Where does your mind wander to when I say the words ‘full-body exfoliation and massage’? I’m guessing you’re thinking of lying on a soft bed, being gently rubbed down by a petite, soft-handed therapist while in the privacy of a beautiful suite, drifting off to the sounds of waves. Or at least some some variation of that fantasy.
Up until the point I stepped into Cemberlitas Hamami outside the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, this was the simple bliss I had in my mind’s eye of this exact treatment. Walking through the door of this ancient building from the chaos outside the Grand Bazaar, I was immediately on edge. I had read up a little about visiting a hamam in Istanbul, and my friends and I agreed that we would have to visit one while there for a few days in transit. Images of those soft-handed nymphs were still flittering through my mind even when a heavyset Turkish lady blocked our entrance demanding an upfront payment. Money exchanged, some plastic tokens and a pair of black panties were thrust into my hands, a rudimentary grunt in the direction of the interior replaced conversational chit chat.
Past the ‘toll booth’ of Cermberlitas lay an elaborately decorated waiting area filled mostly with male clientele either on their way out or in. We immediately took the sharp right towards the seeprate ladies section of the hamam. These temples to the body divine have traditionally separated gender, because what I didn’t know when I went in was that a pair of black panties was all I’d be wearing in a room full of strangers!
After changing into the underwear (it’s clean and disposable) and wrapping yourself in a muslin sheet, an unceremonious walk into the central steam chamber of the hamam reveals just how different reality can be from perception. The gorgeous nymphettes I was expecting to greet me were in fact short, squat Turkish women with a rather surly nature. In their own underwear, these ladies were clearly comfortable with their curvacious bodies.
Pulled over to the central marble platform, each of us had our muslin wraps whipped right off of us and were firmly deposited like chicken fillets to be steamed. After 15 minutes of steaming, a heavy set woman flipped me over onto my back and smothered me in soap suds. Between stinging eyes and a silent fit of giggles, I tensed up, only to be slapped across the stomach and told to relax. Once sufficiently soaped, the scrubbing began. Using a loofah, my adopted Turkish matriarch began at my toes and worked her way up my body. Her callous movements were maternal in the truest sense, firm and somehow gentle at the same time. Her experience at sloughing off dead skin was apparent. Leaning over me, she didn’t seem to mind as much as I did that her rather large breasts were slapping me in the face as she moved backwards and forwards with consistent frequency.
Scrubbed down, I was pulled towards the outer edge of the steam chamber and without warning, a bowl of water was dunked on me. More soap in my eyes, Turkish mom rinsed me like a vehicle at a car wash and just like that, it was over!
Despite how uncomfortable the whole experience was, I actually really enjoyed it. This age old practice was simple and effective. I’ve never felt so clean in all my life. It was definitely a case of letting go and welcoming the literal wave washing over me.
One of the best parts of travel is how it opens your mind. New experiences, pushing yourself out of comfort zone and letting go of any hang-ups are the only way to grow as a human being and in that steamy chamber older than I can even imagine, I definitely grew just that little bit.
Seriously, if you’re going to Istanbul, try your best to get to a hamam. Cemberlitas is quite tourist friendly, but hamams are thickly spread throughout the city and range in price. For the exfoliation and massage, we paid about R400. It was worthwhile, fun and we even popped into Cemberlitas on the way back in transit with six hours to spare!
You’re not allowed to take photos inside the hamam, for obvious reasons, but these are copies of the postcards that you can grab on the way out. I can assure you I didn’t look as glam as these ladies and felt a lot more like the fat, hairy man covered in suds.