fate.
Nervously, I watched as Biker Masseuse rinsed Antoinette’s bench, then approached me. Within seconds I was soaking wet, and my attendant was grinding shampoo into my scalp with the enthusiasm of a baker kneading dough.
Soon I joined Antoinette, and our torturer signaled us to lie face down on the slab. Mouth clamped closed, I flopped down, feeling like a piece of steak in a butcher-shop window. The masseuse began gesturing urgently, but we didn’t understand that she wanted Antoinette to move. No matter. She simply grabbed my friend by the ankles and towed her across the oily surface.
Steak was the wrong image. We were actually, as Antoinette observed with a smothered giggle, beached seals.
And soon we were seals scrubbed within an inch of our lives with pungent olive oil soap. Our attendant missed nothing with her loofah, not even our faces. Once she was done, I looked down in dismay to see little grey bits of something all over my reddened flesh. “Skin,” explained Biker Masseuse succinctly.
The massage that followed bore little resemblance to the somnolent experience at a Western spa. No warm towels, no muted strains of Enya in the background, no aromatherapy oils. We were pushed and pummeled until we felt we had gone 10 rounds with Muhammad Ali. At the end of the controlled attack, our masseuse slapped each of us on the rump and announced “Finish!”
Finish, indeed. Wobbly and discombobulated, we made our way back to our cubicle and dressed. Then we stumbled up the stairs and through the cotton curtain, blinking as we emerged into the dazzling late-afternoon sunlight and dry, 37-degree C heat. After the humidity of the hamam, the weather felt positively bracing.
We had considered taking the bus back to our hotel, but since my damp hair had begun solidifying into an unusual, lemon-scented sculpture, I suggested we save ourselves some public embarrassment by taking a cab. Soon, we were in a taxi with a young driver eager to practice his English.
When we told him where we’d been, he frowned. “Do you go to a hamam?” Antoinette asked.
“Oh, no,” he said in tones that implied we’d asked him if he clubbed wild boar for dinner and cooked it over an open fire in a cave. “I have a shower at home.”