Postcard One, The Hammam
I was naked except for a pair of granny panties that were soaking wet and riding up uncomfortably as I slid and flopped on the hammam’s smooth white floor. My body was covered in what looked, and felt, like bicycle chain grease, goopy and the color of petroleum. But the smell was faintly herbal and the air was thick with steam. A sturdy, middle-aged woman, also wearing only underwear, manhandled my clueless body into position—tugging an arm here or pushing a leg there on the Moroccan tadelakt plaster. She scrubbed with such force that my skin tingled, then burned, then became increasingly numb to the near-scalding water she delivered in sharp, shallow flicks. I felt like a fish being filleted.
But through the heat and exhaustion, the jet lag and awkwardness, I was surprisingly, deeply comforted. Around me, women washed themselves and each other. Low murmurs echoed off the arched ceiling, but there was little conversation. In the room were old women with strong shoulders and thick middles, a teenager with long, damp curls and an angelic face, and several women who, like me, were mothers. No longer young, but not yet old. I knew they had borne children because their bodies told me. They had the same telltale signs of physical wear and tear that mine did. I even thought I saw in them the same combination of relief and longing that I felt, alone on the floor of a public bath in Marrakech, apart from my 15-month-old daughter, Roxie, for the first time in her life—for the first time in my life as a mother.
Until now, Roxie had joined me on every trip I’d taken since her birth. She’s still too young to remember these early travels, so I’ve been buying postcards. “Dear Roxie,” I write to her future self, and scribble a few lines about her “firsts” in each place: her first time in the Atlantic ocean in Florida or her first passport stamp in Mexico. But on this trip, she is home and we’re weaning while I’m away. My body is going through the final big change of childbearing as it stops producing milk, and my mind is on Roxie so constantly, I feel as if every experience is blurred by the lens of motherhood, weighted by my concern for her and the world she will inhabit.
There was a tap on my forearm, and I looked down to see two gray cocoons. It took me a minute to register what they were: pillowy rolls of my sloughed flesh. The hammam worker looked at me and pointed proudly, smiling for the first time. I felt cared for, like a child having lice assiduously scraped from her hair.
Except for a few nods on a two-leg, 13-hour red-eye flight and a too-brief afternoon nap, I had been awake and mostly in transit for 33 hours. Two days before, I hadn’t known I would be in Morocco this week. It was my first time in Africa, my first experience with a majority Muslim country. I spoke neither Arabic nor French. I had six days, no plan, and no obligations. This combination of freedom and disorientation spurred a manic excitement. I was exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep.
This adrenaline-like rush of newness had once defined travel’s allure for me. But like the difference between the delirious first months of a new love and the depth of a decades-long marriage, travel had become less thrilling and more fulfilling. The spontaneity of this trip, along with being on my own for the first time in over a year, was a reminder of a younger, more volatile version of myself.
After landing in Casablanca at 7 a.m., I caught the very next train to Marrakech. Several hours later, with a fitful half-sleep at my $47-a-night riad behind me, I stepped out of the low wooden doorway and into the blinding brightness of late afternoon. Immediately, I was nearly hit by one of the buzzing motorbikes that swerve through the narrow streets of the hive-like medina, where the smell of exhaust and dust mix with market funk. When I had announced my trip on Facebook a couple days before, a friend who had lived in Morocco some years back insisted I visit a hammam. Maybe it’ll help me relax, I thought. It did. I slept for 10 hours that night.
Postcard Two, Stranded in Agdz
Agdz is probably a pleasant town, but when I arrived it was dark. Unlike in Marrakech, the bus didn’t stop at a station. Instead, I descended onto a main street, where I only saw young men huddled in tight crowds. I dragged my suitcase back and forth, searching for a taxi or a café. Mostly, I was doing my best not to look as hapless as I felt—not to panic at the possibility of being stranded.
When I’m in a new country, my instinct is to get outside of its main cities immediately. So after a day in Marrakech, I had decided on a whim to head for the palmeraie—the palm oasis—of the Draa Valley. It was a seven-hour bus ride over the High Atlas mountains, where I watched the moon rise, astonishingly aglow, over the road’s notoriously brutal switchbacks.
Though I normally shun guidebooks, I made a reservation at an ecolodge I’d read about in Lonely Planet. The hotel was only seven kilometers away, which I assumed would be an easy cab ride. Instead, as the bus pulled away, I found myself staring down a nearly carless street. Where the bus had been, there was a man with an official-looking clipboard. “Taxi?” I asked, hoping he’d point me in the right direction. Instead, he patted the air as if to say, “Don’t worry,” and began dialing his cell phone.
Each man had the same response, identical even in its phrasing. “You’re a brave girl,” they said.
After a quick conversation, he hung up. He turned to me and, in the same rapid-fire French, attempted to explain. But I only understood the no cab part. He should have been exasperated: this foolish American, arrogantly moving through the world with such limited language. Instead, he pointed to an almost toy-size white coupe and began crossing the street, waving for me to follow. Before I knew it, he was throwing my bags in the back and opening the passenger door.
I’m not in the habit of hopping in cars with strange men in a foreign country, especially when I don’t speak the language, my family doesn’t know where I am, and I’m without the false comfort of a functioning cell phone. But I looked into the man’s eyes so directly it felt almost intrusive. Then I got in.
As we left town and the full moon dipped behind the cliffs, the night became black and I worried I had made a dangerous mistake. Then, perhaps sensing my need for reassurance, he began talking. He knew I didn’t understand, but he talked anyway. The meaning came with the tone of his voice, warm and measured, as he narrated our trip, announcing a turn before he made it, tapping his hands on the dashboard as he slowed ahead of a rough patch of road. All of it as if to say, “You are safe with me.”
Finally, we turned off the main road and onto an unlit dirt lane. When we pulled up beside Ecolodge Bab El Oued Maroc Oasis, the large wooden gate to the walled compound was closed. He tapped his horn and it soon opened. Hamid, the driver, refused to take a dime.
Postcard Three, To the Sahara
Mathilde is the woman of the house at Ecolodge Bab El Oued Maroc Oasis. French by birth and about my age, she’s married to a Moroccan man whom I saw only in blurry flashes as he raced after the couple’s daughter, a three-year-old with wild hair who was almost always naked. The compound was planted with rose, jasmine, and date palm and populated with strutting, squawking peacocks. My cottage, which Mathilde had dubbed “Safran,” was in the traditional mud-brick straw-and-clay style known as pisé, with a roof of reeds and palm wood. The room had glazed bejmat mosaic tile and ornately carved tables, doors, and shutters.
I would have been happy to spend days there. But if I wanted to see the Sahara, I needed to leave immediately. “I would normally go with you,” Mathilde said, rubbing her stomach with a simper. In her drop-crotch pants and flowing black shirt, I hadn’t noticed that she was quite pregnant. Had I watched her longer, I would have recognized the familiar walk, like a pack camel shuffling beneath a foreign weight.
I told her about Roxie, about being away from her for the first time. “I was never away from mine,” she said. “You can take them to the Sahara, you know. Mine was there at nine months.” I liked her immediately. And all the more when, later, she divulged that she allowed herself one glass of wine and one cigarette each day. “To relax,” she said, explaining that stress is not good for the baby.
Mathilde insisted I visit the 16th-century kasbah next door before I go. It was a fantastic piece of architecture, a puzzle of earthen rooms surrounded by a fortress of exterior walls. For lunch, I sat on the terrace at Chez Yacob, a hotel-restaurant just outside the kasbah gates. There was a large table of touring Israeli dirt bikers. With them was a young, stylish Moroccan businessman, their fixer of sorts, and an older Israeli who was leading the group. I made small talk with each separately. They seemed puzzled by my presence there, just me and a book and a giant serving of beef tagine. “Are you alone?” they each asked. “Yes,” I said, without explanation. And each man had the same response, identical even in its phrasing. “You’re a brave girl,” they said.
I was overwhelmed by the Sahara’s beauty. And I missed my child more than I had known was possible.
I knew it was intended as a compliment, but I couldn’t help but hear it as something else, something between patronizing and threatening. Does catching a public bus, eating alone in a restaurant, or walking in a park really require bravery? Should it?
The next day, Mathilde finally reached her friend who arranges trips to Erg Chigaga, a bedouin camp in the Sahara. The camp was reachable by a three-hour drive in a Jeep or a multiday camel trek. My driver, Yusef, was Tuareg. He spoke little English, but as we drove, we made awkward small talk. He told me that he and his wife had an arranged marriage, and that one of his uncles had three wives. As we passed through a small town, he pointed out that all the men were sitting around drinking tea. “Women only are working,” he said with a laugh. When we left the paved road, we bounced over rocks and small dunes in the open desert.
Then, in a soft patch of sand, he pretended to get stuck. “Maybe you for push?” he teased.
“Maybe I drive,” I replied.
Seven hours later, we reached the camp just before sunset. Where I’d imagined colorful shelters set back into the dunes, the tents were covered in black tarping beside a trash-littered parking lot. I ached with disappointment. The dunes were a mile or two away, and too far to walk at that hour, so Yusef drove me. I took wide strides up the face of a small dune, then crawled up the larger, steeper slope behind it. At the top, I looked out over an ocean of sand. It was the color of rose gold, rippling into the distance. I just wanted to sit alone there. I wanted to cry for no reason. Or really, for two reasons: I was overwhelmed by the Sahara’s beauty. And I missed my child more than I had known was possible.
Postcard Four, Lost in Fes
The busloads of European tourists crowded Fes’s Blue Gate and choked the train-car-narrow alleys of its medina. I felt claustrophobic, but each time I veered from this recognizable main route, I was lost and soon spotted by a man or boy, each insisting on helping me help find my way. So I passed stall after stall of souvenirs: engraved marble tabletops, etched leather ottomans, caftans, and colorful ceramic tableware. Along this main boulevard, nearly every stall catered to tourists.
I hate shopping. And I dislike this kind of shopping, with aggressive hawkers and expectation of haggling. But in a country with so many beautiful objects, I felt compelled to try. At one stall, I eyed a soft, shimmering gray shirt-and-pants outfit, trying to gauge whether it would fit my dad. But unlike the practice in almost every other shop, here I was ignored. When the shopkeeper finally looked up from his cell phone, he let out an odd, unsettling laugh. I was concerned about the size, a modest “large.” After asking the vendor to take it down from where it hung, displayed against a stone wall, I concluded it was too just too small. I thanked him and began to leave. He objected, calling after me that he’d done so much, that I owed him. He insisted he had a larger pair. Shamed, I reluctantly returned, and the dreaded negotiation began. He asked for 200 dirham, about $20, and I suggested 180. But really, I just didn’t want to do this dance. So I thanked him again and left.
“Good price,” he called out.
Then, with a barely contained rage in his voice: “You’re crazy, lady.”
I was startled. And though I was several stalls down, our eyes met. “OK,” he shouted across the souk. “Hundred-eighty.”
But his voice and his face remained steely and seething. I felt a wave of confusion, then guilt, then fear. Rattled, I shook my head and turned to leave.
I did feel sick. I felt ill from hunger and heat and an interaction I didn’t understand, frightened by how quickly a benign exchange had become threatening.
Postcard Five, When Gentle Is Harsh
The hammam at Palais Faraj, an ornate palace hotel that clung to a hill above Fes’s 12th-century medina, was only vaguely reminiscent of the one I had visited days before. Though it had a swimming pool, a library, and a trendy rooftop bar, I’d chosen it for its in-house bath.
When I arrived for the “Oriental Purifying Ritual,” which was 20 times the cost of the Marrakech bath, I was escorted to an immaculate dressing room with tall wooden lockers, instructed to change into a robe, and handed a condom-size plastic package. The packet contained disposable mesh thong underwear, which somehow managed to be even less comfortable than wet cotton.
Outside the bath, I hung my robe and deposited my pointy-toed terry cloth slippers. The spa worker—one of five who would attend to me during my three-hour treatment—pulled a wooden handle and I was walloped with a hot, vaporous tidal wave of eucalyptus-scented steam. The setting was beautiful, a tall white dome lit with tiny starlike lights, which flickered through the fog. Along the wall, stadium-style wooden benches were lined with foam pads. I sat beside the emerald-green tiled basin and poured water over myself with a pounded-copper bowl, each bowlful echoing through the mosque-like room. I was alone. I lay down and fell asleep in the heat.
I don’t know how much time passed before I was awakened with a jolt and led by the arm to a sterile room with a cold, slippery stone table. Facedown, I couldn’t see the woman whose hands were upon me. Using a brush, she made long, deliberate swipes from my feet to my shoulders. “Madam,” she whispered, “it’s OK?”
It was. But just as fine restaurants can be impressive while also feeling unsatisfying, the Palais Faraj hammam left me cold. The workers were young and attractive, clothed while I was naked. They did their jobs well. But I struggled to relax. I found myself feeling self-conscious and exposed.
When it was time for my massage, I lay face down on fresh-smelling sheets, my face in a stirrup. After too gently caressing my back, the masseuse asked me to flip face up.
“Madam,” she said, laying her hand softly on my stomach: “Baby?”
“No,” I said. “Before.”
“OK, sorry. No massage with baby.”
I didn’t know if she was apologizing for the indelicate question. Or if she hadn’t understood my response. But being asked if I was pregnant when I wasn’t—when I hadn’t been for some time, and when I was still hopeful that my body would somehow return to its pre-baby condition—was crushing.
I found myself missing the physical harshness of the public bath where I’d been comforted by the strong arms of the hammam worker, by the strength of my own body, and by the maternal scars I shared with the bodies around me. They reminded me that being a woman in the world, traveling or not, does sometimes require bravery and strength.
And we are brave. We are strong.
Freda Moon’s previous story for AFAR, “Born to Travel,” was featured in the November/December 2015 issue. It was included in the 2016 edition of The Best American Travel Writing.