Friday, June 20, 2008

Yesterday I went to a Russian bathhouse. A banya. The translation for our particular banya was "the house of pain." For 600 rubles, about 25 dollars, I was taken, along with a group of 8 other American men, into a tiny room and sat around a banquet table. A very large Russian walked in, completely naked (completely, and without a trace of shame, like a junglecat), completely covered in hair, and he had a very small penis. He was well-tatted and had a scar across his face. We later found out he, along with many of the other banya workers, were ex-convicts. He told us in broken English to take off all our clothes. He seemed to lead his life without humor. We took our clothes off and stood around the banquet table trying to casually cover our penises with our hands without seeming like we cared to. Then we were taken to the showers. These were the hottest showers of all time. The dorm where I am staying does not have hot water, so I thought I would appreciate this heat, but I did not appreciate this kind of heat. My skin felt like it was going to split. We were told that we had to get our body temperatures up to prepare ourselves for the oven. The oven. We were supposed to sweat before we entered the oven, otherwise the shock of the heat of the oven would be too hard on our hearts. I was thinking that I could possibly die. The Russian later told us that some of his friends have died in the Banya because of heart problems or from passing out from drinking vodka in the Banya. The Russian talked about the Banya with the same respect that coal miners talk about coal mines. We were herded into the oven. We all immediately began sweating. I felt like I had a terrible sunburn right away. I felt sweat on my eyebrows and lower back within a few seconds. I have never felt a heat like this on my body. The russian told us it was roughly 190-200f, the hottest sauna in the world, and that we should not stay longer than 10 minutes at any given time, and that we could leave if we were feeling dizzy. It smelled like cedar and ass. After a few minutes, we left and were told to jump into a cold green pool. It felt really good. It was really really cold. My body temperature cold on my skin and hot in my core. We went back and forth between the pool and the oven 3 or 4 times. The Russian stayed in the oven. We then took turns being beaten by the Russian with birch branches. We were splayed naked on this cedar table in the oven. I felt like I was being grilled on my front and encrusted with spices on my back. He hit really hard. Then I was told to flip on my back and to cover my penis while he beat me more with the birch branches. After about an hour of this back and forth, these beatings, we returned to the banquet table where we were fed dried and salted calamari shreds (think rubberbands with salt) and mugs of locally brewed beer made from brown bread, sweet and heavy and thick. We ate and drank while our body temperatures returned to sane. We seemed much closer with each other than we were before.  Then we repeated the process for another hour. Back and forth from the oven to the cold green pool. And beaten again with birch branches. Then we showered while the Russian scrubbed our backs with some kind of soapy rough sponge. I felt like I was in prison. The best prison. A really really wonderful prison. I felt so clean. My arms hung off my body like dead arms. My legs felt like drums of honey. My circulation. Baby skin. St. Petersburg.