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“What series of events in my life could have possibly brought me here?”
That though runs through my head from time to time as I travel. I find myself in situations so unique or crazy or hilarious that I wonder just how in the world a suburban guy like me could have possibly ended up there.
The other night I had one of those moments. I found myself in a tiny wooden steam room with a bunch of sweaty Ukrainian men slapping each other with oak branches. Um… What?
This was a Ukrainian Banya. Banyas are essentially saunas, but about three times hotter (I hope you’ll forgive me for the lack of pictures. I didn’t think bringing a camera would be entirely appropriate).
This Banya was a small wooden room with benches circling a wood burning stove. Stacked on and around the stove were large stones and a metal pot full of water.
Nothing too out of the ordinary there. But as we were waiting to go in, Taras (from my host family) told me that they had already heated the Banya to a solid 80 degrees. “Nice,” I thought. That’ll feel good.” Then he continued. “80 degrees Celsius.”
That’s close to 200 degrees Fahrenheit! When we walked in and sat down, I knew it must be accurate, because breathing through my nose burned.
(At this point, for the sake of full disclosure, I should point out that the experience wasn’t 100% authentic. We wore boxers and there was no vodka involved. Otherwise, it was as “real” as it gets…)
We sat around and talked for a while, sweat pouring from our bodies, but then the real fun began. Someone brought out the “oak brooms,” large bundles of leaves soaked in water…
I was told to lie down on my stomach and get ready. I had no idea what they were going to do. Were they going to hit me with them? Lay them on me? What?
The broom-man (I don’t know what else to call him) began ladling water onto the hot rocks. The steam made the room feel even hotter. And with super humid air, it began to be difficult to breathe. He started shaking the leaves above different parts of my body, sometimes slapping them down, sometimes pressing them into my skin.
What I didn’t realize was that these brooms somehow multiply the heat. By shaking them and waving them over my back, it felt like someone was opening a furnace on top of me. I’ve never felt anything as hot before in my life. If I hadn’t volunteered for it, I probably would have considered it torture…
Well, after a few minutes of this “torture” (and flipping over to have the torture continued on my front side), we took a break. I hobbled out into the cool adjoining room, my head absolutely spinning, only to have a bucket of ice cold water dumped on me!
Then, as I tried to recover from that, they poured some drinks. Birch juice (the sweet, watery sap from a mature birch tree), green tea from the Carpathian Mountains and some non-alcoholic “beer” that tasted exactly like liquefied rye bread. Mmm…
After that, we headed back into the furnace. In and out, in and out. We completed the whole cycle (including the hellish oak brooms) around five times. When it was over, I was completely spent.
We showered, dried off, and staggered into the cool night air.
As I tried to collect my thoughts (and make sure I was still alive), the guys started roasting some lamb that had been marinating for two days. We stood around eating, laughing and relaxing. Eventually, my host, his son and I left, went home, and at 1:30am crawled into our beds to sleep like the dead.
It was, to say the least, an interesting evening…
Now, I feel like there is a lesson here. I may never be rich, famous or powerful, but I now know what it feels like to be slapped with burning hot oak leaves by a group of half-naked Ukrainians. That’s got to count for something…
About the Author: Barry is the founder and director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.