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Torture Time in Turkey

Before traveling to Turkey, I often imagined how great a genuine Turkish bath and massage would feel. How relaxing it must feel to have an expert masseuse work out the kinks of life with just the right amount of pressure, in exactly the right places.

On a recent trip to Bergama, Turkey, I had a chance to experience a Turkish bath. Little did I realize my expectations of warm, dreamy relaxation would turn into a cool, sobering cleansing experience of a lifetime.

After a day of hiking in the ancient ruins of Pergamum, my wife and I returned to Bergama. Hungry, we stopped by an outdoor cafe for beer and the lamb specialty of the house.

As we finished off the feast, a Turkish man in his 30s stopped by our table. He stood about 5 8 with a lanky build, neatly cut flat brown hair, darting brown eyes, and a day of beard stubble. Dressed in slacks and a very expensive looking black leather coat, the man nervously puffed on a cigarette. He asked in a soft voice, Excuse me, meester and meesses. My name is Moret. Would it be possible for me to sit and practice English with you?

Despite my gut-level suspicions, we invited him to pull up a chair. Moret said he owned a shop in a village two hours away. He traveled weekly to Bergama for business. Between cigarette drags, he excitedly asked questions about Western celebrities like John Wayne, The Beatles, and Bill Clinton. With a wink and a nudge he asked, So, what do you think of Monica Lewinsky? We laughed and he ordered a round.

One day I would like to veesit you in America. I love America. The more rounds of beer he insisted on buying, the more I warmed up to the idea.

We tossed back a few, and the conversation flowed. Moret said he was a former masseuse who once worked at a 500 year old Turkish bathhouse just around the corner. He offered to take us there for a free bath. I thought to myself, wow, a real Turkish massage for free! Adventurous and beer happy, we took him up on the offer. We settled the bill and hit the road.

The three amigos wound through a dark maze of narrow backstreets. The neighborhoods were crowded with old stone or stucco houses looming above. A delicious smoky aroma wafted from close by. We turned a corner and popped out on a main street precisely at food vendors stand. Moret treated us to a local delicacy, a steamy bag of freshly roasted almonds. The naturally buttery flavor supercharged my tastebuds.

After devouring the nuts, we entered a large white stucco building that looked like a temple. An immense white marble slab filled the dome-topped main chamber. This oval slab was shaped like a giant turkey platter . Perhaps, I was going to become the main course?

Small dressing areas, steam rooms, and bathing coves surrounded the main room. Moret blurted something guttural to the burly proprietor who stood behind a cash register. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach because the man had the looks and charm of Saddam Hussein. Begrudgingly, he grunted something to Moret let us enter without paying.

An odor that reminded me of a musty hockey rink and corn chips pervaded the air. After changing into towels, we secured our items as best we could. Moret guided us into the soap room. His wandering eyes showed more interest in what was beneath my wifes towel than the task at hand. Suspicious of his real intentions, I volunteered to get the royal treatment. My wife scurried to the corner protecting her camera lens from the steam, and herself from Morets curious eyes.

Moret started the process by vigorously rubbing the major arm, and neck muscle groups. What started as a gentle motherly rub down turned into child abuse. I felt like a fish being skinned by a hungry grizzly bear.

With full force, Moret sanded my torso with a coarse brick of soap. He said, My friend, thees is good for you. It opens the pores of the skin. I thought it was going to open the blood vessels. Okay, I thought, the relaxing part must come next. Wisely, my wife stayed as far away from the action as possible. I was the guinea pig.

He led us into the bath room. Water trickled and echoed from the sweaty ceiling above. We sat on white stone benches. Moret began filling soup bowls with water. He wildly flung water everywhere. Water splashed mostly in my eyes and up my nose.

Next came the pressure shampoo. He ground the soap brick into my scalp. This felt like a phrenology exam gone terribly wrong. Fortunately, my love for calcium rich ice cream paid off and protected my skull from being crushed. I remained calm on the surface, but there was little voice in my head calling for mommy. I imagined my wife snickering in the background.

For the final part of the flogging, Moret dragged me into the main chamber. He placed me on the cool marble slab, and began walking on my back. His heels dug between my shoulder blades. I tried to block out cracking sounds coming from my spine. Call me a masochist, but Morets balance beam act on my back a felt really good.

The seconds of enjoyment were short-lived. My heart jumped when the proprietors loud, echoing yell disturbed the moment of tranquillity. Our friend blurted something back. After a slight pause, Moret cleared his throat and informed us that wed been asked to leave.

The only word I could make out from the irate proprietor was amateur. It seems this former masseuse had taken advantage of his alumni status one too many times. With my battered spine still intact, I hobbled out of the bathhouse.

We graciously declined his invitation to take a two hour bus ride and meet his wife and children. After this not-so-relaxing introduction to Turkish massage, we took his card, split ways, and called it a night…

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