(This guest post is from Katie Little, who was my backpacking buddy for three weeks, and, as such, appears frequently on the blog. When she’s not busy being written about on An Opportune Moment, she’s working at an animal hospital, practicing her sign language, or trying to convince herself that teaching English in South Korea for a year isn’t a big, scary commitment.)
I was a bit apprehensive when Emma said she wanted to go to a hamam as we were throwing around ideas for what we wanted to accomplish in Istanbul. (My list consisted of markets, tea, and lokum, all of which we experienced in abundance.) I had never been to a spa before let alone one in Turkey — the country I’ve visited that is most different culturally from the United States — and wasn’t even sure what a hamam entailed. Emma said it was a Turkish bath and I immediately pictured old men in a sauna discussing politics. Then she handed me a rather evocative pamphlet.
The pamphlet would clearly have Western tourists thinking of hamams as a sexy experience. While you can get honey or oil massages, hamams are, above all else, a cleansing process. These bathhouses have been around since the seventh century when the attendants of the baths were young, non-Muslim men. Now, men and women attend to their own genders (note from Emma: unsurprisingly, this puts trans* and non-binary people in a difficult situation). You can find traditional hamams in which you are naked for the entire process or hamams that are geared towards the more cautious tourist in which you wear a bathing suit. Hamams offer a variety of spa treatments, including massages, pedicures, manicures, and waxings.
Once we had decided on this cultural experience, we asked our hostel’s clerk where to go. He recommended a bathhouse in the Taksim neighborhood that only serves women after 9pm and said it would be a more authentic experience. He also mentioned that the basic hamam should not cost more than 60 Turkish lira (plus a 10-15% tip for your attendant). We passed on the hamam in Taksim because we were going to see whirling dervishes that evening and, instead, settled on a bathhouse we found while searching for a post office. (In case Emma hasn’t mentioned this, there are no post offices in Istanbul.)
Emma and I weren’t sure if this was a traditional bathhouse and received the answer “naked” upon asking. So we stripped down to the provided towels and water shoes and followed an attendant into the steam room. There, an attendant yanked our towels off, sat us on marble and splashed us with almost unbearably hot water. After she left, we cleansed ourselves for a bit and made light chat about our travel experiences thus far, also commenting that whichever of our close friends marries first should have her bachelorette party at a hamam. While sitting in the warm room, Emma mentioned how the next part of the hamam, the part where they rub your skin raw with an exfoliation glove, might be a bit painful. From doing a bit of reading, this was already the part I was most apprehensive about, but it ended up being a good, firm scrubbing. The attendant was also experienced enough to hold my legs when she scrubbed my feet (I am quite ticklish).
After the scrub, the attendant took a towel and lightly spread (what I believe to be) lemongrass soap all over my body and gave a nice, quick massage that worked out knots I hadn’t even known I had. She then sat me up and washed my hair before rinsing me off by splashing me with the boiling water once more. I was then wrapped in a fresh towel and laid down to air dry on a marble slab below a high-ceilinged dome. I was so relaxed that I would have fallen asleep if I hadn’t had to pee so badly.
Feeling refreshed, Emma and I got dressed and wandered out to the lobby where we were served complimentary Turkish tea and watched some bad Turkish soap operas. We then had a lovely plate of hummus and an enjoyable evening observing the whirling dervishes where they served lokum that tasted exactly how the soap at the hamam had smelled.
I greatly enjoyed pampering myself at the hamam in Istanbul and hope to continue to learn about cultures through relaxing experiences such as this one.
Have you ever pampered yourself in the tradition of a foreign country or culture?