Getting naked around the world

Getting naked around the world

From hammams to saunas, travel is often about shedding your inhibitions (and your clothes).

Words by Ute Junker

Photos by Jonathan Forage via Unsplash

First published in Sunday Life magazine

We tell ourselves a lot of fibs about why we travel. We say we want to explore new countries. We want to see the sights, to meet the people, to eat the food. Really, though, the reason most of us like to travel is because, when we’re abroad, we’re more adventurous, more experimental, more fun. We become different people: the people we’d really like to be.

For most of us, daily life is about routine. We don’t just catch the same bus every morning: we walk the same way to the bus stop. Every day. We don’t just grab a coffee at 10am: we order a decaf double soy latte with one sugar. Every day. There’s not a lot of room for spontaneity or for experimentation.

Take us out of our comfort zone, however, and even without noticing, we break free from the rigid routines we’ve built up. The woman who orders a BLT for lunch every day (“no butter, bacon on the side”), will gamely grab something unidentifiable from a street vendor, and see what it tastes like. The man who never exchanges a word with anyone on his daily train trips, starts trying to have a conversation with the African woman sitting at the bus stop holding a goat.

Personally, I find it’s not just my inhibitions I shed when I’m abroad: it’s also my clothes. Somehow, my getting-friendly-with-the-locals routine often seems to involve some degree of nakedness.

I’m not what you’d call an exhibitionist. At home, I expose about as much flesh as the next person. In the gym changing room, I don’t struggle into my underwear while trying to keep a towel secured around myself, but nor do I parade around buck naked – unlike some people.

When I was working in magazines, I was once accosted in the gym changing room at lunch by a woman wearing only a towel – around her head – who greeted me enthusiastically. It took me a moment to recognise her: she turned out to be an advertiser who, last time I’d seen her, was in a boardroom wearing a three-piece suit. Awkwardly, I blurted out, “Sorry, didn’t recognise you with your clothes on.”

Take me to a different country, however, and I’ll happily get naked with anyone. I could blame the Finns for it. (Much can be blamed on the Finns, particularly if you try to keep up with them when they’re drinking.) On my first trip to Helsinki, I made some great Finnish friends who introduced me to a range of local customs, including the mixed sauna as a social activity – something you do on a Friday night instead of going to the cinema, say.

At home, I might think twice before getting naked in front of 20 of my closest friends. When you’re away, however, it’s easier to go with the flow. And when a naked Finnish man sits down next to you and starts flirting with you: well, you just flirt right back.

It was also the Finns who, on another trip, took me to St Petersburg, where we decided to explore the Russian sauna experience. We went to a sauna in a rundown suburb of St Petersburg, where the only other people soaking up the steam were red-faced, broad-backed babushkas who looked like they should be out working the potato field.

I was sitting in the sauna, squeezed between three of these bulky, sweating women, when suddenly I felt a great whack across my back. I looked around, startled, to see one of the grandmas grinning at me, a hefty selection of birch twigs firmly gripped in her meaty fist. Apparently this is part of the Russian spa experience. Now, I can’t imagine any circumstance at home in which I’d get into mild S&M with someone’s naked grandmother: but hey, this was Russia. Smiling my acquiescence, I let her beat me – then offered to do the same for her. It seemed only polite.

In Korea, I also ended up in one of the country’s famous bath houses with a new acquaintance, a petite Korean (five foot nothing to my six foot). As we sat together, naked, side by side in a steaming bath, she proceeded to itemise the differences in our body shapes – a catalogue which went something like this.

“Look at feet – yours so big, mine so small,” pointing at our feet. “Look at legs, yours so long, mine so small,” stroking my thigh. “Look at your backside, yours so big, mine so small…” It was about this time my jaw hit the floor – until she ran her hand up and down my back, and I realised she was talking about the back side of my body, ie my back.

Some people might dismiss this serial nudity as the chameleon effect: it’s easy to lose your inhibitions when everyone else is doing it. But I’d argue it’s something more than that. When you’re travelling, there’s no-one to judge you, so you can play by your own rules. You relax enough to become the person you’d like to be, not the person circumstances have made you. You shed the baggage you usually lug around with you – and as any frequent traveller knows, travelling light makes any journey much more enjoyable.

Previous PostNext Post