After hauling a rucksack that weighed three quarters of me, a massage seemed just the ticket. A group of us had just rattled off a small minibus that had shaken us all the way from Delhi to the northern mountains of Old Manali. We’d travelled for a full day past miles of slums with flapping blue tarpaulin walls, past villages filled will tropical fruit and steaming meat and people that never slept, and past cattle herders that manoeuvred their animals around the potholes we couldn’t. We arrived at a muddy roadside, the tree-lined mountains smudged out by wet fog. Wooden huts framed the muddy narrow lanes, but were brightened by stall owners showcasing striped wools, meditation singing bowls, billowing harem pants and handcrafted guitars. A secret staircase made with shards of wood and flint led to handmade rug shop that wove elephants into rich royal blue threads with blood orange and yellow. Incense thickened the air, and clinging beads of perfumed rain clung to every fibre, every hair. Locally carved chillum pipes fanned out at every surface, encouraging visitors to unwind in a different way.
We found a wooden sign advertising massages, and the girls and I signed up before dropping off our bags. Refreshingly, there was no haggling involved. It was set at a reasonable rate of under £10 for an entire hour of any massage: ranging from the traditional Indian head massage, deep tissue, full body, to the mysterious Swedish variety. Later that day after stocking up on some warmer clothes, we were relaxing in a café playing cards and drinking frothing lassi milkshakes and sweet chai. We then wandered down the lane to have our 60 minutes of therapeutic kneading, feeling like three slabs of stiff bread dough that needed serious softening.
Entering the tent by lifting a plastic sheet, we stumbled into a miniaturised big top. A girl with dark shining hair that fell to her waist welcomed us and pushed us towards an adjoining room with henna inked hands. Before we split into the three adjoining rooms, our host turned to face us. She explained to us that there was only two female masseuses available. The three of us looked at one another, thinking we would have to pull straws. The girl, noticing our predicament, quickly interjected that there was another masseuse who could do it…but he was a man. We sighed in relief, thankful that we didn’t have to sacrifice a friendship over a massage. Now we had to choose who got the man, which was easy. Two of us were in relationships, and had boyfriends sitting in the local restaurant with the guys down the road. We turned expectantly to the singleton. ‘No chance.’
My cheeks squashed down on the table as I tried to slow my mind down and relax. I wished I’d asked the girl about how much I needed to remove clothes-wise. There must be etiquette for this sort of thing- what had my friends decided to do? I’d left my underwear on for decency. It’s better to over-dress as my Mum always says. I sat with my eyes closed and let the curling purple smoke from the burning incense sticks fill my head. At last, two oily palms landed on my skin and began to push down into my back. I’m not able to control my body in these types of situations. Just as my dentist politely asks my tongue to step away from the mirror wand, my masseuse asked me to stop arching my back at every sweep. I was told to remove my straps, so I prudishly wriggled each one off my shoulders but it wasn’t enough. It had to come off.
Starting at my shoulders, my muscles were squeezed and coaxed and separated in layers. I’d opted for the deep tissue back massage instead of a mere ticklish touch, which perhaps was a mistake given the fact that I ended up with the hairy male masseuse. His fingers escaped up my neck and greased my hair, before trailing down my spine in forceful squiggly lines, writing words of pain across my forehead. I reminded myself of how relaxed I was. He then started to work on my arms, oiling them until his hands slid up and down them so fast I thought he might set me alight. Then his hands found my own, and as he separated each finger with small yanks, and smoothed my palms repeatedly, my little voice finally stopped complaining and exhaled a long silent ‘ahhh.’
Next, he began to bend my floppy arm until it rested across my back, as if he’d arrested it and was about to ‘cuff me. He gently exerted pressure on my elbow until I felt my numb hand suddenly appearing above the opposite shoulder. It was miraculous. My other arm repeated the trick, and I felt pleased that I was able to perform the part of the contortionist in the big tent. Following this mind-boggling feat, he continued to work on my back until suddenly it was no longer my back, but by bottom. I lifted my head, which suddenly weighed five times the normal amount, and mumbled something about ‘Back only, back only.’ He replied that this was my back, and I understood he meant my entire back side (if you will), rather than the front. I grumbled in submission but insisted I kept my knickers on, and he promptly gave me a wedgie. But I have to admit, it was probably the best part of the massage. My legs were squeezed and prodded until they too relaxed, and I prided myself on not kicking out when he touched the ticklish arch of my feet.
I must have fallen into a light sleep as I became suddenly aware it was over, and started from my slumber. A young boy stood in front of me then walked through the thin veil into the next room containing my friend. I felt at once very bare with my white bottom sticking up in the air, and dressed hastily. After paying, my friends and I walked up the hill together, covered in oil but smiling. I asked them what level of nudity they reached, and whether their masseuses touched their bottoms too. It was a relief to hear they’d had the same treatment in their rooms. We decided not to tell the boys.
Harem pants, http://www.localsmile.com.au/Brisbane/Listing/IndianBliss
Curling smoke, http://www.cauldronsandcrockpots.com/2012/03/holy-smoke/