Naked and at a big man's mercy

Yunus was big and hairy and was only wearing a towel. Actually, it wasn't even a towel, more like a large dishcloth, and it was doing a pretty poor job of containing the gigantic lump of meat that was Yunus.

"Sit!" he commanded in his booming voice, indicating the marble ledge below him. When a half-naked Turkish man gives you an order, it pays to obey, so I sat and looked up just in time to see Yunus dump a huge bucket of hot water over my head. My head massage had commenced.

The big man's palms were instantly on my scalp, his thumbs digging into my eyeballs. Those meaty hands then slid down to my cheeks as, with a skilled twist, he attempted to pop my head off like a bottle cap. Unsuccessful, he hammered my shoulders, smacked my back a few times and then took careful hold of a few fingers, braced his feet on the slippery marble floor and tried to pull my arms off.

Incredibly, I was actually enjoying myself. This wasn't bad at all. Despite the sweat, the pain and the half-naked Turkish bloke trying to separate my body into seven or eight different parts, I was relaxed and having fun. Finally, finally, I think I understood the appeal of bathhouses.

I have a long and fairly embarrassing history with the bathhouses of the world. I find them interesting as a window into a culture, I just don't enjoy them. For me, they're places of sweat and embarrassment, of faux pas and confusion.

The main problem is I never know what I'm doing. Every country's bathhouses seem to have a strict and unwritten set of rules regarding practice and etiquette. First-time visitors have to interpret those rules as quickly as possible - usually without the benefit of being able to talk to anyone. It's led to some fairly impressive acts of folly of my behalf.

Russia. Sitting in a sauna for 10 minutes, swatting myself with a birch branch like a true professional, before it was pointed out that the heat wasn't even turned on.

Korea. Walking into the bathhouse with my swimmers on, attempting to step straight into a bath without showering. My twin mistakes were made obvious by the stares of fellow bathers.

And Turkey. See, my meeting with Yunus wasn't my first trip to a hamam. A few days earlier, I'd decided to visit a 500-year-old Istanbul bathhouse to see what all the fuss was about. Excessive years of practice aren't always a sign something's good - people have been playing golf for centuries - but I figured those ancient Turks knew what they were up to.

Confusion reigned from the beginning. I took a punt and removed all my clothes, tied a towel around my waist and headed into the sauna, a circular slab of hot marble strewn with the sweating torsos of Turkish bathers. Maybe I'll just sit here ...

"No!" An attendant shooed me over to the other side of the room, where I decided to copy everyone else and lie spread-eagled on the stone, staring at the domed ceiling as the sweat started to run.

My plan of attack was now simple: lie there until someone told me what to do. Ten minutes later I felt a tap on my toes and a towel-wearing Turkish man was motioning me over to the edge.

"Lie!" he barked, pointing at the slab in front of him. I lay. "No!" he said, sliding my body across the soapy stone towards him. Satisfied with my position, he commenced the traditional hamam service, a process of skin buffing and soaping followed by some serious muscle pummelling, eventually giving up on barking orders and just rearranging my body parts as necessary. Time to roll over? He'd reach across, grab my arm and pull it towards him until I got the gist.

As usual, it was all such an uncomfortably bizarre experience that I forgot to enjoy it. I walked out a little confused, a little sweaty and with soap in my ears.

But for some reason, I also had new resolve. These bathhouse failures had gone far enough. This time, I wasn't going to lie down (figuratively - you don't mess with those attendants). I was going to go for round two. I had experience now. I could become a master of the hamam.

Two days later, at that very same spot, I did. I stripped and strode into the sauna with a purpose, picking my place on the marble with a cool eye. I slid into position for my new attendant, Yunus, in just the right spot. I rolled when

I had to roll. I sat when I had to sit. Yunus, a colossal, sweaty master of his craft, did his thing, pushing and prodding, cracking and smacking, and I did mine. Perfect harmony.

And it was fantastic. Relaxing but invigorating. A workout for the soul.

All I needed to get it right was a little experience and the meaty fingers of a man named Yunus.

Have you ever been to a bathhouse overseas? What was your experience like?

Read Ben Groundwater's column on Sundays in the Sun-Herald.