Public baths, or hamams, have long been a traditional feature of Turkish culture. In the days before indoor plumbing, people ventured regularly to these community centers, where they would enjoy a steam room, a massage and the company of friends. Although the need for hamams has disappeared, many Turks still see the bath as a pleasant social activity.
Since some of these hamams also cater to tourists who are eager to experience a slice of Turkish culture, we booked an appointment at one while in Goreme. The bath was 20 minutes away, so we made an appointment for late afternoon and arranged a ride through our hotel. Then Kelly, Lisa and I went off in our own directions for several hours. When we returned, we discovered that Kelly had become acquainted with a local carpet dealer who offered to take us to the bath.
“Why would he just agree to drive us?” Lisa asked. “Doesn’t he have a business to run?”
“Well, I did buy a carpet from him,” said Kelly. “But he’s a great guy. He just wanted to help us out.”
We were dubious, but Mustafa arrived as promised. Lisa thanked him for his generosity.
“It’s very nice of you to offer to drive us. But we don’t want you to go out of your way.”
“Oh, please,” Mustafa smiled. “It is my pleasure. You are in my hometown, you know. This is Turkish hospitality.”
It’s true that most every Turk we’d met was exceedingly polite. Some of them, of course, saw something in it for them, as they hoped we might buy something at their shop. But the hospitality also seemed truly genuine. It was a deeply felt and very natural part of their culture.
Shortly thereafter, we were deposited in the front lobby of a nondescript concrete building that housed the bath. Mustafa told the attendant to call him when we were finished. We were then shepherded to a steam room, where the attendant gave us instructions.
“Sauna, water, sauna,” he said, pointing alternately to a plunge pool of cold water in the center of an adjoining room and back to the sauna. “Sauna 10 minute. Then water. Then sauna. Yes?”
The door closed behind us and we sat down to relax in the steam heat of the sauna. By the end of ten minutes, we were parched and looking forward to the coolness of the pool. Or so we thought. In fact, the water was barely warmer than ice. This is the idea, of course, which is why the Finns have a winter tradition of running from a sauna into the snow, but there is still no way to prepare for the shock to your body. We jumped in and out a few times, and then retreated back to the steam.
From there, we were directed to a second room and told to lie on a large, heated stone table. Again, sounds nice in theory. But this table was so hot that none of us could lie still for more than 15 seconds without the sense that our bare backs and legs were in a frying pan. An attendant gave us a hose of cold water to spray over the stones, which at least made it bearable for 30 seconds at a time. Then we lay on another table, where a different man came by, covered our bodies with suds and scrubbed us with a rough glove that was maybe a level or two softer than a brillo pad.
Right about this time, I began thinking, “A Turkish man whom we just met drove us 20 minutes to a tiny village and left us here. I jumped in a pool of ice water. I laid down on a stone table that was so hot it nearly cooked me. And now I’m having my skin scrubbed off by a guy who is dressed a blue loin cloth. The things we do for travel experiences.”
Finally, one more attendant gave us a deep tissue massage and we were shown to a place where we could shower before changing back into our street clothes. By the time I made my way back out to the front lobby, I was surprised to realize that I felt thoroughly cleansed and relaxed. As we sat and waited for Mustafa to return, one of the attendants served us tea. I sat on a cushion and closed my eyes, perfectly content. Well, maybe it hadn’t been so bad, after all.
True to his word, Mustafa didn’t desert us at the bath. In fact, on the return drive he even stopped to show us some famous rock formations in what is called the Valley of the Fairy Chimneys. We wandered around for a while and marveled at the monstrous columns of soft stone reaching toward the heavens, glowing amber in the late afternoon light.
Back in Goreme, we went to Mustafa’s carpet shop, where he served us Turkish coffee. Then he asked if we wanted to see his trained pigeons.
Trained pigeons? Uhhh, yeah, sure.
He took us outside and coaxed a pigeon out of a cage in his yard. He rubbed the bird for a minute and released it into the air. Then, swear to God, the pigeon did a back flip. Mustafa took another pigeon out of the cage and repeated the trick. We continued watching as this carpet dealer-chauffeur-bird trainer coaxed strange sounds from his throat and called for the birds to return.
I thought for a minute that maybe he had spiked my coffee and I was hallucinating. But, no, we had just seen pigeons doing back flips. I guess it’s all in a day’s travel when you give in to the whims of Turkey.
Photo credit: pittigliani2005