CHARLOTTE, NC: After years of traveling the globe and listening to my female writing companions wax dreamily about spending a day at a spa indulging themselves with the bliss of being pampered beyond recognition, I determined it was time to discover what the fuss was all about. Last week I detailed the first half of my epic adventure to discover the world’s most perfect massage. This week I continue the search which had thus far been an exercise in futility.
The Swedish Massage
Sweden was my next encounter, and it, too, featured a bedroom floor treatment. For years I had heard the term “Swedish Massage” but I never paid much attention to it because it usually implied something other than a truly professional massage treatment. I take that back. The Swedish massages I knew about were definitely “professional” just at a completely different end of the spectrum.
Nevertheless, since I was in Sweden, I assumed that the method of massage would be of the genuine Swedish variety, with nothing sinister or untoward related to the experience.
Once again, I rang the front desk of my hotel to schedule an appointment. I was on the last leg of an assignment for the Swedish Tourist Board, and there was a bit of extra time built into the end of the itinerary so it seemed like a good time to take advantage of some added relaxation.
The attendant arrived at the appointed time and introduced herself as Annika Jenson. She promptly went into the bathroom and got two large towels which she placed on the floor. Then, like her Japanese counterpart, she grabbed a pillow from the bed and placed it on the floor.
“Just get undressed and lay down on your stomach,” she said. “I’ll get ready and be back in a moment.”
Being that Sweden is a liberal country, it didn’t seem unusual that being undraped was out of the ordinary. When Annika came out of the bathroom, she had a face cloth in her right hand which she strategically laid across my backside. I suppose she thought that provided some sort of privacy, but given my ample girth, it was like covering a three hundred pound Parkerhouse roll with an unfolded cocktail napkin.
Halfway through the procedure, it was time to turn over. Annika picked up the washcloth and told me to roll over onto my back. As I stared up at the ceiling, she strategically put the cloth back over me and continued her routine.
“Why bother now?” I thought, “There’s nothing she hasn’t seen or exposed already.”
Annika went about her business quietly and with great expertise. Perhaps I was overthinking the procedure, However, though it was soothing enough to make the prospects of a great night’s sleep considerably more viable, there was nothing particularly sensational about the process.
Then again, conditions were not exactly ideal, and that may have minimized my level of relaxation to some degree.
When Annika finished, she returned to the bathroom to put her lotions away and wash her hands while I got dressed. When she came out, I smiled and shook her hand.
Then I thanked her and told her how much I enjoyed visiting her beautiful country. Annika nodded politely and departed.
The following morning, I was in the lobby by 9:45 awaiting the arrival of our guide when Annika walked into the hotel. Needless to say, I was surprised to see her. When our eyes met, I walked over to say hello. We stood in the lobby making small talk for several minutes and then I asked,
“What brings you here so early in the morning?”
“Well, I’m supposed to meet a video crew here today. I’m going to guide them around the city.”
My jaw dropped. Not only was Annika a massage therapist in the evening, but she also worked for the local tourist office during the day! She was equally surprised to discover that I would be her client for the remainder of the day and that she would be our escort – but not of the massage variety.
The shoot proceeded without a hitch. Not only did Annika turn out to be a truly lovely person, she was also an excellent source of information about the city of Gothenburg. Even so, for the rest of the visit I avoided eye contact with her as much as possible. Whenever I did look at her, it was as though she had x-ray vision.
I found myself constantly trying to cover myself with nary a washcloth insight.
While Thailand is an Asian country, baseball is not big there, so I felt reasonably certain I could avoid the trauma of being turned into mashed potatoes like I was in Japan.
All the female writers I had read in my research had said that Thai massage is among the best in the world. Truthfully, my faith in their opinions was starting to wane, but I remained optimistic that I would eventually complete my quest for perfection.
Thailand is fascinating, though I could never quite get a handle on the stark contrasts within the culture. On the one hand, there is a dark, sinister quality about the place that far exceeded anything I have ever witnessed in the West.
Then there’s the side of the culture that is 180 degrees to the contrary. It was so completely different that, for me, it was difficult to believe it was the same society. There is sweetness, gentility, and purity among the people that I had never experienced anywhere else. Thus being combined with equal doses of decadence that I had never before witnessed either.
The Thais are totally service-oriented.
There is nothing they will not do for you. There is a serenity within them that is hard to describe. Perhaps it’s the Buddhist philosophy that permeates their lives which gives them such purity of spirit. Or maybe it’s nothing more than a gentle simplicity within their ethnic identity that makes them seem so content.
Whatever it is, the two degrees of separation within the culture seems to be in direct opposition with each other.
An old friend who was now retired from the writing aspect of the business, but still very active in Public Relations was heading up a group of writers I was traveling with, and it was she who instigated the excursion to the spa.
Using keen insightful intellect, I weighed my options and came to the conclusion that if a bunch of women was going to get a massage then it had to be good. After all, it was articles that had been written by women that began my quest in the first place.
Since I was the only male in the party, it was obvious that my treatment would be a one-on-one affair.
The women, on the other hand, did the typical female thing and decided to have a group massage. Sort of the same phenomenon as going to the restroom together at a restaurant.
The preparation for this massage was, again, completely different than the others. At the spa in Chiang Mai, they handed me some clothing that resembled silk pajamas and told me to put them on.
Once attired in my Hugh Hefner outfit, I was taken to a room that was roughly 8 feet by 8 feet with a soft thick cushion on the floor that ran wall to wall. The room was enclosed by a ceiling that was roughly 8 or 9 feet above the floor. The cubicle was dimly lit for serenity but there was no music or soothing sounds to be heard.
Instead, it was completely quiet. My first impression was that the room appeared very much like a World Wrestling Federation cage match ring.
For this treatment, my attendant was extremely short, almost frail-looking. Thais are generally small in stature anyway, but this lady was even smaller than most. She took one look at me, rolled her eyes and shook her head back and forth as if to ask, “Why me?”
Immediately I knew that I was in trouble again.
There was no oil. No back or leg rubbing. No light manipulation of the scalp and face. This technique was something else again. It was destined to be an experiment in contortion that would turn me into the Thai version of the Gordian Knot.
I was motioned to sit against the wall and stretch my legs forward. The little Thai woman began with a flurry. She had a lot of energy and was accustomed to working quickly. She was not accustomed to dealing with Jabba the Hut. It would have been far better for her to pace herself. I could have told her that in advance had I been able to communicate with her or if I had known what she was going to do.
Being unable to either, I just let her commence at her own rate.
The massage was like an audition for Cirque du Soleil.
The therapist began at my feet. She grabbed my right foot first and jerked it violently to the left. Before the surprise, and pain, subsided, she yanked it just as severely to the right. The second movement bent my knee in a direction I am quite certain it was not designed to go. As I screamed out in pain, the little Thai woman smiled with satisfaction.
Next, I was told to sit in the middle of the cubicle with my legs bent across each other Indian style. The therapist stood behind me, reached over my right shoulder, grabbed my right ankle and tried to pull my leg back over my head.
“Lady,” I thought, “There’s just no way my leg can go that far.”
I could feel her pulling harder and harder. Then she began to rock my leg back and forth in much the same manner you use to rock a car when you’re trying to get it out of the snow or mud.
Once she determined she had reached my maximum dexterity point, she put my right leg down and moved to the left. Thank goodness she didn’t actually get my leg behind my head. If she had, I know she would have left it there.
When it was time to work my arms, the therapist sat with her back against the wall for leverage, put her bare feet against the left side of my body and pulled my right arm across my chest with as much force as she could muster. For a tiny person, this little lady was really strong. I probably could have twisted my body in her direction except that her feet were positioned in such a way that the only thing I was going to move was my arm.
I was convinced that I now had a dislocated shoulder, and still, the treatment continued.
For the next exercise, I was told to lie on my back with the bottoms of both feet pressed against the wall. Then she moved to the top of my head, grabbed both arms and pulled as hard as she could with her feet jammed against my shoulders.
By now I was beginning to wonder if she was a “therapist” or some other facsimile known as “the rapist.”
I sat up while she got down on her knees behind me and jerked my right arm down over my back. You guessed it, the left arm was next.
For a full 30 minutes, the little Thai dynamo mangled my body parts into positions they had never known before and never will know again. My fingers and toes touched places they had never touched, or ever were meant to touch, for that matter.
Mercifully, however, the process was, at long last, taking its toll. Powerful and expert as she was at her craft, the attendant was not accustomed to working on someone quite so robust.
She was exhausted, and yet, she was only halfway finished.
Out of breath and gasping for air, the attendant motioned me to sit against the wall and rest. Then she looked at me with chagrin, rolled her eyes and said, “You big. Res’ now. Back soon.”
I knew I was large, but I didn’t consider myself a candidate for toting teak logs at the elephant training school either.
Nevertheless, I had worn her out. She needed a break before completing the second part of the program. I had to admit that I did feel better after all of the stretching, pulling, yanking and jerking, but I couldn’t honestly opine that it had been anything close to relaxing.
When the therapist returned, we went through more of the same. Finally, toward the end of the treatment, she sat down against one wall of the room and spread her legs. Then she motioned to me to put my head between her legs so she could work my shoulders, face, and scalp.
I was on my knees looking at her and trying to follow the instructions. When she motioned for me to come forward I leaned down on fours and moved my face toward her crotch. How was I supposed to know that she wanted the back of my head in her lap instead of my face?
The tiny woman screamed in a moment of frenzy and panic. She held up both hands as quickly as she could while yelling at the top of her lungs,
“No, no, no, no. Ova’ roll ova’. No face, no face.”
In mere seconds she had become fluent in English!
I immediately realized my mistake and quickly changed directions. After an hour of merciless pulverization, I wasn’t in any condition to dive face-first into her nether regions either.
Apparently my error scared her into reality. She completed her assignment very quickly after that and hastily informed me that the treatment was over.
As for me, I was still in pursuit of the perfect massage.
Italy’s Four Hand Massage
Next stop, Italy. This time I was after something called a “Four Hands Massage.” The unique aspect of this treatment was that instead of having one therapist do the work, there would be two.
It was sort of like synchronized swimming for massage therapy. They would work in tandem so that both sides of the body received the same manipulations at the same time. It sounded interesting and worth a try. The biggest drawback of the treatment was that since two people were working, the session took half as long.
On this occasion, there was a cover sheet, with no pajamas or claustrophobic closed areas and everything seemed routine. Routine, that is, until one attendant handed me an article of clothing, sort of, that I was supposed to wear during the treatment.
The added garment was nothing more than a thin paper jockstrap that barely covered my masculine gender.
That is if I didn’t tear the elastic loose as I was putting it on. Other than that everything else was normal.
There was nothing unusual about the treatment. Except that it went twice as fast because four hands were working at once. In the end, I saw no real benefit to the double whammy and convinced myself that it was little more than a gimmick.
Once on my back, the women worked my arms, shoulders, and scalp. When it came time to rub the front of my legs, they removed the cover sheet leaving everything exposed except for the little sack they had given me to enclose my package.
The grand finale came when they finished working on my legs. That’s when each woman grabbed one of the flimsy pieces of elastic wrapped around my hips. Thus pulling the jockstrap away in one grand gesture.
It was rather like being at an elegant dinner party where all the waiters simultaneously lift silver domes to reveal the food. The difference this time, of course, was that the paper jock was the dome and my goodies were, well, not food, but you get the picture.
As soon as they tore away the covering, the attendants hastily left the room. In fact, they got out so quickly I was thinking, “What just happened?” before I even realized the treatment was over.
The unfinished quest for the perfect massage
As far as massage was concerned, I was pretty much over it. I had tried. I had put my best foot forward, so to speak, and done my best to find the best massage in the world. However, each time the experiment ended badly off-center and out of kilter.
In the process, I did, however, establish a shortlist of guidelines for all future massages to which I religiously adhere today:
Basic Massage Rules For Men
1 – Always request a female attendant
2 – Don’t stay in your hotel room for a massage
3 – Never trust a hairy therapist wearing a diaper
4 – Be sure to be kneaded rather than stretched
5 – At all costs avoid an attendant who is a baseball fan during the Japanese World Series
It’s a basic list, but it has served me well. Though I have since enjoyed the occasional luxury of a fine massage, I no longer scour the planet in search of the elusive ultimate massage.
Though I will never stop traveling, when it comes to my Massage Research International project, affectionately known as my personal MRI, I have vowed never be “rubbed the wrong way” again.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
Editors Note: Support Bob’s GoFundMe to give him a hand up