One-hundred-thirteen steps to the bottom would mean 113 steps back to the top in nothing but my wet underwear after every muscle in my body had been stretched and relaxed into melted jello (I think I was relaxed; either that or completely shocked). Going to the famous Moulay Yacoub Hammam was a pretty big leap for someone who not only doesn’t swim (not can’t swim—doesn’t swim; some people are freaked out by mayonnaise, 13th floors on apartment buildings: for me, it’s swimming) but hasn’t been in a swimming pool since 1997 when my teachers forced me in the water at my middle-school pool party. The Moroccan bathhouse follows a peaceful, scenic drive through the rolling countryside 22 kilometers northwest of Fes, relaxing you for what should be a relaxing steam and massage. What could be more peaceful?
The smell of sulfur, salt, and twice-over-boiled eggs hits you before the steam does. The daily 100% humidity of Baltimore summers at home couldn’t prepare me for stepping into the room, let alone just touching the water. I sat on the edge of the pool and poked the water like a person who’s dared to touch a flame. I thought the Polar Bear Plunge was crazy. There’s no way my body could adjust to this heat. Embarrassed by my wussiness, I saw group of sickly 70-year-old men floating effortlessly in the mineral waters of the hammam, many of who come frequently for its therapeutic values. To my left was a mini-Moroccan Muhammed Ali—the model of physique. The man to my right looked like someone chewed a 300-pound ball of gum and rolled it around on the floor of a Hair Cuttery at the end of the night.
For seconds at a time, I lowered my legs in and out of the water, trying to adjust to the heat. My friend Ismail was knee deep in the water cringing. We looked back and forth between each other and the water, both of us trying to one-up the other—as he got in the water a little more, I got in a little more; as I got in the water a little longer, he got in the water a little longer. By minute 10, we were really looking back and forth for reassurance that it was OK to turn back and head to the car. So mission accomplished. I came, I experienced a hammam, I even got partly into a swimming pool, which is more than I’d done in a standard, non-boiling swimming pool since that fateful middle-school night. We could later tell people how intense it was and that we managed to swim in the water like champs. I could leave anytime now.
And then, The Mustached Man lowered a red bucket into the boiling water, dumped its contents over my head, repeated it five times, then slapped my back and my sides before doing the same thing to the row of people hanging around the edge of the pool. Now I experienced the heat of the hammam and could boast about it later; I could leave anytime now.
And then, Another Mustached Man came, holding no bucket, only pushing me completely into the water. My head was the only part of my body not in the water, yet it was the part of my body that boiled the most. This was the feeling of a person standing on hot coals, the heat vibrating up his spine and boiling his brain. On the road in Morocco, I guess it’s either 30 degree showers or 100 degree steam baths.
Semi-adjusting to the heat, I managed to stay in the water for 2, then 3, then 4 minutes at a time, albeit cringing all the while. I had now truly experienced the heat of the hammam and could boast about it later; now I could go home…
And then, obviously, I thought wrong. Outside of the pool, Yet Another Mustached Man grabbed my arm, walked me down to the lowest and hottest part of the hammam, and told me to lay on the ground and wait. I looked over at Ismail being massaged/wrung out like a sponge and thought this would have been my chance to run. But I’d come this far; this was the reverse summit of my Everest. While I debated in my mind which one was crazier, not running away while I had the chance or not getting traveler’s insurance, the 60-year-old man half the size of my 10-year-old nephew, without warning and without making a sound to let me know he was even there, came from behind me and proceeded to contort my body, one limb at a time, while smacking my sides. After 5 minutes of waiting for my knees and back to pop at any moment, it was over, and I walked away debating whether this was the most amazing or horrible experience of my life.
Fortunate to still be alive, I didn’t care that I didn’t have a change of clothes, or that I began the climb back up the 113 steps not wearing anything but my dripping boxers. Halfway to the top, the opening round of the World Cup, visible on a 14-inch TV through a cafe window, pulled Ismail into the cafe without his saying a word. As much as I would have enjoyed to watch the match too, and as much as I enjoy walking around without pants on like any other man, I just prefer not to sit in my underwear in the middle of a small room with 30 excited, screaming men huddled together. And yet I did for 90 minutes.
A relaxing end to a relaxing summer day.