I was in pain. A lot of pain. The kind of pain that makes you see blurry shapes and wanna slap the nearest person for daring to speak to you.
I'm rolling around on my the hotel bed, like a beached whale, clutching at my sides and stomach, slowly losing my mind.
The worst part of this scene is that I’m with company. To the side of the bed stands my good friend Francesca, bearing witness to my unfortunate state, which serves to grate against my fraying nerves even further.
It’s not that I mind having her in the room per se. It’s just that when one is solo traveling, these kinds of epic struggles can be suffered as they were meant to be suffered: in solitude and with an anxious hotel staff on the other side of a land line.
And damn it all if we hadn’t just made plans to go into the souks for shopping and some cultural absorption today. I would be lucky if I absorbed the three ibuprofen I just inhaled with a cold glass of water.
Screw this! I think to myself. I will not let this situation ruin our last full day in Morocco together. I will not be strangled by pain, rolling around in seven-hundred thread count sheets like some kind of punk.
I feel a lift from my stomach. My muscles relax and I experience a blissful rush of sweet lady endorphin.
“Wait. WAIT! I’m...I’m better!”
The pain subsides and I rise shakily from the bed, a renewed woman. I wipe the fear sweat from my forehead and look towards my friend with a lopsided grin. Haha! I’m a genius. A genius!
A fresh stab of agony hits me in the gut and down I go, face first into my pillow.
And stay down, it says. Kill me now, and be quick about it, I grumble back.
I can hardly understand it. I was perfectly fine at breakfast. We rose late morning from our Atlas Mountain view suite, the hot African sun streaming in through the gossamer curtains and open doors of our generous, private terrace. After dressing, we headed downstairs and through the hotel grounds, passing the crystal blue pool, taking a seat in the open-air restaurant. We happily tucked into a few eggs, pastries, espresso and mimosas.
We were feeling that all was right with the world, when something started to feel very, very wrong in mine. For a moment, I ignore the pain, thinking I had plenty of time to get to meds before anything got really bad. What an idiot.
“Go,” I moan at her, like the wounded animal I am. “Go and explore. I’ll catch up later.”
Francesca gives me her concerned look. The one where she knits her two, perfectly shaped eyebrows together into an imitation of those Precious Moments dolls. I know this look well. We’ve been good friends since college and along with being an amazingly smart woman and current holder of the Most-Traveled-With-Felicia title, she’s also an accomplished doctor.
I close my eyes. Maybe if I don’t see her look of concern for me, I won’t be so concerned for myself. I switch positions for the umpteenth time.
“Why don’t we go to the hammam?” she suggests. “I bet the heat would be good for you.”
Huh, I think between fresh stabs of agony. A Moroccan hammam. I’d heard about hammams.
Hammams (or Turkish baths) are beautiful, public bathhouses that gained popularity in Europe during the Victorian era.
For the uninitiated, Moorish hammams (or bathhouses) evolved from their Romanesque roots to meet the needs of ritual purification according to Islamic religion. Rather than having a series of pools that one might find in a western bath, Islamic hammams prefer streams of running water.
Hammams typically have three rooms: A warm up room, a hotter bathing room and a sort of cool down room. Hammams separate the sexes and provide not just a place to cleanse and refresh, but were also the location of socials, parties, and other public delights for the wealthy during their heyday in the late 1800s.
Oh, and did I mention that they are served by attendants that bathe you?
Everyone who had been to this part of the African continent mentions hammams with a smirk. Not the kind of smirk that says, “don’t go”. It’s the kind of smirk that says, “get ready”. The kind of smirk that comes from people who rarely color outside the lines. That’s where the smirk comes from.
I wasn’t sure I was up for someone looking at me just now, let alone touching me.
Francesca picks up the phone and calls down to the front desk. Several minutes later, we’ve booked a double appointment at the spa for our hammams, which start in half an hour. I crush my face further into the pillow.
An hour later, we’re at the spa, yours truly having half hobbled in pain across the grounds. The two women at the front desk are...not the best. I don’t think this is the pain talking. I think they are truly just uninterested and seemingly bothered by people.
Frankly, it’s been this way since we arrived at the Sahara Palace.
I was first drawn to the Sahara Palace by the images: a tall, white and sand colored castle against the backdrop of the lush, snow-capped Atlas Mountains. The thought of spending a few days in the lap of luxury, after a trek in the desert, sounded like the perfect idea.
The evening of our arrival, we were driven up the long, brightly lit driveway and greeted by six to seven smiling and smartly dressed attendants. We retired almost instantly to our rooms after enjoying a cocktail in their opulent green and fuchsia colored peacock room. At daybreak, I was excited to see the Sahara in it’s full splendor. Indeed, from my own photos, I can see the veneer of beauty and exquisite colors that first drew me to the property.
Upon closer inspection though, the palace is, sadly, peeling at the seams. It wasn’t uncommon to see half finished carpets or puckered paint in open public areas. Fabrics throughout the hotel are severely water damaged, blotchy and multi-toned due to both moisture and sun.
Much of the skeleton staff give off the air of mild annoyance by the presence of guests (what few guests they have) and oscillate between wanting to be very helpful or being very unconcerned.
I would be amiss if I didn’t mention two sweet exceptions: the kind manager of the indian restaurant on the property, who served me grandly even though I was the only diner in the whole ballroom; and the groundskeeper who excitedly ushered me up to the suite where HBO filmed Sex In The City 2, so that I could take pictures.
I bite back a particularly nasty remark at these two “greeters” and we’re taken to the women’s locker area to undress, robe and wait for our session.
We walk past a large pool, surrounded by dark wicker loungers, just beyond the waiting room. This hammam is pretty modern, I think, accepting a little glass of ice water.
We walk onwards into the locker room, passing through to a fairly non-descript, but very wide hallway.
Looking left and right along this corridor, we find a few framed pieces of art. They are drawings and paintings mostly, depicting scenes of moorish baths by various artists.
The most famous one is a reproduction painting by french artist Jean-Léon Gerome, where a fair skinned contingent of women are being serviced in the bathhouse by a dark skinned slave. I barely glance at it. It’s all very bougie.
“Ugh. It feels so...colonial!” Francesca would later hiss to me in scandalized tones. She is genuinely mortified and ashamed of these paintings, and indeed, of her own physical proximity to a place that reminds her about deep human injustices.
I look around at the place, at this broken palace (which was formerly a Taj Hotel property, before ties were cut to the famous conglomerate). I respect her sensitivity and I would probably be scandalized too, if we were in a place where rights violations had happened. As it stood, I was in pain and I couldn't think of anything else but easing it.
“Besides,” I pipe up, lifting my nut brown arm up to her ivory one. “We paid for this service. We know these women are not slaves or indentured servants. It’s not that much different from having an appointment at a spa back in the States or going to a Russian bathhouse.”
Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. There are plenty of different and...interesting things I wasn’t prepared for during my first visit to a hammam. Allow me to elaborate.
Firstly, after separately undressing and throwing on our turkish robes, we’re met with our first decision: does one wear the flimsy paper underwear they provide, or not?
Normally my policy is no, but that's also because when getting a full body service like a massage, one is typically covered in layers of towels, which are deftly moved and rearranged to only expose one’s shameful bits piece-by-piece at a time. I knew one of my attendants was going to see me full on naked and I wasn’t sure I was ready for the Full Monty. Then again, it is a bath and paper underwear would probably just soak right off...
The final verdict: wear the paper undies.
We return to the exterior pool and wait in the loungers for our attendants to arrive.
Francesca is the picture of peace, her little head laid back on the chair, eyes closed, the sound of the lapping water and soothing spa music rushing over her.
I can barely hold still in my lounger. I’m pretty sure that at any minute, Ridley Scott is going to call “Action!” from the sidelines, and an alien is going to burst straight through my abdomen.
Two silent women, wearing sporty black garb, come to the resting area and beckon us forward into the hammam. I roll off the chair in agony, my face squeezed up like a grape, and walk through the first doorway.
In true Islamic style, the exterior of the spa is nothing compared to the inner beauty that I behold the moment I cross into the inner chamber.
Made completely from slabs of the sleekest gray and white marble, the first room is round, with a towering dome. The dome is dotted with small, geodesic shaped windows, whose openings let through streams of perfect afternoon sunlight, which bounces off the floor and passes through the thin veil of water hanging breathless in the air.
I walk forward, nay, drift like a dream, agog at this awe inspiring architecture and curse inwardly at man’s inability to take high-resolution pictures directly from their retinas. Not that anyone would ever abuse that, ever.
There is an opening through this room, into a second, more magnificent room. It’s darker than the first, with slabs of pink, brown and gray marble, with a higher ceiling and several fountains of water, flowing in eight or so alcoves that line the room. The air here is choked with steam and the marble is clearly very hot. There is a large silver tray on a low plinth in the center of the room, filled with various spices, scrubs and other luxurious items fit for queens.
The two attendants leave us a for a second while we look around in wonder at this heavenly place. It really is very hot and extremely humid. We smile at each other with expressions that impart both excitement and slight apprehension.
The two attendants return, arms filled with fresh white towels and silver bowls. One of the ladies sits her supplies down by the tray, turns and kinda gestures at us.
These women don’t speak English, which is fine, so I try a French phrase or two. After a few seconds, it’s clear that they don’t really speak that, either. Or perhaps they did, but the meaning of their repeated gestures is unmistakable: time to derobe. Both of you. Right here. In same alcove.
As a young woman, for several years, I took dance lessons. I’ve also performed in various singing competitions, musicals and plays. What I’m trying to say, is that I’m no stranger to doing a quick change in front of my fellow woman, no problem. But most of the time, getting down to brass tacks still means a bra and underwear are usually present. I was raised in Oklahoma, with a healthy appreciation for the modesty. I am not, therefore, accustom to fully exposing myself to my friends.
For example, if a friend wants to change her outfit while we’re getting ready to go out for drinks, I’m the first to turn away to give her privacy. Basically, this was a kind of a, uh, situation for me.
I glance at Francesca. Her placid face betrays a slight hint of trepidation. I catch her eye and we both experience a moment of hesitation before slowly, but surely, acquiescing to the request.
I peel off the robe and slowly turn back to the group, trying not to make any overt glances at my lady companion. I round in my shoulders and cross my legs slightly in order to make myself appear smaller.
We’re just a couple of gals. No biggie. Just a couple of gals. In morocco. Taking a bath.
We look expectantly at our mistresses of ceremony.
They guide us into our alcove, which has a roaring stream of hot water flowing to the marble floor, the steam from it embedding itself into the very roots of our hair. There are two long, marble benches on either side of the fountain and our attendants begin laying down fluffy white towels on top, like you would do with a sunlounger on the beach. They gesture for each of us to lay down on top of our towels. I lower myself to the bench.
Holy mother of god, that is f**king hot!
I immediately leap up from the bench, the heat from the marble having passed through to my skin like a lighter on a marshmallow.
I dance on the spot a bit, trying to cool down and I see my lady attendant grin with a little amusement. She quickly unfurls another towel and places it on top of the second. I eye it warily and wait for a moment. Finally, gingerly, I lower myself back down to the bench, ready to spring up like cat over water.
It’s much better this time, though still pretty toasty. I slowly swing my legs up and lay face down. Actually, I lay a little less than face down. The heat is so intense coming off the marble-towel bed that I try to keep my cheek a centimeter or two off the surface.
Our attendants turn from us and begin testing the flowing tap’s temperature while conversing softly with each other. They dip their silver bowls into the large basin at the bottom of the fountain, filling them to the brim and walk back to each of us. My body draws taut like a string.
A layer of perfectly tepid water rushes over my skin, up around my ears and over the curves of my frame. Woosh! Another. Splash! Another.
The water balances the heat from the marble and I’m able to lay my head down onto the bench. I close my eyes and let the hot water work its magic over me. For the first time in hours, I feel my body unknot.
Our lady attendants brook no nonsense: this is a job and they will perform it. Preferably with dead pan facial expressions.
They go to work on each of us with various soaps, scents and salts. The are truly bathing us, so this means that at times they lift our limbs or indicate for us to sit or stand. They aren’t rough but they aren’t gentle either. They get our skin soft and exfoliated. I can practically feel my pores singing.
Also, my pain is completely gone.
It may be the heat, the distraction of the treatment, the pills kicking in, or all-of-the-above. Whatever it is, I’m blissfully beyond the last few hours of agony and only thinking of the smell of black soap and sugar scrub.
After a thorough rinse in the alcove, we’re moved into the third and final room. This room is very bright, with white and mint colored marble. The high set windows are large and the sun brightens the whole space. The temperature is far cooler than the second room while still being balmy.
Here, there are more benches and we’re each pointed to a spot. My attendant puts down two towels before acquiescing to my frantic gesticulation to add a third (still so, so hot) as well as a face cradle like those seen on massage beds.
This is the final step in our hammam: a relaxing massage. For thirty minute, I enjoy my massage, the scent from the oils and heat from the marble, which only serve to further relax me.
With the massage complete, our attendants lay our robes at our feet along with water, and exit through a far door. I sit up straight, robe quickly and sip. I close my eyes. Neither of us move for several minutes as we soak up the atmosphere.
We exit back into the changing room, settled the bill, and head back to the room, in near silence. We're so relaxed that even our vocal chords have gone slack.
“Feeling better,” Francesca asks me tentatively, a few minutes after we arrive back at our suite.
“I feel so great!” I gush.
I truly do. My skin feels fresh. My body is relaxed and I feel completely at peace, ready for the rest of our day.
“It was absolutely, positively, just what I needed.”