A trip to a local Hammam “a girls afternoon outing”
After months talking about going to the Hammam and experiencing such traditional aspect of the local's routines, Nadia consented that the weather was cold and depressing (so not like Tunisian winter according to her) that we needed to pamper ourselves with an afternoon in the local Hammam she visits.
With just an idea of what I was about to embrace I prepared a backpack with some bath towels, shampoo, conditioner, flip flops, an underwear change and a warm jacket. While talking to Nadia I had understood that in Tunisia contrary to what I had read in Morocco the underwear is kept on instead of going full nude.
I met Nadia in her local Hammam at 3 pm.
The Hammam’s are usually separated by gender serving exclusively one gender or the other, or by schedule with the afternoons reserved for the women and the nights for men. A few have side by side facilities but not often.
We went in, the first room, the equivalent to our changing rooms, was a big room with some large elevated areas on the sides with coat hangers on the wall and floor covered with a rattan style matting.
Shoes are to be left on the floor next to this elevated area and the entire experience starts immediately in here for those who keep a close eye.
The local ladies arrive with a travelling suitcase, usually a carry on but often also a full check-in size one, this immediately caught my attention, clearly, this Hammam business was taken seriously around here and obviously my 15-year-old backpack denounced me without any doubts as a foreigner, my French confirmed any doubts.
Not knowing much about the ritual I was doomed for mistakes and the first one at the eyes of the other lady clients was there to be displayed, for sure I was not fully prepared for the ritual just with my backpack.
So what’s in the suitcase beside what I have on my backpack I wondered?
The answer came shortly as Nadia prepared her spot or should I say our spot?
On top of the rattan matting in the elevated area she placed a Futan (a linen cloth much like a table cloth) on top of this she placed a small very soft rug similar style to their individual prayer rugs but much softer. On top of her suitcase, she placed all her sets of towels.
To my rookie eye, the fact that most ladies had colour coordinated items was not by accident. To their experienced eyes, my modern dark grey towels were a sign that I must be a coocoo.
All the ladies sat down to get undressed, me not seeing a bench to sit I preferred to undress standing (the idea of undressing myself sitting where I had just stand felt strange) first frown was raised I was making a mistake, but soon that would be forgotten when I shocked them by wearing a thong and not full grandma nickers.
Oh, that caused some talk!
Nadia solved the issue saying in Arab something like: you know how these young foreigners are... (coocoo)
Later she confessed that to go to the Hammam most younger women have a special set of grandma style nickers to avoid judgment from the other ladies, especially the older ones.
Here I was confused, so it’s okay to be splashing hot water on each other and in front of each other just wearing knickers and then there’s a problem mine are thongs and don’t cover my butt cheeks?!
Because in reality I was not fully prepared we bought me the “gommage” glove (scrubbing glove) (a black glove made of English Crepe fabric ) and borrowed one of their little plastic buckets.
We also got some seaweed mask for massage, a special traditional olive oil soap (olive green colour) and traditional teeth cleaning wood bark (extracted from Salvadora Persica tree) just to make the whole experience more traditional.
With all needed we walked to the baths area, just wearing our nickers and flip flops while our bath towels stayed on our spot.
This Hammam is not modern, it’s old maybe from the 70s or 80s, the white wall tiles are cracked in some places and not impeccably laid, but very clean.
The first room had a huge bucket where two taps were pouring water, one super hot the other normal cold, an all around the wall concrete bench and two big stone slabs where two ladies viciously scrubbed clients out of their dead skin.
We found a spot to sit and for our things and we started the ritual, splashing hot water bucket after bucket on ourselves. Apparently the hotter the better, without exaggerating of course.
When we finally decided our skin was softened by the hot water (in my case once my hands were all pruned in the case of one of our neighbours when she was red-faced with heat) we moved on to soaping ourselves very well with the traditional green soap, once Nadia was happy with the amount of soaping we went back to the water buckets splash, one after the other waiting for our turn with the “gommage” lady.
While waiting we proceeded with some mouth/teeth traditional hygiene.
First we damped the teeth cleaning wood bark in the hot water just a few seconds and then we placed it in our mouth and chewed on it like chewing gum for maybe a minute, Nadia informed us immediately that we shouldn’t swallow the juices released by the bark as being chewed but to gently spit it on the ground and pour water on top to drain it away.
After chewing for a bit she showed us how to rub the wood bark on the side of our teeth and gums to clean them also.
The juices released from the bark were at first quite spicy and intense much like fresh horseradish, but from the explanation, Nadia gave me and further research on uncle Google, these juices are antibacterial and anti-inflammatory. On our second trip to the Hammam, the taste was milder but one of our neighbours was not very careful when spitting the juices and got the chin all tainted orange for a day.
When we finished with the wood bark maybe 5 minutes later and trashed it we inspected our teeth, they looked indeed whiter and cleaner.
Finally, it was our turn to the “gommage”, I went first. The lady pointed to the slab letting me know she wanted me to lay down on my belly, she grabbed a huge bucket of hot water, wetted my “gommage” glove and got to work scrubbing my back viciously, there’s no better word to describe it. It was not a gentle act it was a strong deep scrub and for moments I thought the plan was to skin me right there on the slab. She stopped, got the hot water bucket, rinsed me down and started again.
When she was happy with her efforts she rinsed me again and told me to turn belly up, and she got to work again, repeating the exact same steps as with my backside.
Back, legs front and back, arms, armpits, neck, hands, feet, butt cheeks, boobies got scrubbed so viciously I thought red marks would be left everywhere, but no there were no marks just disgusting big rolls of dead skin everywhere.
She told me to sit and she carried on with some bits she thought had not been fully accessible and then moved on to my face. Two huge hot water buckets were poured down on my head and I was done.
1kg skinnier for sure after all that dead skin was removed from my body, and all but my very private bits scrubbed energetically.
Once I opened my eyes after the two huge buckets poured down my head all the locals were laughing hard at my expense. The faces I’ve done while being scrubbed and when seeing the huge rolls of dead skin forming at each scrub were quite entertaining to the locals to watch clearly. The “gommage” lady seemed happy with the final result and Nadia showed me the second room where I was supposed to wash out of all the dead skin still left.
This other room also had a big bucket in a corner into where two taps poured water and where some girls were splashing themselves while chit chatting, the rest of the space was full with cubicles that at first I thought were showers but once Nadia found one not being used but with stuff inside, for a moment I was very confused, those were not showers were they toilets?!
My first impression was wrong, those were not showers but my second impression was even further away from reality. What at first look looked like an old toilet was in fact a very low (almost floor level) concrete sink in the corner of the cubicle, with two taps pouring water much like the big buckets outside, a little ledge for our things and a small step seat for us to sit while using our little bucket to rinse ourselves.
I grabbed my luffa and got to work, washed my hair, rinsed all off as well as I could but in my opinion not very efficiently and I returned to the first room where Nadia was taking her turn with the “gommage” lady, of course, Nadia didn’t produce as much and as big rolls of dead skin like me so it took her a lot less.
Soon it was time for the seaweed massage, I laid belly down on the second stone slab and the lady started a gentle massage, all of a sudden she flips me really fast and I’m belly up, she carries on and then all of a sudden she spins me on the slab and I end up perpendicular to the slab with my legs folded up against the wall and my head on the edge of the slab while she massages my shoulders and head, then she spins me again quite fast and I’m sitting and massage is finished. She tells me to move to one of the seats and keep massaging the seaweed so my skin absorbs it more.
As I’m waiting for Nadia and the others and rubbing the seaweed I see that the big lady of the massage slab must have been planning the show of flipping me and spinning me while I was on the other slab doing the “gommage” because all the ladies after me are much shorter but also bulky so she can’t do those movements so fast and without some assistance.
The same would happen at all our other visits here to the amusement of the ladies that do the “gommage” and massage as well as the other clients.
My visits seem to entertain them as each time they try to ask me things in Arab about my experiences there, Nadia helped translating and then they all laugh amused.
Once Nadia was finished with her massage we went back to the second room for final clean, then Nadia tells one of the ladies that works there that we are finishing and the lady goes to our spot to get our towels, every time at the sight of my dark grey towels the lady shakes her head indicating that the coocoo foreigner needs to learn a few more things.
We move back to the changing area and I wipe myself dry and got dressed while standing, once again they all look at me in disapproval and I realise we are supposed to sit or lay down on the soft rug relaxing (how can they relax even more?! I just feel like going to sleep after all this Hammam thing), maybe have a drink, chit chat a bit more and then slowly get dressed while sitting on the super soft rug. Then they cover their heads with a scarf because of the cold outside pay the couple of Dinars that cost the Hammam and leave with their suitcases.
We left the Hammam 3 hours after arriving, with our souls and skin cleansed and feeling like a baby like never before.
The entire thing was around 10 Dinars, the equivalent to 2.95€ and included the wood bark (I thought it was interesting enough to do every time I went to the Hammam), the seaweed mask and the services of the “gommage”/ scrubbing and massage ladies.
If you just use the facilities like so many of the locals it costs maybe 1€ but I like the full experience always!