“Tomorrow is your last day—you should try a Turkish bath,” the tour director said. Sincerity showed in his dark eyes as he stood before the busload of travelers from the U.S. “The hotel spa here in Antalya is excellent.”
That was the last thing I wanted to do until a fellow traveler said, “You should try it. I feel so clean!” I don’t know what I expected. A darkened door with unreadable script above? Large rooms of swarthy men in towels with women seated in similar dress, chatting in another language?
I feared the unknown, but feared missing out on something even more: I scheduled my appointment. “Bring a bathing suit,” the receptionist said—a somewhat comforting instruction.
When I arrived, a small Asian woman with a welcoming smile led me to the room with lockers. She said her name was Li Ya.
“Clothes there. Bathing suit,” she said in halting English, pointing first toward the locker and then my body. She disappeared while I did as directed, then returned to lead me into the bath.
A heavy, carved door opened and hot, moist air enveloped me like a shroud. The hexagonal room glowed from soft lighting and multiple, star-like openings to the sky in the mosque-shaped dome above. A huge, solid marble, six-sided table filled the center of the room. No other bathers were in sight.
Twelve marble sinks lined the outer walls, each with a hot and cold faucet. A ceramic bowl rested on a ledge behind each gold fixture. Perspiration was already seeping from my pores.
Li Ya gestured to the marble platform bench next to the sinks, pointing her finger to let me know to sit there. She turned on both faucets and handed me the small bowl. “Pour over,” she said.
“From here?” I asked, pointing to the top of my head.
“Yes, yes.” She nodded encouragement then disappeared through the heavy door.
I filled the bowl more than a dozen times, alternately pouring hot and cold water over my head. Every inch of me was wet from my dousing effort and my perspiration.
I wondered if this was all there was to it and how long I should continue this anointing process when Li Ya returned with a young girl. Shorts topped her long legs, the jewel in her navel emphasizing her lean torso. A black, cropped top completed her dress; dark hair peeked from beneath her headscarf. Li Ya turned me over to this lovely woman.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“Isa,” she replied, and then placed a large towel on the over-sized marble table. She took my arm as I cautiously crossed the wet marble floor in my bare feet. The sound of the water flowing over the sides of my sink had the same soothing effect as a garden fountain.
Isa pantomimed her instructions to lie on my stomach, first saying, “this down,” meaning I should pull the top of my one-piece bathing suit below my waist. She handed me a red and yellow plaid cotton pasha to cover my chest as I tugged my suit straps off my shoulders.
The heat from the marble table warmed me from head to toe and my body, drenched with perspiration, soon soaked the blue and white striped towel under me.
Unsure what was to happen next, I lay there and admired the intricate design on the blue mosaic wall tiles and the deep brown tones of the doors and woodwork.
I watched as Isa filled a large pail with water from the sink and placed a mitt on her right hand. A faint lemon scent grew stronger as she neared me with a reassuring smile.
She began with my feet and for the next ten minutes she scrubbed: feet, calves, thighs, available buttocks, back, arms and neck. Then she turned me over and attacked all but the covered areas, including my nose, cheeks and forehead. I stared at the ceiling, enduring the irritation of the sandpaper-like mitt, and focused on the end result: the exfoliation ridding me of dead skin.
Isa refilled the pail, added more soap, and then dipped a cloth much like a pillowcase in and out of the pail. She blew into the pillowcase and swung it back and forth to catch even more air. Then in one sudden movement she emptied the cloth of a mountain of foaming bubbles over me. She repeated this several times, covering me front and back with the foam and massaging the fragrant bubbles into my skin and hair.
I stood as she dried me with a big towel. “I feel like a baby.” She frowned, unsure of my words, so I made the movement of rocking an infant.
“You baby,” she said, laughing.
I told her my age, confirming I was definitely not a baby. “How old are you?”
“You have beautiful eyes.”
That she understood. She smiled and said, “Thank you.”
Isa led me to the bench next to the sink. This time I didn’t have to do the dumping: first a deluge of hot water, then warm, and finally a blast of cold. I gasped and woke from my watery dream-like state.
She gave me two large towels to wrap around myself, then led me to another hexagonal, dimly lit room. “Sit here a little time.” Soft Turkish music filled the room as I melted into the chair.
When Isa returned, she had changed into flowing beige pants and smock. “Come. For your massage.”
I followed her into another room lit by candles with classical music playing softly. She pointed to the massage table and said, “Face down.” She started the massage with my feet. I was almost asleep when, too soon, she smiled and said, “Finished now.”
My hair was wet and limp and my make-up sacrificed to the soapy foam, but my skin glowed. And I wished I hadn’t waited until the last day of my stay to enjoy the delights of a Turkish bath.
published 4 August 2011