My Steamy Moroccan Bath

August 2011

By Maureen Moore

Eleven days in and my muscles were still frozen and sore from continuous contraction in an attempt to resist zero degree Celsius temperatures.  My trusty Lonely Planet guide book certainly didn’t advise me about this.  It was winter, yes, but nature had thrown southwestern Europe a cold front curve ball and dropped snow at sea level.  Word on the street was that it hadn’t been this cold in 20 years. Add to that the otherwise beautiful architecture of this country and you have a deadly combo: Arctic cold Arabic tile, no insulation or interior heating, and single-paned (often cracked) windows. It was one frigid country that February of 2009.   But I could see life flowing from my body.  With each exhale, my breath hovered in front of me everywhere I stepped, as if it were an evanescent guide.  I knew I was alive.

At 26 years of age, my southern Californian sensibilities were challenged on this two week trip throughout Al-Maghrib-my first plunge into Northern Africa.  With backpack in hand and miles of other foreign hostels, bus rides, hitchhiking and wild adventures behind me, Morocco tested my maturing self.  The feral cats who lurked around the metal cafe tables outside of tea shops, the scent of urine that emanated from dark corners, the absence of soap and toilet paper in bathrooms…it all began to wear on me like the heavy coat that became my day and night attire.  Hygiene comes at a premium in Morocco and we weren’t traveling with enough dirham to afford that luxury.  Instead we stretched our savings thin to afford us a more authentic experience, one that tested my tolerance for the grit of raw Morocco, where temperatures inside weren’t any warmer than those outside.

After skirting through little towns and a barren countryside in a tagine-colored Hyundai we made it to Fes. It was a long-awaited arrival; I had visions of old world grandeur from this UNESCO world heritage 1,200 +year old city, apparent home to the longest operating university in the world.    I saw the medieval maze of arched doorways and elaborate metal screens, colorful geometric tiles in expansive interior patios with hanging lanterns in crimson and saffron. I tasted sweet French pastries and sunk my teeth into plump dates.  And then I woke up.

Fes is a chaotically intriguing mess of men and animal, of noise and smell intertwined into a muddle of unrecognizable matter that pulses through the winding, dark labyrinth of a narrow but immensely large medina.  It is said to be the largest car-free urban center in the world.   Bodies, mostly male, navigate themselves with intention through corridors and open doors, jutting in and out of shadows, only illuminated by the natural light that sneaks in through the slats in the wooden lattice that lie over the souks.  Little boys kick deflated soccer balls up against decaying alley walls.  With each kick crumbles a piece of world heritage-grade wall to the ground, history dissolving into the dirt floor.  The call to prayer rings at marked intervals throughout the day breaking through the shout and hollers of the men peddling their wares.  Twelve year old boys haggle with foreigners for a chance to lead the blind through the labyrinth they themselves navigate like the back of their hand.

The noise and undecipherable language took on a visual quality of clutter and confusion in my ears. Shoulders and elbows brushed against my body. I sucked in my chest to avoid accidental contact with the passersby. I no longer had control over who or what  touched me.  Wisps of my strawberry-blonde hair tried to run free beneath layers of scarves and a make-shift head wrap.  My pink nose bit with frost and two brown beady eyes were the only remaining parts revealed.  The cold outside air pierced my skin day in and out, yet it seemed to be more tolerable than the biting air of the tiled room of our dingy, yet authentic hostel.

Topping my list of special visits on this journey was to a trip to the hamam. I had read that a visit to the hamam was best suited for the city of Fes.  I’d held out for this experience, dreaming of the hamam, longing for the hamam, and praying for the hamam up until this point.  Visions of a hot, steamy bathhouse and an opportunity to unleash my tense breath in the safe company of other women waifed around my head.   I was overly ripe for a retreat from the harsh weather where my mind could rest at ease away from the constant company of males.

My moment had arrived. I entered the unassuming hallway which led up to a small booth to pay the entrance fee. A large woman stared at me.

“Massage,” I murmured in my best French-inflected accent.

“What?” She must have muttered back in Arabic.

“Massage,” I demanded, this time dragging the ‘s’ into the back of my throat to render a French intonation, like the a sharp hiss of those straggly feral cats who roam the medina like kings.

She must have finally understood because she collected my 30 dirham and waved me into the hallway that led to a tiled lobby.  The anticipation for this moment alone started to warm my body. The beige walls of the waiting area rose to meet high ceilings, which matched the beige of the tiled floor below.  The color alone made me feel like the place must be clean, a stark contrast from the blacks, grays, and browns that colored so much of the outside world.    The warmth immediately unwound the resistant breath I had held coiled so tightly those past days.

I stood alone taking in the details, waiting for a prompt of what to do. I noticed the line-up of women on the bench dressing themselves after having completed their spa time.  Socks were being pulled over wrinkled toes while undergarments and layers of white thermals were stretched over children’s heads by their mothers.  Next to them a cleaning lady swept orange peels and hair balls from the floor with her large broom.  Her eyes peeked out from behind strips of straggly hair, dampened in a cocktail of sweat and steam. I tried to meet her eye and not the naked chest where two lumps of shriveled breasts hung like dried oranges  on a forlorn tree.  Her thinly worn white underwear seemed big enough to rise up and meet them, but settled instead for a position right below her belly button.  Despite the haggard appearance, she greeted me with a toothless, sincere smile, and eagerly egged me on to derobe and initiate my visit.

Slowly removing my head scarf in an effort to buy time to collect any other behavioral clues, I felt my hair falling over my shoulders, gliding over my collar bone.  The sensation was so novel it stirred me out of my fixed observation and back into my own body. I hadn’t felt anything touch my skin like this in over two weeks.  The weather alone had succeeded in enforcing the Arabic dress code upon my western body.  Piece by piece, the layers of clothing came off, bearing my skin to the open air.  For the first time in days I did not shiver. I was down to a bare naked body, save for clunky tennis shoes and my undies. Yet looking down towards my shoes, past my nakedness, something beige caught my eye. A flesh-colored object was pressed against my stomach.  There lay, exposed to all, my most valued asset.  My money belt, complete with passport, credit card, cash, and return ticket home stared innocently at all of those around me.  As if my light skin and hair didn’t stand out enough in this local Moroccan spa, I had just sealed the deal with this grand entrance.

There I was, standing in awe of my situation and facing what I thought would be the most awkward moment in the bath house.  I tepidly approached the exposed, monitored locker area with a reluctant, helpless expression on my face with pants, shirt, bra, scarf, and jacket bundled in my hands.  The money belt remained buckled to my waist.

Motionless, I stood.  The lady behind the locker counter affirmatively nodded her head and offered a gentle smile of encouragement. I did the only thing I could do that was consistent with the situation: expose my uncertainty in turning in all of my belongings, including the money belt.  I pointed at it, raised my eyebrows in question, and shrugged my shoulders. I exhibited all of the body language possible to relay my honesty and uncertainty.  Vulnerability and confusion muffled my ability to make a decision.  Do I entrust a Moroccan bath house with absolutely everything I own?  Do I redress and leave, showing my distrust and, in turn, commit a cultural crime only to dare walk in again- belt free, conscious heavy?

The steam from the spa area wafted into the lobby like smooth olive oil nurturing every tired bone and muscle in my cold, crackly body.  The lure of the warmth diluted my logic, my head a mushy blur of sensuous heat.  Suddenly I snapped out of it.  My indecision had triggered anger in the locker room lady.  Noting my reluctance, she began to yell “confiance” louder and louder, as if the rising decibel of the word would disable my rational into naivete, and allow me to give her my plane ticket, passport, and credit cards with upmost trust and confidence.

I couldn’t do it.  The pragmatic voice of travel-savvy experience inside my head reminded me not to be naïve, that I’d already learned plenty a lesson on trust.

Already fatigued from this stressful situation, I mustered up a defeated smile of condolence, hoping she’d understand it had nothing to do with her.

Gaze tucked towards the floor, I quickly redressed, walked out, and handed all of my belongings to my travel partner.  I then returned to the hamam as a seasoned veteran.  Little did I know.

This time I whipped everything off with quickness and confidence, wanting to exit the lobby where the faces recognized me and to conceal myself among the clouds of hot steam that awaited me further in.

Stark naked I walked into the bath area to locate the masseuse I had ordered.  To my utter surprise, every woman and child inside was clothed in underwear.  I, on the other hand, had every bare spot of body boldly displayed.  Merde!  There was no going back this time.  I was already in too deep.



New appreciation for an old concept: The case for philanthropy

as published by on January 8th, 2010

by Maureen Moore

Over the past two and a half years, I have really come to understand philanthropy on both a personal and societal level.  Neatly packing up my content life in Los Angeles and shipping it on the adventure express to the Western-most corner of the Iberian Peninsula, I slowly settled into a very different sort of existence in Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon.

Why Lisbon and what spurred the move is pretty irrelevant.  For lack of a more exotic answer, I was just ready for something else, and that something was the slightly mysterious and little- touched corner of the Iberian Peninsula which spoke a language I wanted to learn and was a mix of what I envisioned to be Latin, European, and Arabic with a bit of salty Atlantic sea.  What unfolded was a journey in learning Portuguese, making friends, working and supporting myself on local currency, and being a keen observer of Portuguese culture, with my eyes and ears privy to more local access than the average foreigner-thanks to my acquired language skills and job stints at Médicos do Mundo (Doctors of the World) and International House language school.

There is much to be applauded about this humble, fairly homogeneous culture that has somehow steered clear of Western consumerism and nutritional excesses, maintaining their local traditions and honoring their sea-faring ancestors by living off a healthy diet of fish and non-processed foods.   But the living experience (which for the sake of this particular argument) was really just a foreign context -it could have been any- for gleaning insight on another culture, which in turn, shed light on my own. As I struggled to plan fundraising events for Médicos do Mundo while trying to understand the country’s relationship to philanthropy, I began to better understand my own country’s thoughts on the matter. Having traveled for pleasure and work all of my adult life, I’ve had plentiful experiences in the Americas and Europe-chances for both insight and participation.  But it wasn’t until I was truly part of somebody else’s system- resident visa and social security number to prove it- could I understand, and more importantly, appreciate, what was so special about my own.

Growing up as a middle-class Californian girl, I was taught to share with others, expected to give of my time and energies for fundraising events and community projects, learned that I had the power to initiate and create opportunities that would impact someone other than myself, and then also learned how to nicely package it all up in documented form as part of an unspoken admissions requirement to get into a good university.

The fact is, we Americans grow up doing just that.  Giving, lending, sharing, partaking, creating, and organizing: all for a greater good. (Of course there are plenty of other motives too- we could all write a piece on the “Me generation” so just stick with me on this one.)   We do not wait for someone else to instruct us about what to do, how to start, or where to take initiative. We founded our own system by joining forces with each other, volunteering, and gathering as individuals to build something for the larger community’s benefit.   Now that the system is in place and age has shown its wrinkles and ailing parts, we –through organizations, community partnerships, and individual action- fill in the gaps and mend those broken parts.  The scale extends from small to large and community threads are patched together thanks to the free-willed help of many.  Cultural institutions are built due to the initiatives of individuals and meanwhile the state has its citizens to thank for a job well done.

Recently settling back in my own culture, I find myself in the middle of the job search like so many others out there.  What keeps my spirits high in this gloomy economy are the amount of amazing organizations out there mobilizing people and their energy to tackle these little and also really big issues that affect all of us on a daily basis.  (And yes, volunteerism is on the rise thanks to unemployment.)  What I am really getting at here though is our deeper-seeded relationship with the culture of philanthropy.  I know that even for myself the common definition has probably strayed a bit from its origins.  It’s not about giving money or handing out charity.  Philanthropy is about private initiatives for public good in order to improve the quality of life.   As the name well embodies, it’s about loving (philos) humankind (anthropos). And it is in action all around us, all the time.

A few weeks back I was privileged to be in the company of about forty women writers in a WriteGirl volunteer training session for their upcoming year activities.  Uniting to pool their talents and resources for a community of teen girls in greater need, these women showed their commitment not just for a day of service, but for an entire nine month period of events. The group committed to each other and the community they were to serve as if it were a job, their duty.  The return on their investment?  Immeasurable social benefit- for all parties involved.

As we moan and complain about the current state of affairs, hairs raised over the future of this health bill and shaking in fright and disgust as California’s school system erodes on a daily basis, we have the power to take action and do what we can to contribute to something better.  In fact, just launched their proposal to facilitate a massive community network of idealists, using the brain power and resources we already have to address the gap between our desire to influence change and our action.

So all I am sharing here is that we’ve already got what it takes. As the daily news focus seems to consistently thrive off of the lack, the broken, the corrupt, let us not forget we do not need to wait for the help of the state to take a small action of responsibility for our future and the betterment of humanity. We created this nation, and we have set an example to the rest of the world of how individuals, working together outside of the traditional workforce, can make a difference.  But we need to keep our model strong by taking initiative now so we can access and enjoy all of the powerful human potential that is waiting.

Travel writer Maureen Moore will forever be a California girl, but her global soul has lured her to climb the funiculares in Valparaíso while learning Spanish, to dance salsa with the Habaneros in Cuba while working in tourism, to speak Mexican street slang while serving chelas at a bar in Guanajuato, and most recently to live out a 2.5 year residence in Lisbon, Portugal, working for Doctors of the World and teaching English.   Having recently returned to Los Angeles, she is pursuing work in non-profit management within the cultural arts and education.


3 Responses to “Essays”

  1. I loved reading this. Let Lina know you write these, she will enjoy it, I know.


  2. Do you know the bairro social sounds just like the Alentejo. Lots of unemployed, alcoholic and druggies, people living off wellfare

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