Travel Writers: Flagellation Banya

by Andy Allman

Location: Besagash, Almaty, Kazakhstan, Central Asia

Picture this. It’s early June. I’ve only been in this country for five days and it’s our first Friday, the day all the Peace Corps volunteers get split up and go off to live with their host families. Most of us, me especially, still weren’t too comfortable with the idea of living in Kazakhstan, so taking us away from our little pseudo-American society we had created in the proceeding week and sending us off to stay with strange families that we knew nothing about sent our anxiety through the roof. There was nothing we could do about it so I went to my new home for the next three months in a small village called Besagash, just outside of Almaty, the country’s largest city. My host family, a Kazakh family, had a nice spread set out and I met my two host sisters. Everything was much better than I thought and I was feeling pretty good about living there, yet I still yearned for my deep rooted American ways.

Well, all that doggone excitement can make a man sleepy, so it’s off to my three-inches-too-short bed but after a few hours I was awakened by my host’s brother. He introduced himself but his name was so hard to pronounce that I quickly forgot it. He told me to come on to the banya. At this point I’m still half asleep and I’d heard about the banya but I didn’t really know what it was. But he’s prodding me to join him and I want to be a good foreigner and try some new things, so I say, “All right”.

We each grab soap and a towel, and he gets a Russian-English dictionary because his English is virtually non-existent then it’s off to the little shed-looking thing in the backyard. Their banya wasn’t big; it had three rooms: a changing room, a washing room, and a hotter ‘n hell room. So my host brother and I are in the changing room, and I’m thinking, “Do I gotta get naked with this guy?” and he’s saying something in Russian that I don’t understand. Then he grabs the dictionary and points to a Russian word, and shows it to me. It’s the Russian word for ‘naked’. Isn’t this a little soon? Shouldn’t we have drinks first? I don’t even know this guy.

Then he whips off his drawers and hops into the washroom, so I follow suit, and after a while it wasn’t any big deal and I’m feeling confident of my masculinity. Then it’s off to the hot room.
It was hot but nothing like the one’s I have since been to, and so we’re just sitting there, naked, and I’m trying to talk to this guy in my five-day-old Russian ability, but it’s going nowhere.

Well, then he takes out this bundle of tree branches and starts whipping himself with it. Yes, you heard me correctly. See, in all wet banyas there’s this little bundle branches with leaves and all, I don’t know what tree it’s from, and you’re supposes to dip it in water and whip yourself with it. Apparently it makes it hotter and feels good. I don’t know about that, but he’s whipping himself, and I’m sitting there thinking, “What is this guys name again?” and then he gives the branches to me so I can whip myself.

You want me to do what?

But I can’t be culturally insensitive, so I whip my chest and face and stomach and legs, and it doesn’t feel like it’s making any difference. Only then he tells me to whip my back, and not only does he feel I should have my back whipped, he says he will do the whipping.

I don’t think so skinny man.

Ah, but I was caught in the grasp of cross cultural understanding that Peace Corps relentlessly teaches us, so I reluctantly and cautiously, laid down on the bench while my host brother, what’s his name, whip, whip, whipped my back, legs, butt. The whole time I’m thinking, “What the hell, if my family could see me now”.

After a painless minute or so he finished and motioned to me that he was going to lay down and wants me to now whip him.

Oh, really? Payback.

I whipped his scrawny bare ass so bad. He was yelling, “Oo, ow, oo, ee, ow”, and I think he was telling me to stop, but I couldn’t understand him, so I just kept beating him until he seemed like he’d had enough. He probably couldn’t sit for a week and my host family never asked me into the banya again.

Text © Andy Allman

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