Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Naked Truth:My Ayurvedic Experience

I’ve had lots of massages in my time. Swedish massages, Thai massages, Balinese massages, massages from straight men, massages from lesbian women. All of them professional and pleasant.

I had never had an Ayurvedic massage before though. Ayurveda is a kind of Indian massage and yoga. It’s really a medicinal practice and is supposed to be able to heal your body of all its ailments. However, all I knew was that my mother does Ayurvedic yoga and loves it, that it’s a hip word in urban America, and that my back sorely needed some treatment. So I signed up.

First, a little background. Since coming to Oman, my massages have gotten progressively more “personal” shall we say. Americans are a modest people. We like our privacy. We like to be alone when we undress…of course, unless we are in one type of situation. Even then lots of ladies like the lights off and covers up. At the doctors, we cling to our little blue robe-sheets.

Everywhere else (in my experience) that is not the case. The Brits strip down in front of you in the locker room. Tribal women dance topless. Supermodels pose naked for European billboards. Nude beaches are a catching phenomenon. This we know. But what about cultures that insist on a strict segregation of the sexes? The same situation exists there. Although men never see women and vice versa, women mingle unembarrassed. The men do as well. In conservative societies, male bath houses are de rigueur, while in the West they are labeled as “gay.”

Well, to say the least, I have been getting more and more comfortable in my own skin lately.

As I walked into the dingy building, feeling disappointed at the lack of luxury, I felt a wash of a smell that I recognized from my childhood—that of a traditional Chinese medicinal shop, full of weird roots and dried herbs to heal the ailments of some very ancient Chinese man. It’s a very distinct smell, and somehow, I knew the massage experience would match.

Abandoned for 10 minutes in a small and scant Indian doctor’s examination room, George and I perused the faded wall posters of gastro-intestinal diseases and wondered if we were in the right place. Soon enough, however, we were prodded into separate men’s and women’s treatment rooms and left to our own devices. The room was bare and very third-world. I felt transported to Calcutta instead of Muscat. A plump 40-something Indian woman moved her head back and forth in that distinctly Indian/Pakistani way. Not a nod, not a shake, and can mean anything. Hello, No, Yes, Of course, Shame on you! Beautiful! And more…

She said in English that I had to strain to understand: “Take of clothes. Just panties.”

Okay, standard massage attire. That’s cool. I wait for her to turn and leave, giving me a few minutes to disrobe and drape myself modestly in a sheet or something. She doesn’t leave. She just wobbles her head again. Hmm. After an awkward moment, I figured she wasn’t going anywhere. I strip down to my bra and panties. And she says, “Take off! Take off!” I obey her oddly commanding tone, and take off my bra. I feel very exposed, sitting on a chair in a barren room with only my underwear on. She, however, doesn’t seem like she could care less.

She pours hot, dark oil on my head. I guess that’s the first thing done in an ayurvedic massage. I watch the dried-blood colored oil drip down my body, feeling less than at ease, but somehow the more it seemed that she didn’t care, the less I did too.

She shoos me on to the table. Very utilitarian-like; this was not a massage to be messed with. She had her routine down. First my back. This is pretty standard, except the hot oil dripping down my sides and onto the flimsy replaceable plastic sheet covering the table. The plastic gets slipperier and stickier as the massage goes on. A little unnerving, I will admit.

She took it up a notch when she yanked down my panties and gave me quite the non-embarrassed glut massage. I wasn’t quite expecting that. I think this would have been the point that many people would have walked out. I thought I had my panties on to cover something…not to give you something to uncover.

Well, you can imagine what the front side was like. I can’t say I have ever had a professional boob massage before. Now, the interesting thing is that she did all of these unusual (from my prudish western standards) and up-close moves with total panache. No awkwardness, no feelings of inappropriateness, no creepy caresses, nothing to arouse suspicion. It was all totally professional. Albeit third-world/old-world professional, but professional nonetheless.

My brush with ayurvedia medicinal healing ended being closed up in a wooden steam box. This actually would have been quite relaxing if she hadn’t perched herself on a stool about 3 feet from my face. She proceeded to ask me lots of questions that I couldn’t understand with a disarming sincerity and interest. I tried talking slowly, but with good grammar. That didn’t work. I decided that perhaps there are not two languages, English and Bengali, but rather a third, Benglish. It worked.

“This,” I say pointing to the box hiding all but my head, “hot box.”

“Yeeess…” Head wobble. “Hot box. Good box. Good body box.”

I smile and try out a little wobble. She wobbles back. Wow! Major bonding with the head wobble. She seemed to understand what I meant…even if I’m not sure what I meant.

This went on for another 10 minutes or so. Me pointing to things in the room—oil bowls, herb sachets, poky things—asking “What?” She was pleased to tell me all about them.

“This? Oil, what. Ayurveeeda. This good body. Hot for body. Make strong. Make happy. Make health.” She smiles. I feel like an expert now.

After emerging from the steam box, I underwent a very sketchy shower, which necessitated dashing back and forth from the bathroom to the massage room, hoping I didn’t bump into the male masseurs.

As I was about to leave, waiting for George in the lobby, she makes one more appearance. Walking by, she slaps the back of my thigh, shakes it a little and exclaims with an affirmative wobble, “Slim body!!”

And with that, George comes out of his room (equally perplexed by his loin-clothed experience) and we depart.

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But I ain’t going back.