Every 20 feet heavily accented invitations are called out to me as I walk past each shop on the cobblestone pedestrian streets of Kusadasi, a small town on the western coast of Turkey. “Lady in blue jacket, come in here. We have the nicest ceramics,” calls one man. Several others offer “free Wi-Fi for you”. And others promise their shops are “recommended” and that I will be best served if I shop in their store. Locals and tourists flock to an old Turkish bath. In the background, I can hear music playing softly and small tea glasses clinking on ceramic saucers.
Shop keepers sell silk and wool carpets, leather goods, shoes, t-shirts, designer purses, tea, Turkish delight, bracelets, hanging lamps and other items. Currency exchange shops, tourist information booths, pharmacies and restaurants line the streets as well. A few large, lazy dogs nap in the sun.
Eventually I see an advertisement for a traditional Turkish bath and within minutes I have a reservation at Ottoman Turkish Bath. Apo is the short, green-eyed, cigarette-smoking sales agent who discusses options with me, and ultimately makes my reservation at the hamam. I pay $25 USD in cash, and Apo escorts me to the corner where I meet Abdullah, a non-English speaking driver who will take me to the Turkish bath. I am delighted to meet Melissa from Malaysia who is in the car as well.
Once at Ottoman Turkish Bath, we change clothes in the locker area (not quite an actual locker room), and are each given a thin smallish towel to use as a wrap. After our brief tour, we settle into the dry sauna. Melissa has just arrived on a ship cruising the Aegean Sea and is nervous about her first Turkish bath. Next we enter the not-yet-hot steam room and turn on the heat ourselves. Both the sauna and steam room are similar to what Westerners are accustom to, and the heat feels good.
The Salt Room
The 8 x 10’ floor is buried in a three inch layer of coarse salt, and two empty brown plastic buckets are on the bench. I call out to an attendant, and am relieved when he brings back the buckets filled with fresh salt. We were hoping they wouldn’t scoop from the floor! In true DIY fashion, Melissa and I scrub our own skin with the salt, and help each other with our shoulders and backs. It is tricky to hold the towel with one hand and scrub with the other. The salt room begins to feel crowded when two Brits join us, and I take the opportunity to rinse off in a private shower stall.
The Sudsing Room
Alas, it is time for the main course! In broken English, Zara invites me to lie down on the warm marble slab/platform in the middle of the room. Every few feet around the room is an individual washing station, each with a hot and cold spigot and a big marble sink. Over the next half hour, Zara will repeatedly run hot water into plastic containers to then pour on me. She drizzles a 10” high mound of thick soap suds on me, all as result of squeezing special soapy water through a thin muslin cloth. She alternates between rinsing, “sudsing” and scrubbing me. When she is finished my skin is pink, shiny and very clean.
I slosh across the lobby to the locker area and retrieve my clothes. A few shirtless men lounge in the lobby on plastic chairs, and they invite me to join them for tea. Not in the mood to make small talk and practice my seven Turkish words that I’ve learned, I politely decline and request a ride back to the main section of Kusadasi. Soon Melissa, the two Brits, and I are driven back to town and we part ways. It turns out to be a good experience and is fun to reminisce about my first Turkish bath more than fifteen years ago. It isn’t surprising that not much has changed since then, given that Turkish baths date back over 500 years to the Ottoman Empire.