Photo: Kerala Tourism

“Off, off. OFF,” she said and pointed to my panties. When I did nothing, she tugged at them. The underwear would be coming off, along with my expectations of a “spa experience” in India.

My friend Sholeh and I had just arrived at the Jagat Palace in Pushkar, a marble-domed hotel overlooking the Thar Desert, Snake Mountain and the scattering of tents in the field where the drivers stayed. I looked out the window of my marble palace, knowing our driver Sharma was out there somewhere. As I squinted through the looking glass of my privilege, I let the guilt slide in, but part of me knew that I was using that guilt as a way to make myself feel better. I feel guilty, so I must be good person. So it’s not without shame that I tell you I turned from that window and made our appointments for Ayurvedic massage.

Two Indian women, one stout, the other spindly as the stem of a daisy, arrived at our room with a male translator. The translator explained to us that we would follow the women to the spa, where we would enjoy Ayurvedic massage. “Do you think they have a steam room at the spa?” I asked Sholeh. “Or a Jacuzzi?”

The translator left us, and we followed the two women. They were both dressed in simple saris with their black hair in tight buns. They knew two English words between them, which is double the number of Hindi words I know, leaving me with more than a little apprehension.

Sholeh disappeared into a room with the willowy masseuse, and I followed the stout one into a dimly-lit room that held brooms and cleaning supplies. A wooden table, covered with a plastic tarp, stood in the corner. The drafty room smelled of ammonia and moth balls. My therapist pointed to the table, and I hesitated for a minute before I began to disrobe. Then through the thin walls, I heard Sholeh’s voice: “Oh my God. I can’t. I’m sorry. I just can’t. Really, I’m very sorry.”

Within seconds, Sholeh pushed the door to my “treatment room” open and blew in, her skinny masseuse trailing her. My therapist’s face squeezed into a wrinkle when she saw them.

“She brought me to a restroom. A men’s bathroom. She wanted me to lie down on the floor. Under the urinal.”

“I’ll switch with you,” I said.

“No, no. I’m not doing this. There was a bug this big,” Sholeh said, showing me with her thumb and index finger. “It crawled right over the mat on the floor. Right where she wanted me to lie down. On the floor. You’re not going in there either.” Sholeh stuffed a few rupees in the palm of the confused woman saying, “Here’s your tip. I’m really very sorry, but I just can’t.” Sholeh turned and left, disappearing into the misty courtyard. The two Indian massage therapists conferenced with one another. The stout woman looked angry and said something that I imagined went like this: “Spoiled, rich western princesses.” She then looked at me, and I gave her a look of resolution: I was more determined than ever to have the massage. Ayurveda has been around for 5,000 years — who was I to complain because my treatment was happening in a supply closet?

The willowy one walked out the door into the dark, and that’s when my stout lady pointed to my panties and insisted, “Off, off.” She tugged at the corner of my panties and then motioned again toward the wooden table. It didn’t occur to me to argue. I just did what I was told. Later, Sholeh would ask me, “Why didn’t you just say no?” and the only answer I could come up with is that I was too embarrassed not take them off. I had put myself in this situation, after all. And for some reason, I can’t seem to stick up for myself when faced with unusual health and beauty treatments. Even at home. And here I was, across the world, standing naked in a cold broom closet with a woman I could not talk to. Maybe this was standard fare? How did I know? I didn’t have the words to ask. And it wasn’t this woman’s fault, so rather than decline, I disrobed.

I lay face down on the hard tarp-covered table, and the masseuse made a motion with her index finger to flip over. Face up like an egg. I anticipated some sort of privacy towel but none appeared. I motioned to the women with my arms that I was freezing. “Brrrr,” I said, hoping that was the international word for cold, and I crossed my arms over my breasts, in an attempt to hide something. Of course, my crotch remained exposed, sunny-side up.

She disappeared for a minute and then returned with a small space heater, which she plugged in next to my feet. Within a minute, my feet began to blister while the rest of me shivered. At this point, the woman got to work. First, a healthy dose of oil was poured onto my body, feet to hair, and then the woman set to rubbing it up and down like she was pushing a rolling pin over raw dough. She went up over my pubic bones and breasts like bubbles in the dough that were in serious need of flattening. Then she set about cracking my toes with one loud pop after another, which was even worse than it sounds. When she was satisfied that I was fully slickened with oil, she motioned for me to turn over. This seemed like a blessing, but really, it just meant more oil, more steam rolling over the body. I glistened like a seal.

I prayed it would be over quickly.

At last she motioned for me to stand up, and just when I thought my treatment had finally, mercifully ended, she pulled a metal folding chair into the center of the room, and she pushed me onto it. The other word in her repertoire was “sit.”

So there I was, following directions: my bare butt against the cold metal, my bare feet on the concrete. She then stood behind me and poured more oil into my hair until it dripped down into my ears, and I closed my eyes, letting it slide past them and over my lips. Once I was doused, she scratched the oil into my scalp with vigorous glee.

And at last, the grand finále — the karate chop to the head, the hard edges of her palms pounding my skull. I sat there, trying to touch the floor only with only the tips of my toes, while enduring a jarring assault from above.

Later, I would learn that I had received Abhyanga, the Cadillac of the Ayurevedic massage, the ultimate spa experience. When I travel, I’m constantly forced to return to what I already know: I’m not there to replicate my life at home, but to allow the world to challenge my expectations, replacing them with doubt and with wonder. Even if it’s the result of an oily head thumping.

My masseuse finally motioned for me to put my clothes back onto my oil-slicked body. Once again, I did as I was told, and I followed her out of the broom closet. She put out her hand, and into it, I folded her generous tip and uttered my one Hindi word: “Námaste.”

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