It struck me recently that nations’ bathing habits are linked inextricably to their culture. And by experiencing baths in different countries, it helps me feel that I’ve experienced the country in full.
In the UK, bathing is more a private experience. Not necessarily just functional: there can be an element of pampering above hygiene, but there isn’t usually a social element. Not so around the world. Here are a few examples:
Morocco: We had been trekking in the mountains for a couple of days and at the village where we were to rest of the night, were offered the chance to experience a traditional hammam. To all extents, there were two very different experiences (one male, one female) but I can only report on my own. Whether it was the two days trekking, but this cleansing experience couldn’t be beaten. Some solid exfoliation, olive oil soap and shampoo with warm water being poured over your head. I could appreciate the sanctuary provided by the hammam. It’s a tough life and once a week, a chance to relax and be clean, drop all pretenses, with close friends and family I would see as a necessity.
Japan:The onsen experience. Staying at a ryokan – a traditional Japanese house with it’s own hot bath – felt a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. The tradition is to shower and wash first, using the linked shower, sitting on the stool provided. Once clean you can enter the onsen – the Japanese relishing in the healing and rejuvenating properties of the hot water. This can be a public experience, but I could book my own time in the bath. The water is hot, but looking up to the stars you can get used to this and the heat does help you to relax. I would recommend this on any Japan tour, and to adopt it back home if you can.
Georgia: Although the traditional Georgian bathhouse is similar to a Turkish/Moroccan hammam, my experience was totally different. Picture the scene: high temperatures, blue skies, a remote mountain village, no bathroom. Water comes from the communal tap, fresh from the mountain springs (see picture above). And is cold. This was one of my quickest washing experiences – more a dousing from a plastic jerry can thrown over me: once to get wet, and again to wash the soap off. Did the job to wash the day’s dust off me and refreshed for some local wine and all that food!
India: Not strictly a bath house experience, but a through deep clean. Following an ayurvedic massage, I was offered the opportunity to have a steam bath. It felt like a elementary torture chamber: sitting in a wooden barrel with just my head poking out and steam pumped in. I don’t think I lasted more than 10 minutes before I was released. And then once again, some herbal scrub was provided, with help to remove the oil from the massage and get me ready to face the world again.
I think what I take away from these reminiscences is the fact that it’s good to take some time out, to reflect on where you are, note the differences and the similarities. Some small action can make you feel at home, but at the same time, a million miles from home.