The banya (bathhouse) is a distinct feature of rural Belarusian life, and you should gleefully accept any invitation to partake of its riches. Traditionally made of wood, it stands in the garden of a dwelling house, perhaps close to the river or stream in the rural hinterlands, though there are also communal public bathhouses within centres of population. Inside is a wood-heated stove containing stones. The stove is fuelled up ready for use over the course of the day and when the operating temperature is reached the door to the stove is opened and water is thrown on to the stones to create intense amounts of steam. Participants throw water and sometimes beer on to the hot stove to create a fragrant, steam-filled atmosphere. To enhance the whole experience, they slap each other with a sheaf of oak or birch twigs and leaves tied together in a bundle. This is done firmly and enthusiastically in order to exfoliate the skin. Usually, the sheaf has been soaked in natural oils for a few days prior to use. This intense aroma, when added to the steam, makes for a very heady atmosphere.
Three separate activities make up a complete cycle. First, participants sit in the bathhouse, on wooden slatted benches, to begin the process of perspiration. This initial phase normally lasts for 10 to 15 minutes before everyone takes a breather by sitting in the small anteroom (which is not much bigger than a large cupboard, but considerably cooler than the steam room) and having a beer. To maintain hydration, naturally. In the second phase, guests are invited to lie across a bench, first on their front and then on their back, while the host whacks them with the sheaf. Guests then return the compliment. At this point everyone repairs to the anteroom for another gulp or two of beer. Then it’s back in for the final time, to thoroughly wash and rinse your tingling body with soap and water heated by the stove and decanted into a large metal bowl. Cold water will also be at hand and you can expect your hosts to be playful with it. Afterwards, everyone relaxes together in the anteroom with more beer and occasionally vodka, in which case the sensation of intoxication, after all that perspiring, is almost instantaneous. At this point, if you are deep in the country, expect to be invited to jump in the river or lake. If you are really lucky, it will be winter and you will be encouraged to roll in the snow.
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