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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Life in Chennai # 19: Massages Good and Bad

The vast industry of hair salons, products and marketing is the reverse here in Chennai than in North America in that it is all geared predominantly for men rather than women. Supply and demand of course. Here boys and men coif their hair, spent hours in the salon, strut about town with dramatic moustaches and, ala 1950’s Hollywood, carry combs in their back pocket. Women on the other hand wear their hair long and straight and held back pretty much as is. So 180 degrees to the trends at home. So here there are hundreds of men’s salons (or saloons as they are variously signed, I’m unsure if this is a purposeful marketing ploy or merely a poor spelling), but my female expat friends consistently complain about the inability to get a decent haircut (and risk of trying).

This of course is mostly all wasted on me given my current (and unfortunately permanent) hair style of clipped short, but on the plus, it does mean finding a place is convenient. I’ve become a regular at one just around the corner from me and I usually drop in on my way home. They don’t speak a whole lot of English, but the demands of what I want are pretty simple so we have sorted it all out.

So in I go the other day, sitting down for my usual cut using the clippers with a 1 guard. At most places, the hair cut comes with a 20 minute “relaxation” head massage. I typically skip this to for getting home to dinner a little sooner, but today I decided to give it a go.

And it was...interesting... I really like having my head and face massaged. But I can’t say this was so much a massage as more a vigorous beating. I can’t say it was particularly relaxing either. My guy appeared to be new to the salon (saloon?) and it at first seemed they were just letting him go and do his own thing on me and see what he did. But I later revised his skill level or at least my appraisal of his musical background when he kept excellent rhythm drumming my head in sync to the music video playing on the TV down the row. Realising this made me have to stifle a giggle, which may have just encouraged him. Oh dear. His technique in the end was probably quite good for what it was. It just wasn’t the kind of “relaxing” head massage I was expecting and it left my scalp feeling if not sore, certainly very invigorated.

So I suppose I need to revise my statement and qualify it as I usually like my head and face massaged.

So my massage goes on for quite a while, far longer than 20 minutes. No one bothers to stop him I suppose and I don’t have a watch on. I do actually feel more uplifted and relaxed at the end, but I question how much that has to do with the massage, how much is the aromatic oil he’s used, how much is because I found the whole experience humorous and how much is simply because sitting, closing your eyes and doing nothing for 20 minutes is calming in its own right. I tend to think the actual massage was the least contributor of the four! But whatever, I suppose the results speak for themselves...

For the grand finale of the massage though, he strapped this giant, clunky metal motor thing to the back of his hand. It looked like some oversized ray gun out of a cheesy ancient sci-fi flick. It looked serious bizarre and like a good, heavy weapon in case of a fight, like if the other guy pulls out brass knuckles, you just smile and put this bad boy on and watch his eyes go wide! He turns it on and magic: it turns his head into a vibrator. Killer idea and this, I have to report, is relaxing and very nice on the scalp, face and ears. I’ll keep things PG and will let you make your own obvious leap of imagination to other uses for such an item. If it wasn’t so bulky and didn’t appear to draw enough power to dim the lights for half a block, it would make next year’s Christmas gift craze for sure. I can’t imagine it is that good for the user long term (carpal tunnel syndrome anyone?), but this at least met the promised muscle relaxant. Just glad he didn’t cuff me with his gauntleted backhand for laughing again... :-)

This is not my first experience with notable massages here in Asia though...

Being in India, one cannot go without trying a proper Ayurvedic massage. Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient system practiced here in India. Part of “alternative medicine” from the perspective of the West, it has proved effective when done properly and is very scientific and systematic in its approach. Like most traditional medicines, it focuses on holistic health and cures over targeted and kill-the-bad-bugs Western style. But proper health care aside, it has entered mainstream and mass marketing most fluidly as a questionably effective subset: massage and essential oils – things easily packaged and sold and most importantly things easiest to pretend expertise and credentials of. So proper Ayurvedic clinics are common enough, but everyone and their brother is adding “Ayurvedic” treatments to their spas, soaps, room fresheners, skin creams and you know the drill. It fits bang on into the world’s current obsession with herbal and essential oil additions to everything (many of which probably do have valid therapeutic effects, just not in the uncontrolled or miniscule doses that are in most of the products hawking them). If Ayurveda has not hit North America yet, don’t worry, it will, guaranteed, certainly on the west coast.

Anyway, back to my story, when I was in Mahabilapuram some months back, an area with a lot of tourist influence, I figured my back and neck were tight and I should try ones of the Ayurvedic massages that was being advertised up and down the street. So I made an appointment and later that day found myself on a table, literally drenched in aromatic oils and absolutely naked being worked on by a Keralan guy who claimed extensive credentials. No bothered by Western modesty, many Asian massages are done completely without clothes. Good thing I’m not shy about such things as I had not had warning going in.

Now maybe I’ve got too vivid an imagination or maybe I’m just too into touch (and am mildly ticklish besides), but I find full-body massage – and doubly worse here being oiled and naked – as entirely too much stimulation to ever fully relax. I mean come on! I may not be turned on by this mildly homoerotic fantasy, but seriously how does anyone handle these things without having to concentrate on igloos and icebergs?

Oh well, the massage goes well enough after a spell. I stop alternating between wanting to squirm and giggling at myself for it and the work on my tight shoulders and neck did what I had hoped to ease tension from bad ergonomics at work and too little exercise. I don’t have any background or prior experience in Ayurveda so I can’t vouch for its authenticity or whether it did anything more than a regular massage, but for a good deep massage, it was worth the paltry cash outlay. After, he gives me a bucket of mud stuff to get all the oil off with and a place to shower and I leave feeling slightly like I should want a cigarette or something. ;-)

A couple months later I get another massage, this time at the fancy spa in my 5-star hotel in Udaipur, with the usual little towel and a pretty Filipino masseuse, and I decide that I am just not wired for the full body massage thing as a relaxation tool. Just too much for me. The only exception maybe being Thai massages because in my experience there is just no way to feel sexy once you are doused in tiger balm and the slight woman has tied you into a pretzel and dug into deep muscles you didn’t know existed.

And that, I’m sure, is far more information than you needed to know about me, but I figured it was worth sharing for the story! ;-)


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