Monday, December 13, 2010

Budget Hammam: Not my best idea

If I could, I would spend a good portion of my life wrapped in Turkish towels with cucumber slices over my eyes and a masseuse coercing my muscles into a relaxed and pliant state. In light of this, it's not very surprising that before even setting foot in Morocco, I had already decided to dedicate at least one afternoon to visiting a Hammam.

After spontaneously signing up to run a marathon up Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa, the Hammam experience became more of a necessity. My legs had staged a coup d'état and I had no choice but to give into their demands and seek out a massage as quickly as possible.

Toubkal Marathon

So following our impromptu mountain marathon adventure, British guy and I headed to Essaouira: a beautiful--albeit extremely touristy--town on the Moroccan coast.

British guy in Essaouira

It's also a popular spot for kite-surfing, and British guy was looking forward to a few sessions of being bounced across the waves like a rag-doll. Actually, that's what happens when I go kite-surfing. Which is why I decided not to join British guy. I intended to park my backside on the beach and not get up until I could move my legs without pain.

Unfortunately we awoke the next morning to pouring rain and poor surf conditions. Perfectly content to change my plans, I set out to find a Hammam, and because he had nothing better to do, British guy tagged along.

We passed a variety of lovely, relaxing and pleasant-looking Hammams before budget constraints directed us instead toward a 10 euro all-inclusive Hammam experience.

Unless you want to be prodded and kneaded and scrubbed within an inch of your life, I don't recommend this option.

If we had known what we were getting into, we probably would have walked the other way or invested money into a more upscale Hammam package, but since we didn't, I waved good-bye to British guy and ducked behind a curtain. Stripping down to my bathing suit, I placed all of my clothing into a basket and handed it to the woman behind the counter.

"Please, go," she said, gesturing toward a few stairs in front of a small door.

I hesitantly pushed the door open and found myself in a dark two-room cave. Plastic lawn chairs stood askew next to a cement basin of water. Steam rose in curling tendrils.

A collection of red plastic buckets were stacked in the corner. I smiled at another woman already sitting in one of the plastic chairs, and sat two seats away from her.

Everything was dark and heavy, but the temperature had not yet become oppressive. It felt sultry and welcoming; a heat so tangible, its velvety touch embraced me. Droplets of sweat collected in the creases and folds of my body before sliding down in winding rivulets.

The woman and I sat in silence. Minutes passed. I stared at the ceiling where beads of water had collected, reflecting what little light shined from small lamps along the walls.

Another woman walked in. Dressed in a one-piece bathing suit with the top pulled down, she grabbed  a bucket and dipped it into the basin of water. Swinging it back to the floor with an air of familiarity, she beckoned me toward her.

After dousing me with buckets of hot water, she motioned me to lie down on a rectangular marble table in the next room.

Dipping a rough loofah into a bucket of soapy water, she began to scrub the first layer of skin off of me. I could feel the shade of pink I was going to be for the next few days. Pouring a bucket of water over me to rinse off the soap, she began kneading my throbbing calf muscles. Her breasts hung heavily, gently swinging forward whenever she moved across me to pour more Argan oil into her hands. The whole experience was reminiscent of childhood. A matriarch moving heavily over you as she repeats the bath-time routine of a dozen children and a thousands nights. Her hands are moving over you, but her mind is somewhere else.

Occasionally she tapped me, indicating the direction I should move. Flip over, stand up, come this way, sit down. A morse code of gentle shoulder taps.

The marble slabs are slippery, and I slid as I sat up. She laughed. The only sound I heard her utter. A gentle nudge toward the plastic chairs and I lowered myself carefully onto one. A pool of tepid water had collected and it felt refreshing in comparison to the heavy heat hanging over me, pressing down on my chest. I breathed deeply and deliberately, slowly sipping down oxygen.

Desperately uncomfortable, I shifted in my seat and wondered how much longer I would be expected to sit there. Suddenly, the woman who had scrubbed me down walked briskly toward me and threw a bucket of cold water over my head. I gasped. She smiled and I smiled back at her. It felt delicious.

I continued to sit there for longer than I would have liked. The minutes dragged by before I was eventually summoned back outside and handed my clothes. They stuck to my skin as I pulled them on. All I wanted now was a cold shower and a gallon of gatorade.

Walking back outside I found British guy waiting for me.

"So, how was it on your side?" I asked.

"Enh. Okay. Not very relaxing. Felt a bit like a piece of meat. You?"

"Yeah. Same."

The rain had stopped and we walked slowly back to the hotel. Children chased each other through alleyways; flea-bitten cats stretched themselves out under brightly colored displays of shoes, scarves, jewelry and spices; vendors waved to attract our attention.

I closed my eyes against the brightness of Morocco and all I could see was the woman in the Hammam, still moving slowly and deliberately through the heat, rubbing oil across tired skin and splashing cold water against her face.

1 comment:

Shopgirl said...

I suffered the steps of this awkward experience with you, the heat, the slimy plastic, the slippery marble, the kneading, and the not being able to escape it all while you ponder what would be next. Contrasted with the "If I could..." paragraph and the lovely scenery, all the more memorable. Bien fait...

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