HammamSpaMarrakech_Matthew Carson
A Hammam in Marrakech, Morocco (Pic credit: Matthew Carson/Flickr)

Yes, ever so often we hear the call of adventure and crawl out of our comfort zone. Curiosity and confidence take over our mind and body and before you know it, you’re jumping out of a plane. The urge to be adventurous rings truer and louder when we travel. Eating insects in Thailand, cliff diving in Philippines, soaking in a giant ramen bowl in Japan… the list goes on: You’re bound to come across something that’s new or foreign to you. When presented with the opportunity to try these things, (after a quick debate with travel companions or with yourself) the pros to go through with it will probably outweigh the cons. After all, no one wants to be plagued by questions of regret.

This was exactly the case for Deb and Dave. They were part of a walking tour around the city of Medina when they were invited by the owner of a hammam to visit his bath house. After a quick peek in, they decided ‘why not?’ and came back the next day.

hammam is a steam room or steam bath. There are different types of hammams in Morocco, from traditional to modern and self-service to full service ones. A local practice for hundreds of years, a hammam bath is an important part of Moroccan life; water is considered sacred and cleanliness is an essential part of Islam (the dominant religion in Morocco). In this day, it is also a place when locals go to socialise, and sometimes even to do business or arrange marriages. For local women, especially those who wear veils, it is one of the few places where they can truly let loose and be themselves amongst other women.

This particular hammam that Deb and Dave went to, unbeknownst to them, was a traditional full service hammam. Their story, as told by Deb, is a humourous, and at times painful, walkthrough of their experience at the bath house:

Hammam Ziani – The bath house in Medina, Marrakech that Deb and Dave visited (Pic credit: Camino de Baldosas Amarillas) 

Let me tell you about our day. Dave and I were each led into separate rooms to begin our 90-minute hammam experience. Dave went to the men’s part of the building and I was sent to the women’s.

I followed a petite woman who spoke little English to a changing room where I was given disposable underwear, a towel, a robe and some rubber slippers. She sat me down in a booth and left. I didn’t know if I was to follow after I changed or not and as the confusion set in on my face, a friendly group of women from Malaysia who had just finished their experience told me what to do.

“No time to be shy in here.” They said. Strip down, sit down and wait. Oh and don’t put on that robe, that’s for later. So I sat there, naked (save for my disposable black underwear) in my cubicle and waited.

Dave followed a guy into another room where he was given a loin cloth. He indicated that Dave should strip down while he stood and watched and then proceeded to put the loin cloth on for him. If that wasn’t awkward enough, the door to reception was open the entire time! But, in a couple of minutes he was wrapped up and ready to go. He was sent through a door where he was greeted by a wall of steam. It was here that he did his own waiting for his next instructions.

After a while of sitting alone in my cubicle (the Malaysian women had long left), a woman came in and took my hand. She led me to a stool and sat me down. I guess the early Moroccans didn’t believe in bathing themselves, because in a hammam, you get bathed. Scorching hot water was poured over my head as she washed my hair and body. I winced and sighed, but she didn’t seem to care or take any notice.

After my grime was washed away (though it seemed that a lot of soap was still sticking to my skin), I was taken by the hand again by another woman who led me to the steam room. She pointed to a corner where I was to sit and it was here that I stayed until my next order was given. The steam was hotter than any other steam room I’ve ever been in and as I took deep breaths to try to relax, I also took deep breaths to try to keep myself from bolting out the door.

The door to the steam room – No cameras allowed, naked people inside (Pic credit: The Planet D)

Dave had the same experience I had of standing awkwardly while he waited, but instead of a cubicle, it was in a steamy room full of massage tables. He stood half naked in his loin cloth with a stunned look on his face before he was saved and finally lead to his own steam room.

It turns out that Dave had to clean himself instead of being bathed like me. He was handed some black soap (also called savon noir which can be bought at spice shops) and motioned to rub it all over his body. Dave obeyed and covered himself in black soap thinking someone would be back. But they never came. He sat in the steam for another 10 minutes or so as the soap seeped into his pours. “Was I supposed to do this?” he wondered. Can anybody tell me what’s going on?

In the meantime after sitting in the steam for what felt like forever during my hammam, I finally let my mind and muscles relax. I was feeling pretty good. When I saw a faint shadow enter the room of steam, I knew that it was time to go. I was led out by my hand and was laid down on a marble slab in another hot room where my body was exfoliated. When I say exfoliated, that’s an understatement. It was more like having your skin peeled off with sandpaper. At one point I was sure that there was a trickle of blood pouring down my leg as she rubbed up and down my calf.

Dark soap – or savon noir – which comes in the form of a paste, is a native product of Morocco and it widely used in hammams (Pic credit: With Mascara)

I didn’t have it half as bad as Dave though. When they finally came to get him, he was lead in his loin cloth, to a plastic massage table where he was sanded and scrubbed and slapped around in like a wet fish until there wasn’t a scale left on his body. The male masseurs are tougher on the guys. Dave’s skin was stinging as they constantly poured hot water over his body. He was alarmed when he opened his eyes and saw his skin peeling away. Could there be that many layers coming off or is it just the soap? It’s better to close your eyes and pretend you didn’t see anything.

Soon enough, you’d be sitting pretty and enjoying the moment you’ve been waiting for. The massage.

I was still walking around half naked with nothing but my disposable underwear and rubber shoes and Dave was still wrapped up in his loin cloth but things were winding down. It was time to get our aching muscles worked on. I was led to yet another room where I was placed on a massage table made of slippery plastic. I had a half hour massage that was on one hand very relaxing and on the other quite amusing. The woman kept massaging my breasts. It seemed that with each pass of whichever body part she was massaging, she always made her way to my boobs. All I could think was “That’s funny, I didn’t think that my boobies held a lot of tension.” But I just laid there and went with it. I was expecting a much rougher experience, but it was more like a light rub down and I grew frustrated because I really wanted my shoulders and back kneaded out.

I was so jealous when I talked to Dave and he told me that his massage was a killer. He was bent and pulled every which way in positions he didn’t even know his body was capable of. He came out a good 15 minutes later than me with a big grin on his face saying his staple phrase when he loves something “That. Was. Awesome!”

The awkward moments, the hot steam and the painful soap paid off. His muscles were loose, his mind was relaxed and he had an experience that he’d never forget. And maybe never try again. But when you go to Morocco, you’d be crazy not to go to a hammam.

This story was originally published on The Planet D.

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