Friday, May 21, 2010

An Unlikely Family Adventure to Hammam Mellegue, Tunisia


Hammam Mellegue, near the Central Western Kasbah city of Le Kef in Tunisia, sounded too amazing to miss; it's a remote hammam in an 1800-year old Roman bath very far off the tourist track. To get there, my family and I had to hire a 4WD with a driver and rumble over bad and very dusty dirt roads out of Le Kef for about 45 minutes. As usual, we had little idea what we were really getting ourselves into.

When we got to the crumbled outpost on a shallow river, we were all a little disappointed. Sure the Roman ruins were there but the site was strewn with litter and the only structures besides the base remains of the baths were made out of tin roofing and a hodgepodge of recuperated building materials. It looked more like a slum than anything else. Still I was excited to go inside.

Josh and my son went to the men's side and my daughter and I went to the women's side. Inside the women's baths were four or five older, overweight and mostly toothless Berber ladies sitting in the meeting room-sized ancient stone pool that was dimly lit from above by a small hole in the barrel-vaulted ceiling. The sand-colored, ferrous-red tinged stairs into the baths were worn smooth by literally thousands of years of feet. Trying to imagine who and how many people had walked down these exact steps was like trying to understand some extremely complicated mathematical equation. Magic. I strolled right into the hot ankle deep water while the women looked at us obviously surprised to see foreigners; my daughter, still half-dressed looked at me with a pleading look from the side.

"It's OK," I said. "You don't have to come in if you don't want to."

The youngest looking Berber woman spoke some French and we all started to chat. They offered to help wash my hair then gave me some water direct from the spring that they told me was healing. It tasted like rotten eggs but I managed a few gulps. My daughter eventually came over and sat with us but passed on the water. I didn't blame her; it smelled bad. The very large woman at the door of the hammam came over and asked if I wanted a scrub, which I did, so I went through the classic and obligatory rough and painful body brush that removed as much skin as is humanly possible without making one bleed.

Back in the pool again we all started having a pretty good time gossiping and laughing; another very old and skinny woman came in, sat in a corner and stared silently at us. Then the large scrubber woman at the door came in and told my daughter and I we had to leave. I didn't understand.

"Your husband," she said. "Wants to leave."

We dressed, and went out into the very bright outdoors. There was Josh and my son hanging out with a group of young guys.

"Let's get out of here," said Josh. "This place is creepy."

"Mama it smelled really bad in there," said my son.

In the car on the way back Josh explained that besides the smell being unbearable, everyone they talked to was sick. Apparently people came for the healing waters and wouldn't come all this way unless they had a relatively serious health issue that needed attention; particularly rheumatism and tummy troubles. True, none of the ladies in my bath looked particularly healthy, but no one was hacking, farting or had any visible sores or anything either. We had talked about children and beauty secrets, not our ailments. From what Josh had to say though, there were some obviously ill guys on the men's side.

"Lets get back to our hostel and have good showers," said Josh.

We did smell like sulfur and the dirt from the ride back had settled right into our slightly damp skin. I hoped we weren't going to catch any bizarre digestive or skin diseases from marinating in hot water with sick people for that hour or more but overall I was still spinning about how unfathomably old and utterly un-glossed and real the baths had been. To this day, it's one of my more appreciated travel experiences. And luckily none of us got sick at all.

6 comments:

  1. Thank you for this story! I love it. It feels very real and reminds me of my own experience in a Hamam in Essaouira - Morocco. I was the only tourist amongst twenty women and got accepted by them pretty quickly. It was a beautiful moment of solidarity.

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  2. Lolalou - isn't it fab getting to sis out in a drastically different culture? Glad you got to do it too. I'd love to get to Morocco one of these days.
    And Cloudia, a big Ia ora na for all your lovely Hawaiian vibes.

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  3. For your information, I visited the Hammam yesterday (not to bath there, just to see it) and the road is tarred all the way (takes about 15min from Le Kef) and the baths are partially restored, nice and tidy. Not much litter to be seen around. Certainly a nice place to visit off the beaten tourist track.

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    Replies
    1. Wow thanks Ulrich! The road will surely open the place up and glad to hear it's been cleaned up too. Were there many people or were you able to tell that without going in? Just Le Kef is off the beaten track so hopefully this little gem will remain relatively secret.

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