Take it easy there buddy, this is not a letter that I mistakenly posted here instead of sending into Playboy. Sometimes my travels take me to places and introduce me to experiences I could never have imagined on my own. Not because they are totally outlandish or out of the realm of possibility, but because I have no other relevant cultural reference. An authentic hammam in Fez is one of those experiences I wasn't totally prepared for.
I have had plenty of spa experiences where we get to where fuzzy white robes and slippers before being taken into a private room to be exfoliated, scrubbed, massaged, lathered or waxed. I think I naively expected the experience of a hammam, or bathhouse to be somewhat the same. Well, I suppose it could have been, but we were pretty insistent that we wanted the real experience and not the glamourized version that westerners would expect.
We approached the girl at our bed and breakfast in Fez and asked her to take us to a hammam where she and other local women would go. She asked us at least half a dozen times if we were "sure" that it's what we wanted before taking us. We walked out into the narrow labyrinth- like streets of the old part of Fez, dodging donkeys, people carrying large parcels and whipping around tight corners until we arrived at an unassuming door to an underground space. Without an escort we NEVER would have found this place.
Upon our arrival our guide spoke to the ladies at the hammam and got us all set up and we were told to go get undressed in a small alcove to the side. We were to only keep our underpants on. I'm not generally very bashful, but I've also never been in a situation where I'm expected to just "hang out" with my friends or in front of strangers while it's all hanging out. But since I was there, I was willing to give in to the experience and deal with my own insecurities later. At this point there was no more verbal communication. These ladies only spoke Arabic and we speak none, so we had to rely solely on physical cues. We were taken by the hands and led into the bathing area of the hammam.
As we turned the corner, we entered a small room made of stone. The stone retains the heat of the hammam which is neither the dry heat of a sauna nor the steaminess of a hot shower. My friend and I took turns being bathed. The topless woman sat on a bench as we sat on the floor in front of her. Buckets of warm water were poured over us, our hair was shampooed and combed and our bodies were washed and scrubbed. And let me tell you, that lady was serious about her exfoliation. I'm surprised I left there with nipples still in tact. TMI? Maybe.
After being washed we were led into a second room where we were instructed to lay on the warm stone floor. We were treated to a massage and body wrap by another woman. By this point I no longer felt vulnerably naked or awkward next to my travel companion. We had given ourselves into the experience and into the beauty of the hammam.
I few things struck us about this whole experience. The first was how these women who walk around almost entirely covered in their day to day are so free in their own skin within the walls of the hammam. None of the women were clothed, not even the ones washing or massaging us. And there we were two modern western women who do not shy away from mini skirts and tube tops (not together, we're not trashy), but felt initially uncomfortable being undressed in front of other women. The second was how intimate the act of bathing someone is. Think about all the people who have bathed you: a parent or grandparent in childhood, or perhaps a lover in adulthood. It's odd that this hadn't really occurred to me before. I suppose it's because getting a treatment in a spa at home is relaxing but also a little clinical. This experience was almost spiritual. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that it was a communal experience. No one was in a pristine white uniform with their hair tied tightly into a ponytail and perfectly applied makeup, we were all our natural selves.
My friend and I were pretty much silent through the whole experience. Partially because we didn't have the language skills to communicate with the other women, partly because we really wanted to enjoy the experience for ourselves. So while the women chatted amongst themselves as though they were enjoying an afternoon coffee date of after work cocktails with friends, we sat silently soaking up every moment.