Splish, Splash, He Gave Me A Bath

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This blog entry about the events of Friday, June 18, 2004 was originally posted on June 22, 2004.

DAY 244:  Most of Marrakesh’s main points of interest are within a 40-minute walk of the Place Djemaa el-Fna and without the comforts of a package tour’s air conditioned tour bus coach (complete with a guide holding up an umbrella for people to follow), I took to the streets to run errands and see the sights on foot.

The ville nouvelle (new town) was just outside the old fortification wall that surrounded the median.  A leisurely walk took me through the commercial district, passed sidewalk cafes, shops and the obligatory presence of the golden arches.  My morning mission was to find a bookstore to get some English reading material, only to find that the only one in town just had novelizations of Hollywood movies targeted for 8-year-olds.  Back in the medina (old town), I booked a three-day tour of the Dades Valley and the Dunes of Merzouga that came recommended to me, and then wandered the souqs (markets).  I ended up skipping out on touristy souvenirs and went for functional everyday items I needed — new sandals to replace the Malawian ones that broke the day before (they lasted a lot longer than I thought) and a new storage bag to replace the one that broke just a couple of days after I bought it in Zanzibar.

All errands aside, I walked and walked with the energy of a meat and couscous lunch, getting lost in the maze of Marrakesh’s streets.  Motorbikes zipped by on roads and sometimes sidewalks without any sense of traffic organization.  Muslim woman walked by, many wearing the traditional Moroccan hooded galabiyya, which made them look like multi-colored jawas in the Star Wars movies from afar.  Tea vendors served tea on the street while wearing traditional garb as snake charmers teased their cobras and adders amidst other street performers entertaining the masses in the Place Djemaa el-Fna.  I managed to take in a couple of the sites of historical interest, including the Koutoubia Mosque, the oldest mosque built by the Almohad people in the 12th century; the picturesque ins and outs of the Palais de la Bahia, the 19th-century palace of Bou Ahmed, the Grand Vizier of Sultan Hassan I; and the Tombs of the Saadian people that used to dwell in the region. 

After a hot, sweaty day of walking, only one thing was in order:  a bath.


THE HAMMAN, THE TRADITIONAL BATH of the Arab world, is more than just a soak in a tub of water with soapy Calgon bubbles that take you away.  Different regions of the Arabian world have their own spin on the hammam — i.e. Turkish baths, Persian baths — but the common denominator to them all is that they get your clean in a most aggressive way, sort of like having a WWE wrestler give you a sponge bath.  As my guidebook said, “a hammam can be intimidating for first-timers.”

The Hotel Ali where I was staying couldn’t make getting my first hammam any easier; its basement was fitted with a clean and sanitary hamman facility (picture above).  For just about $4 (USD), one can get a hamman and massage without leaving the building.  French-speaking Mohammed, one of the hotel staff that usually manned the restaurant’s homemade pizza stand, was trained not just in pizza making but in the art of the hammam and led me down to the changing room. 

“[This is my first hammam,]” I told him with my basic high school French.

“[Do you have soap?]” he asked me in French.

“[Yeah, in my room,]” I replied, again in French.  I went up and got my complimentary bar and returned.  Mohammed led me into the hamman, a square steamy room of ceramic tiles on the floor.  On three of the sides were faucets where three buckets were placed, to be continually filled with warm water.

“[Are you going to take off your swimming trunks?]” Mohammed asked in French, wearing a pair of boxer shorts.

Funny, suddenly I didn’t understand French.  “Je ne comprend pas.” (“I don’t understand.”)


AFTER A PRELIMINARY RINSE (WITH MY TRUNKS ON), the hamman process began in three basic steps:

  • 1.  Lather.  Mohammed laid me on my back on a mat in the corner and proceeded to soap me up by hand.  I thought a bit weird about the local Muslim of men holding hands or the Arabian hetero male kiss-on-both-cheeks greeting, but there I was, voluntarily having another man give me a sponge bath.  Mohammed, in a professional, non-erotic manner, caressed my chest, arms, legs and feet with soapy hands. 

    Okay, relax, relax, I thought.  Man, this is awkward — and yet somehow it makes me feel like royalty.  Wait a minute, how come a hot Moroccan chick isn’t doing this?  Right, right, the book said that same gender washes you.  Whoa, hey that tickles!  Okay, when in Arabia, do as the Arabs.  Fine.  Hey this isn’t so bad; Mohammed is a professional after all.  Yeah, a professional.  Whoa, hey, a little too close below the belt there buddy.

    After Mohammed’s soapy, non-erotic rubdown, he flipped me onto my stomach and did me from behind, no pun intended.

  • 2.  Rinse.  Like a master of plate spinning, Mohammed somehow timed the filling of the three buckets in a way where he’d splash me with one and replace it under the respective spigot just before the water reached the brim, before moving onto the next bucket.  This went on in cycles throughout the later process and it made me feel like a car in a car wash.

  • 3.  Repeat.  Back on the floor, the lathering began again, this time with a mildly abrasive mitt for exfoliation of the skin and a lot more pressure.  The masseur and pizza maker squeezed out the tension in my muscles like he was kneading dough.

    Oh, oh, whoa.  What a minute, I thought this was supposed to be relaxing.  Hey careful down there, my feet are ticklish.  Okay, relax Erik, you’re getting pampered with a massage like a sultan.  Okay, settle down.  Okay, here we go.  Three, two, one, settle.  Whoa, hey, he dropped the soap!  Bad things happen in prisons when someone drops the soap!  Okay, he’s picking it up like it’s no big deal.  Okay, fine.  Hey, this is sort of nice.  Hey, I’m in a sauna getting a massage, check me out.  Whoa, get your hand from under there!

    Mohammed smacked me up, flipped me, rubbed me down until I was the cleanest I’ve probably been in my travels so far.  He rinsed me off with a the big buckets of warm water as I stood upright.  He lathered up my hair with shampoo in a manner that I could have just as easily done myself, rinsed me again and then turned off the faucets.  My first hammam was over.  I went to the changing room to towel down feeling clean, refresh, but somehow a little bit tenser than when I started.



“IT’S SO WEIRD TO HEAR ENGLISH,” some American girl was telling her friends in the Hotel Ali courtyard.  She was referring to the English coming out of my mouth as I was talking to a Canadian from Vancouver named Sebastian.  The American girl hadn’t heard English in a while outside her circle of classmates since they were students studying Arabic in Morocco’s capital of Rabat — and anything else she heard other than Arabic was usually French.

“How long have you known each other?” one of the college girls asked the Vancouverite and me.  Perhaps she noticed that Sebastian and I had an instant rapport with our mumbling sarcasm.

“You saw when I sat down here?” I said.  “That was our introduction.”

“It’s been about five minutes,” Sebastian added. 

Sebastian, a political science student studying in France was on break, traveling through Spain and Morocco.  I had approached him when I saw him flipping through Let’s Go: Spain, Portugal and Morocco and not the usual Lonely Planet.  I told him about my gradual conclusion that Lonely Planet books weren’t perhaps the best guidebooks on the market (at least not the “Shoestring” line).

“Lonely Planet, ha,” he said.  “That’s bourgeois.”  (My kind of people, huh?)

I told him about the valley and desert tour I booked earlier that morning, which included a classic camel trek, and he was intrigued.  I talked it up like a tout without a commission in hopes that I’d have at least one companion on the tour that I could relate to, and he said he’d think it over.


SEBASTIAN HAD SOME INTERNET BUSINESS TO HANDLE, so I went out to explore Marrakesh at night again.  The American college girls told us about some music festival at the Palais Badi not too far away, so I went to check it out and meet them — only to discover that no such performance existed or that I had the time wrong.  No matter, there was plenty of street entertainment back in the Place Djemaa el-Fna.  Plus, the nearby food stands were in full swing and I partook in a plate of mutton meat at one of the several mutton stands that had sheep heads on the counter so they could stare back at you as you ate their roasted flesh.

“Guess what I got,” Sebastian said, handing me a piece of paper in the internet cafe.  “A receipt.”  He had been convinced by my tout-like pitch and was slated to come long for the ride on the back of a camel.  This meant both of us had to call it a relatively early night since we’d have to wake fairly early the next morning.  I was pretty tired anyway from all the walking I had done that day, although I’m pretty sure it was the hammam that took the most out of me.






Next entry: Rock The Kasbah

Previous entry: Next Train to Marrakesh




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Comments for “Splish, Splash, He Gave Me A Bath”

  • Erik - you are reading my mind!  I was just about to post a “blog withdrawal blog withdrawal” comment, and lo and behold, you have new entries smile  Ok, now I need to read them but I’m supposed to be doing work, so don’t tell anyone! wink

    Posted by Liz  on  06/22  at  03:39 PM


  • Oh, and I loved the ‘around the square and the medina’ pics.  When you come to Japan (you’d better! LOL), I’ll get my husband to take you to an onsen (hotspring) - just as relaxing but you have to do the washing yourself.  Isn’t it funny how embarrassed westerners are about getting naked in front of other people of the same sex?  No one else seems to have this type of hang up.

    Posted by Liz  on  06/22  at  03:51 PM


  • how much for the meat and couscous?  shiet….can i get one to go?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/22  at  04:26 PM


  • SmAck it Up , FLip it, Rub it dOwn!!! oh Nooooooooo!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/22  at  04:29 PM


  • dood..that sheep’s head and mutton slabs looks deeeeliiiicious. Yumm!

    *pokes at the sheep’s eyeballs.*

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/22  at  04:37 PM


  • SIM - doing the running man and roger rabbit now!...

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/22  at  04:48 PM


  • Markyt: remember the Kid’n PLay! how about the “Hammer” !!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/22  at  05:13 PM


  • Those sheep heads look quite yucky - not sure I could eat sitting looking at them…

    The mosaicing on the tombs you took the pics of is amazing. I can’t believe all the mosaicing you’ve seen - it’s awesome!

    Welcome back - I’ve kept looking like five times/day to see if you’re back yet! Like Liz said - withdrawals!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/22  at  06:06 PM


  • SIM - remember them?  they are still part of my current dance moves (j/k)...

    hahaha

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/22  at  06:45 PM


  • erik, never thought i’d read in detail about a bath you got and every single thought in you head. too funny.  classic.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/22  at  07:55 PM


  • Thoes sheep heads really are staring you down as you eat their chared flesh! But, do they have to be upsidedown? WTF!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/23  at  07:42 AM


  • wow…a little man-on-man lather session! lol

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/23  at  04:32 PM


  • the sheep’s head didn’t look that bad in Octopussy!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/23  at  07:50 PM


  • MARKYT:  You can eat like a sultan in the night food stands for under five bucks.

    LIZ:  As of now, all signs point to Japan, late August or early September.  Sound good?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/23  at  10:44 PM


  • ERIK - you can also eat like a sultan at the RUHungry grease truck for under 5 bucks, but thats eating like a different sultan…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/23  at  11:38 PM


  • Who is this Sebastian guy you met, and how can I meet him too? He sure sounds like lots of fun. And I hear he enjoys a good hamaam handling too.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/24  at  02:31 AM


  • Who is this Sebastian guy you met, and how can I meet him too? He sure sounds like lots of fun. And I hear he enjoys a good hamaam handling too.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/24  at  02:32 AM


  • Meat & couscous looked de-lish. Mmmm. That bath was a hoot. You crack me up. I’m catching up while at the office at 730pm, and laughing out loud like an idiot. A well entertained, blog-addicted idiot, but damn that was funny.  Good stuff. I love it when you write in italics. It’s fun being with you INSIDE your head.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/24  at  03:06 AM


  • I second Christy’s comments - it is fun to be in someone else’s head and hear what THEIR voices say to them.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/24  at  03:33 AM


  • Hi Erik - so glad YOU are posting some news about what Sebastian is up to these days ! It’s great to hear all about what our son is doing!
    Hope we get to meet you sometime- surely you are due a visit to Vancouver BC . We’ll try to arrange something special for you when you come- perhaps the local wave-pool?
    Wendy - his mom

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/28  at  09:44 AM


  • Hi Erik - so glad YOU are posting some news about what Sebastian is up to these days ! It’s great to hear all about what our son is doing!
    Hope we get to meet you sometime- surely you are due a visit to Vancouver BC . We’ll try to arrange something special for you when you come- perhaps the local wave-pool?
    Wendy - his mom

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/28  at  09:44 AM


  • WENDY:  Hey there… traveling with Sebastian is great… although I’m not quite sure if it’s him who seems to be more mature than the average 20-year-old, or it’s me that can relate to that age group.  At any rate, it’s been fun so far…

    Welcome aboard what we call The Fellowship of The Blog…  enjoy and pass the word along!

    P.S.  Wave pool?  Sounds like someone is going to have to make a stop in Vancouver…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/28  at  02:12 PM


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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today, RickSteves.com, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.


Next entry:
Rock The Kasbah

Previous entry:
Next Train to Marrakesh




THE GLOBAL TRIP GLOSSARY

Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:

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1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year — I guess you could call them "1991ers" in 2013 — young, entitled millennials on the road these days, essentially.




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