Do We Need To Pull Out The Teddy Bear?

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February 9th 2012
Published: February 9th 2012
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WE CONTINUED TO FOLLOW INDIA’S WEST COAST southward until we reached the beach town of Varkala, beloved throughout Kerala and much of India for its blond beaches and dramatic cliffs which face the Arabian sea. The narrow, red dirt path that stretches out along the cliff face is overflowing with seafood restaurants, ayurvedic spas, small resorts and shops. Although well touristed, Varkala has a sophisticated feel to it, with flowy resort dresses outnumbering hippie pants and a far less stinky crowd. The air while we were there, however, was thick and unmoving, leaving a residue of slick sweat on our bodies at all times. Even jumping in the sea did not provide much relief – as soon as I exited the water the droplets on my skin began to instantly transform into sweat, leaving me even more sweaty and sticky than I had been before.Despite this, the sunsets were vibrant and striking, the seafood fresh, and the drinks strong.

We arrived via train in the evening and had to fight more than usual with the resident tuk tuk drivers to drop us off at the central Helipad, rather than at one of the hotels they gained a commission from. At length we fought our way free of their grip and found a cute, polished guesthouse right in the heart of the tourist area. The hotel structure was lovely but the part that really sold me was the resident puppy named Josh (a girl apparently?) who greeted us every time we came and went. When we came home late at night she would try to follow us into our room and crawl into bed with us since our room was right next to the entrance, but we weren’t quite ready for that level of intimacy.

Varkala was primarily our relaxation time so we shifted into vacation mode and did very little other than eat, shop, and lay in the sun. I also took the opportunity to get some henna work done at a shop in town. The artist, Maria, did the entire design free hand – stenciling the red ink onto my skin with a delicate, light touch. It took her only 15 minutes to create an intricate, free flowing pattern on my right calf and foot. It was gorgeous! I had also been wanting to get an ayurvedic massage for quite some time so I figured this was as good a place as any. Ayurveda is an alternative medicine native to India that his been practiced on the sub-continent for centuries. It’s two primary components are herbal medicines and herbal body treatments such as massage. Nearly every hotel in Varkala advertises ayurvedic treatments - large billboards show pictures of beautiful women with their eyes closed and purple lotus flowers – images that evoke tranquility. After some shopping around we chose a place that looked reputable and had good prices – plus they had one of those fancy billboards and a nice brochure which explained the varying ayurvedic services they offered. We both went for an hour long traditional ayurvedic massage.

When we arrived at the resort a young Indian woman greeted us and led us down a path to a cramped, stifling hot room with two beds smashed together in the middle. Since I was already coated in several layers of sweat I requested another room with either air conditioning or a fan. After some consideration she lead us back up the red dirt road where we had come from to another building set back in the palm groves. The room here was small as well, with yellowing, discolored walls and a fan overhead that shook and made a creaking sound with each rotation. There was a single brown leather massage table in the center of the room. A faint sewage smell permeated from the attached bathroom. It was not quite the spa like environment advertised on the billboards. Travis was sent to a similar room next door for his massage and the Indian woman who had walked us there locked the door behind him. Immediately after closing the door she told me to go ahead and get undressed. I was bit hesitant to get fully undressed in front of her because India has a very strict culture of modesty which I have been immersed in for the last few months. First and foremost I did not want to offend her, but also I had the realization that I too had become more modest. Arriving in Goa and Varkala for the first time had in fact been shocking to me. Here, white tourists walked around in mini skirts and bikinis. I on the other hand, was used to covering my knees and shoulders at all times. While it was a relief to be able to wear less clothing in these areas, I also felt more naked and exposed than I normally would. In spite of all of these thoughts drifting through my mind, I could hardly expect to get a body massage fully clothed, so I relented and disrobed. Now fully exposed, she had me sit upright in a chair and picked up a large plastic bottle (it looked like those large bottles of oil cooks use to squirt on the stove) and proceeded to pour thick, greasy oil all over my head. She used so much that it began to drip down into my eyes and then onto my shoulders. Meanwhile she was rubbing my head in hard, furious circles as if she were shampooing my hair after an attack of lice. It did not feel good. “Oh No” I thought to myself. “This is going to be bad, I should just get up and leave now.” But it was too late – I was already naked, smothered in oil, and there was no way to leave without seriously offending her. Plus, I had already paid the $8, I may as well try to get some enjoyment out of it. After all, how much worse could it get?

To my relief the head massage didn’t last too much longer and she had me lay down on my stomach on the massage table. She began by squirting oil down the entire length of my body and then she started massaging my…butt. “Really?” I thought. “That was her intro?” Next she moved on to my back, shoulder and legs, using the same uncomfortable technique that she had on my head, stopping only to pour on several more gallons of oil. Now, I was really stuck – even if I wanted to run away I wouldn’t be able to. I was so thoroughly drenched in oil I would have slipped and fallen before I even made it to the door. To both her detriment and mine, she had absolutely zero technique. Her movements were sloppy and uncomfortable at best.

It only got more uncomfortable from there. When she flipped me over onto my back, I became increasingly insecure and asked if there was a towel I could use to cover up with. She brushed aside my question, saying something about more oil. And more oil there was. By the time she was finished I felt like a piece of meat that had been lathered in sauce and was ready to be shoved in the oven. Her hands made their way down from my head to my feet (skipping nothing on the way) and then began to work on my legs. Here my discomfort rose to an unbearable degree. I had my legs positioned together, trying to cling to any last shreds of modesty, but she kept yanking them farther and farther apart so she could massage my thighs more easily. I couldn’t figure out if I felt violated, or if I was violating her by putting her in this position, either way, it was bad. I couldn’t take it anymore – I sprung up off the table, and made the excuse that I needed to go check on my husband next door. I gingerly made my way over to the door and outside to check on Travis but he sounded fine, so I had no choice but to return to the site of my humiliation. Once back in the room I began to dress and told her that it was no problem, we could finish the massage early. She looked confused and hurt – it hadn’t been an hour yet – could she at least massage my face? All I wanted was to get the hell out of there, so I could get a drink and laugh about the situation, but I relented for fear of offending her. When I finally emerged from the room I was more stressed than I had been when I entered.

The following day we discovered that Lina and Tristan were in Varkala as well so we made plans to meet up with them for dinner at one of the many places scattered along the north cliff. Over dinner we learned that Lina had also had a similar massage experience, except that her’s was with two women (sexy twins, was it?) rather than one. Her story was about as uncomfortable as mine. This made me feel better - that I wasn’t the only one who had experienced this humiliation. We decided that we should stay on in Varkala and form an ayurvedic massage survivor’s group (AMSG) to help other travelers process the trauma that they were sure to experience.

To see more pics from Varkala see:

Additional photos below
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9th February 2012

So, how did you remove all the oil?
You did such a good job of describing the massage that I felt it myself. But you didn't describe how they removed the oil so I'm still feeling yucky. So please tell me that they finished by removing the oil. Also, you didn't say anything about how Travis endured his massage.
18th February 2012

Feeling yucky...
Lol.. You and me both! In fact, I don't think I ever quite recovered : ) To answer your question though I was able to rinse off in the attached bathroom with a sprayer thing. The bathroom was pretty grimy though so it didn't leave me feeling much cleaner...The rest was taken care of when I got back to the hotel! Travis' massage was OKAY - not great, but not nearly the traumatic experience that I had!
10th February 2012

Your henna artist is quite talented!
You mentioned becoming more modest. It is incredible how norms can change a person's views so quickly. Surrounding myself with Muslims from various cultures, one commonality is modesty. I have transitioned into wearing loose clothing that covers my arms and legs...Now it is as though I could not see myself dressing any other way. I wish you and yours the best of health and safe travels.
12th February 2012

My massage experience
This was hilarious!!! I was seriously laughing. AND I just got home from a long night shift, where I, (get this), received my 1st ever massage of my life. Can I tell you about it? One of our unit clerks is a masseuse, and for nurse's week our manager got her to agree to give us all massages- I had been putting mine off for ever. I was fully clothed, she used just a smidge of peppermint oil, and the setting was one of our trauma rooms, lights turned down, sliding door shut, and the quiet hum of the HACA refrigerator a welcome change from the howling coming from the patient in room 16. It was kind of invigorating, and a lovely little break from work. I think it must have been about as different as possible from your experience. Thanks for making me laugh. LT
14th February 2012

Get Out
Really, did you think you should consider her comfort level before your own? I would have said no thank you and left, sliding out the door as fast as I could with my clothes on. I'm sure she was trying to make the best of the situation but she won't remember you and she did get paid. I'll have hugs for you and a teddy bear if you like.

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