I could say it was the ouzo I’d had that morning in Rhodes, Greece that led me to to the steaming room I found myself in, crouched stark naked on a stool while a woman threw bowls of hot water over me. But the ouzo, the stiff national Greek drink, had worn off when I consumed my big fat Greek lunch an hour earlier. So it wasn’t the ouzo. How did I, then, one of the most modest (even by our relatively prudish American standards), end up lying on a marble slab in a 7th-century Byzantine structure while a stranger soaped, scrubbed and rinsed me – my good friend perched nearby on her own naked stool?
Part of travel – shedding ways to try out a new culture
The Turkish bath sayeth Wikipedia: "played an important role in cultures of the Middle-East, serving as places of social gathering, ritual cleansing and as architectural structures, institutions, and (later) elements with special customs attached to them".
I knew I wanted to try this exotic custom, but having been the girl at the slumber parties who went into the bathroom to change into my pajamas, I wasn’t sure I could muster the guts to strip down and go for it. Well, I shed not only my usual self, but my upper layer epidermis in the process and with Holly – good sport that she is – handed over my five euros, received a Looney Tunes towel, and left my clothes and modesty in a locker.
The bath attendant led us to a room under a white domed ceiling from which star shaped openings poured in sunlight. I got to know these stars. I stared up at them for long minutes while my friend received her sudsing, rubbing and rinsing over on the slab. The attendant left the room for a moment, at which time the slippery metal bowl I was ladling hot water over my person with, slipped out of my fingers and clanged and echoed its way across the room. Mercifully, the attendant returned in time to save me from creeping across the room to retrieve it, while Holly snorted and laughed from her slab.
When it was my turn, I tiptoed across the wet sudsy floor, certain I’d end up splayed across the marble. I positioned myself face down on the hard slab which had received a perfunctory rinsing after Holly’s scrub. And away we went – first with a harsh pink liquid soap from an industrial sized plastic jug. As the attendant lathered me up, I heard Holly’s metal bowl rhythmically scooping up water and splashing it out. After the soap and semi-massage, the scruffing mitt came out; the same one, I would add, used on Holly and presumably other clients. I got a thorough scrubbing then a rinse before being told with gestures (she spoke as much English as I spoke Greek) to roll over. The process was repeated on my front side with another thorough soaping and scrubbing. I retreated to my stool to rinse with the bowl and there you have it — my first Turkish bath.
We left the bath house grinning from ear to ear, full of stories and descriptions for our husbands (which included many uses of the phrase “lying naked on a marble slab!”), pleased to have taken part in an experience we’re quite certain no one else on our cruise ship had done that day.