Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Banya Archive

I'm heading off to southern Mexico in about 30 minutes after a very frantic weekend of trying to pull a million things together all at once. I just got back from a wedding of one of my very best friends of all time, Annette, who left me immediately after law school to pursue the dream in our nation's capital. Congrats, Annette. Love you and all of your ridiculousness to death.

I was hoping to write about some of this week's happenings before taking off to the great unknown where I will likely be murdered eat 1,000 tortillas, but alas, I have run out of time. So instead I'm leaving you with an older, archived post from my days in Moscow Russia in 2009. Below is one of the strangest stories I have from my life, and is one most of you probably have not read.

Have a great week everyone!

(This post was from May 31, 2009, and is about my attempt to visit a Russian Banya (bath house) without really understanding what it was)

The banya was something I decided I needed to experience sometime around Wednesday and I was pleased that my friend Kimberly did as well as I wasn't sure I was going to be able to find anyone else to go. As it turned out we actually coerced 4 others to come along as well (all Americans that are here doing study abroad programs or other internships), one who panicked and bailed about 12 seconds after we walked into the building Saturday morning. We researched it. We found the best one. We talked about it. We asked dozens of Russians about it. But nothing could have prepared us.

We got to the banya and paid our fee, thinking "well this will be a nice day at the sauna." We were handed bundles of branches from pine trees and sent into the men's and women's locker rooms. Scott, Bryan, and I were the only Americans in attendance at the banya that day out of about 15 or 20.

The changing room was an odd mix between a smelly high school locker room, a bar, a lounge, and a bathroom. And it really did feel as wonderful as that all sounds. We were instructed to take off all of our clothes and wrap ourselves in horrid brown sheets and proceed into the next room, which was a giant hall with oddly placed faucets and drains every few feet. Not quite sure what we were supposed to do in there, we walked around, royally freaked out, until an old nude man came into the room and screamed "it's ready!!!" Seconds later 15 or so naked Russian men came running into the room like someone had just announced that free borsht was being given out to the first 5 customers and we were hurled in river of nakedness into the next room which was small, dark, and absolutely wreaked of something I have never smelled and do not feel I can adequately describe with any words that exist in the English language. If such words do exist, I imagine they are really long and contain multiple 4-letter profanities. This room had what looked like a deep double-wide Mormon baptismal font just to the left of a wooden door that we were all crowded around now.

The door was then opened and the crowed QUICKLY pushed on in to a small dark room that had four or five steps up to a wooden deck of some kind, which we then climbed (all except for Bryan who couldn't get himself to go up to the top). We reached the top step and it was at that moment that I no longer knew whether I was on Earth or in Hell. All 523,261 of my pores instinctively and immediately seemed to scream as they burst open wide enough for a 1998 Russian Lada to drive through (and probably break down on the way) and emitted enough liquid to sustain a small well-less village for days. I swear I heard what sounded like a bucket of water being dumped at my feet as every drop of fluid I've had to drink since 1984 was violently projected from my sweat-glands. Scott immediately turned to me and mouthed, looking more tortured than anyone I have ever seen, "I CAN'T BREATH!" We both dropped to the floor where it was only about 178 degrees as opposed to 180. Lying on our backs now in the intense heat, it was very clear why everyone was naked and as we went into survival mode for the next 2 hours all standards of modesty we had been taught at mutual throughout the '90s went sprinting out the window (figuratively speaking of course; there was no window in sight or I likely would have jumped through it at this point).

Lying on our backs now with our hands over our faces to keep the heat from melting our eyes, we started wondering how long we were obligated to stay there. The door was shut and it didn't seem like it was ok to leave. Just then a man who must have the WORST job in the ENTIRE world stood up with a giant fan and started waving it VIOLENTLY at each of us, projecting the air of Hell at us, so hot that I'm quite sure it gave me third-degree-burns and killed a quarter of my few properly functioning organs. I yelped a little when this began. Several minutes later the man with the fan called time and everyone cheered, clapped, and ran out of there like the free borsht was now in the baptismal font room. 

At this point we felt like we were in another dimension entirely. We, of course, were carried again by the crowed back into this room where we were thrust into the water, which sounded good until the moment we emerged and discovered that this was no ordinary water. I think it must have just been anti-freeze because I have no other way to explain how this water was not just a solid block of ice. I think they could actually hear my under-water scream, even over all the noise from everyone else. At this point, my pores shut so tightly that I'm sure I permanently lost about 45% of them. I'll have to count later.

We were then thrown back into the faucet room to shower and then into the lounge/locker/bar room again to eat, which none of us Americans were remotely interested in doing at this point. We sat in our little booth with looks of horror on our faces, wondering what was going to happen next. To our absolute dismay, we were told to go back to the Hell room with the bundle of pine tree branches we were given earlier on. We did so, mostly because we had lost the ability to think for ourselves at this point. We were then instructed to stand in the heat (which was down to just a little bit hotter than an American sauna now) and beat one another from head to toe violently with the sharp pine-needles. Now, as evidence that we really had lost it, we did so. It seemed totally acceptable at the time but now that I think about it, that whole naked pine-tree branch hitting situation was pretty strange.

We were brought back out to the faucet room where we waited again, very unsure about what was going to happen until the naked old man emerged and yelled "it's ready!!!", again prompting the naked stampede back to the Hell room door. With sheer looks of panic on our faces we realized now that we were going to have to go through another "session." Somehow it was hotter the second time. Experiencing what I now imagine to be the most inhumane method of torture known to man, we lay there again with our faces covered, yelping louder than before. I'm quite certain that if someone had asked me any old question while I was in there I would be completely justified in referring to the banya as an "interrogation method." When the fan came out, my breathing went to panic mode as my body started to shut down. As a replacement for sweat, which I no longer had, I started emitting what I think was probably bone marrow and brain juices from each of my pores. Evidently the die-hard Russian men thought this session was worse too because they were all screaming by the end. Finally I stood and dove over the naked people on the stairs for the door, blacking out along the way. Time was called right about then.

I now felt like these 2 Americans and 15 Russians, all of whom I had just met, were my very closest friends. We'll likely all be pen-pals for life. Nobody goes through something like that together without instinctively feeling a permanent and powerful bond afterwards. Remind me to add Scott, Bryan, Oleg, Oleg, Oleg, Oleg, Oleg, Oleg, Oleg, Cergei, Oleg, Oleg, Cergei, Vlad, Vlad, Vlad and Oleg to my Christmas card mailing list this December.

Then it was back to the font. Back to the faucet room. Back to the sticks. Back to the locker-room. And back to a 3rd and final Hell-session that went much like the first and second. We eventually rolled out of there and met the girls who told us that their stick-beating session also involved covering their entire bodies with honey and chocolate and then scrubbing each other from head to toe with coffee grinds. I wasn't sad to miss out on the extra adventure.

I must say that despite all the misery, we all felt fantastic afterwards and still do. I would even consider going again. Additionally, there is a .2% chance that the banya healed my foot disease. Fingers crossed.

~It Just Gets Stranger


  1. You may want to invest in a Turkish bath. They are much more enjoyable and much less invasive.
    While in Mexico, do attempt to visit a cenote because a swim in one of those in nothing shy of incredible.

  2. Oh man. The best story I have from my visit to Russia is a drunken taxi ride at 4:00 AM when I was 16. I did experience a sauna for the first time a few days later in Latvia; but it wasn't bad. It was four teenage girls sitting around complaining about how gross it was to be sweating.

  3. you survived. god love you.

  4. Thank you thank you thank you for posting this one!

  5. I just love reading about our old adventures!! So glad you reposted this!