She placed the huge, oven-hot ceramic dish on the table in front of us, and…
There are so many aspects to Moroccan culture that make it one of a kind: the mint tea, or as the local’s call it, “Berber whiskey”, a mix of green tea, mint, sometimes absinthe leaves, and more sugar than you ever want to see; the weekly souk, a market at which artisans and farmers, from all around the area, ride in on their donkeys and camels, and sell goods; and of course, the tagine, a ceramic cooking dish that was designed to slow cook meat and vegetables over coals (read about my tagine here!). These are a few of my favourite things, and recently, I’ve added a new one to the list: the hammam.
The hammam is a bath house, where locals go to clean and scrub their bodies. I’m not sure of all the ritual and ceremony behind it, where the idea comes from, or even its place in modern day Morocco. What I do know, is that I am a firm believer in the philosophy, try everything once, so I had to try! I was a bit nervous to be honest, people I met along my travels shared total horror stories of the time they went, friends who had gone, expressed how dirty and gross it had been! I’m not one who gets easily grossed out, and I knew I had to try it anyway, no matter what these other travellers had experienced. I called on my new friend Emily, a Canadian who has been living in Morocco, teaching English for two years. She knows the ins and outs of the hammam, and was thrilled to hear I wanted to go!
I said goodbye to Michael as he disappeared through the man’s curtain, and I walked into the women’s side. I paid the entry fee, bought a piece of black soap and a scrubby glove (which you need), and paid for a woman to scrub my entire body from head to toe. I left the change room, and walked through a huge metal door, into a steamy room, covered in white tile from ceiling to floor. Big windows, high up the wall, and opaque with steam, lit the room with a lovely natural glow. The first room was filled with women and children, the second, a few less, and the third, which was not as hot, had only two or three ladies in the corners. We cleaned our area with water, and sat down. I took the black soap, the oily byproduct from the production of argan, and rubbed it over all my skin. We sat, letting it soak into our steam-opened pores.
Two buxom Moroccan women, with huge bosoms, wearing only thin bras, and delicate, slip-like skirts, made their way over to us. The one who knelt down in front of me had deep wrinkles in her forehead and around her mouth — this is not a woman who smiles very often. Under her furrowed brow, I could see that her skin glowed more radiantly than any magazine ad I’d ever seen. She lay me down on the tile floor, donned the scrubby glove, and went to town. It didn’t hurt, but it didn’t necessarily feel nice either. I looked down at the arm she was scrubbing, and saw peeling layers of dead skin, rolling off as the glove went up and down, up and down. She flipped me over and kept scrubbing my back and butt cheeks. She scrubbed every inch of skin, except my ears. She left my ears alone.
She rinsed me off, cracked her version of a smile, and left me there, sitting in the corner, in the middle of a mountain of my own dead skin. Maybe this is the gross part everyone talks about? Then Emily handed me a jar of mud and instructed me to cover my body in it. I did as I was told, and we sat, again, letting the mud soak into our freshly scrubbed bods. We rinsed again, and then rubbed argan oil all over our bodies as our final step. Before we rinsed it off, we gave our area another wash. Dead skin, hair, and mud, this is the part the luxury spas don’t show you.
I loved this experience. How could I not? I experienced a true taste of local Moroccan culture, and my body has never been softer. Plus, it’s the ultimate van life hack. Never again will I pay for a shower at a campground, and settle for a luke warm trickle. I know where I can have a steam and a luxury scrub for peanuts.
On a more personal note,
While I was sitting in the steam, I watched two young girls, maybe 4 or 5, balancing empty buckets on their heads and slowly walking around giggling. Their moms, sisters, aunts, whoever, were all taking turns scrubbing each other with their gloves. The little girls sat down and had their hair washed and their bodies scrubbed. I smiled. These young girls are spending time with normal women with normal bodies, naked! These girls know no taboo of female nudity. All bodies are normal bodies. I remembered all of the self esteem issues I’ve struggled with and all the hate I’ve had for parts of my body that didn’t look the way I thought they should. In Canada, and a lot of other countries I’m sure, I know women who would primp before the hammam, make sure everything was shaved, plucked, tweezed, waxed, tanned, prior to going. There would be women in bathing suits. There would be women who change behind a towel, or in the toilet stall, as to not be seen. There would also be women sizing each other up, silently comparing themselves to the other bodies in the room. I know this to be true because I have been all of these women. I felt very opened in the hammam, safe and protected. It was a beautiful room, full of beautiful people, who might not even realize what a beautiful thing they have in this place.
Just a thought…