“If you never did you should. These things are fun and fun is good.”
We stepped off the Easyjet plane in Marrakech carrying a thousand tiny bars of soap in our luggage. We weren’t being clean freaks; they were for our friends in the Peace Corps who needed them for a health clinic in a Moroccan hill town. We were looking forward to visiting that town and to meeting their Moroccan host family.
After an overnight stay in a Marrakech ryad (hotel) and a morning spent wandering the medina, we took a taxi to the bus station then took a three-hour bus ride to the coastal town of Essaouira where we met the host family—Hossein, Khadijah and their son. Hossein, the husband and father, was warm and welcoming and spoke English well. The child, an alert and active eight year old, liked TV and Spiderman, standing on his head and drawing pictures. Khadijah, his mom. spoke only a little English but communicated on a human level in a very nice way. It was she who provided two very memorable experiences for me.
At the time, Khadijah was attending culinary school and the first experience was the meal she prepared for us. It started traditionally with mint tea and cookies, nuts, and sweets. After that, she served a delicious shrimp soup, followed by fresh fish from the local pier cooked with olives, tomatoes, garlic, ginger, parsley and lemon. The exquisite presentation of the fish platter showed her skills and portended her future success as an entrepreneur offering Moroccan cooking classes for tourists. Khadijah’s Kusina now gets 5 star reviews on Facebook.
The second experience resulted from a conversation during that meal. I mentioned that I was interested in visiting a hammam (a traditional bathing facility) while in Morocco. Khadijah said that the ones offered for tourists were overpriced and she offered to take my Peace Corps friend Mary and me to her local hammam and to teach us the ritual. I was excited to have the opportunity and we agreed to meet her the next afternoon. She instructed us to bring towels, a scrubbing mitt and shampoo.
Since we had a few hours to kill before our rendezvous, we spent the next morning exploring. First stop was the Essaouira fish pier where a group of French female artists were sketching the bright blue boats. Afterwards, we walked the town ramparts then chatted with some local teenagers who had set up an information booth in the nearby square for International HIV-Aids testing day. Lunch was at a very cool restaurant where we sat on couches around a low table in a cave-like alcove and then we set off for our hammam experience.
Mary took me to a hanut (small store) to buy a scrubbing mitt and we met up with Khadijah who brought her own bucket full of goodies and guided us into a petit taxi. It took us to her favorite hammam, a short drive from the town center.
Once there, we entered the women’s part of the facility into a beautiful floor-to-ceiling tiled room that had blue and white padded benches. We stripped down and checked our clothes at a counter. They gave us each a big bucket and some plastic sandals. Clutching our towels and buckets, we entered a series of steam-heated tiled rooms. They were filled with grandmas, middle-aged women and young girls in various stages of their bathing rituals, and for many of them it was the one place they could remove their headscarves. Khadijah found us each a small low-to-the-ground stool in one of the rooms and showed us where to fill our buckets with a mixture of cold and hot water. She gave us each a small packet of olive oil liquid soap and instructed us to massage it into the skin all over our bodies.
The next step was called gommage. You take a scrubbing mitt and rub that on your skin. I started in on my arm and then Khadijah wasn't satisfied. She took over and, rubbing harder, sloughed off lots of dead skin. It was amazing. I dumped buckets of water on me to rinse off.
The next instruction was to go to the relaxation room and lie down on one of the tables. I did as instructed and enjoyed the tranquility for a while.
Afterwards, I returned to the bathing area to shampoo my hair and soap up my body with a nylon loofah-type thing that Khadijah provided and then I rinsed with more buckets of water poured over my head and body.
Next, Khadijah took out some small square tablets that looked like bath salts or bouillon cubes and dissolved them in water to make a paste which she smeared over her face and body and invited me to do the same. After a final rinse, we were all done and I was feeling wonderful!
One bonus of this experience was that it cost us the equivalent of about $3.00 apiece, including the taxi!
Have you had a local experience in another country that exceeded expectations?