Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Casting My Fears Aside



I like to push my boundaries, but what I did yesterday challenged me nearly as much as - maybe more than - skydiving.

I went to the Russian and Turkish Baths in the East Village.

I'd heard stories of its steam rooms, saunas, and scrubs, and the opportunity to be beaten by sticks, so I decided to give it a try before I left New York. Although I had spent a full day in the hot and cold pools of Rudas in Buda, I hadn't been brave enough to experience the Turkish hammams in Morocco or Tunisia, where a fellow bather, I was warned, might turn to me and give me a good scrub with a brown bar of soap. (Instead, I opted for a more European-style argan oil massage conducted by a young, beautiful Moroccan girl who seemed disaffected by her unlimited access to my nakedness.)

I had some making up to do.

For an obsessive planner and researcher, my arrival was baffling. The counter clerk asked me if it was my first time, and then asked a fellow client who was checking out to explain to me how it works. I was pointed to the women's locker room, given a key, and assured that "someone" would offer me services. I could do what I want, and then pay upon exiting.

Wait, where are the towels?

Wait, what am I supposed to wear?

Wait, where do I go?

Sure enough, a tall, tan, Russian man in the equivalent of a black cotton hospital gown greeted me, handed me a towel and a gown for myself. When I told him I wanted "the mud thing" (the Black Mud Treatment), he pointed to a short, curvy, black-haired woman who could have been 40 or 60, and said, "Then she will take care of you."

Her eyes lit up. "You want mud?!"

I nodded and stuttered.

She grabbed my arm, brought me to my locker, and told me to take everything off. "Do I wear my bathing suit?" I asked her.

"Bring it."

"So I wear...nothing?" I persisted.

"Take everything off."

"OK but...." I stammered. She then started taking my pants off for me.

When I got the gown on. its armholes were so huge that each of my breasts popped right through them. My mud consultant looked at me tsking and sprung into action with a "no no no," pulling the gown off of me, turning it around, and replacing it on me backwards, rolling and tying various pieces of it until it fit me perfectly and tightly.

She once again grabbed me and led me downstairs to a metal chamber and what appeared to be a metal surgical table with a rubber mat on it. She hosed everything down, laid clean dry towels down, hung my bathing suit on a hook, and once again instructed me to strip and lie face up.

"My head here?" I asked.

She nodded and pointed and scurried out, while I tried to unravel the black gown from my body and hang it on the hook, dropping it in a puddle on the floor several times in the process. When she returned, I was naked, bending over, and never more confused.

"I get new one. Never mind," she said, and then guided me over to the table, gingerly and strategically placing a towel between my legs, though my modesty had already been thrown onto the floor along with my gown.

She dipped her hand into a small plastic cup full of mud, and began to quickly and roughly spread it over every inch of my body, gently bending and lifting my legs to get behind them. I gave myself over to her and to the mud, closing my eyes and listening to the echo of voices from outside of my stall, in languages and accents familiar but foreign. She was muttering to me in Russian, sweet nothings in my ear as she proceeded with her work, diligently, clinically, but tenderly. When she got to my face, my smile must've transformed into a scowl, because she switched to English and said, "Don't be afraid..."

She soon finished and laid towels over my limbs, midriff, chest, and eyes, leaving me alone to ponder, dry, and harden. My face froze in a mud-caked smile. It was nice to just let her take care of me, to go with it instead of fighting against it.

I heard her return marked by the slam of a metal door, and felt the rush of cold air as the towels were removed one by one. Then the sound of water rushing, the burn of it as it hit my legs, rushed over my feet. I sat up, as instructed, and squeezed my eyes shut as the water cascaded over the top of my head and down my face, gasping for air as it collected around my nose and mouth. "Don't be afraid..." I heard again, and I tried not to be.

I laid back down and the entire process was repeated, this time with a soap that felt and smelled like powdered laundry detergent. I've never been so scrubbed. I have no recollection of being bathed as a child - I always remember washing myself, even if in the tub with my sister or mother - but I felt as though newborn, the age scrubbed off of me, under the care of a maternal figure who wanted nothing in return. She only asked me, "Are you comfortable?" and, once, "Are you happy?" I was.

In the final stage of my treatment, though I was still lying on the table, she washed my hair, scrubbing the scalp, investigating behind and inside the ears. Turning my head from side to side, she conditioned and rinsed, silently but for the steady stream of water into my ears, which emptied when I turned my head the other way.

I probably should have done the mud thing last, because it seemed like a shame to go in for a schvitz in the steam room or sauna after I'd gotten so clean, but I did anyway. The rooms and hallways were littered with bikini-clad girls and hairy-chested men in shorts, their heads sometimes wrapped in towels, all young and hip as you'd expect in the East Village. In the Turkish sauna, the second-hottest room, I doused myself with cold water from an overhead shower head, its freezing cold rainfall released with the pull of a handle. But after an hour or so, with no one to talk to and plenty more to do in New York before I leave, I was ready to go.

This is a spa experience not for the faint of heart, and one that makes Spa Castle in Whitestone, Queens seem like a corporate dreamland. But there's something really genuine, honest, accepting, and welcoming about it - a no-frills approach to satisfying basic medical and emotional needs. It's as much about exfoliation as it is about human contact.

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