I always see women, carrying large armloads of buckets. At first, I thought these women were re-stocking their families shops or had a great need for plastic wares. It didn’t take long for me to learn that, in fact, these women were headed to the Hamam.
In most of Morocco, bathrooms are sans-shower. To bathe, water is heated and distributed into several buckets. These buckets are arranged around a small stool, in the bathroom. With large families, as all families are, bathing days are quite an affair. It is hard work to keep the water heated, the line moving and get all of the children well scrubbed! In towns without running water, bathing takes even more work and is exhausting.
However, in larger towns there are Hamams, or public bath houses. As a westerner, the idea of public bathing is a little un-nerving. But during the cold winter, I found it to be a wonderful alternative to washing my hair over a bucket, while wearing all my clothes, so as to not die of exposure.
Before heading to the Hamam, you must gather your supplies:
-big bucket, or two
-little short stool
- shampoo, conditioner, face wash, soap etc.
- exfoliating mitten- an essential for the true Hamam experience.
- flip flops/showering shoes
- towel and fresh change of clothes.
Toting all of your supplies, you make your way to the Hamam. There are either two: one for men and one for women. Or, if there is only one, men will go in the morning, and women in the afternoon, or vice-versa. Many are unglamorous from the outside, and marked only by a small sign near the entrance. Upon entering, you find yourself in a basic dressing room. The walls are lined with benches and clothing hooks. An attendant welcomes you and distributes additional buckets. You pay her the small fee, and find an area for yourself.
As an American girl, I am not unfamiliar with showing skin. In the summertime, I wear shorts and skirts above the knee. I wear bathing suits at the beach, and the occasional tank top. Yet, here, I’ve grown accustomed and very comfortable wearing no fewer than three layers of clothing, regardless of the season. I don’t show my elbows, ankles, or collar bone. This new style of dress took some getting used to, that is for sure! But now, its second nature to wear leggings, underneath ankle length skirts, just in case.
But at the Hamam, you go in your skivvies.
With nothing, but your buckets and soap, you make your way into the next room. The first room you enter is warm, the second is hot, and the third is very, very hot. In whichever room you prefer, you find a spot and get settled. Taking your buckets, you get cold water from a tap, in the second room. A font, in the third room, is full of scalding hot water. With your buckets filled, you head back to your spot and begin bathing.
The walls, tiled in white, are bright, even in the windowless rooms. Women are everywhere, bathing and chatting with their neighbors. Toddlers sit in buckets, waiting for their turns. The peaceful atmosphere is interrupted only when those toddlers are scrubbed by their enthusiastic mothers. Then yells of protest echo through the rooms, and don’t stop until a red, but quite clean, child sulks away, from a satisfied mother.
Exfoliating is serious business here. Special mittens are sold at every shop, and are used by every hamamming individual. Every inch of your skin is scrubbed, removing dirt, oil and dead skin. Your neighbor will always offer to exfoliate your back, just so long as you return the favor.
For a country that limits body contact to handshakes and kisses on the cheek, the hamam is a very open, yet private and intimate experience. Time spent at the hamam is more than just bathing, it is also an escape from the stress and chores, of everyday life. It is not uncommon to re-fill your buckets three or four times, spending the hours soaking up the steam and relaxing, in this unexpected sanctuary.
love love love,