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When traveling in China, there is not a more interesting activity than to ride a pedi-cab (rickshaw in the old days), through the hutongs (old neighborhoods) in Beijing.
A visit to Turkey would not be complete without a visit to Pamukkale and a dip in the famous hot thermal waters of the travertines, enjoyable and relaxing.
Likewise, a trip to Morocco is not complete without a visit to a hammam, which is a bath house where the locals go for a cleansing of their bodies. The hammam has been an important part of Moroccan culture since Roman times.
Many of the hotels in Morocco have hammams and I am told that most are more westernized by offering fragrances and other services, as well as use of traditional black olive soap and lava clay. Local hammams, however, serve a more fundamental need as a weekly, or more frequent, bath and relaxation, self-administered, while interacting with family or friends.
I was in the small town of Tinghir, Morocco, when our guide invited our group of 10, men and women, to accompany him to the local hammam — explaining that the women and men do not share the same facilities. I was the only volunteer, so off we went to the hammam he frequents when in Erfoud.
Upon arriving, we entered the reception area, where we exchanged our street clothes for loose-fitting shorts, putting our clothes and shoes in a basket for safekeeping while we bathed. I followed my host through two rooms before arriving at the third and final room with steaming fountains of hot water.
A male attendant directed me to have a seat on the tile floor, after he had thoroughly scrubbed the area, with my back against the wall where several other men were seated in the same position. Others were washing themselves, most likely their weekly bath, while my attendant began to scald me with steaming hot water, followed by scrubbing me with gloves that felt like course sandpaper to exfoliate my skin. I didn’t anticipate, however, that more than one or two layers would be removed. I exaggerate a bit, but now know the meaning of “deep cleaning.”
We moved to another room that was not quite so hot, and sat on the tile floor with backs against the wall, along with others who were at the same stage of cleansing. To say this was the torture chamber would be a stretch, so let’s just call it a deep massage with a lot of flexing of joints to a degree that I didn’t think possible. This procedure encompassed my entire body, head to toe, and hardly a spot was overlooked. This was undoubtedly the most thorough massage that I have ever had. Most locals, however, are there for bathing and do not routinely get the message.
I was then washed down with a softer scrub, with warm water rather than hot, and began to cool down. The time frame for these two procedures was about 20 minutes each, although most locals spend more time, as the hammam is often a social event.
The next room we entered was cooler and I sat with my back against the wall cooling down, contemplating the event. My mind and body were in a complete state of peace and relaxation, and the cool tile was welcome refreshment. It was here that I was handed a towel in preparation for our departure and proceeded back to the dressing room where we had entered. What a wonderful experience for body and mind, as I pondered when I might arrange another hammam.
I will be more experienced in hammam etiquette next time and will not repeat my actions in the dressing room, where I dropped my soaked shorts to the floor as I walked to retrieve my basket of clothes. My guide rushed over with a towel and covered me, while explaining that Moroccan men do not expose themselves to other men.
Rules are rules, to which I quickly complied!
If you are ever invited to participate in this most therapeutic and practical bath and massage, run, don’t walk, to the hammam, I’m sure you will come away in the most invigorated mode you’ve ever experienced.
Neil and Karyn Sawyer have been residents of Crystal River for 27 years. They travel frequently, having been to 48 states, 64 countries and seven continents. Neil welcomes comments and questions about travel. Contact him via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.