'You will never be so clean again!' The flier was stapled to a post not far from the harbor. 'Just once have an original Turkish Bath in Fethiye.' Docked for the afternoon, we had a few hours to kill, and the advertisement seemed insistent enough. 'If you want to be born again. You must try a Turkish Bath and then you'll see we are right.' Later, we'd find this same enthusiasm attached to rugs, tea and the Koran. And, I must admit, they are right.
The Hamam we visited in Paspatur Bazar was supposedly 400 years old, and judging by the historical relevance of Turkey and all the nations who have trooped through there, I believe it. Many of the larger towns have Hamami, with the exception of a few villages on the coast, built by Greeks, who bathed in other, less infamous ways. You can spot a Turkish bath by its roof, a series of domes. If there's a minaret attached to the domes, it's a mosque and you probably won't get a rubdown.
A Hamam is essentially a bathing place for men and women, sometimes separate, sometimes family-style. We opted for the latter, counting on safety in numbers and still hanging onto some Midnight Express fears. You turn in your clothes at the front for a Peshtemal, what they term a 'thin, wraparound sarong.' You'd probably call it a dishtowel. Women are usually required to wear bathing suits. But, men bathe a'la Peshtemal.
Most Hamami have several chambers of varying temperatures. A hot room, a warm room, a cold room and a big marble slab called a Göbek Tashi or Naval Stone, where the fun takes place. We walked down a foggy tunnel, through some short doors, into more dense heat and wetness and ended up in a humid mini-cathedral. The light was natural, drifting in from holes cut in the dome above. While we sweated it out, waiting for we didn't know what, we teased each other with bowlfulls of water from various ornate spigots sticking out of the marble walls. The water pressure is nothing to cheer about, but the copper bowls are novel and the humidity begins its task of steam-cooking your brain into blissfully soft couscous.
After about 20 numbly warm minutes, a Tellak shows up, your masseur for the moment. If you've never been rubbed down by a half-naked, heavy, hairy Turk, you’re like most of us. And you can understand the apprehension one might feel when a Tellak points his beefy finger and gestures over to the Göbek Tashi. In retrospect, my suggestion for picking a Tellak is this: the older and the hairier the better. It may not be the top of your list initially. But believe me, you get some hairless, young guy and he probably hasn't been doing this long enough to really rub you down. The best idea is to give in and have faith that your friends will help you if anything funny happens.
So you lie on the wet marble and right away, off goes your Peshtemal, and on goes his Kese. Don’t worry, it’s just an abrasive oven-mitt/loofah thing. With that Kese, your Tellak rubs the bejesus out of you, taking off a few dozen dead skin layers. Arms, legs, the works, then a roll over and no, not down there. You're feeling a bit tingly, your friends are giggling, watching you, awaiting their turn and your Tellak shouts, 'Douche!' and you hop over to shower off. Then you realize how much skin you've lost. You're not raw or in pain. It's just that you are covered with these pills of skin and you wonder where it all came from. Supposedly it's great for a suntan. The proprietors suggest you use the Hamam about your fourth day of tanning, to take away the dead skin and grime, but leave the tan intact, have another Hamam the ninth day, then finish tanning a few more days and go home looking like Atatürk. They sell Keses at the desk so you can try it yourself. The brochure suggests, 'getting your partner to rub you don, good fun, eh!'
This next part is quite special. You're back, flat on the Göbek Tashi, trying to find your measly Peshtemal, and by now your Tellak has prepared a big bagfull of suds, which he wrings over you, head to toe. I call it the Palmolive Treatment. My friend described as feeling like a slippery seal. Then, things get physical. Don't expect a gentle massage, these are Turks: big, hairy men with mustaches and a reputation for punching people in parliament. 'Their technique owes more to medieval rack-and-wheel practices, than to the 'new age',' boasts the brochure. The Tellak, if he's old and hairy, kneads you all over, twisting you here and there and letting you slide all over the Göbek Tashi. Then I got this crazy back crack that almost ruined the experience. He laid me down, crossed my arms, shoved on my elbows and snap! Domes echo and I heard my spine realign like a bullwhip. If you can wiggle your toes, you haven't sustained any permanent injury. Just get up slowly.
We had the bath all to ourselves. Try to arrange it this way on your first visit. We heard stories of individuals wandering into baths crowded with locals and being privy to more Turkish culture than they were ready for. The Turks are a pious people and fastidious about hygiene. Staying clean is almost a holy act. Some Muslim Turks wash up five times a day. And that hygenic preoccupation extends to shaving; rather extensive shaving at that. One British woman we heard of was approached with an open razor by a well-meaning matron and urged to get rid of that forest down below. You want to avoid Fridays, too. Muslims have their ritual ablutions and get huffy if they must share water with infidels. A book store owner in Antalya also cautioned us about going to the baths after 9PM, for less theological reasons. 'That's when the orgies begin.'
After you've been scoured and soaped and splashed, the only thing left is to be dressed like a Pharaoh in a big Havlu towel, and sat down in the Soukluk, a cool room where you're served apple tea. The Hamam sort of ties together all the best parts of Turkey: the history, the sensuousness, the tea, the hairy men and even a bit of spirituality. Your mind is quite peaceful, as you sit shrouded with your pals, warm and clean. Perhaps the only thing you can think about is the taste of the tea, the content of your body and perhaps a consideration of when you might have your next Hamam. 'When you leave it will be as if you have been to heaven.' True, I had never imagined it so hot and hairy, but if Heaven feels anything like this, I now have a tangible motivation to be pure, virtuous and stop coveting postpubescent parochial schoolgirls.