Having spent most of my childhood participating in athletics, I am not squeamish about locker rooms. That was until I went to the Orbeliani Baths in Tbilisi. Having read in the guidebook about the public sulfur baths, I figured it was a great way to relax and unwind, plus we had skipped the hamam in Turkey anyway. Through a series of hand gestures, we determined the entrance fee was about $1.50, a scrub was less than $3 and a massage was less than $5. Excellent. I figured I’d give myself the whole treatment.
I’m not sure how exactly to describe the locker room. While the exterior of the building was richly decorated in blue intricately designed Persian style tiles, the interior was starkly utilitarian. Stamped with individual numbers, unpainted lockers lined the wall of the dimly lit room. Handing over my ticket to three women playing cards at the front, I began to arrange myself in a locker when a women approached me talking quickly in Georgian. From her uniform, or rather lack there of, I determined that she probably worked there, but all I could understand out of her mouth was massage and scrub. Nodding my head vigorously, I repeated scrub and massage. Before I could protest she and another employee began to grab at me in a grandmotherly let me show you how this is done sort of way. Awkward to say the least, I felt rather exposed and vulnerable as they practically pushed me down the steps into a sulfurous room.
Pushing me under the shower, the “head” lady turned on a stream of sulfur water above my head and motioned for me to rinse myself. Standing there somewhat bewildered I took a moment to compose myself and nearly laughed out loud. Just go with it I thought. Yelling at me, the lady motioned for me to come over to the “treatment” bench where she literally scrubbed me raw. Astonished at the layer upon layer of dead skin coming off me, she yelled for the other women in the room to come see the freakish tourist. Surrounded by Georgian women in a steaming sulfurous room as my body was literally scrubbed raw isn’t exactly my idea of fun, but there wasn’t much I could do. Treating me like a doll, the scrubber lady pulled at my arms and legs ensuring that not a speck of dirt remained anywhere on me. By the time we got to the massage, my skin was bright red and frankly I was a bit terrified.
Massage means different things to different people, and mine basically consisted of torturous elbows and slaps on my back which seemed to be methodical. After cracking almost every joint in my body, the torture was over and I actually felt rather like putty. Emerging from the sulfur bath back into the harsh reality of the locker room I quickly changed and got the heck out of there, but not before I had to answer a dreaded question- where are you from? America I replied. “America! America!” the women repeated over and over again, almost like a toast. “Ciao” they called after me.
Intimate cultural experience? You can bet it was, and as I greeted Danny outside I actually heard myself tell him that it was “good” and I’d definitely do it again. Painfully relaxing I suppose.