Morocco Pt. 1: Marrakech and the Hammam

Morocco is not a “check-list travel” destination. Day time itineraries don’t start with a “must-see” monument, then move into a “have-to-try” local cusine and wrap up with a “can’t miss” museum. No, Morocco is all about soaking up the atmosphere. Wandering. Getting dirt underneath your nails. Squinting through sandy winds. Suffocating in crowded markets.  Summiting mountains. Listen to daily prayers, to shopowners yelling, to donkeys neighing – traveling Morocco is all about the sights, smells, foods and people.

On April 6 I traveling to Morocco with a fantastic group of fellow Maastricht students from Australia, Barcelona, Chile and Argentina. If you want a quick overview of the trip – watch this video my friend Pat created.

We spent 9 days exploring Morocco – and had the most incredible journey. As students operating on a minimal budget, we had some real adventures. We got dirty, we stayed in what some would consider unfit lodging accomodations, but we got a real Morocco experience. It was with little money but open attitudes and a knack for meeting people that we were able to stumble into some of the most authentic experiences. No tour book can ever, ever create a trip like the one we had – and for this I am thankful that I was able to enjoy Morocco with such an openminded and adventurous group of friends.

When words fail, I’m turning to photos to hopefully convey at least a snapshot of our adventure! This post won’t be linear, but our trip wasn’t about an itinerary, so the chaos that will ensue in this post is somewhat representative of the chaos of the experiences we found ourselves in while traveling around Morocco!

Quick note for loved ones: Not once did I feel like I was in a bad situation or in danger of any kind. Some of this stories might sound dangerous, but I was with a very smart group of travelers and we always looked out for each other. Also, Morocco is full of fantastic and welcoming people. Overall, a safe country to travel through as long as you are always aware of your surroundings.

Meet the group:

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Overnight train from Tangier to Marrakech – our first adventure. On our student budget, we bought second class train seat tickets. For 11 hours we crammed into a small compartment car and tried to get sleep as travelers, crying babies, drunks and all kinds of fascinated people got on and off the train. The best part – the train toilet that was just still standing water, just a compartment away but with smells ever present in our compartment. Around hour 9, I had to brave the toilet and have been a stronger person since. The group managed to make it through the overnight train with high spirits and decided that if we can make it through the train experience, we can make it through anything Morocco might throw at us!

And then we hit our first hostel in Marrakech:

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Looks nice, right?! For 5 euros a night, we thought we hit a jackpot. Turns out, this living room you are looking at was actually our groups accommodation. Sleeping blankets (covered in dirt) were scattered throughout the couches in this living room – and this was our room. Not bad for five euros, except again we had severe issues with the toilet/shower situation. The overall conditions of this hostel could’ve been enough to send some groups right back on a plane with a non-stop destination of comfort, but our group was again ready to embrace the discomforts and experience!

The unfortunate hostel situations (and even more unfortunate, the digestive issues of multiple members of our group making our already bleak combination toilet/shower situation even more of a disaster) were just a bump in the fantastic journey we had in Marrakech. Here are some snapshots of the incredible city:

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 This is the Koutoubia Mosque in the Medina (Old City) quarter. We saw a 2pm prayer here – women and men enter into two different quarters for Salah. Learn more about formal worship in Islam.

Terraces defined our dining in Marrakech. We ate tagine, coucous and kebabs on rooftops for nearly every meal. Our favorite terrace in all of Morocco was on the rooftop of our first hostel – we enjoyed both the sunrise and sunset from this roof. When visiting Morocco, the stairs are always worth the climb to eat on the terrace! This is an example of a typical terrace view in Marrakech:

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Jemaa el-Fnaa and the surrounding marketplace is the heart of the city. Vendors line the cracked walls and hawk their goods at the passing crowds tripping over each others feet and navigating around livestock. The city square is filled with street performers, snake charmers, orange juice stands and beggars. These following photos are representative of what a typical walk down a nearby street off the Jemaa el-Fnaa feels like:

Artists and craftsmen both make and sell their goods on the streets:

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Woman making Moroccan oil:

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Smells would transition between exotic spices:

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to the lingering scents of raw meat:

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Jemaa el-Fnaa by night

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The Hamam

As promised to the owner of Hammam Ziani, I wrote a favorable review of his hammam on TripAdvisor. I was trying to negotiate the price with him, and to lower the price I offered to write a very positive review to market his business. Somehow, this negotiation ended with a price reduction of 100 dirhams or roughly 10 euros. Annie and I got to enjoy the full hour and a half hammam package for about 17 euros! This price is unheard of, considering most normal hammams cost about 50 euros and upscale ones range into the hundreds for the same package deal Annie and I got.

Here we are about an hour before the hammam enjoying the tranquility of the Royal Palace:

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Local Moroccans visit the Hammam weekly, the public bath serves as a centerpiece of culture in Morrocco – and Annie and I were determined to experience, though we had little idea what to expect. From the second we entered the changing chamber, we realized we were in for an adventure and we shared a look of “what have we gotten ourselves into?!” Instructions were in Arabic, so we did our best to figure out what was going on – with no prevail. We were entirely clueless as to what to expect, what to do, and who the two ladies in the corner giggling at us were.

Our basic understanding was to strip down, then walk through a steamy door. We hesitantly obliged, and entered the hammam dressed with nothing but uncertaintly. Through the steam we could see faint outlines of naked figures moving about. The two giggling women took our hands and guided us towards water basins, then proceeded to THROW water over our heads repeatedly. I got a bad case of the giggles, and started laughing at the situation – I was naked in Morocco with a large woman dunking water on me. Annie started laughing too, then the ladies started laughing, and with the laughter, everything became a lot less tense. I accepted I was naked with strangers – and with this acceptance I was able to enjoy the hammam.

We spent a good 20-30 minutes in a steam room relaxing, then the women scrubbed us nearly raw, removing dead skin and the travel grim that had built up over the first few days in Morocco. We then proceeded to a massage, where our feet, back, neck, everything was spoiled. Our hammam experience ended with a final bathing back in the room with the basins. At first, I was exiled to the corner as they shampooed and washed Annie. Then, Annie was directed to the corner as the same process was done to me. The last moments we spent in the hammam, we were instructed to stand shoulder to shoulder as both women again lunged water at us. After the relaxing experience, we were lightheaded and refreshed. The final few minutes we could not stop laughing at the comical site we must’ve been – two friends standing naked as women poured water over us. But, we did it – we survived, and even enjoyed, a Moroccan hammam.

Post hammam, enjoying tea and letting the relaxation as well as the confusion about what just happened set in.

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Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part I, Uncategorized

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