The initial reaction when you walk into a room and find 40 naked strangers staring at you is to turn the other way and run.
And so that's what I did, ignoring the puzzled looks from the 40 starkers sauna goers and quickly shuffling in the other direction. But then I ran into a guy in gym shorts and a polo shirt, who just smiled at me. "Are you here for the infusion?"
The infusion? What's the infusion? "Um, I don't know," I said.
"You should, it's very good. You will sweat a lot."
And so I made a brash decision. I'd do it. I slipped my thongs off, dropped my bathrobe on the ground, and walked back into that room, now as completely naked as everybody else.
I picked my way through the pack, past men and women, young and old, taut and droopy, and found a space on one of the upper benches where I placed a towel down the way everyone else had and sat between a naked pony-tailed man and a naked middle-aged woman, and awaited whatever was about to happen to me next.
Welcome to Austria. Welcome to sauna culture. Welcome to a phenomenon I had no idea even existed.
There has never before been such brazen nudity in my version of saunas. There have never been men and women together. There has never been an "infusion". But here there were all of those things and more.
The venue for this lesson in cultural difference was the Aqua Dome, a thermal spa and sauna complex in the Oetztal Valley in western Austria. Part of the Aqua Dome is a clothed section where people who enjoy the glory of swimwear can bathe in thermal pools under the clear night sky with all of their bits covered. Another part of the Aqua Dome very specifically warns guests that they will have to drop all pretenses of modesty – and their clothes – to enter.
And that's where I found myself.
The guy in gym shorts, whose polo shirt had the words "Sauna Coach" written on the back, walked into the sauna carrying a wooden bucket and a ladle. With the door closed, he began spooning water onto the hot rocks in the middle, which hissed a cloud of steam. The coach – or "saunameister", as I later found out he's known – then grabbed a bath towel and began swinging it around his head, stirring up the air, mixing it, blending it, raising the temperature higher and higher.
I breathed deep. I sweated. I stole glances at all the naked people around me, the men and women, the young and old, who were staring calmly into the distance.
The saunameister poured more water onto the rocks. He resumed his strange dance with the towel, altering the movements now, sending huge blasts of hot air directly at each person, who raised their arms in obeisance, gratefully collecting this gift of cleansing, burning air.
I copied them exactly. I lifted my arms when I thought I had to. I stared into the distance and tried not to glance bulging-eyed at all of the naked people around me. And I marvelled silently at the fact that the world really isn't as small a place as I once thought.
Because it's so easy to believe that. It's so simple to accept that with the internet and budget flights, with modern communication and a global mindset, the world holds few secrets, that we're all becoming pretty much the same.
And then you find yourself in a room with 40 naked Austrians enjoying an infusion.
The saunameister continued his dance. He poured more water on the rocks. He flung more hot air. And eventually, without any prompting, the crowd of naked people broke into a round of applause, thanking the saunameister for his fantastic work.
They then stood up, collected their towels and walked outside into the cold night, wandering around in the garden still as starkers as newborns, allowing the wintry weather to close their pores.
I have never, ever, seen anything like it. I realised that night that I'm an uptight Anglo kid who's not used to public nudity. I realised I'm immaturely titillated by the sight of so much bare flesh. And I also realised I've been missing out on something great.
After that naked sauna I hung around in the clothing-free area for hours, going au naturel in the outdoor pools, nuding up in a few more saunas, spending time starkers in the salt pool, and even having a beer in the restaurant while still only wearing a towel.
And all that time I was surrounded by other similarly naked people. And they didn't even turn the other way and run.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Austrian National Tourist Office.
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