The World’s Worst Hammam

posted by Drew Zieff June 30, 2016 0 comments

Disclaimer: The title the world’s worst hammam is admittedly hyperbolic, as there are surely worse hammams. To the author, however, this is the world’s worst hammam, as it is also his first hammam.

In Pursuit of Culture, Relaxation, and Foot Fungus

Over the past few weeks, Gabe and I have mountain biked technical trails in Basque Country, surfed rowdy reefs in Taghazout, Morocco, and suffered bone-shuddering bouts of traveler’s diarrhea. Gnarliness, you could say, has not been lacking. But today—today was hands down the gnarliest day of the trip. Today, we went to a hammam.

What is a Hammam?

Hammam’s are traditional bathhouses, where the stressed, the brave, the dirty, and the foolish go to get scraped, steamed, and preened. Hammams in Morocco are especially famous for their exfoliating black soap scrubs. Everywhere we’ve been in Morocco, fellow travelers have said things like, “You’ve got to go to the hammam,” and “It’s such a wonderful, unique cultural experience.”

Oh, Lord, how we were led astray.

Act 1: Getting to the Hammam

Essaouira’s medina (old city) is a vertigo-inducing labyrinth of shops and shadows. As such, the owner of the apartment we’re renting said she’d send a guide to help us find the hammam in question.

“If not, you’ll never find it,” she said. Fair enough.

So, the guide knocks on our door. We barely see his face before he turns and strides through the tunneling city streets. We skip to keep up. He leads us down an alley to a closet-sized spice shop. Inside, he chats with a middle-aged, bald Moroccan with hawk eyes, slouched shoulders and a bowling ball belly. After a few more hand gestures and the first man disappears, we ascertain that it’s a handoff.  The second man, our new guide and soon-to-be half-naked hammam handler, asks us if we speak French.

Nope. We shake our heads.

Wonderful. He speaks French in response, perhaps telling us his name, perhaps not. He beckons us down another narrow street. Already, this feels more akin to a haphazard hash deal than anything else.

After five or ten minutes in the medina maze, he stops in an alley and points us through a nondescript door. The first sign that things aren’t quite right: there is no sign. We’ve already passed five or six hammams, all sporting signs out front. Of course, at this point, the budget traveler in me is stoked, “No sign?! We’re going to the local spot. The real deal.”

Dark Doorway That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?

Traveling is like… peeling an orange. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you scrape through the tourist traps and tchotchke shops, you peel away the superficial skin of a city, exposing the tangy flesh of local reality underneath.

But sometimes, the orange is rotten.

I try to keep an open mind while traveling. I really do. I believe that if you expect the same level of comforts abroad that you do at home, you’re better off not leaving. 

But I also believe that you shouldn’t have a plastic grocery bag full of dead fish on the desk in a bathhouse lobby.

Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m picky. Essaouira is a fishing town, after all. Either way, there’s a bag full of dead fish on the desk. The lobby, a place I hoped would smell of incense and oils, reeks just like the docks outside.

An acrid omen.

Act 2: The Chamber of Secrets

Ok, so. Bearings. A bag of fish. Dead fish. Excellent start. I glance around. Domed roofs and tiled floors are tinged with brown — the former from mold, the latter from dirt. Old men sprawl on broken blue and white plastic benches, looking like patrons of a decaying bus station.

Our guide corrals us upstairs into a dingy changing area. He points to our shirts and shorts. We comply, not without a trace of hesitation — I’m wondering if the dead fish will replace sliced cucumbers in the hammam massage. Out we go, back through the lobby, past a gauntlet of fully-clothed staring Moroccan men. We are wearing nothing but boxer briefs and Teva sandals. Please picture this: two blond Jews with more body hair than werewolves on Rogaine, clacking sandals on scummy tiles, smiling and saying “shukran” (thank you — one of our four arabic words) to the ancient onlookers.

There are only a couple bathers inside the first room, sitting on benches and dipping cups into water buckets, drenching their heads with them. That doesn’t look half bad, actually—but not what’s in store for us.

Through a tiled corridor, to an empty room with gently sloped floors and a drain in the middle. Steaming water runs into shallow troughs along the walls. When/if this place was clean, I imagine it would be quite lovely. But now…

A mop leans in the corner. Might as well be covered in cobwebs. The white floor is smudged with grime. More mold clings to the ceiling. While the hammam isn’t easy on the eyes, it’s the nose that bares the brunt of this holistic hellhole.

The stink hits like a gas grenade. It smells like a rancid dim-sum dumpling steamed on a New York City subway grate in mid-July. Like a perfume of asparagus-infused urine and wrestler singlet sweat.

Our guide has stripped down to a pair of swim trunks, revealing a mossy Buddha belly. He smiles a kind smile, but his rank breath doesn’t help the olfactory cocktail. He gestures for us to lay down. On the floor. On the tiles. On what I imagine to be an ocean of piss dotted with, as I look closer, islands that look a lot like loogies. Again, we hesitate. Again, he gestures. Again, he insists in French.

If I were a skunk, I would blush. If I were a health inspector, I would have a heart attack. If I spoke French, I would ask about the nice-looking benches in the other room. Instead, I just say fuck it. When in Rome, right?

(Edit: Actually, I’m not certain. “When in Rome” is a fun phrase to employ, say, when you take a trolley in San Francisco even though an Uber would be more practical, or when someone offers you cocaine in Miami and you haven’t done it since the 80s. But I’m not sure it’s right for a spa treatment that feels more like frat hazing.)

Either way, we acquiesce to our masseur and lie on our backs. Gingerly accepting fate. I watch as he puts on an exfoliating glove, gathers a dab of soap, and jiggles over my brother as he scrapes him from head to toe.

It’s moments like this, I think, stifling a laugh, that I’ll remember long after this trip is over.Blue Blue Walls

I don’t laugh, however, when it’s my turn, and he flips me off of my back and onto my stomach. I try to keep my head off of the tile as he massages my legs by resting it on my forearms, but he quickly works his way up my lower back and torso. He grabs my arms and my cheek touches the tile in slow motion. I close my eyes—pondering the microbial war zone a kiss away from my lips.

We go through several rounds of scrubbing and rinsing, the process of which is actually quite pleasant. The exfoliation factor falls somewhere on the spectrum between sponge and sandpaper—it’s comfortably uncomfortable, like a deep tissue massage. Goldilocks and S & M. Not too much, not too little. The pain is just right.

Our fearless exfoliator finally calls it quits. As I said, he has a nice smile; maybe he’s seen the pain in our eyes. We pass back through the gauntlet of old Moroccan men, pull on our clothes, and stumble out into the daylight, a couple of repentant drunks after a night in the underworld. We follow our man back through the market streets, jumping over fish heads, sidestepping around speeding motorbikes. He asks us for money, but we can’t tell how much. Dazed, I give him a bill, he shakes his head. Too much. He uses his fingers—we shrug in response. For ten minutes we follow him around the market as he waves our 200 dirham bill like a baton, asking merchants for change and cursing them when they refuse. Finally, we get change. We pay the man and part ways, never to be scrubbed again.

Would I go back and do it over again? Maybe. Have you ever read a good story about a pleasant day at a nice spa? No way. Did I go home and shower immediately after this experience? You’re damn right.

We didn’t quite peel the orange’s skin, but we did zest the shit out of it with an exfoliating glove.

Were it not for the smells of fish and urine, the language barrier, the narrow streets and grimy tiles, this day at the bathhouse would dissolve into nothing, blending with a million other memories, each indistinguishable from the next. But instead, I gained three invaluable things:

  1. a (slightly) better grasp on Moroccan realities
  2. a humorous campfire story about bathhouses
  3. every time I frequent a urinal or go to a fish market, the scent will jumpstart a memory of a portly Moroccan man in a pair of blue swim trunks, scraping my scowling brother’s skin like a carpenter sanding down a rough piece of wood.

And that, my friends, is why I travel.

PS. Most of the places we’ve been in Morocco have been awesome, and a lot cleaner than this hammam. This post isn’t hating on Morocco, but rather examining a hilarious sequence of events stemming from the idiocy of my brother and I. Sketchy is sketchy, and stupid is stupid, no matter what country you’re in. Maybe we should have known better. But so far, we have contracted no fungus, foot or otherwise. I’ll keep you posted on that front, though. That said, not all hammams are created equal. We’re going to shell out a bit more money tomorrow to visit a somewhat less sketchy establishment (the hammam in this story only cost $1.90). I expect that it will be much nicer, not at all interesting, and you won’t have any desire to read about the experience.

PPS. Hypothesis about second hammam confirmed. It was dope and absolutely not worth writing about.

PPPS. Sorry I don’t have any photos from this hammam hole. Didn’t think I should bring my GoPro in there. Probably for the best.

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