Bathing in Istanbul

Istanbul, Turkey

The air was nearly too thick and water-laden to enter my lungs. Inhaling was difficult, but an indescribable pleasure.

Giant droplets clung to my dirty, sun-stained skin. Once the moisture of the room collided with my own sweat, the beads would roll down my ribs, eventually pooling under my stomach on the cool marble table on which I lay. Spatters of water shaken off of the hair of a woman next to me collected in the small of my back.

An hour earlier, I stood staring — horrified — at what fell out of a small, sealed plastic packet. In the recesses of my mind, I prayed that if I stared long enough, they’d grow large enough to hide in. They did not. So there I stood, clinging to the thin towel that wrapped around my body thrice with tears in my eyes. My feet held their ground on the ceramic tiled floor, seemingly to refuse any efforts I might make to pull the black bikini undies on.

But one by one, my toes gave way…

I shuffled into the next room, my legs still putting up some resistance. But the second the intricately detailed wooden door slammed shut, the steam encapsulated me like a drug. Whirling clouds of mist wrapped around every strand of my hair, blanketed over my eyes, squeezed through my nostrils and into my brain.

My grip on the towel loosened gently.

I was surrounded by stone, a heavy layer of fog, and brown skinned women — all fitted in the same slinky Hamam uniform. My now curious feet lead me toward an empty cove where a small faucet jutted out of a wall that was erected hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Below it, a large metal bowl. I kneeled down and eased my legs under the water, occasionally filling the bowl to pour over my arms. It all felt so surreal: the perfect temperature of the water, the hazy atmosphere, the some how sensual antiquity of the place.

And just beyond that open little den I claimed as my own, dozens of women lounged around. A giant, round marble table filled the center of the room. Women fanned out across it, their thin towels beneath their heads, soaking up the sweat from their foreheads or the back of their necks. My ears strained for the sound of their voices but the different languages melted together and into the sound of the rushing water.

I made my way toward them, somewhat seduced by the steam.

I sat down on the edge of that stone circle and cautiously eyed the ladies all around me for the first time since I had walked into the Hamam. My eyes had seen nothing but walls, mist, and fuzzy shapes. The room’s moisture, along with my own nerves and insecurities, blurred my vision. But now, it was coming into focus. Out of the fog came the most beautiful group of women I had ever seen.  Clad in nothing but matching black bikini bottoms, we seemed to be stripped of any worries that could make us ugly. And after coming to terms with the near-naked strangers surrounding me, my qualms began to dissolve as though they were soluble in the vaporous air.

I laid back and looked up at the incredible domed ceiling. Giant holes were poked in a circular pattern, letting rays of metallic light through. My towel soon dissolved from my body and for the first time in my short life, my skin — and that golden light — was the most comfortable thing I had ever worn.

With my eyes were shut, moisture forced its way in and out of my lungs. The only sounds in the room were the indiscernible voices, the hiss of steam, and the splashing of water. It all blended into something bizarrely rhythmic. The mixture of the elements was enchanting, hypnotic almost. And I soon forgot about the world beyond the marble walls.

My body had no intention of moving. I was paralyzed with contentment. Then an older woman, with wonderfully wrinkled skin and aging breasts came to me, pulled me by the hand and sat me upright. Before I could ask for her name or even smile politely, she was shampooing my long, curly hair. I was bewildered by her brashness but was comforted by the scent of the shampoo. Rather than inquire as to what was going on, I reveled in it as her hands moved the soap from the top of my head down to my shoulders and eventually my arms. She ran her deceptively strong hands down over the muscles in my legs and back before massaging them into my neck. To get a better grasp of my body, she placed my head to her chest. She smelled clean, but natural — tinged with both sweat and wet stone.

She took a rough cloth to my skin and rubbed off everything that had accumulated on my skin over the past three months I had spent traveling. Without the dead skin and dirt, I was lighter. Effortlessly, she pulled me to my feet and led me toward a small room in the back. She waved her sudsy, muscular arm, directing me in to a small, bubbling pool of water where three or four women already sat. I waded into the warmth. And then, my bather moved on, emptied her bowl of my filth, and cleaned another beautiful naked woman.

There, I half floated, half danced on the tips of my toes. A light under the surface of the water lit me from behind and I could see myself moving — slowly, dramatically. My feet let go, my arms floated above my head, and the water circled above me; it entered my nose, gently brushed up against my eye lids, and sealed my senses against the world up above.

Soon, as if to remind me of my need for air, the marble table and mist called me back and I returned to my steam induced daze.

Before long, the beads of sweat once again came rolling down my ribs, where they pooled under my stomach on the cool marble table on which I lay. I closed my eyes and thought about the crazy experience I was in the midst of … because soon enough, with saturated skin, I’d have to return to the clothed reality on the streets of Istanbul.