A Tale of Two Hammams

You can’t travel to Morocco without experiencing a hammam (public steam bath).  Hammams are an important part of weekly life for most Moroccans as they usually visit at least once a week.  You can easily spend 2-3 hours since a hammam is not only for cleansing the body, but for gossip and socializing.  I found there was a ritual to the cleansing and by the time you leave, you feel like you are floating on air with supersoft skin!

I’m the type of traveler that loves to try almost anything once…and meet as many locals as I can.  I’d read that there was a difference between the local public hammam and the hammams located within hotels & riads.  So, I decided to try both.  I had researched and felt that I was ready for this experience…I was not.  Seriously. I have never experienced anything like this before in my life.  Well, maybe as an infant but my memory isn’t that good (I blame my Mom for not supplementing my formula with Ginkoba). 

I consider myself a modern Western woman who craves adventure.  But, um…I’m reserved with showing all my goodies to strangers.  Moroccan women are not.  While they may be covered from head to toe in public, it’s underwear-only (maybe) in the hammam.  I had read that you could bring your bikini or bathing suit to wear if you aren’t comfortable wearing just underwear (or going completely nude).  Apparently, swimsuits aren’t the norm in hammams (thanks, internet research).  Know that now.  Be ready to strip down and bare it all.

Public Hammams

Men and women bathe separately.  This could mean that there are 2 separate buildings, or that one gender is allowed to bathe in the morning while the other bathes in the evening.  The public hammams are much cheaper than the “spa” hammams (I paid around 100 Dirhams which is approximately $10 USD).  Partially, because it’s a “no frills” environment and you have to bring all of your own supplies.  The hammam I went to in Fes did provide buckets for water.

What do you need to bring with you?  A bag (to hold your towel and clean clothes); towel (I just brought one from the riad I was staying in); shampoo & conditioner; comb/brush; flip-flops (just like you’d bring to a gym shower); soap (most will tell you to buy black soap which has the consistency of a gooey gel but smells divine.  This is readily available in the medina.  I suggest finding some with Argan oil.); loofah (you can pick this up in the medina as well for 6 or 7 Dirham); henna (readily available in the medina); razor (if you want to shave); mat or stool (to sit on while you bathe); a bottle of water (it’s a steam room so you will get hot); deodorant (no use in spending 3 hours getting clean if you get funky within 30 minutes of leaving); lotion (say “no” to ashiness); fresh clothes & underwear (the underwear you wear into the hammam will get soaked); and a bucket (to hold all the aforementioned items).

I was lucky to meet 2 women thru my local guide who volunteered to take me to a public hammam.  And, I can honestly say that I would have been completely lost without their patience and guidance.  As we enter the changing room, I notice that there are open cubby holes surrounding wooden benches.  There are no lockers so you are just going on faith that nobody will steal your things.  My strategy was to watch and follow the lead of my 2 companions.  They stripped down to their underwear, put on their flip-flops and took their bucket of supplies thru a spacious tiled room into a narrow steam room (which was also tiled with mosaics).  So, I did the same.  Of course, while my companions had on pretty panties, I was wearing  disposable underwear that I had bought as a way to save space in my bag during my trip.  Yeah, I was stylin’.

As we enter the steam room, there are other ladies bathing.  I take a deep breath and walk right in.  I mean, I will never see those ladies again and I told myself this is a way to become comfortable with my body.  From there, it’s a series of rituals:  (1) We lay out our mats and stool, fill up about 10 buckets of water to varying temperatures (some were really hot, others were lukewarm while a couple were cool).  Then, my companions took off their underwear.  And, I’m like, “Um, are we supposed to be butt booty naked?”  (not sure how to translate that into Arabic so I just stood there with a blank look for a few seconds then took my panties off too).  (2) We use bowls & ladles to pour hot water from the buckets over our bodies.  Then, we use our hands to massage black soap over our skin.  This is a community effort as other women will ask if you can soap their back.  Of course, there was a lot of communicating with me in hand gestures since I only knew the word for “thank you” in Arabic.  Once we were soaped fully, we rinsed ourselves by ladling hot water over our bodies again.  (3) Next step is adding a small bit of water to the henna powder so that it would make a paste.  Then, we took our hands and smeared the henna paste over our bodies and let it sit as a masque for a few minutes.  I’m told this helps to soften the skin.  Then, we went thru the rinse cycle again. 

(4) After we rinsed, my companions got up and took their mat & loofah to another room.  Now, I was distracted by making sure I had my supplies so I didn’t realize that one of my companions had put their underwear back on until I’m in the next room…in all my big booty glory.  Sigh.  But, the only one who is concerned is me.  This room is where the women who work at the hammam will use your loofah to scrub you down.  They are wearing only underwear as well.  So, I am motioned over to a nice lady who says “Sleep”.  I’m like, “What?  We take a nap too?  But I don’t have any clothes on!”  I was so confused.  They start doing charades and then just move my body into the position they want it to be in by pushing me back into this woman’s arms so she can cradle me while she scrubs me.  I’m not going to lie, I was uncomfortable being naked and held by another almost-naked lady.  There was nothing sexual about it…but it was so weird to me.  Eventually, you are pushed into a lot of different positions (kind of like yoga) from laying on your side with your arm stretched over your ear to laying on your tummy with your face down.  Once I laid down, the lady grabs my ankles and pulls me towards her then starts scrubbing my back & booty.  I’m like, “WTF?”  Lord help me.  But, then, you kind of go into this relaxed state.  Don’t ask me how.  Every part of your body is scrubbed over the span of 15-20 minutes.  It’s clear that I’m a foreigner by my reaction and not being able to communicate in Arabic.  But, the lady was so nice and once she was finished she took my face in her hands and gave me a quick kiss on each cheek.  I think I still looked dazed from all of our “togetherness”. 

(5)  After the scrubbing, I was given my loofah back and headed back into the steam room to wash with black soap again.  Then we went thru the rinse cycle once more.  An attendant (wearing only underwear…seriously, nobody is clothed) keeps filling up our buckets with water.  (6)  Now it’s time to wash & condition our hair then rinse with the lukewarm water.  (7) Once finished, we move onto exfoliating our face.  I continue to do this while my companions shave their legs.  (8)  Then, my companions motion me to lay down on my tummy again (and I’m looking at them like, “Again?  I’ve already had my booty scrubbed.”).  They begin to massage my legs and back then have me turn over to massage my chest (I know), tummy and arms.  (9) Once the massage is complete, we do another rinse (this time with cool water) and I’m given some special shampoo for the va-jay-jay.  (10)  Finally, it’s time to go.  We walk out of the steam room, thru a cooling room into the changing room to dress and leave.

During this entire time, ladies come and go and everybody is talking like we are at a cafe instead of a steam bath.  It’s a very relaxed atmosphere and I noticed that the women bring in their young daughters so this is something that they start doing at a very young age.  Which is why they are not bashful or ashamed of their bodies.  I found this refreshing (once I got over being uncomfortable).  I felt so clean and so light.  But, after almost 3 hours, I was ready for a nap too.

Riad Hammam

This is a totally different experience than the public hammam.  The hammams located in riads (i.e. hotels) are geared towards tourists.  If you aren’t brave enough to be nude in front of other women, this is your best bet.  The riad hammams are like spas where you reserve an appointment time.  Once I arrived, I was shown to a changing room with lockers where I stripped out of my clothes, donned a bathing suit and robe.  Then, I was led to a shower to rinse off before being shown into a beautifully tiled steam room.  I was handed a pillow and instructed to lay down on the tiled bench.  I was given a bottle of water and a few minutes to relax before the treatments begin.  You can wear bikini bottoms but any top will be removed eventually…I found that out the hard way.  Once the attendant comes back in (she is fully clothed by the way), she starts to rub black soap over my body, then rinses me with warm water.  Next, she uses the loofah to scrub my body.  After that is complete, I was rinsed again, then led out to a small pool which was filled with cool water.  I stepped into the pool and soaked for a couple of minutes then was led upstairs for a traditional massage.  One thing I’ve noticed about massages that I get overseas is that they massage everything…and I do mean everything.  Booty and breasts.  So, you just have to either roll with it or let them know you are uncomfortable.

Overall, the hammam experience was great.  While I initially had some misgivings about exposing myself, I was able to move past it and really try to understand the true meaning of “cleansing.”  In an odd way, I became more comfortable with my body while developing a kinship with my companions.  If you go to Morocco, I highly recommend you experience the hammam.  I promise that you won’t forget it!

What to Wear When Travelling Abroad

Coco1One of the most popular questions asked when getting ready for a trip overseas is “What should I wear?”  I always suggest researching what the locals are wearing (with a few exceptions notated below).  Not solely for aesthetic reasons, but also for safety.  Most pickpockets target tourists.  Looking like you belong goes a long way.  Here are a few suggestions to help you look like a local on your travels abroad.

1.       Dress for the Country/Culture.  Each country has its own style.  Some countries are more lax (the U.S., England, Ireland, Scotland) while others take their fashion seriously (France & Italy).  With the exceptions that I have noted below, you can usually get away with a nice pair of jeans/black pants/skirt and plain shirts/sweaters.  Don’t wear anything outrageous or loud (leave the catsuit at home).

  • Middle East/Egypt/Morocco (& other Islamic countries) = First and foremost, you want to respect the culture of the country you are visiting.  Which means no Daisy Dukes while visiting the Pyramids of Giza in Cairo (and, yes, I have seen it).  Make sure you dress conservatively (covering most of your skin).  Yeah, it may be hot, but you can find breathable and dry-wick fabrics pretty easily.  Trust me; you do not want to stand out in a conservative country.  Women from western countries are viewed as being “loose”, which can invite sexual harassment from the local male population.  By keeping your goodies covered up, you take the attention off of you (and your valuables).  In Morocco, most women (and quite a few men) wear djellabas (a hooded robe).  These can be either heavy or light weight in fabric (according to season).  I didn’t wear one when I was there, but it is definitely an option which will reduce the amount of stares you get.  I tend to buy breathable tunics from Old Navy (most are 3/4 length sleeves), long flowing skirts, loose capris and convertible cargo pants.
  • France/Italy = These 2 fabulous countries are homes to the most famous fashion houses around.  This means they take their fashion seriously.  While the Italians are a bit more accepting, the French will turn their nose up if you walk past them wearing any of the items listed below in #3.
  • You can never go wrong with basic black.  It’s easy to coordinate and you can interchange with stylish accessories (like a scarf or costume jewelry).
  • The French love black, navy and brown.  I suggest using those as your base colors.  You will notice that most of the French will pair up their dark wardrobe with a colorful scarf.  Don’t have one?  Buy one when you get there…it’s a souvenir & fashion accessory all in one.
  • The Italians love color and you can get away with a lot more.  Most of all, it is attitude.
  • Quick everyday tip = Get your clothes tailored.  I noticed that many people look better in clothes that are altered to fit their shape.  I picked this tip up while visiting Paris.  Everybody there looks like a million bucks (or euros) and it really is because their clothes fit impeccably.
  • Spain = The Spanish love color & flowing maxi dresses/skirts.  I also noticed some ladies wearing cowboy boots with shorts but we will pretend like I didn’t see that because I don’t think that’s a good look personally (I like to call that seasonal dyslexia).
  • England/Ireland/Scotland/Holland/Czech Republic/Switzerland/Scandinavia = Pretty much anything goes.  I can’t say that I have seen a huge difference in what they wear vs. the U.S. (with the exception of the “don’ts” listed below).  A popular look during the summer of 2011 was shorts with tights & Chuck Taylors (*shudders*).  Don’t emulate that.  Hopefully that was a 1 season only look.LBD

2.      Dress for the Season.  Be sure to check the weather before you go.  Weather Underground is a good resource.  I have typically found that you will need to dress in layers no matter when you travel abroad.  A light jacket, colorful scarves, stylish cardigans/sweater coats are a must for spring, summer & fall.  Going in the winter?  Bring along a warm coat, some snazzy boots & a cute hat/scarf/glove combo.   I had left my puffer coat at home during a winter trip to Milan…only to realize that everybody (and I do mean everybody) was wearing one.  First and foremost, you want to be warm.  Don’t take an unlined peacoat when visiting Finland in the dead of winter.  Your health trumps fashion.  Plus, you will stand out as not knowing how to dress properly for cold weather 🙂  ExOfficio is now offering a snazzy sweater jacket that doubles as a travel pillow when folded.  This jacket is so cozy & warm!  I recently wore it during a winter trip and fell in love with it.  The jacket packs very easily, is super soft AND rain-resistant as well as keeping you warm & toasty.  This is now my go-to jacket both here and abroad!


3.       DO NOT WEAR…

  • Baseball caps!  If you want to protect your head & face from the harsh sun, opt for a stylish wide-brimmed hat (during the summer) or cloche/fedora (during the winter). Baseball caps scream tourist. Don’t bring your favorite sporting team to France unless you are actually on the team, k?
  • Baseball/Football Jerseys, High School/College T-shirts, etc.  Do I really even to explain why wearing a baseball or football jersey is a no-no? Again, you don’t want to stand out as a tourist for pickpockets. T-shirts are fine if they are plain or have a cool graphic. Bottom line, you want to look nice…not like you are getting ready to workout. If you just don’t think you can survive without wearing sporting apparel, buy a soccer/rugby jersey. You can fit in and it will be a conversation starter.
  • Fanny-packs!  Seriously…just no.  It’s not cute.  Tell your mother to leave it at home with the rest of the 80’s attire.  I don’t even know how this item became popular.  Never carry your money and valuables in a waist contraption that is easily seen.  You are begging a pickpocket to take a knife, cut the strap and steal it from you.  Use a money belt instead.  It’s similar to your beloved fanny-pack; it just goes under your shirt/waist of your pants instead so it will not be seen.  This protects your valuables from curious onlookers.
  • Expensive jewelry/bags!  A pickpocket will tackle you to steal your Rolex or Louis Vuitton.  Leave your valuables at home.
  • White sneakers???  I have actually seen quite a few locals wearing sneakers (though not usually white) around London & Paris.  My preference is to bring a pair of running shoes (as I like to workout during my trips abroad…even running races like the Paris-Versailles 10K) as well as a comfortable & stylish walking shoe (i.e. Hush Puppies, Mephisto, Clarks) that can transition into an evening shoe. I highly recommend walking shoes that have a rubber sole to minimize the impact of walking on cobblestones.  I love the Hush Puppies Sonnet flat which you can buy at Macy’s for almost half of what it retails for at other locations as well as the Makena Ballerina shoe.  Bottom line is to wear a shoe that you will be comfortable walking in for hours at a time.


4.       Must Haves.

  • Light jacket/cardigan/wrap = If you plan to wear tanks or sleeveless tops during the summer, be sure to bring something to cover your shoulders when visiting a place of worship.  You will not be allowed to enter with shoulders (and sometimes legs) exposed.  I bought Magellan’s Sun Protection Wrap for my recent trip to Morocco and fell in love.  So soft and it provides the necessary protection (both arms and head) when you enter places of worship.  I even wear it around at home.
  • Secure purse/money belt = I have been using a PacSafe purse (stylish & secure) to carry around my valuables, guidebook, umbrella & bottled water for a couple of years now and it is awesome.  Highly recommend!  The shoulder straps are reinforced with steel so it cannot be cut and the zippers lock into place.  It will take a pickpocket a few minutes to figure out how to gain access to your valuables.
  • Comfortable walking shoes = As I stated above, cobblestones can be harsh on your feet.  A stylish rubber-soled shoe will save your tootsies!
  • Dark colored pants & skirt = Use these as your base pieces.  Dark colors camouflage stains & are great to pair with funky accessories.


5.     Handy resources.  Here are a few websites that focus on travel-related items:  While ExOfficio & Magellans offer stylish options, you can certainly find great travel clothing from cheaper stores (i.e. Old Navy, Target, etc.).

While these tips may not prevent you from being identified as a tourist, it will keep your bag lighter and you safer.  Hope it helps!  Safe travels.  Do you have any travel fashion tips?  If so, please comment as I’m always looking for a fresh perspective!

Also check out my posts on Nikki’s Favorite Things: Fashion Accessories and Essentials for Stress-Free Travel.