Bathtime in Istanbul

Kids buying corn in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul.

This is about the most erotic bath I ever had.

The guy I was seeing at the time was a super-French French guy who loved wine and cigarettes and usually smelled like both of them. He’s not part of this story, though. This bath was just me, a voluptuous Turkish woman, and a cavernous room with a stone platform, kind of like a table used for offerings in Mayan rituals, in the center.

I was visiting Istanbul for just a few days and, in Istanbul, there are a few things you have to do. See the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, and go around some of the markets. I did it all between intermittent rain storms and what I seem to remember as uncomfortable shoes, because my feet hurt a lot. Still, I was convinced that Istanbul was one of the more beautiful cities I’d ever seen, and I was happy I had trusted my instinct and gone despite recent insecurity in the area. At the end of the trip, there was just one thing left on my list: a Turkish bath.

At the time, I was still pretty new to sightseeing, objective-based travel. Most of my experiences had been of the lazier variety, sitting in cafes, working, writing, ghosting around the streets looking at graffiti or people watching. But I’d taken the short trip from Serbia since I figured it would be a while until I was so near Turkey again. I had also taken actual vacation days to be there, a rarity once I started contract work. I wanted to make the most of my time off.

Streets of Moda, Istanbul

Istanbul is split into two sides: the European side, where all the sightseeing and most of the tourism stuff is focused, and the Asian, or realer, side. I chose the latter on a friend’s recommendation and spent my time at Hush Lounge in Moda, an unnecessarily sexy name for any place with bunk beds and complimentary shower shoes. Anyway, Hush Lounge’s “local” city guide is how I came to be naked and sudsy on a stone platform at 4 pm that Thursday afternoon.

Most of the other Turkish baths that you find while creatively Googling “Turkish bath in Istanbul” are pretty pricey, somewhere between the $50 and $100 range. This one was around $5, which I figured meant something awesome. It took me a while to find the place, but I knew I was within range when damp, moldy water permeated the air — I just couldn’t find the source of it. Finally a man stopped me and asked if I was lost. I showed him the star on the paper map the hostel had given me. “Bath,” it said, helpfully. He nodded and pointed me to a door nearby. I’d walked by it three times at least.

Behind the tiny door, a middle-aged woman was wrapped in a threadbare towel. Her face was slightly puffy, sun damaged, pretty. She looked like she’d had an extra long day at work or home or wherever she spends her life, and was glad to be sipping tea and chatting with the other women at the bath. I appreciated immediately the apparent community. I knew I was far from a sanitized TripAdvisor version of a Hammam, at least.

I was given a pair of flip flops and a tiny robe and shown to the dressing room. I took off my clothes and was glad I had read enough about Turkish baths beforehand to wear my bathing suit bottom. I’d bought it in Barcelona a few months before. My skin was now pale against the navy blue from months in autumnal Serbia, and I remembered the first day I wore it. I’d met a nice Spanish guy who had just moved to Barcelona from Madrid, excited to start a new life after what sounded like an exceptionally difficult breakup. I decided I should get in touch with him later, see how it all unfolded.

Anyway, I walked into the bath berobed and ready to relax. A short woman, chubby and smiling, followed me in and indicated I should sit on one of the stone benches along the wall. Put your feet in here, she mimed, and use this bucket to rinse yourself as desired, it seemed she was saying. I obliged, tentatively removing my robe and aware of how naked and alone I was in this large room. I’m generally comfortable in my body, but nudity isn’t practiced often enough.

I sat and tried to center myself, occasionally dumping on myself the water that was getting cooler by the minute. It felt good, though, in the steamy room. I could have sat like that for quite a while, but the woman returned — this time oh so topless with shockingly big, bouncing breasts. As someone with considerably less breast (Church of Christ boobs, they’ve been called, a nod to my religious upbringing and, well, lack of boobs), it was frightening. It reminded me of what men describe as experiencing the first time they see their father’s penis. She (and they) bounced towards me and I, in horror, tried not to look directly at them.

The woman then made it known that I should sit on the stone platform thing, so I obliged like a nice Church of Christ girl. Bathe me! I, faceup, seemed to be saying. She started by not so gently drenching me with several gallons of water. Once super wet came the suds, which she scrubbed into my (as it turned out) filthy skin with the sharpest sponge I’ve ever felt. Each swipe was like grade 100 sandpaper (is that the roughest kind? Does sandpaper come in grades?) upon my wintery white skin. I came very close to losing a mole with one haphazard swipe.

After a few minutes, her breasts were bouncing like she was on the bumpiest bus ride across town, and I really started to get into it the whole cleansing aspect. So this is what these are all about! I could see my skin peeling off in long black sheets. It was horrifying. When she wanted me to turn to get to the other side, my cleanser gave me a slight spanking on my thigh. I couldn’t deny the eroticism. It was really the stuff of weird, location-based fetish porno. She asked if I wanted her to wash my hair, too, which, given all the other stuff, seemed like an odd thing to seek my consent for, but whatever. I obviously did.

At the end of the affair, my skin was silky smooth and I had the chance to unwind with a little cup of tea of my own (and language barrier silence with a lot of smiling) in the warm room outside. The tired woman was still there, savoring her last few moments before heading back to real life, and I made a mental note to thank the people at Hush Lounge for their “local” recommendation.