Hammam visit (public baths) - 10th May 2009

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be invited to go to one of the local 'hemmam's' with a Moroccan female friend. It was a great way to find out a little more about the local way of life.

Many Moroccans do not have bathtubs or showers in their homes. Even the people that do, still make regular visits to the public baths. Moroccans feel that it is the only place to get 'really clean'. A visit to the baths really does fulfil many needs – it gets you clean, it is very relaxing, and in the chilly winters, it gets you warm ! Most of the public baths are also very social places, particularly for women: it is one of the few places where they can enjoy each other's company in the absence of men.

A haman may be for men only or for women only. The one we went to was divided into two parts, with completely separate entrances for men and women. Foreigners are still something of a novelty in a hamam, especially one in such a local village. Thankfully, at the time we decided to go, there were only 3 other women in there (one of them being all of two years old !), so although I did get a few glances, it wasn't as uncomfortable as it might have been if there were a lot of other locals.

Unlike in Japan’s communal bathhouses, the tradition in Morocco doesn’t usually involve getting nude, with the exception of small children. Both men and women tend to wear only their underwear. Leave the g-strings at home though girls; Morrocan women usually opt for more coverage in public. Foreign women who insist on wearing their bras while bathing, however, will look ridiculously self-conscious.

When you go the authentic route and visit a real hammam in the local town or medina as opposed to a fancy hotel’s upscale version, don’t expect anything luxurious - rose petals on the floor and silk-swathed lounges are not part of the real deal.

We paid 8dhs each – about 65p. Entered the changing rooms, stripped down to underwear, left our clothes hanging up, collected our large buckets, washing gear, slipped on some flip flops. We then entered a long room that was completely tiled and had a vaulted ceiling. It was a little like entering a luke-warm sauna. Around the room at ankle level there were hot and cold taps. We filled our buckets with hot water and 'washed down' our place on the floor with the 'scoops' that we bought with us. (It is worth noting here, that unless the place is completely full, it is best to sit away from any one else, and definitely do not sit “downsteam” from them.) Then we set about lathering up with some 'green stuff', that I later found out was natural aloe, good for softening the skin. You then walk into the 'hot' room and get steamed and relax for a while. It’s not always as tranquil as it sounds, however, as mothers attempt to lather up their screaming children while gossiping at high decibels.

This is when the serious 'tool' appeared. A glove type cloth that is used to really scrub all the dead skin from the body. When I tell you my body was slightly raw from the experience, I am not kidding. That said, my body also felt fantastic, soft and supple. I was also so relaxed I couldn't stop yawning !? You then wash your hair, do all the other bits, including shaving if you want, rinse down, rinse down again, and if it is too warm, rinse again with cool water. Then you collect your towel or robe, wrap your hair in a towel and go back to the changing rooms to dry off, cool down and get dressed.

It's serious stuff, and to a foreigner may seem a little long winded, or 'public', but here it is tradition and is part of the Moroccan way of life. I saw it as a truly cultural experience.

I look forward to meeting you to swap stories.

Shani

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