Be cautious of the oft-touted advice, “when in Rome do as the Romans.” Accepting this motto when I moved to India, I embraced the ancient practice of Ayurvedic massage, but I got more than I bargained for.
The massuese at the earthy-odoured Ayurveda centre handed me a dog-eared brochure. One service read, ‘Vasthi – insertion of herbal oils through the rectum.’ Jesus! I didn’t come here for an enema. I opted for a ‘Pizhichil – full body massage‘, pointing several times to my preferred choice on the leaflet. I didn’t want the woman going anywhere near by bottom.
The masseuse handed me a disposable canvas G-string that I dutifully tied onto my naked body, like a sumo wrestler ready for battle. As I lay down on the cracked vinyl massage table, the masseuse poured a pot of warm, musty oil over my head and rubbed it vigorously into my scalp. My matted hair was now a suitable spot for a nesting bird.
Oil was then dribbled down the length of my body. I was like a piece of meat marinating. The masseuse worked her dry, calloused hands up my body, like sandpaper mildly rubbing on my skin, then without warning she forcefully slapped my legs with cupped hands. Next she whacked me with her fists before tugging at my arms with such force that she could have been trying to pull my arms out of their sockets. Maybe it was a form of sumo wrestling; I was dressed the part.
“Steam,” the masseuse pointed across the hallway to a wooden, coffin-like capsule. When in Rome do as the Romans. I lay inside the steam contraption with my head popping out the top like a magician’s assistant about to be cut in half. The machine was turned on and I was enveloped in cloud. It was like a magic show.
With my steam bath done I was lead to a cubicle to bathe Indian style, with a large plastic bucket of hot water and a jug. The masseuse sat me down on a wooden stool, its paint peeling from years of use, so that she could shampoo my hair. I risked a splinter in my backside. Herbal shampoo-cum-body-wash – a coarse, abrasive brown lotion that resembled dirt but smelt like manure – was ground into my skull. We’d apparently moved on from sumo wrestling to mud wrestling.
To mark the end of my treatment I was handed a sachet of nondescript Ayurvedic medicine. The sickly smelling tablets resembled rat droppings. I’d succumbed to everything else during the comical scenario so I swallowed them.
Early the next morning I raced out of bed (my bird’s nest hairdo no better after a wash and a night’s sleep) and reached the toilet just in time for a long bout of bowel explosions. A closer read of the empty medicine packet warned ‘laxative’. I may as well have opted for an enema after all. Maybe it’s not so wise to do as the Romans.