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Published: January 14th 2012
The spa experience – part I: my introduction…
When I was growing up we did not enjoy the existence of the numerous day spas that have sprung up like fast food restaurants in every city across the land. Now, you can go to your local storefront and experience any number of treatments – including a variety of massages, scrubs made from the full list of typical Thanksgiving dinner ingredients, facials and nail treatments by the dozens. It is become quite an industry. These days, you see 8-year old girls having spa manicures – carefully choosing just the right shade of bright pink for their nails. You see men going to have their anti-aging facial treatments and for women, the trip to the spa has become a frequent ritual, as well as the ideal birthday gift. But that is not the world I grew up in....
But when I was growing up, places where you went for massage were on the edge of town in sketchy neighborhoods and were called “parlors”. Only men of questionable character were ever seen anywhere near these places. Even as a child, I knew from their posters and advertisements that there probably wasn’t much in the way of health and wellness going on in these establishments.
Well, discovering the worlds’ local spa treatments has been one of the most interesting, and rarely discussed, part of my travels. I started going as a way to learn about the local customs and experience all the country had to offer. During those first few treatments, I would have my pores, as well as my eyes opened wide….
My first local treatment was in a small town in Turkey. I decided to join some of my fellow travelers for a Turkish bath (known as a hamam). Our guide explained what would happen, but I was in a no way prepared for the next hour. Since we were foreigners, we all wore our bathing suits, but this is not the way it is usually done. First we sat in a very hot, steamy room to prepare our skin. Uncomfortably hot, but so far so good… Next, we were led to a large piece of marble. We were to lie on this marble slab, which was so hot I could barely stand it for more than a few minutes. I now know exactly how a pizza feels when it is sitting on that large oven floor! Finally, it was time for the “bath”. I was asked to lie on a table while two very large, manly Turkish men proceeded to cover me with mountains of foamy suds and massaged away any dirt, grime, sweat, and any excess skin cells that I wasn’t using right at that moment.
Over the years, I have had several other Turkish bath experiences, in every type of place from the ancient bath in Istanbul to a modern facility in Northern Cyprus. I have experienced treatments in various stages of undress, as well as with men and women masseuses. The treatment is always similar and it feels good, but no matter how many times I go or how the experience varies, it always feels just slightly on the wrong side of decency. I will point out that nothing indecent has ever happened in a Turkish bath, but when I introduced a travel companion to this singular experience she summed it up best…. “Well, that is the closest I’ve ever come to paying for sex!”
A couple of years after my first Turkish bath experience, I decided to try the local treatment in Bali, Indonesia that had come highly recommended – the mandi lalur – also a bathing experience. (I was beginning to lose confidence in my ability to properly bathe myself, just by the existence of these many treatments.) The experience was to last two hours and cost me $8. I was led to a small, private hut with open skylights, a massage table, and a stone bathtub. The masseuse told me to remove all my clothing. I looked around and as far as I could tell, there was no towel, robe, sarong, hospital gown, or anything else cover my private bits. I guess I looked concerned because the nice lady assured me, “you girl, I girl, it’s OK”. So, I did as I was told. For the next hour and a half, she massaged me, scrubbed me head to toe with ground coconut shells, coated my entire body with a yogurt-like substance, and then put me in a steaming bath – which was scented by the most delightful tropical flowers floating in it. This must be how princesses bathe! Not trusting me to complete the process, when I was finished relaxing in the tub, she dried and moisturized my glowing skin. I am pretty sure that if I had spent 10 more minutes in that room, I would have had to marry that woman under some little-known Balinese law….
So, my first few spa experiences were not the gentle introduction to the joys of being pampered that is enjoyed by today’s youth. However, they were genuine, unique cultural experiences. I cannot say that, in those first few treatments, I felt any sense of relaxation during or after. But, as is always true of first-hand experiences, they grew my perspective just a bit wider and they gave me the comfort level to eventually discover the joys of the spa experience……
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The Spa Experience
Again, a great blog, informative, funny and well written. I'm enjoying these so much, I'm actually a bit disappointed when I check and there is not a new entry.
the mandi lalur
My husband and I are headed to Bali in May and I have added this spa experience to my list of things to do while in Bali. I have had some pretty crazy spa experiences myself while traveling around Asia, nothing compared to a massage in the US.