Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Free Day: The Hamam Experience

Sunday, September 6, 2015


Finally, our first free day! Nothing scheduled on the agenda, we can do what we want, roam as we please. The program advisers created a fun scavenger hunt that we could do around the city, but most people just made their own plans.

I decided to sleep until noon, take lunch at the hotel, and then join the group of about 20 students who were leaving for the hamam. Turks go to the hamam once a week or once a month to bathe and socialize with friends. Men and women sections are separated. After a long week, I knew I could use a massage and a good cleaning, but little did I know what was in store for me.

Three girls and I carpooled a taxi to the hamam, which cost all of us 5TL. I’m learning that carpooling is an efficient and cheap way to get around. When we arrived, we met up with the other 8 or so girls. Everyone paid for the package they wanted—majority of us selected the scrub, coffee bean cleansing, a soupy massage cleansing, and a pedicure, costing 72 TL (~$25, pretty cheap by U.S. standards). We were directed to changing rooms, where we took off our clothes and emerged in towels. Then we entered the “bathing section”—the hamam where the magic happens. At first, I was really uncomfortable at the sight of topless women having a good time, chatting about, and casually cleaning themselves and others. I didn’t know what to do, so I followed the lead of Bianca, a returning grantee. When she took off her towel, my jaw dropped. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do the same. But then, after a few moments of thinking, I thought to myself: when in Turkey, do as Turks do.

There was a hexagon-shaped pedestal in the center of the hamam. Along the walls, there were mini stone bathtubs holding lukewarm water. I copied what other women were doing, and began to wash myself with soap and warm water. There was a sense of discomfort and excitement on all of our faces; and I must admit, this was quite an intimate way of getting to know my fellow peers. Then, the cleaning ladies dressed in black bathing suits came and grabbed us one by one. They asked us to lie down on our stomachs, each of taking one side of the hexagonal centerpiece. Once the magic started, people were no longer staring at one another.
People are washed on the hexagonal center of the hamam.

First, the lady scrubbed me with a special glove, which peeled off my dead skin cells. I could see black dirt-like pieces falling to the ground. It was utterly gross. I then took a warm shower to wash it all away. Second, she used crushed coffee beans to exfoliate my skin. It felt like I was covered in mud, both on the back and the front. As she scrubbed me all over my body, she also massaged me and took out some knots from my shoulder muscles which had become tense from the travels and the long Orientation sessions. Again, I washed away the coffee with a quick warm shower. My third cleansing was with a soft soap that felt like silk and smelled like roses. Once again, the lady massaged me and I felt at ease. I showered off the bubbles, and sat in the steaming room for a few minutes to soften my skin. I grabbed my towel, and left the hamam for the upstairs spa where I got a pedicure. I was feeling Turkish so I asked that my toes be painted in red. My toes smiled to thank me.

By the end of the experience, I felt clean, happy, relaxed, and also empowered. I embraced my femininity, celebrated my womanhood with other women, and appreciated my female body. I saw women of all ages, shapes, and sizes, and it was beautiful. I expected to form many friendships during my Fulbright experience, but I had underestimated the depth of those bonds. The intimate experience at the hamam will be one that will be remembered forever.

The beautiful Luna Park.
The group broke up and everyone pursued different activities. I spent the rest of the day walking around with Alex and Karlene. We practiced our limited Turkish when purchasing a simits, buying ice cream, and traveling on the bus. We strolled through the beautiful Luna Park, which is split into a scenic picnic spot and an amusement park (which only cost 25 kuruş to enter). We watched families having a good time at the rides or relaxing under trees. Friends were taking pictures and young couples held hands. Ankara appears to be more liberal than the eastern part of Turkey. Thanks to Karlene’s intermediate Turkish, we were able to find the correct bus back to the hotel, where we exchanged stories with our peers about today’s exciting events as we ate dinner. 

Karlene, Alex, and myself at the Luna Park (amusement park).

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