I am a large man.
This has served me well at some points, poorly at other points. On the one hand, it let me buy beer all through college, even when I was 16. On the other hand, it makes coach airline seats and African taxicabs a major challenge. And it sometimes has completely unpredictable consequences.
I’m a fan of the Turkish baths. I wrote about my first Turkish bath experience a few years ago, and it’s meant that one of the popular searches bringing people to my blog is a Google search for “naked turkish men”. (Entrepreneurs take note – clearly this is an underserved market…) Just goes to show how interesting Google users find African politics in comparison, I guess…
On this trip, our regular baths posse brought our friend Sunil along so he could experience the strange, soapy wonder for himself. Sunil, over dinner last night, mentioned that while hammams are common in India, many are gay pick-up joints, which left him wondering just why we were singing the praises of the baths. Perhaps he was reassured that Janet came along.
After the pre-bath ritual (the exchange of lira for a scrub mit and key to a cubicle, the hammam towel, a shower), Sunil, Darius and I selected spots on a warm marble slab, rested our heads on metal “pillows” and waited our turn. Just as the heat was melting some of the knots in my shoulders, a wiry, spry masseur grabbed my heel and led me into place on the corner of the slab. After the obligatory skin-flaying scrub down and multiple buckets of scalding water, we got down to the serious business of causing me pain.
To complete his (excellent, thorough) massage, my tormentor whacked me hard on the back, several times. This is my favorite part of any massage and, bracing my chin against the metal bowl I’d been resting my head on, I murmured something happy, like “Mmmmmm.”
Wiry guy asked, “Problem?”
And indeed, there wasn’t. But I failed to realize that “no problem” can be interpreted as a challenge: Just how hard would I have to hit this man to cause a problem?
The next technique came as something of a surprise. Wiry guy grabbed the far side of my ribcage and kneed me – hard – three or four times in the ribs. It hurt at the moment of impact, but felt pretty good after the fact. Climbing over me, he repeated the technique on the other side.
A moment or two of rest, and then a bowl full of hot water on my back, which lulled me into complacency – perhaps the shampoo is next. And then Mr. Wiry began whacking me on the back with the empty metal bucket. This felt surprisingly good – far better than the knee in the ribs, and something I can imagine voluntarily requesting from a masseur with who I shared a common language. The other masseurs roared with laughter. Sunil – roughly half my mass and inexperienced in the ways of Turkish massage – was watching and tells me this was the moment where he began to worry that a similar treatment lay in his future.
At this point, one of the other masseurs comes up to our corner of the slab, whacks me between the shoulder blades and says, “Very good!” I’ve passed. Can we massage my scalp now?
Alas, my failure to declare “problem” has triggered the special, bonus massage level. Wiry guy leads me to the side of the slab room, spreads a cloth out on the floor and asks me to lie on it, face down. I put my chin on a metal basin and press the rest of my body onto the towel and the warm marble. And wiry guy begins walking on my back.
I’ve had people walk on my back. Little people. Small, female people who weigh a hundred pounds and move like dancers. Wiry guy goes 160 at least and moves like Eddie Pope slide-tackling an Italian striker. Still, he knows what he’s doing. A few passes along both sides of my spine and my back is three inches wider.
He moves down onto my thights, which hurts a bit. And I realize, after a moment, that he’s going to stand on my calves. I’ve been walking more than usual the past few days, and wearing low shoes instead of the boots I wear at home. My calves already hurt. And when he moves onto them, it’s excruciating. I decide, somehow, that it’s the good sort of pain, and I control my breathing and manage to grunt out the next exchange.
Victory. I win a body’s worth of soap suds, a shampoo and scalp massage, and a very hearty handshake before Monsieur Wiry passes me on to the next man for my “oil massage”. It’s so gentle in comparison that I fall asleep after I’ve been on the table for five minutes – he has to shake me awake to get me to roll over. He’s big, he’s strong… but he’s no Mr. Wiry.
You can see my Istanbul photos on Flickr, if you’d like. I’m in Amsterdam now, flying to Boston tonight, and hope to be returning to regular blogging (less travel and football, more technology and Africa) in the next 24 hours or so. Thanks for your patience and great comments.