Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mastectomy Scars? Get over it!

You know how the expression goes: 

"When in Rome, do as the Romans do."  

In my case, it was Istanbul.

I had this romantic notion that I would spend the last day of my trip being lavishly pampered at a traditional Turkish Hamam, otherwise known as a bath house. I had made friends with the proprietor of the boutique hotel I was staying at and since she had sent me to some great sites already, I let her assist with making arrangements.  She had two places in mind.  The "better" one couldn't take me at the time I wanted to go so by default, I went to the Tarihi Galatasaray Hamami which has been around since 1481.  I figured after 500+ years they would know what they were doing.

And of course they do but as I approached the modest entryway I sensed immediately that the images on their website, a tame version of a Bacchanalian festival with bowls of fruit and people lounging about playing mandolins, were wholly inaccurate. Mind you, that wasn't exactly the experience I was looking to have either but I could deal with a few grapes if the reward was a soothing massage.


After paying for the full-service "Pasha Treatment" (around $80) which included bath+soap scrub+oil massage I was led to the ladies' side and greeted by four older, full-figured women who only spoke Turkish and were in the midst of what seemed to be a nasty sisterly spat. It was quite comical actually even though I couldn't understand a word they were saying. The facilities were bare bones and it almost felt like I was in these women's kitchen since they were doing dishes and watching tv. I was put into a windowed changing room (did I mention this place is not for shy people?) and handed a cotton pestamal, or wrap, and wooden shoes.

Allow me to backtrack for a minute. Remember the bathing suit  from J. Crew I mentioned in my earlier post that I was all excited to wear for the occasion? Well, when the hotel owner called, I had her explain that I wanted to wear a bikini top because I had scars. She said it would be no problem.  I had no idea how naive that was at the time...

There was only one other guest at the Hamam when I was there, a Greek woman who spoke perfect English and was equally confused. She had her underwear wedged up her butt, no top, and a pestamal clumsily knotted around her torso. Since none of the ladies spoke English and were too pre-occupied with their bickering, I put on my bikini bottoms, tightly wrapped the cloth around my top, and waited in a plastic chair for the games to begin. I figured I had nothing to worry about...I was getting a massage and would either be on my stomach or covered with the cloth if turned on my back, right?  Finally, I was led into the bath and through sign language was ordered to lie face-down on a hard, marble slab in the middle of the room. I clung to my pestamal for dear life as the woman attempted to yank it from my body. I won. She shrugged as if to say, "suit'll see" and walked out.


Like a salmon waiting to be gutted, I watched the final moments of the Greek woman's treatment. She had a painful looking expression on her face as she was pushed, poked, prodded, and practically water-boarded. This was not at all what I expected.

I considered getting up and leaving but it was too bather had entered.


Let's just say the women who bathe you don't look like those in the picture. They are all well over 65, Rubenesque, and with great, big boobs practically hanging on the floor. They also aren't wrapped in a beautifully patterned cloth. Instead, they wear only a pair of bunched-up underwear and proudly parade around with their undulating bellies and swinging boobs on full display.

Somehow it's easier to be naked in front of perfect strangers so I took a deep breath, pointed to my scars and made the universally understood motion to go easy. My woman nodded like it was no big deal, put on her sloughing mitt, and went to work scraping away layer upon layer of dead skin while being perfectly mindful of the no-touch zones. When I opened my eyes there were black clusters all over my body which were washed away by bucket loads of water thrown at me. My skin felt like silk.  Next came this abundantly frothy soap which is administered by wringing a long sponge over your body and you're given a quick scrub of your feet, arms, legs, and back. Interestingly, the amount of coverage from this thick soap is way more than any bathing suit would ever have provided. The picture above is totally accurate for that at least. The last step is to have your hair washed while sitting on a footstool with the woman perched behind you as she scrubs your scalp, neck, and back into another sudsy lather.

Bathing at a Hamam is basically a full-contact sport. Things move fast and there is water flowing, splashing, and rushing out of every crack in that room. After being "rinsed" I was again told to lie face-down on the marble platform and wait as my woman proceeded to bathe herself (to remove my dirty germs presumably) like a well-choreographed play. I had already watched the same scene play out with the Greek woman's bather so I knew this was truly a ritual with a precise sequence of steps.  When she was done, she simply walked out.

No one ever came to get me. I eventually wrapped myself in my towel and went out to the waiting room.  Nonchalantly, my woman handed me a bottle of water and led me upstairs for the oil massage.  Finally I thought...this is where the relaxing part happens. Uh uh...we went upstairs but stopped on the landing where a low, cushioned bench was pressed up against the railing. Where was the zen music and candle light? I was told to lie down right there in the middle of the hall where I was slathered in oil and kneaded for a quick 20 minutes. The woman slapped me on the back, smiled, and said "good?"And just like that, we were done.

Would I go again? I'd have to think about that. The funny thing about this experience is that I actually took a shower and washed my hair before I left my hotel room. I figured it was only polite after all.  Kind of like making sure to brush your teeth before visiting the dentist.  

All I know is that if you have any insecurities about revealing your scars, find yourself a 65 year-old, rotund, Turkish woman to be your witness because she definitely won't give a damn!

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