I stood before the woman, utterly exposed, as she dumped hot water over my head. And by utterly exposed, I mean naked. Well, I was wearing a see-through, paper thong that hid absolutely nothing. So I suppose if you count that as clothing, I wasn’t completely naked. She turned to the bubbling basin in the center of the chamber for a refill then dumped more hot water over my head. Again and again she did this while I watched the water run down my skin, wondering how my body compared to the hundreds of others she’d seen.
I had read that a hammam is an essential part of the Moroccan experience—a weekly staple in the lives of the Moroccan people. When I travel, I like to become a part of the flow of the place. There’s a current to peoples’ lives that I like to swim in. Standing before the ocean and noting its beauty is an essential part of traveling. But to get a true feel for the essence of a place, you need to get your feet wet.
The day before, I’d been having an early dinner on the balcony of one of the restaurants overlooking the square in the Medina of Marrakech (the old town). I was seated at a small table filled with more food than one person could possibly eat. The restaurant hosts never tried to hide their genial marveling at my overzealous ordering anymore than they hid their less-than-mild surprise when I asked for a table for one. But that evening I was not the only woman dining alone. At the table adjacent to mine, another woman sat with guidebooks and maps open in front of her bearing pencil marks and sticky notes. A quick once-over glance and we could instantly tell we were both Americans.
“Are you here by yourself, too?” she asked.
We began sharing tips and must-sees we’d heard about. She was only by herself for the evening and was trying to make a game plan for when her sister joined her. She asked me if I planned on going to a hammam.
“Yeah, I definitely want to.”
“Do you know which one you’re going to go to? I was trying to research them… I heard about this one place that sounded really authentic. I think it’s by Le Jardin Secret?”
I heard the word authentic and was sold. And so the next day I was at Hammam de la Rose, getting scrubbed down by a stranger.
The hammam customs differ slightly depending on the region or country, but in Morocco they are bath houses with two main pillars: cleansing and community. I believe they were first constructed near mosques and religious institutions so people could cleanse before prayer. They were also a place for social gathering, with women in one area and men in another (or women during certain hours and men after).
Turns out Hammam de la Rose is a private hammam; most locals are more likely to frequent public hammams. But it’s still an authentic local establishment. Complete with authentic, local bathers who don scrubby mitts and unabashedly get down to business.
Being bathed by another human being is a weird experience when you’re a perfectly capable adult. You find yourself questioning all sorts of things you thought you knew about life. A steady stream of questions and thoughts flowed through my mind as she rubbed down my arms, shoulders and back. Why do people pay to have someone clean them? Why did I pay to have someone clean me?? Does she think my body looks weird because it’s so white?
When I had first come out of the changing room, I was wearing the disposable thong and thick bathrobe they’d given me. I think I had the bathrobe on for about 4 seconds before the woman pulled it off. Why give it to me in the first place then? I thought. I realized later that it was towel material and meant to help you dry off after it was all over.
I was somewhat mentally prepared for the nudity—in my head I’d been picturing a sort of naked sauna with people washing up a bit. But I was not prepared for the full invasion of her hands over every surface and in every crease of my body. When she began rubbing down my arms and shoulders, I sort of thought I knew where it was going. Sure enough, her next move was to cover my chest and stomach with that same dark oil she’d wiped all over my upper extremities. But I was wrong in thinking that would be the most intrusive part.
After being coated in the oil, I was left to stew for an indeterminate amount of time. The heat was something else I had not been fully prepared for. It was about 100 degrees outside and even hotter inside. Trying very hard to tolerate the suffocating torridity, I attempted meditation. I’ve always sucked at meditation.
Meditation is one of those things you commit to on New Year’s Eve and by January 2nd, forget to open the app you downloaded to help get your practice started. I used to think it was just about clearing your mind, but my understanding has increased over the past year or so, even if my ability to do it properly has not. It’s about being present. It’s about focusing on the moment you are living in and not the 800 lists running through your mind. It’s about taking note of the sensations of the now.
One of the apps I downloaded, Headspace, had a cartoon video that showed thoughts driving by while the character simply observed them and let them keep going, taking deep breaths and enjoying a moment of calmness, removed from the traffic. I had this mental image of cartoon-me trying to run alongside the cars, fretting over each thought and sweating from the effort to keep up. And that’s sort of what happens every time I try to meditate. Except my mind doesn’t just run away, it hops in one of the cars and speeds off.
Ironically, when I was in the hammam, my mind wouldn’t run off. I could only think about the sensations of the now. I could only think about how the heat was pressing in on my lungs and melting my skin—a long snake weaving itself around my body and squeezing. I was too present.
By the time she returned, I was praying she’d douse me in cold water next. But instead, she slid her hand into a rough mit and forcefully scoured a layer of skin off my body. Every. Part. Of. It. My skin was singing a song of pain as the mitt successfully exfoliated multiple layers of it.
When she was finished with my thigh, I felt the mitt push between my legs. Oh. I thought this was a muslim country. I mentally shrugged. When in Rome, I guess…
Oddly enough, it was not this part that made me feel bashful or insecure. It was when she started washing my hair. I don’t know why, but that felt like such a highly personal act, even though countless hairdressers have had occasion to shampoo my frizzy mess. I can’t explain why it seemed so personal a thing, but perhaps my head being in such a position that I was forced to look at my own body added to my shyness. Luckily, my face was hidden beneath a curtain of hair, so she could not see the embarrassment tinting my cheeks.
People think I’m brave for traveling abroad alone—for walking around a new city unaccompanied. They think it’s brave I’ll jump onto a moped, wrap my arms around the local man, and hold on for dear life as—helmetless—I watch pedestrians, shopkeepers, donkey carts, and city walls blend into a whirl of color while we streak past at an unknown speed (I chanced a glance at the speedometer once—it was broken). People find it brave that I commit to all the experiences of travel by myself.
If only they were right. But in order to be brave, you have to feel fear. In these moments I don’t feel fear. I feel free.
And there’s something very freeing in an entirely different way than I’m accustomed to about the experience of a hammam. In that moment when she began washing my hair—that moment when I was stuck looking down at myself—I felt small. I felt like she was washing away my facade of bravery and boldness.
Because, the truth is, I’ve never been particularly brave. I used to regret the fact that when I finally got my Hogwarts letter, I wouldn’t be sorted into Gryffindor with Harry and co. because I lacked that necessary quality (though I’m now satisfied with my Pottermore placement into Ravenclaw). I suppose there are all sorts of bravery, and I can recognize certain sorts within myself, but the one I’ve always lacked more than any other, is the strength to be vulnerable.
I feel free when I travel alone because I can be whatever self I want to be in whatever situation I find myself in. I don’t have to be whomever my family, friends, coworkers, students, etc. expect me to be. No one around me has any clue who I am; I get to reconstruct myself every time I walk into a new situation. But more importantly, no one around me is going to continue knowing me past whatever brief interaction we have. Whatever I do—and whatever vulnerabilities I show—stay with that person or place and don’t follow me home. It’s a way of being vulnerable, open, and honest with the world without having to be vulnerable, open or honest with my world.
But in that instant in the hammam when she began shampooing my hair, the protective layers swirled the drain and disappeared. For a moment, I wasn’t the bold and adventurous version of myself; I wasn’t the cultured and pensive version of myself. I wasn’t even the intentionally vulnerable version of myself I get to be with strangers I meet on my travels. I was just me—stripped down (literally) and exposed. A little afraid. A little shy. A little unsure. But also actively choosing to embrace the moment.
It’s true that it was still a moment shared with a stranger I’d never see again, but I could kind of understand then what real vulnerability might feel like. Scrubbed cleaner than perhaps I’d ever been, I raised my arms as she draped the heavy bathrobe over my shoulders and the weight felt like a welcome hug.