99 tips for a better world (23 of 99): keep an open mind
A man named Sudesh is rubbing oil onto my completely naked body.
It begins about an hour after I arrive at the Ayurveda Health Resort in Kerala, India. I am shown to my cabin and am introduced to the only other guest in the resort. May is the low season in India.
‘Hello!’ she calls enthusiastically, visibly pleased to have company. A young woman from Germany, she has long skinny dreadlocks and is wearing a sarong tied in a halter around her neck. It’s apparent she is naked underneath.
I feel out of place in my modesty-maintaining long baggy pants and oversized shirt and have no desire to strip down. I wonder briefly whether I should make a run for it. Alas, I am in the middle of nowhere so running for it would be hard. I decide to give the place a chance and then, if it gets any weirder, make a run for it.
After I settle into my cabin a man arrives at my door.
‘Hello, I am Sudesh. I am the head therapist here. Have you done ayurveda before?’
He asks the question with a serious tone that makes him sound like a school principal. I respond with an equally serious tone that I have not.
‘We will get started immediately. Do you want a female therapist?’
I contemplate this for a moment. The thought of a male therapist seems odd, especially for massage. But Sudesh is the head therapist and I had read gushing reviews about him online.
Umm…I have a preference for a woman therapist, but I guess it doesn’t matter.’
I put a bet each way and leave the decision in someone else’s hands.
Without taking a breath Sudesh decides for me. ‘Yes, a man will be fine for you.’
I realise later that Sudesh is the only therapist on hand during the low season so, yes, a man will be fine for me. I also read later, in an information booklet I found in my room, that it is common for men to massage women because the male energy is important for the healing process. How convenient.
Sudesh walks me through the grounds of the resort to a serene brick building. In a courtyard at the centre of the building there are statues of deities decorated with garlands and flowers floating delicately in ponds.
We enter a treatment room and Sudesh directs me. ‘You can change your clothes in there,’ he says, pointing to a bathroom. ‘Then hang your clothes here’, he says, pointing to a towel rail.
In the bathroom there is nothing to get changed into. No robe. No sarong. Nothing. Is there supposed to be something here? It seems plausible that I am just supposed to walk out into the treatment room naked, but this prospect is mortifying. An even more mortifying thought occurs to me: what if I’m not supposed to be naked and I walk into the room without any clothes on? Not willing to risk it, I come back out of the bathroom fully clothed and ask, ‘What do I change into?’
With a look of either forgetfulness or impatience, I can’t tell which, Sudesh wanders over to a chest and hands me a sarong the same colour as the one worn by the German girl. ‘This is a lungi,’ he informs me.
I come out of the bathroom clutching the lungi around myself like a towel. I hang my clothes on the rail and await direction. He sits me down on a stool and massages my head. Yes, this I can manage. Then he gestures for me climb up onto a grand wooden massage table.
‘On my front?’
‘No, no. On your back.’
I lie down on my back and Sudesh flings open the lungi to reveal my completely naked body. Then, he pours warm oil (that smells like spices one might use for cooking) all over my body. He begins to massage with diligence. I feel like I am being prepared for dinner.
Step one: remove packaging from human.
Step two: pour spiced oil over the body.
Step three: kneed for 90 minutes, ensuring the surface of the human is completely covered. Turn over for even coverage on both sides.
After the massage ends, I rise from the table and quickly rewrapped myself, glad to regain some modesty. As I stand up with the lungi clutched around me, Sudesh grabs the fabric from my hands, shakes it out like a tablecloth and wraps me properly. He ties the lungi in a halter around my neck.
In an outfit matching the German girl’s, I walk slowly back to my room wondering what on earth had just happened. I’ve had plenty of massages in my time that have involved male therapists or being scantily clad, but never both at the same time. I give myself assurances that Sudesh appeared to be professional and entirely unfazed.
Dinner is at 7.30pm. I sit down with the German girl and we get to know each other. She is staying at the retreat for three weeks and has been here almost a week already.
After we eat a healthy vegetarian dinner, we agree that an early night is in order. ‘All I do is sit around all day, but I’m exhausted,’ she reports. Before we part ways she leans in conspiratorially and says, ‘What did you think about the massage? Did you find it a bit confronting?’
I laugh for a long time. I laugh for the comedy of it all but also relief that I am not the only one who finds the experience odd.
She continues, ‘When you arrived I was just wearing the lungi. You must have thought I was a real weirdo, walking around in nothing but a cloth.’ She doesn’t know I had gone straight to my room after meeting her to write about it.
As the days wear on I fall into a routine, visiting Sudesh in the treatment room twice a day. He enquires about any problems I have with my joints and muscles and I diligently report the status of my aching knee and knotted shoulders. He massages me with his feet – I lie on the ground, while he holds onto ropes attached to the roof. He pours a green herbal concoction across my forehead in something akin to water boarding but far more relaxing. He paints my entire body with a lemon and turmeric paste. I joke that I look like the Simpsons. He registers a small polite smile. I think he’s heard that one before.
After each treatment, Sudesh shakes out my lungi like a tablecloth and wraps it in a halter behind my neck. I feel like a toddler being wrapped in a towel after my bath.
On my last day at the resort, I see Sudesh early in the morning. My week has been wonderfully restful. Lying in a hammock in the tropical garden, reading books, watching kingfishers. I feel healthier and more rested than I have in a long time. I am ready to move on now, to pick up the pace and see more of Kerala.
After my final massage I slowly rise from the massage table, no longer uncomfortable with my nakedness. As I thank Sudesh for his treatments he picks up the lungi, shakes it out like a tablecloth and wraps it around me one last time. I am surprised when the slightest hint of tears well in my eyes. I will miss our daily routine and I will miss the caring and diligent Sudesh. We speak briefly and Sudesh tells me about his grandfather, who has come from a long line of ayurveda therapists. He taught Sudesh everything he knows. I remember my earlier discomfort, and I’m grateful I’d stuck it out past that first day.
I walk slowly back to my cabin and pack my bags.