The Banya

by Laura Mack
Tomsk, Siberia, Russia
November 2000

We walked along the tram tracks in the dark and finally found the entrance, a small sign above reading "BANYA", a puddle of slippery ice at the front door. The plump middle-aged administrator on the other side of the glass booth took our 24 rubles (less than a $1) for the entrance and we walked up the drab concrete stairs to buy our dried birch leaves for an additional 16 rubles. There were several other women upstairs, naked in their Siberian winter fat and their wool caps. Some rested in the changing area, others rubbed honey all over their bodies, globs of some unknown mask caked onto their creamy white faces; still others were scrubbing there skin so hard with some sort of loofa, it reminded me of the flagellations during holy week in Pakistan. As we entered the sauna itself, more naked women with wool caps whipped themselves with birch branches, as their skin turned a deep blotchy red and their sweat dripped onto the hot wooden floor. An intense eucalyptus scent filled the room and steam rose from the huge cement block of hot stones and smacked us in the face like a blind man walking into a brick wall.

The look of sheer joy and curiosity on Ellen's face was so delightful, I was thrilled to be the one to introduce her to her first "Russian banya experience." At 49, a free spirit of her own from the State of Washington, she was like an excited child, asking me about the proper etiquette and if she was doing this right or that right. At one point, as I stood naked in my wool cap beating myself with the birch leaves, conscious of the big brown curious eyes around me, I looked down upon my own nakedness. At first I saw the drooping and bulging of a 33 year old body which had been fed too much chocolate and wine in its lifetime. Then as I looked around at the various shapes and sizes of the women around me, our eyes occasionally meeting for a moment of acknowledgment, I felt a warm happy glow of being alive and unique and beautiful. Our worlds may be hundreds of miles away from one another, but there seemed to be an unspoken kinship connecting us there in our nakedness.

We were able to go again on Saturday morning and I was delighted to discover that all these groups of women enjoy this ritual at least once a week. They plan their rendezvous early Saturday morning with their girlfriends. Of course, most of these women are in their fifties and sixties, yet the joy and playfulness of scrubbing, sweating, and beating each other with birch branches brought out an innocent childlike spirit.

The banya itself consists of three areas. The first is the changing area where blue wooden benches backed up against blue wooden closets. If you shut the closet, you could only retrieve your belongings with a huge silver triangular shaped key that everyone had access to. The bent and weathered old lady sat in the corner near the samovar and for a few rubles would serve you tea or sell you a dried bunch of pine or birch branches. The second area is for cleansing. A huge room lined with cement benches with faucets at the end of each bench offering hot and cold water. Big silver buckets,bottles of shampoo, jars of honey and various other concoctions were scattered throughout the room on the concrete benches. Two showers to be shared by everyone were off in one corner. The third room is the banya itself; about 25 feet by 20 feet with stairs leading up to the hottest area and a huge square box full of hot bricks to the left.

Each woman who entered seemed to feel it was her duty to pour yet another ladle full of water onto the bricks, raising the temperature to almost unbearable heights! Yet, young and old manage to stand it for twice as long as I could. As I staggered out blinded by the steam, incapable of enduring another moment in the heat, I watched with envy as a middle aged woman filled a silver bucket with ice cold water and poured it over her head! She shook her head, shimmied a bit, looked at me and said in Russia, "each morning, I get up, bow my head and pray to God, douse myself with cold water and AH, begin the day!" The sparkle in her eye, the content half-twisted smile on her lips, the chuckle in her voice; I could tell she would be a barrel of laughs over a few shots of vodka! A true little devil hid in the body of this robust woman.

I overheard her later reprimanding her friend on the other side of the changing room. Her friend was complaining about not being able to reach the silver buckets on top of the cabinets and my little devil scolded her, "it's not anybody's fault that you are so short!"

We sat there draped in our sheets sitting as comfortably as possible on the hard-wooden benches, rosy cheeks, pickled fingers and toes, chatting about the American elections. The little devil, wrapped in her woolies and big felt boots, her birch branches wrapped up in plastic like a bouquet of flowers, passed by on her way out and wished us a delightful time in her city and at the banya .

"S lyokim parem!" Siberian hospitality sure makes the minus temperatures endurable.

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