Off the beaten track in Morocco, Derek Cheng ducks into a public bath house for a refreshing dip and a massage. It's an experience his skin won’t forget.
It was dark, and the air was thick with steam and the unmistakable musty scent of mostly-naked men.
The first person we saw in the hammam — a traditional Moroccan bathhouse — looked comatose. The second had a stretched face, a protruding rib cage, and arms of differing lengths. Had we stepped into an eerie scene from a David Lynch film?
We followed a worker, a man with long hairs dangling from his chest and a belly that suggested he had recently swallowed a balloon, into the warmest section. Three men were already there, two sitting harmlessly, and the third passed out, his head limply facing the wall.
Above us, two square windows barely a handspan wide punctured the domed ceiling, letting in minimal light. Every sound echoed violently. The smell of stale mould. The whole place was a bit creepy.
A hammam — Arabic for "spreader of warmth" — has been a weekly ritual for Moroccans for centuries. They are where locals unwind, cleanse themselves and their friends, and gossip, free from the prying ears of spouses.
The touristy hammams in Marrakesh are advertised with huge signs in English, and photos of wholesome atmospheres and smiling, relaxed white people. The local ones are hard to spot, mainly because the signs outside — if there are any — are inconspicuous, and in Arabic.
My friend Matt and I chanced upon a hammam, just inside the 892-year-old walls of the old city, after a local had given us vague directions. The man with the stringy chest hairs beckoned us inside. We followed, and he mimed for us to remove our clothes.
Stripped to our undies, he led us through the cool room and the slightly-less-cool room into the hottest area. We had no idea what to expect. Mr Stretchy Face and the two comatose gentlemen — perhaps recovering from some tortuous ordeal — only enhanced the mystery.
The worker, who was to bathe and massage us, brought weaponry: buckets, shampoo, black massage gel made from olive oil, a hairbrush, and a grey glove that looked like it had been used every day since time began.
He cleaned a portion of the floor and motioned for us to sit there as he filled buckets from nearby taps. He lay me down on my front and started covering me in massage gel. He wasn't shy, making sure to thoroughly lube my inner thighs all the way to where they blurred into more sensitive areas.
His hands were strong, his movements heavy. I'm unsure how many skinny westerners he had serviced, but he didn't seem to realise that rubbing the backs of my legs had the effect of slamming my kneecaps into the tiled floor. But he was no amateur, and gave my tighter areas — neck, shoulders, calves — plenty of attention.
Then came the yoga poses. He stood on the back of my thighs and pressed my feet to my bum. He grabbed an opposing wrist and ankle, and pulled up while pushing his heel into my lower back. He took both wrists and propelled my arms in directions they strongly objected to.
When he rolled me over on to my back, I had an intimate view of his chest hairs as he lowered himself over me, massaging the fronts of my shoulders. Up close, his odour conjured up images of an adobe hut in a rural wasteland that housed a family of 24.
He sat me up and bear-hugged me from behind, interlocking his arms and legs with mine. As he stood, my back arched as if electricity was surging through it.
Then came the glove. It was basically steel wool, and he started with my neck. This man had never heard of the word "gentle". He steel-wooled my chin, my cheeks — was he trying to stretch my head? — my forehead, my earlobes.
When he moved to my chest, he started bantering to a calorically-gifted man nearby. From the tone, I gathered he said something like: "Behold the endless threads of dead skin coming off this foreigner's torso. Grossness!"
I didn't have the means to tell him I had been to a hammam in Turkey only two weeks earlier, and was as surprised as he was. It must have been especially unusual, as he stopped again while scrubbing my thigh to point out, again, the armies of dead skin that were quickly amassing.
If I thought the steel wool was unpleasant, I was totally unprepared for the hard-bristled hairbrush. After a shampoo session that bordered on the tranquil, he brushed me with such fervour that each stroke seemed to tear away another layer of flesh. It is meant to arouse trigger points on the scalp, but all I could do was transport myself to a fluffy cloud on the edge of a rainbow to make time speed up.
Finally, he let me stand and doused me in buckets of hot water.
He then turned his attention to Matt, a yoga master, and soon discovered that he bent in ways that I did not. So moved was he by Matt's flexibility that he insisted one of the others see for himself. The random stranger did not hesitate. He grabbed Matt's wrists, braced against him with his feet, and pulled him into a forward-fold. Sounds of approval and general nodding ensued.
The man seemed to think this unimaginable flexibility applied to all foreigners, and he motioned for me to take up the same position.
"No yoga," I said repeatedly, in protest, but resistance was futile, and I let him pull me into a far less impressive bend. No sounds of approval.
One final indignity awaited Matt. Still in a seated forward fold, the worker hovered just behind Matt's back before lowering himself, slowly, until his unmentionables sat on the back of Matt's neck. He stayed there a while, apparently quite proud of his seated pose. Eventually he permitted him up, and rewarded him with buckets of hot water over his head.
With skin as smooth as newborns, we gingerly made for the changing room and exit.
The experience was pretty harmless on our wallets — a cool $7, or about a tenth the price of a touristy hammam. However, it inflicted a toll on our bodies. A few hours later, we were recovering in bed, totally comatose.
Getting there: Emirates connects from Auckland to Casablanca, via their hub in Dubai.
Details: Intrepid Travel's 10-day South Morocco Discovery starts and ends in Marrakesh. It includes accommodation, transport, some meals and activities and an expert local leader.
Derek Cheng travelled to Morocco independently and toured the country as a guest of Intrepid Travel.