That Time I Paid A Man In Istanbul To Beat Me Up

I love a massage. Seriously. I have had hot stone massages, Indian oil massages, Thai massages, Swedish massages, Chinese massages, and once a kindly old lady on a subway car in Berlin even rubbed my shoulders when I was looking particularly haggard. It was in Istanbul, though, that I asked for a massage, and ended up being twisted like a pretzel, and getting slapped around for an hour.

One of the more interesting aspects of Turkish culture is the hamam, essentially, their version of an old world bathhouse. These were places where people would socialize while getting clean. Business would be discusses, tea and coffee would be drunk, and generally people would solve the world’s problems. The idea of visiting such a place intrigued me.

I visited the Cagaloglu Hamam, located in the heart of the city. The entrance is set back from the narrow road, and I walked down a short alleyway to get to the door. Once in side, I was shocked. It looked more like a century old hotel lobby, complete with hardwoods and polished brass. I was presented with a menu and paid for the “treatments” I would be receiving. As I was new to the whole experience, I got the complete package, though I wasn’t entirely sure what I was buying. I was then shown to my room on the other side of the room. It was small, had a cot, a dressing table, and small cabinet for my clothes. I was instructed to remove all of my clothes. Now mind you, there were windows in my room, and they opened up to the lobby, and no, there were no curtains. I swallowed my pride and figured, “When in Rome,” or Istanbul, rather.

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I took everything off, and wrapped the green plaid wrap around me. It barely covered all the bits and pieces. As if things weren’t mortifying enough, I had to put on the shoes that were provided. I use the term “shoes” here very loosely. Imagine a pair of flip-flops, but with a sole of wood. Under that, two pieces of wood were attached, each two inches long, running perpendicular to the sole, and in the center of the show. Standing up was a challenge unto itself, but having to do so while parading through a room full of strangers, and holding the world’s smallest picnic blanket around my waist, was an act of circus acrobatics.

I teetered out of my room and was waived over by a group of burly looking Turkish men. One of them “claimed” me and pointed me down a small hallway and through a door. As soon as I entered, the heat and humidity were overpowering. Adding to that, I was now walking on wet marble. I slipped and started to tumble. Luckily, my new hamam director caught me. Athlete’s foot be damned. I kicked off my wooden shoes, and continued on, sure footed. He laughed at me, but motioned for me onwards.

I quickly figured out he spoke no English. He was about 5’11, had a gut, and thick mustache and seriously bushy eyebrows. He was wearing a red satiny tracksuit. He took me down the hallway, and the heat intensified. We entered another set of doors and walked into the main room. Hamams are essentially, large marbled rooms, and underneath the floor is a series of ventilation shafts that channel hot air from basement level fires. The marble heats up, and water is poured out, turning it all to steam and keeping the floor comfortable to walk on. The hamam I was in was segregated by gender, but some of the more modern ones allow for mixed use. The room was a large circular shape with a domed ceiling. In the middle was circular marble platform. Bodies, some covered by tiny picnic blankets, some not, looks as though they had been thrown around the room by some mighty force. I couldn’t tell if they simply collapse or slipped in their wooden shoes were too broken to actually move again. Almost, everyone though looked like they were so out of it that they couldn’t have moved if they had wanted to. I didn’t realize that this would also be my fate.

My handler instructed me to lie down on the platform. It was hot and for the first few minutes I thought I might actually start to feel my flesh sizzling. Slowly, I eased into it, and the tension began to drain away from by body. I mistakenly believed that this was what everyone one else was enjoying, closed my eyes, and slowly began to sink away. In my blissful state of relaxation, I didn’t notice that my mustachioed, tracksuit-wearing guide had wondered off.

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A little while later, he came back, this time wearing only a long heavy white towel wrapped around his waist. It was time to begin. Blissed-out, and feeling only semi-conscious, I woke up and nodded as he said, “Massage now?” in broken heavily accented English. I rolled over on the hot marble, and he went to work, starting with a heavy slap to the center of my back. This wasn’t a Swedish massage, nor was it an export from China, Thailand, or anywhere else. He slathered me with oil, and began slapping the various muscles in my back with cupped hands. Each “thwack” would be followed by a vigorous rub on the muscle. He used his body weight and the ball of his hand. He wasn’t so much as working out the tension, as he was grinding it into dust. Puny tension. It was no match for him. Then, the pretzel rolling began. He moved down to my feet. He slapped the bottom of them, and then popped each of my toes. He climbed up on the marble slapped and grabbed me by my ankles, lifted my legs up, elongating me and shaking me furiously. He bent my legs back, and then twisted them around, and across each other. He made sure to listen for a “pop” from everyone one of my joints.   He began to knead my calves, thighs and even my butt muscles. His knuckles firmly pressed into me. At one point, it felt like he was digging in, trying to grab my bones.

Then he flipped me back over onto my back and the whole process began all over again, but this time starting with my hands. He stretched and twisted me in ways I didn’t even know a body could be bent – mine or any other human’s. Then the slapping began again. All over he slapped me, and after each slap came the deep muscle rub down. I’m not too big to admit, I was tensing up with each slap, trying to prepare myself and to endure it.

Finally, he lightly patted me on the check and said, “Okay.” He pulled on my arm, sitting me upright and then helped me stand. I felt like a survivor of some sort, but quickly realized it wasn’t over yet. He lead me to a small bench against the wall next to a faucet. He filled a bucket full of hot water and then immediately poured it over my head. It was yet another shock to my, now, very cranked up system. I watched as he again filled the bucket, but this time, he picked up a larger sponge, and motioned for me to put my hands over my face. Generally, when I am naked with only a micro picnic blanket tied around my waist, and a burly man who has just beaten the tar out of me, and thrown a bucket of water in my face tells me to cover my eyes, my first instinct is to run, but for whatever reason, I did exactly as I as told.

Another bucket of water was thrown over me, and then he began at the top of my head, scrubbing and exfoliating me. Every square inch of me was scrubbed clean of the oil and the grime from the massage. I’m pretty sure a few weeks of my life were scrubbed off in addition to a dead layer of skin.   Yet another bucket of water was thrown at me to remove the mountain of soap bubbles I was buried under. Then he washed my hair, and followed up with another bucket of water.

He slapped me on the cheek again, and grabbed my wrists and picked me up from the bench. At this point I think I must have been scarlet red all over and wondering around in daze. He moved me to the sauna, a room that was supper heated and I sat there and decompressed for a half an hour. He returned to claim me and then took me to yet another room where I stood under a cold shower for a few seconds.   When that was over, he came in holding an enormous, heavy cotton towel and smiling. It was as if to say, “Congratulations! You survived.” He wrapped me like a person swaddles a newborn baby. My arms were tightly bound inside the towel, and he came in close and wrapped his arms around me and actually picked me up. Then he began to shake me. After a few quick downward jabs, my vertebrae began to pop. He adjusted his arms and more popping followed. Snap, snap, snap. He laughed, and sat me down, and then escorted me through another door, back out into the lobby, and to my own little room.

I sat down on the cot, and felt the cool air conditioned air circulate around my body. It was such a strange sensation. On one hand, I felt like I had survived a session in a torture chamber, but on the other, I was strangely relaxed. There was no soreness or jet lag. I felt pretty amazing, actually! I dressed, and walked back out into the lobby to find him back in his red tracksuit. I thanked him, and gave him a tip, and he gave me a bottle of water, and a small bag of pistachio flavored Turkish delight candy.

Later that night, back at my hotel, I was thinking about my afternoon spent at the hamam. It was such a uniquely Turkish experience. Like the country and its people, it was a mix of east and west, challenging, tough to figure out, and strangely effective. I walked into the bathroom, and noticed a little reminder of the day reflected in the mirror. A single red, slightly purple mark was on my back, about the size of large Turkish man’s palm. It wasn’t a lasting souvenir, but one that I was proud of nonetheless.

Visit the hamam yourself! Get more information at:  http://www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr

 

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Categories: Asia, Europe, My View of Things

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