Naked and Covered In Coconut Oil

Massage Hands, courtesy John HayesThere I was lying on a table, covered in coconut oil from headed to toe, and totally and absolutely naked.

Before we get to the why, let’s start with the how.

It all started six hours earlier when I remarked to Shanu, the owner of the guesthouse I was staying at, that I’d never experienced an Ayurveda massage, despite the fact I was now in India, the birthplace of the science, invented by the Ancient Rishis in the time of Lord Brahma (Ayurveda is the science of life span.).

“You want a massage?” Shanu asked.

“Um…sure…yeah, of course…um…yes, I’m in India.” I said with the unassertive confidence of a teenager ordering a beer on his first trip to a bar.

Of course Shanu knew somebody and, remembering my earlier insistence that I’d like to experience “life as the locals live,” he said confidently, “and it’s a REALLY local place, local massage, no tourists go there.

This led me onto the back of Shanu’s motorbike for a twenty minute ride away from the tourist town I was staying in, a walk through a series of cement alleys that cut between houses and ramshackle huts to what appeared to be some guy’s home.  As we knocked and walked in, machineI glanced through an open door leading to a side room, to see a contraption that looked just like a torture device straight out of the Dark Ages.  Shanu spoke to the woman, who appeared in the bedroom doorway, in Malayalam, the local language of which I understand none, besides “tastes good”).  After a few minutes of talking, he looked at me, “7:30?”

“Sorry?” I said not hearing him, because my ears were busy watching the Chinese water torture device still sitting in the next room.  “Do you want to come at 7:30 for a massage appointment?” Shanu asked through a heavy Indian accent.

“Um….I…umm….” I stammered, as the woman in the bedroom glared at me a bit.  “Of course…yes…I want a massage, 7:30 it is…”

Five hours later after again driving to the edge of town, down the cement alleys, past the ramshackle huts and back at the front door of the massage house, the time was now 7:30.

The MassuseI was met by an old man with gray hair that still had wisps of black streaks that curled a bit over his eyes and across his extremely dark Indian complextion.  He led me to a room (past the Chinese water torture device) and had me sit on an overturned red plastic bucket.

“What kind of massage style was it again?” I asked, hoping he spoke English.

“Ancient Kerala martial arts,” he said. My back winched in anticipation.

A lone ceiling fan, with dust-covered blades, spun slowly above my head, casting ominous gray shadows on the dirt streaked green walls of the room.

“Oh,” I said, a bit nervous, “Me. First time to have.” I told him in simplified, broken English. “I had Swedish massage and Chinese massage before. First time for martial arts massage,” I remarked in what sounded like a poorly dubbed Hong Kong kung-fu flick.

“Take off your clothes and put here,” he said, pointing at a bent hook on the wall, making absolutely no effort to shield his eyes, leave the room or even break his glare at me.

“Right,” I said.  I imagined a drop of water rolling off the top of the Chinese water torture device in the next room, as the only sound to break the silence as now all my clothes were hanging on a rusty hook on the wall.

There I was, sitting on the bucket, totally naked, having reluctantly agreed to some sort of Jackie Chan-style massage from an old grumpy man in what felt like his hidden torture chamber in the bowels of his simple hut in the back streets of India. I had to smile, as the scene seemed pretty funny—and it was about to push the boundaries of the ridiculous.

He proceed to pull out a globular, ceramic container from high on a shelf on over the course of the next hour he covered me in massive amounts of coconut oil, flavored with what smelled like tumeric.  Covering every surface from the top of my head to the bottoms of my feet, he methodically and meticulously massaged every muscle and loosened every joint.  Being it a “martial arts” massage, I expected a bit more violence in the room, but in fact it wasn’t too much difference from the Shiatsu massage that I once had at a sports health clinic in America…well, except now I was covered in 75 gallons of coconut oil….and I was totally naked.

I tell you that story, first cause its funny, and also because it was one of my first excursions on this trip into the world of holistic and herbal medicine.  Coming from the West in a country that is adamant about its “scientific proof,” I’ve never put a lot of stock in the fields of homegrown medicine.  In much of the developing world, which often doesn’t have access to clean drinking water, let alone expensive medicines, cutting-edge medical equipment and highly educated doctors, people must (and have for thousands of years) relied on homespun remedies to cure everything from an upset stomach to cancer.  Further, some of these cultures (particularly the Chinese and the Indians) have been developing these techniques over the last three thousand years, while many Western medical techniques date back to only the last century.

In China, I experience a few different forms of Chinese massage, from foot reflexology to a massage style in which they place a bag of really hot rocks on your back.  Skeptical about the foot reflexology (in which it is said most body aliments can be cured by touching specific parts of the foot or hand), I decided to give it a try and found myself in a local massage parlor in Beijing, being tended to by a masseuse from a small village in the Sichuan Province.  She spoke no English and didn’t have the patience for my terrible Mandarin, soHand Chart we didn’t communicate at all during the two hour massage session—-except for one moment when, as I winced in pain as she was poking the bottom of my foot, she turned to my friend (who happened to speak the same Sichuan dialect) and said to him, “Tell him he has problems with his kidneys.”

“What!?” I said, shooting a look of horror at her.  She looked at me, smiled gently and went back to tending to my foot. “What does she mean by that!?” I demanded.  The woman didn’t answer.  For the next month every time my stomach hurt or I had a pain in my side I was afraid my kidneys were about to fail.

Elsewhere in China, if you are sick, you can simply go to the Chinese medical doctor, explain your ailments, then he measures out an assortment of herbs, twigs, bird’s nests, and other odds-and-ends, puts them in a sack and gives them to you.  Then you go home, boil the sack’s contents, drink it, and feel better.

Next door in India, nearly everyone knows that certain spices/herbs do certain things: Tumeric is good for coughs and asthma; phyllium husks are a perfect cure for diarrhea; yogurt helps calm an upset stomach.  All of which for me, at one time or another, proved to be true.

As I sat there lying on that massage table in Kerala, with the smell of the coconut oil filling the room, it was the first time I began to realize that these cultures with these medical practices and this knowledge—which are often written off by most of the West, has much merit to it.   Chinese and Indian cultures, both full of practitioners of such medicinal practices, are thousands of years old dating back to a few thousands years B.C.—that’s a lot of time to discover useful medical remedies.

We may be too quick to dismiss what seems odd and unfamiliar because we can’t immediately ‘prove’ its value, or it doesn’t fit neatly into our own cultural practices, though if we open ourselves it we’d find there’s certainly something to it.  It’s not weird, it’s just different.  And that’s why I travel: to get a first-hand understanding of such differences, as its the differences that keep our ever shrinking world interesting.

Besides when was the last time you walked out of the doctor’s office smelling like a piña colada.

Hand photo courtesy John Hayes under Creative Commons. Hand chart photo courtesy Cote under Creative Commons.

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