When people think spring break, it’s teenagers partying it up in Florida, getting drunk and skinny dipping or whatever it is crazy college kids do with a week to kill in a beach resort. My freshman year, I decided to go to Istanbul with two student groups focused on social entrepreneurship. We were still college kids on spring break. But instead we drank raki, a popular anise-flavored alcohol, and wound up naked in a Turkish bathhouse.
We were in Istanbul for a full week and accomplished most of our sightseeing along with scheduled activities and meetings. On Thursday, we had free time in the morning and decided to try a Turkish bath (hammam). We were recommended a bathhouse that was affordable and clean - the only catch was that no one spoke English.
From the research I did online, I knew that the general Turkish bath procedure involved sitting in a steam room with other people, then getting scrubbed and massaged separately by an attendant. I knew that you had to get full-on naked at some point, but I couldn’t find any consensus as to when that would be (was it when you started steaming or when you were being scrubbed down by an attendant in private?).
When we arrived at the bathhouse, girls went to one side and the guys to another. We were ushered into dressing rooms (although there was virtually no privacy since there were giant window panes on all of these rooms) to change into these small orange and white linen towels.
The minute we stepped inside the steam room, our attendant (a portly middle-aged Turkish woman with a very…ample bosom) yanked away one of the girl’s towels. I found out that the time we would be naked for was the entire time.
It took us a good twenty minutes to get over the initial awkwardness of being naked in front of each other. After that, I started noticing the architecture — all high, domed ceilings and stained glass. The bathhouse was gorgeous. The steam room had a large marble slab in the middle with two semicircles of sinks around it. Each person got a sink and a little plastic bowl to lap water onto themselves while they steamed. We steamed for a good thirty minutes or so. Unsure of what should happen next, I went back outside to call in an attendant.
The same portly middle-aged Turkish woman with the ample bosom came back, this time also naked. She gestured for one of us to get on the marble slab in the middle of the room and lie down. It took some awkward slipping and sliding for people to be properly positioned and it was pretty hilarious to watch. Then, she scrubbed us down with a loofah from head to toe (it’s very weird having a naked stranger scrub you while you’re also naked in front of other naked people). The weirdest part was when you sat on the side of the marble slab so she could scrub your arms: the way she held your arm meant that your hand was accidentally hitting her breast as this was all happening.
Then you went and rinsed yourself with more water and steamed again. After everyone was done being scrubbed down with a loofah, this cycle repeated itself, except this time you were washed with soap. Still not any less weird the second time around.
The last phase was getting your hair washed. Now, the attendant came around to your own sink. You sat on a step with your face in her chest as you got your hair washed and rinsed (also supremely awkward).
Lastly, you did a final rinse and continued to steam and lap water on yourself (which you pretty much do the entire time when you’re not being scrubbed and/or motorboated by the attendant).
Thankfully, at the end, we were given larger, fluffier towels to wrap ourselves in. They served us black tea as we warmed ourselves next to a radiator. I found that you really have to block out a good 3-4 hours for these baths (and I found out that people typically do this once or twice a week!). Most of the time, you’re just relaxing, and getting clean just so happens to be a byproduct.
In the afternoon, I started to feel the benefits of that Turkish bath. I’ve never been one for massages or yoga or more “traditional” forms of relaxation (my way to destress is with Chipotle and Netflix), but that day, I started to understand the benefits of baths, even with all of the unexpected nakedness and awkwardness.