Rishi Sankar: Ah Trini Travelogue

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To Hammam or not to Hammam …

Posted by Rishiray on March 2, 2010


Today was one of those traveling days, where you’re tired, cranky and suffering from a bit of travel fatigue … you’re set in one of the most fabulous and mysterious cities in the world and yet all you can think about, is watching Sportscenter and eating chips in your home. So I decided to listen to my body and take it “slow” today.

My morning consisted of a relaxing FREE 45 min massage at Le Meridien (Platinum members are offered heaven and earth in this hotel – we get two free massages for our stay)… god bless the Cash and Points option at Le Meredien … when you can stay in a 5-star hotel for 40$ a night with turn down service, two bathrooms and a staff at your beck and call, it makes the road really seem much nicer. The spa itself was lovely, pretty Arabic girl doing the massage, candles, rose petals scattered everywhere, warm burnished wood, ancient stucco walls, gorgeous stained glass lanterns, fountains, billowing gold sheer curtains, singing birds in cages . blah blah blah … it was damn nice yes (Trini-speak).

After being completely relaxed and pampered in the tourist environment, it was time to hit up Mohammed and Houssam for the real deal, a scrub and massage at a town hammam. All towns and villages in Morocco will invariably have 5 community elements, and obviously the bigger the town, the more of each element you will find per village/town/city

  1. Communal bakery : Typically, Moroccans will mix their own dough at home, and then take it to the bakery to be made. A typical loaf of bread, costs between 25-50 centimes (1/4 – 1/2 dirham)
  2. Fountain : the Moroccans love their fountains … look at Fez … basically a fountain addiction
  3. Madrasa (school) : Obviously
  4. Mosque : Obviously
  5. Hammam: Communal bath house where everyone goes for a relaxing steam bath, scrub down, massage. The massage and scrub are optional, but really then why are you going, if you’re not getting these??

How to find a hammam:

Have friends who will take you! If I had to find the hammam by myself, there would be no way on earth I would know how to get there, what to do or how not to look like a complete jackass. Hammam signs are likely to be written in Arabic. The hammam that Mohammed and Houssam took me to looked like this from the outside …you try finding that yourself …

However if you read Arabic, then it should be no issue or in the worse case, you can look for some of these signs of your neighbourhood hammam :

  • People of your gender walking by with buckets full of shower supplies, rolled floor mats and towels – men and women are separated in the hammam, with different opening hours for each throughout the day (typically, daytime hours are reserved for women and evenings for men).
  • A smoky smell. It’s caused by the wood fires used to heat the water.
  • A communal bakery. The hammam often shares heating facilities with one, so if you see a bakery there’s a chance a hammam is near.

Prior to going for Hammam (and you don’t go “to THE hammam”, but rather Hammam is a process, not a place … hence you go “to Hammam”), I was quite familiar with the bath process, but each culture has their own etiquette and you should prep for Hammam, by having the right bath products

What you need for the Hammam:

  • Soap, conditioner, shampoo (anything you would normally use for a bath in your home)
  • Ghasoul … you may see this on eBay and cosmetic product counters for between $25 – $40. That is insane … a regular sized pack (1/4 lb) in any store in Morocco, is about 5-8 Dirhams (60cents – $1) . This is made of natural olive oil by-products
  • Black soap is dried chips of herb-infused Moroccan clay that functions as shampoo and body soap when you add a splash of water to it
  • Kiis : Part of the bath ritual is getting scrubbed down by the hammam attendant or by a friend – all depends on whether you have a friend who will scrub your back for you – thankfully Mohammed arranged for the attendant to scrub me down, after he took a first pass (everyone scrubs each other in the bathhouse – another cultural thing that would be out of place in Trinidadian culture for sure). A kiis costs about 10 dirhams for a really good one in the souks, paying more for one is getting ripped off
  • Plastic mat or stool (Optional) – some people don’t want to lie on the floor, even though you should wash the area you’re going to lie in … everyone does it.  If you’re a clean freak, bring a small plastic stool or mat to sit on to avoid placing your derriere directly on the hammam’s stone floor, but do know that you will look like an utter jackass doing it. The rooms will look something like this, even though this was the initial changing room.

Hammam Etiquette 101:

Once in the Hammam you will collect hot and cold water in buckets (buckets and bowls are available at the Hammam – the guys took their own, but that was their preference). You can then mix the buckets for temperature and pour them over yourself as you wash. Don’t take more than two buckets for water as other bathers consider this bad form and a little greedy.

Important tip : The hammam floors are slightly sloped for drainage, so look for a free corner and wash the corner with a couple buckets of warm water. If you end up in the middle of the floor, you’re likely to seating with in a current of dead skin (Trinidadian term is “Muck or Mock” and soap).

Basic Bathing process :

Exactly how you enjoy your time in the Hammam is your personal preference, the basic technique includes

  1. Rinse with clear hot water
  2. Wait while the heat softens your skin and you sweat. Use the ghasoul all over your skin, this helps when you’re getting scrubbed after … it helps loosen skin and opens the pores.
  3. Using the Kiis scrub away the dead skin using hard pressure. No soap is required, and do not rinse until the skin is coming off. If you are alone, you can ask someone to scrub your back, but do ask them to not rub too hard (say ‘shuya’) if you are not used to it, otherwise your friends can do it for you, or you can ask for the attendant to do it (obviously you will tip the person after you’re done)
  4. Once you have scrubbed, wash with the soap.
  5. Wash your hair and, if required, shave
  6. Rinse again

Things I took I away from the whole experience; I either don’t know how to shower and bathe myself, or we produce a lot of dead skin and crap settles on our skin. Looking around at the other men, who were scrubbing and scraping off all this disgusting skin off themselves, I realized that I wasn’t completely terrible, although after the attendant scrubbed me off, it was a little disgusting to see how much dead skin I had on me … I think I had a pound of dead skin … or it looked like that to me

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No Responses Yet to “To Hammam or not to Hammam …”

  1. kay sankar said

    hah hah…remember you not small so you would have more dead skin….at least u would be returning
    to toronto with less skin..hah hah

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