A Mystifying Massage in Sri Lanka

He sat directly opposite us, his shirtless and sarong-ed figure on display as if we were viewing some sort of Ron Mueck sculpture. His belly was bloated like a man who needed to get his stomach drained after years of alcohol abuse, and his breasts laid on top like two pancakes resting on a basketball, his dark grey nipples the only thing distinguishing them as a body part. I couldn’t look away, they were so large and dark, possibly an afterthought by the artist who had created this man. He smiled lazily, and I was drawn to his bulging eyes, the whites of them luminous nestled against his dark brown skin.

The three of us had reclined into semi-comfortable silence for the last few moments. I could tell my partner, the giant, had lost interest in engaging with the man. I understood. The giant and I had been strolling back to town after our satisfying lunch from a local roti shop when I had spotted the sign and suggested we venture inside. I had been keen for a massage since arriving in the beach side town of Mirissa and sighting an advertisement along the main street. What I thought had been a simple idea of getting a massage had turned into a confusing situation. Upon inquiring within we were told by a broad smiling middle-aged man that there was no one here to massage us but we could get one at his brother’s place, and if we were able to wait half an hour a tuk tuk would arrive to pick us up. We agreed, pulled up a seat on the front porch, and shortly after we were joined by the sarong-ed patriarch of the household.

‘So do you rent these rooms?’, I queried, waving my hands around expansively at the buildings on either side of the porch, after the silence had begun to feel faintly uncomfortable. Elevator silence territory. His bulbous eyes turned towards me, ‘yes, there are 10 rooms but people want to stay at the beach these days’. He smiled ruefully, which made him look like a prehistoric lizard that had gorged on too much fruit. I nodded in silent agreement, and also in a way to try to convey my apology that I was sorry as I too enjoyed staying close to the beach. I was one of those people. ‘Where are you staying?’, he asked, obviously needing confirmation of my flagrant disregard of non-beach side accommodation. At my reply there was no hint of recognition, and it seemed very possible he hadn’t left his castle in quite some time.

Eventually the brother arrived in his little red tuk tuk, ‘beep beep’. He too was broad smiling but obviously put more effort into his clothing than his brother and his dad, and I took in his colorful patterned sarong, and bright green collared shirt with appreciation. Business up top, party down below. Off we zoomed and in a few revs, two sharp turns and an erratic braking we arrived at the brother’s heavily forested yard, two young children playing cricket in the front. He pointed towards the back of the property, and we took this as a directive to battle our way through the dense palm fronds to what we hoped was the luxury spa hidden behind. However, once we came through the clearing we were definitely not greeted by the site of a luxury spa. Replace the word ‘luxury’ with mud, and ‘spa’ with hut, and you’ve hit the nail on the head.

As the giant and I were both staring at the massage parlour in trepidation, the brother appeared as if from thin air, or thick trees to more apt, ‘take off all your clothes except your underpants please’. Then he was gone, absorbed again by the surrounding greenery. We wandered in, and went to our separate sides to undress, a shabby curtain partitioned between us. ‘What have you got me into?’ grumbled the giant good-naturedly. I didn’t know so pretended I was completely cool with the situation, ‘we are just going to have to roll with it’, I said with what I hoped was confidence and joy de vivre. ‘As long as I’m not getting massaged by a man I’ll be fine’, he replied. I agreed wholeheartedly as we stood in our underpants looking at each other with mild concern on our faces.

I eased myself onto the makeshift table that appeared to have been handmade by a novice carpenter. The headrest/hole area had been left raw and bits of wood splintered outwards. I maneuvered the towel to minimise any contact with the exposed wood, and tried to relax. A few moments passed and two small chubby feet stepped into the field of vision beneath the headrest. ‘Phew, I have a woman!’ I thought to myself, pleased as punch. I closed my eyes and was ready to let the pampering begin when I had a moment of doubt. Short men could have small feet. Sometimes even normal sized men have tiny feet. At a BBQ once I had sighted a pair of shoes left unattended near a gazebo, and I had yelled out ‘who owns these tiny thongs?! There aren’t any children at this party’, which was greeted with stifled laughter as the owner of said flip-flops, an average sized man, walked over and picked them up without a word. I looked down (I couldn’t help myself) and his feet were indeed tiny.

The massaging had started by now but I still couldn’t relax until I had confirmation of gender. Lucky he/she had started on my shoulders, giving me plenty of time to scrutinize the feet. They weren’t manicured but that means nothing, either were mine. They were quite pudgy and stubby but again this didn’t really help. He/she was obviously wearing a sarong, which was also gave no further clue. However, then the masseuse lent in, and the skirt bottom rode up and exposed an ankle, and there staring me straight in the squished face was a very hairy leg. Now this was tough, I know a lot of women that don’t shave their legs, and I knew nothing about Sri Lankan culture or feminist views. All I knew was women weren’t allowed to buy alcohol from a bottle shop by law because I had read it randomly on a blog. Pretty hard to base this decision off that but I reasoned that if women weren’t allowed to buy alcohol then they must be a somewhat repressed, and perhaps they were forced to maintain strict hair care implementation. Yet again this could also work the other way. Or it could be no concern for them either way. I admonished myself for my ignorance about Sri Lankan grooming practices.

However, based on hair quantity and thickness I deduced it was indeed a man with tiny feet. I felt queasy. I didn’t want a man to massage me. I know you aren’t meant to care, and we are all meant to be neutral and say ‘I don’t mind, why should gender matter?’ Then go eat some sprouted lentils, and make placards for rallies with all your politically minded friends. But it matters to me, it does freakin’ matter! This felt like having a pap smear performed by a male doctor, something I also staunchly don’t want to do. Why do you want to look at my vagina anyway innumerable male doctors??

By now the hands (also pudgy and stubby) had made their way down to my lower back. I felt the complete opposite of relaxed. I felt violated. I tried really hard to be the sprouted lentil type of person, and settle myself into the situation but I couldn’t. I’m a canned lentil person, and this type of person doesn’t want to be massaged by a pudgy handed man. The surrounding insect situation didn’t do much to ease my apprehension as flies landed on my face and shoulders, and I had to try to discreetly swat them away. At one point the masseuse decided to help out and slapped one on my upper arm. The only background music for the experience was a cacophony of cows mooing, children squealing and a grandmother disciplining.

By the time he got to my legs I was close to asking him to stop, that it wasn’t him, it was me. I was uptight and awkward. Tell him that I’m sure he’s a great guy but I’ll see myself out. The massage itself had become physically uncomfortable too as he rubbed my legs vigorously in an upwards motion, the thrusts dislodging the towel near my face, and leaving my bare skin to a timber exfoliation treatment. I wondered if they would charge me extra for that additional treat. Finally the legs were complete, and as I thought to myself, ‘now is the time, make a run for it, leave the giant, it’s all humans for themselves!’, a soft melodious voice whispered, ‘please turn over’. Aha, this man was no man at all. I breathed a sigh of relief as I rolled over to be greeted with the cherub-like face of a chubby Sri Lankan woman.

When it was finished, and we were left to re-cloth ourselves, I slid off the table, the residue oil lubricating my movements like I was the oily peanut butter man. I looked across at the giant and gave him a thumbs up, and a questioning head tilt. I was simply joyous that it had come to an end. He shook his head sadly and looked down. I took my slippery hand in his and led him out of the mud hut, ‘come on giant, let’s go for a swim. We can wash away this whole experience into the Indian Ocean’

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