On the final day of a tour in Morocco this week my touring troop was given the option of a hammam, which I understood to be, basically, a relaxing sauna. Now our holiday had not exactly been strenuous – but what with the high heat and long drives and occasional physical exertions we could be forgiven for feeling a little on the ragged and dusty side by the end of the week, and an afternoon of old-fashioned luxuriating seemed just the ticket.
It was therefore with hopes of enforced relaxation that I and four fellow girl troopers trudged on an intensely hot Marrakech afternoon through an unassuming little door, and so entered a dim, warm world of calming music, medievalist interior decor and deceptively gentle-looking ladies.
Post-registration, we were directed into the first of what transpired to be a series of rooms: a cavernous stone cellar lined with massage beds and low lights, and only a partially-closed curtain for privacy from the public corridor.
Clothes off, was the instruction.
We dutifully stripped down to our under-things, but our lady keeper was not thereby to be satisfied. Pointing at our bras she signalled in no unambiguous manner that these too were to be removed. “What, our bras too?” we asked, gaping incredulously at each other. Having spent a week being carted around on a mini-van together, sharing rooms, food and bad jokes, we had gotten to know each other fairly well – but none I think harboured any desire to get to know each other that well.
Our keeper was not to be argued with however: the bras came off.
Three Aussies, a Kiwi and I thus stood virtually naked, nervously giggling, clutching our arms cross-wise over our breasts. Thus disarmed, we were shepherded through a series of rooms until we reached a marbled chamber with marbled beds, lit by bright daylight from the street above. Here a solid, humourless lady with a warrior-man’s height and a slovenly-man’s belly bursting inside a black skin-tight wet suit stood ready to douse us with buckets of tepid water and scrub us roughly with soap, slapping our arms down so she could painfully scour our breasts (or at least mine).
This first cursory cleansing concluded, we were pushed through a small door, leaving the marble room of light for one of darkness: the steam room. At first, as we spaced ourselves along the benches lining the walls, we continued to coyly cover our breasts. But twenty or so minutes of gruelling relaxation makes short shrift of prudishness, and any effort at modesty soon became too much effort.
For the steam room became our Roman torture chamber. As the steam rose up into the domed stone ceiling and obscured the view of the free world through the skylight above, the temperature inside rose and rose, stifling us, leaving us woozy, dehydrated and headachy. Every so often the door would open and the outline of our large jailor would block the light, either to shepherd in more prisoners or to cast her gaze imperiously over us, pointing at the lucky one to be released. Eventually, after leaving us languishing in the steam for far too long, she pointed at our group. Relieved, pitifully grateful, we stood to stagger out, but then – oh cruel trick! – our jailor blocked my path! Only the first three were released, two were to be left behind.
As the door to freedom closed in my face and silenced my pleas, I came to the indisputable conclusion that a hammam wasn’t quite as much fun as it’s cracked up to be.
We last two were eventually of course let out, but only briefly in order to be smothered in mud-like soap (I say only mud-like, as when I asked if it was mud my jailor gave an answer as incomprehensible as my question had evidently been to her), after which we were shoved back into the torture chamber.
This was then the pattern of the hour: extended periods in the steam punctuated by brief reprieves during which our hopes for final release were shattered by repeatedly being shepherded back into the steam. Our lives were in the hands of our jailors; jailors deaf to my cries of “Please! S’il vous plaît!” and “a drink of water!”; jailors who demonstrated blatant favouritism to three French women, who for no obvious reason were only ever confined in steam for a couple of minutes at a time and who, what is more, had the cheek to gloat when they were released ahead of us (which a fair-minded captor would have admonished with a slap or prudent warning of “he who laughs last…”).
The proud part of me wanted to stick the hammam out to the bitter end, to show the gloaters we were made of sterner stuff, and show our jailors we soft tourists were up to any amount of steam they could waft at us. But the sensible, dehydrated, wobbly part of me reasoned that there is such a thing as too much relaxation.
When one of our party surrendered and gave herself over to the jailors, it was only a matter of time before the rest of us followed suit. Mutterings began among the surviving troopers. We were being confined for far longer than was needed. Surely they could not stop us leaving? Surely they would not lock the door? As one we stood, and as one we marched with determined tread and breasts held high back into the bright marble chamber – to discover that the reason we had been left (this last time) for so long was that our French rivals were enjoying lovely massages as their mud-like mud was applied. We had not got massages.
Never mind; our mass protest achieved its purpose. After a shower, shampoo, glass of water, and another two minute confinement in the steam room (to remind us who was boss), our modesty was finally concealed beneath flannelled bathrobes and we were led back to the first cavern for a lie-down, an oiling and an ever-so-welcome glass of mint tea.
I do honestly believe we were left steaming for too long – by my reckoning it adds up to at least 30-40 minutes – probably because the steam room was used as a holding pen while the jailors were engaged with others. On the other hand, to give them fair credit, my skin did feel lovely, soft and clean afterwards. And I am after all in this year’s challenge looking for new experiences: and an experience I certainly got.