Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Latvian Banya

The Internets, or what we could access of them, told us that the drive from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to Riga Latvia would take about three hours so I don't know why, exactly, it took us seven and a half.

Some of it surely was caused by our determination to stop in every town, take every country road, sniff every tree in every forest, and pee on every dilapidated Soviet monument. The highlight of this journey was when we encountered two church-going babushkas in an old country cathedral on the Estonian-Latvian border, wherein we were simultaneously and repeatedly complimented, insulted, lectured, and scolded in the way that only babushkas in Eastern Europe can do. They showed us around, told us we need to eat more and go to church even more than that and then they demanded that we come back on Sunday, grilling us on our organ skills.

We finally showed up in the medieval and surprisingly booming town of Riga Latvia sometime that evening, after which we wandered the cobble-stoned streets in the rain that periodically forced us into shockingly-beautiful Russian Orthodox churches that were in all their glory, hosting Ascension Day services for the Easter-loving religious folks.

After a night's sleep, we headed back into the oldest part of Riga, looking at churches and buildings that are older than sin itself. And then we ventured on to the Central Market. We did so because our guide book told us that "to go to Riga without visiting the Central Market is like going to Paris without visiting the Louvre."

It was glorious to behold:

So basically I don't need to see Paris anymore.

After the awe-inspiring experiences we had in Riga's Louvre, we got in the car and headed out of town until we happened upon a Russian banya. So obviously we went in and risked our lives and happiness for the next several hours.

I had experienced the Russian banya once before, in 2009 when I was living in Moscow. I remembered surprisingly little about that experience.

We were sent up some steps to be greeted by Dimitri, who was 19-feet tall and had the straggly hair to match it. A gold cross hung around his neck, half disappearing into his briar-patched chest hair protruding between the lines of his deep sea v-neck shirt. 

Dimitri helpfully instructed us on the dos and don'ts of Russian banya-ing, handed us towels that were the size of king-sized blankets, instructed us to get as naked as possible, and shuffled us into a torture chamber where we would be coerced into giving up all of America's state secrets.

For the next two or three hours we were completely naked with a gaggle of Eastern Europeans who stared at us like we were exotic animals at the zoo. We were dropped into a sauna of sorts with what I'll describe as "stadium seating," various branches and stick bundles, and a good percentage of the remaining Soviet World War II veterans to boot. 

The sauna was somewhere around 794 degrees. Experiencing this heat was less traumatic once we gave up hope on breathing. We were instructed to go into and out of this sauna several times, the heat sessions broken up by nude socializing and breaking bread with strangers who treated us more like fellow mafia members with each passing minute.

Two banya employees wearing hats they borrowed directly from Papa Smurf were putting each person, one-by-one, through 15-minute stick beating routines, starting with the next in line each time we all re-entered the sauna. 

I was aware, generally, that our turn was coming, and so I voyeuristically and without shame stared at and memorized every move undertaken on my naked banya-mates. 

Well, with some shame I did this. With an appropriate amount of shame.

And then Adam was called in. The next time I saw him, his skin was the color of Santa and there were bits of leaf and tree stuck to his scratched-up back.

And then I was invited into the sauna.

They had me lay down, completely and totally naked, on my stomach, and with my face buried in a pile of sticks and dried leaves. The sauna now seemed hotter than anything I had ever experienced in my life. But the concern that I might not live through this completely fell out of my mind when suddenly two Russian men began vigorously massaging my very sweaty, dehydrated, and steaming body with their bare sweaty hands. 

This massage went on for one full eternity plus an afternoon golf game before they brought in more branches and leaves and started waving the 794-degree air at every inch of my inappropriately-exposed body. I winced and bit into the leaves at my face as they did this, wondering if I could file a complaint with the United Nations when this was over.

And then, they started beating the royal hell out of me. The first man pounded the two bundles of leafy branches on my backside, from the top of my head all the way down to my very disgusting feet, with all of his might. Occasionally I raised my head to glance to the side, mostly to make sure I was still alive and in control of my own movement. When I did this I could see leaf remnants falling from above, just like that scene when Edward Scissor-hands carves the ice sculptures and makes it snow on the town below. Except this was less romantic and more just really miserable and hot and scary. 

And then crap got weird. The second man came into the room with leaf-less stick bundles and began playing my body like an African drum. He started at my feet and worked his way up. And I thought he would skip over it, but he did not. For a solid three minutes, he beat my ass with those sticks like he was in a marching band during homecoming. 

And I know I'm supposed to say "butt" here, but if you had been there you would understand that "ass" is the correct word to use in this situation. The word "butt" is insufficiently demonstrative for these purposes. That man literally beat my ass. And I want credit for it.

Then they made me turn over, which was hard to do considering that I had not actually inhaled for at least 12 minutes by this point. The beatings continued and the instructions I received during them were so non-sexually-but-awkwardly-graphic that I'm afraid I can't repeat them here because there might be children in the room. And I can't risk making the Internet moms even more angry at me. I already said "ass" a few times. 

(Note: There aren't any children in my room, but there might be some in yours and I just can't take that chance). 

Eventually I was instructed to get up and climb down the stadium seating in the sauna to retrieve the sandals they had provided me. When I attempted this, I slipped on the floor and fell flat on my back, in front of my audience of fellow-mafia mates.

I exited the sauna. And that's when the situation went from miserable to the worst thing anyone has ever experienced. 

I was instructed to sit on some more bundles of leafy sticks. By my count, at this point we had used up an entire rain forest of trees for my massage and exfoliation (assuming that that's what this was all for). 

I did as I was instructed. And then the man who had beat me with the sticks dumped a ten-gallon bucket of water on my head, so cold that I swear to you I actually felt Titanic artifacts hit me as the water poured down my half-massacred body. Suddenly I consumed 15-minutes of inhalation in one second. My lungs filled so quickly that the disturbed equilibrium instantly killed cows in Mongolia. 

He repeated this several more times with several more buckets of water, until there was no water left in Latvia and the government declared a national state of emergency. And with one wave of the hand, I was dismissed.

I sauntered my traumatized body back to where Adam was. 

We got dressed, found our car, and drove back to Riga, where we are now staying with a family we found on the Internet, who put us in a bedroom that has, by my count 14 pictures hanging on one wall of high school hockey teams.

Also, I just noticed that a cat got into our room somehow. TRIXY?!

The church on the Estonian-Latvian border.

Estonian-Latvian border town.

Estonian forest. 

A Latvian church we stumbled upon in the country as we drove.

Riga in the rain.


In Riga.

~It Just Gets Stranger


  1. I have to say, every time I see the word "banya" on your blog, I start grinning like an idiot. know why.

    1. I wish this blog was devoted exclusively to banya stories.

  2. Not to sound entirely creepy but I've really missed naked Eli stories.

  3. Funniest thing you've written.

  4. "And then crap got weird" YES!!! I lol'd for sure!

  5. Why do you keep going to these naked places??

  6. More pictures of you with foreign cats please!

  7. The banya though... Fortunately, my only experience was highly inauthentic and only with clothed Americans. We skipped the branches and waved towels at each other instead. We also had a pool instead of buckets of cold water. Like I said, not traditional.

    I was in Salt Lake earlier this week, and was disappointed that you weren't there slash relieved that I missed my opportunity to come across as a creeper. Your adventures are making me miss Eastern Europe.

  8. I've lost count. Just how many countries have you found yourself naked in public now?