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Wednesday, July 18

Hamam in Istanbul

I am not done talking about Turkey. You understand, don’t you? You’ll like this one, I hope.

Pre-trip, we’d read about experiencing a Turkish bath so going to a hamam was high on our priority list. A hamam is a Turkish bath where individuals are treated to a spa like experience. In another words like sultans (kings and queens). We heard about one in the old city for tourists and avoided it like the plague. With research we found one in Üsküdar, on the Asian side of Istanbul. After a ferry boat, bus ride and 1.5 mile walk we finally arrived to our destination. (Side note- Üsküdar is a conservative part of the city and 95% of the women we saw were covered up, head to toe.) At a traditional hamam, the men and women’s sections are separated so we came prepared. I brought my own soap and equipped him with one as well. We each brought our shampoos and conditioners, towels and hair brushes.

Here’s my account for the women’s side.

Upon entering, I was greeted in Turkish by one of the three (greeter) women. When she realized I didn’t speak Turkish, she said “welcome, welcome”. She offered me a reasonable rate but being Indian and having read on the Internet to negotiate, I offered a lower price. She smiled and said “come, come, it’ll be 34 Liras.” It was a steal so I accepted, of course. She gave me a towel and a key to a changing room and told me to leave my stuff there.

Once inside the sizable steam room, there is a large hot stone in the middle, big enough for multiple women to lay on, and on the periphery are sinks with water taps equipped with buckets and tumblers. There is couple smaller rooms connected to the large steam room with individual sinks and taps. Important note, women wear just their panties inside the steam room including the masseuses. This may be uncomfortable for some but it’s not big deal, really.

When I entered, there were 3 women already on the hot stone in the middle, getting massages. One of the masseuses pointed me to a sink and instructed me to start rinsing myself with hot water. I rinsed myself for approximately 15 minutes before taking a break; it felt redundant and wasteful. Then I waited for further instruction. By then, the center stone had just one woman on it. An older woman took one of the empty spots and commanded me to lay down on the other empty spot. In a foreign country, I succumb to the authority of older women and do as I am told. The older woman asked if I spoke German? German, well yes I do, I exclaimed. She shared with me she worked in Munich for 35 years before moving back home to Turkey 10 years ago. And she explained the basic process at a Turkish bath.

First the masseuse scrubbed me down, entirely, with a loofah. This is supposed to take dirt and gunk off of your skin. She cleaned behind my ears, on the bottom of my feet, and everywhere in between. (They do not put their hands inside panties, however they do scrub the bum.) Then she instructed me to rinse myself and come back to the hot stone. She then massaged my body, thoroughly. She had me lay on my back to massage my arms, hands, legs and feet, then on my back and all over again. Next, she scrubbed me clean with soap. The one I’d brought was not good enough and she chuckled as she used hers. Then she shampooed my hair. Finally, she rinsed me with hot water from a bucket. After multiple splashes, she pointed me to the sink with tap and told me to finish up.

Here is when my experience went from wonderful to memorable.

I asked the older German speaking woman what happens next. She informed I could stay in the steam room as long as I want. I can rinse, lay on the hot stone, re-rinse for hours if I desired. Some women stay for a whole afternoon. Good to know. As I was rinsing off the soap and shampoo, she returned with a giant bottle of shampoo and informed me she would wash my hair thoroughly. Stunned, I succumbed; sure, did I have a choice? But she cleaned my hair, like a mom washes her 7 year old daughter’s hair, scrubbing, massaging and washing. I was content. This stranger that translated for me was not only helpful but wanted to wash my hair for me. Again, this may seem uncomfortable to some but I found the act to be very caring.

Thereafter, I laid on the hot center stone for 10- 15 more minutes, allowing myself some quiet time. There was a group of women that entered and used one of the connected smaller rooms to rinse themselves, while catching up with each other. One final rinse and I dried off, went to my changing room to get dressed. In the common area I requested a hair dryer and the lady handed me one and said it’ll be 1 Lira extra, a small change.

While I was drying my hair the three greeting women stared and pointed at me. I believe like they were admiring my hair and my skin color but who knows, they could’ve been joking and saying I was a complete fool.

Once ready I paid the 35 Liras, went outside to meet the husband (we’d plan a meeting point and time) and since he wasn’t there I returned inside. As I waited, I sat with the three ladies and watched Turkish soaps on TV. One of the women asked me where I was from and gave me lots of compliments in her broken English. Flattered by all the attention, I wanted to give these sweet ladies a hug. I didn’t.

The look of the women’s hamam is plain and dated (with pale green painted walls and areas of peeling wallpaper). The arrangement is straightforward with a center hot stone and multiple sinks and taps. The buckets and tumblers were plastic and had seen better days.

The hamams take the separation of men and women’s sections very seriously. In Islam, modesty for women means covering up therefore in a place where women are half naked I respect and appreciate the division. This allows women to let loose and be themselves without the pressures of being seen or harassed.
Here’s his account for the men’s side.

He experienced many of the same things as I did. Entering the steam room he had his undershirt and boxers on and was instructed to remove his shirt. He got a decent scrub and massage but it felt shorter than 15- 30 minutes. He sensed the masseuse was friendlier to the locals and treated him like a foreigner and as a result he thinks the service wasn’t as thorough as it was for others. I believe his experience may not have been as memorable because he didn’t have a guide to explain the process.

Explaining to him of my experience, I was speechless. I enjoyed everything about this hamam, the pampering service, the older woman translator and maybe even the attention at the end. I was tickled by their fondness for me and surprisingly it didn’t feel weird. Unlike here in Germany where I often get stared at, this felt innocent perhaps because they were doting on me and not carefully examining me.

What to look for in a Hamam? A helpful staff and lots of customers. The time I was there, there were 5-7 women in the steam room, on a weekday morning. The average time for a scrub, massage, wash takes about 15- 30 minutes, depending on the masseuse. Although the women’s section wasn’t extravagant, the service and staff more than made up it. See what I mean about their friendly people. A reasonable price for service in Istanbul is 30- 50 Liras.

I would highly recommend this particular hamam and suggest you let loose and allow to be pampered, the Turkish way.

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