Massaged in Vein
While vacationing at a remote beach camp on the island of Lombok in Indonesia with my husband, I decided to indulge in a traditional massage of the indigenous Sasak people. Up to that point, everything Sasak—the music, the art, the dancing, the people, the food—had been wonderful. Although, looking back, it was all fairly intense: the music loud and frantic, the food spicy, the dancing energetic. The receptionist who booked the massage for me didn’t ask any questions or clarify anything about the massage, so I didn’t even think to ask for a description of a “Sasakese massage,” even though something told my husband to sit this one out.
It turns out that a Sasakese massage is the kind of thing you try once just to have had the experience, like the spicy Lombok chili pepper that gives the island its name, unless you’re a masochist. That’s not to say the massage therapist was a sadist, only that one must enjoy intense and prolonged pain to seek out this kind of massage. Seeing as I don’t generally enjoy pain, I will never willfully get this massage again. But, I would be loath to say that I got nothing out of it. I must admit that the massage therapist did make me aware of parts of my body that I didn’t know existed or could feel pain. That’s worth something, I suppose.
I kissed my husband goodbye outside the small massage house where I went that fateful evening. It was modeled after a traditional Sasak fisherman’s hut, except that this thatched-roof house had the modern addition of large picture windows on all walls. To the left of the entrance was a room with two raised massage beds, essentially the exact type of room I was expecting. However, I was not to enter that room. My room was to the right. My room, where I would be for the next ninety minutes, was entirely empty save for a single mattress on the floor covered by a colorful sheet, positioned directly below a long wooden bar that ran lengthwise, four feet above the mattress.
My massage therapist, an older Sasak man who told me later that his massage techniques had been passed down from his great-great grandfather, asked me to lay on the mattress face down. He covered me with the sheet, and from the very first touch I couldn't stop thinking over and over in my head that my husband would not like this massage. I uttered various iterations of this idea obsessively in my mind for the first half hour as the massage therapist used his knees and heels to jab, poke, and slide across my back.
The first thirty minutes turned out to be the warm up, the Sasak version of a gentle back rub. The real massage started when he began running his strong fingers up and down the veins of my legs. That wasn’t so bad, at first. It tickled when he got particularly high on my thigh or when he squeezed the jiggly bits of my leg, but the pain really began in earnest when he started pinching deep into my legs and drawing his thumb across my veins in rapid succession.
All the movements were performed methodically, beginning with my right calf. He worked his hand slowly up as he jabbed his thumb deep in the area that sometimes causes me to awake in the night with a charley horse, pitching his pointer finger and thumb across the veins inside. No matter my cries, he continued. Next, his hands made their way up to my right thigh, his fingers still unrelentingly focused on the veins deep inside my leg where I have never dared poke so deeply.
He massaged—for a lack of a better word—one leg at a time, so it felt slightly torturous knowing that my left leg awaited the same treatment. The time it took him to move across the mattress from one leg to the other felt excruciatingly long, the anticipation of pain worse than the actual pain of the massage. I’m kidding. The actual massage was way worse pain than I could have ever conjured up. Never in my life have I been so grateful to have only one back, one neck and one head where his methods could only be performed once.
When he moved on to my feet, he pressed hard onto the flat area on the outside of my foot by my ankle, which caused me to cry out in pain. Then he pressed into the arch and scraped his thumb across the veins on top of my foot. It’s difficult to explain this whole scraping act because it is so unlike any pain or feeling I have ever had in my life. The top of the foot is not usually a place that engages with the outside world, except with the inside of shoes. It is normally free from pain, unless it is stepped on, but even a wayward high heel is less painful than a Hulk-like thumb deliberately drawing itself across the veins that lie between bone and skin.
After the legs, he asked me to sit up and I did so facing the windows of the front wall. My massage took place between the hours of five and six thirty so I could tell the passing of time by the line of the setting sun on the mountain across the way. Every inch higher meant a moment closer to putting on my clothes and walking back to my husband, my gentle, gentle husband who would soon be tasked with giving me a massage to counteract this massage. I could hear some birds singing above me, sitting under the thatched roof, and I couldn’t help but think that they were commiserating with me, acknowledging the predicament we both found ourselves in, both of us trapped in a place we had willfully come.
When I was seated, crisscross applesauce, the massage therapist proceeded to hang from the poll above us and press against my back with his feet. He placed each of my arms through his arms so that they dangled like a scarecrow’s. Next, leaning back with his body still hanging by the pole, he wrapped his legs around me and pressed his feet into my bent knees to hold them in place. The final movement was one graceful and swift twist that caused my entire back to crack effortlessly.
When we untangled from that maneuver, it was time for my arms. He used the same deep scraping technique up and down my arms that he had used on my legs, only this time he ended at my elbow and pressed on a point under the bone so forcefully that I lost feeling in my hands. It was at this point—after some whimpering and involuntary spasms from the pain—that he asked if everything was okay, more than an hour into the massage. I said that it hurt a lot, and I couldn't help but laugh and squirm sometimes when it tickled. He said that many people disliked this massage. I asked if it was because it hurt them, and he said, yes, many people cry.
I’ll admit that this made me feel a little better about the quiet murmurings of pain that I had allowed myself to produce, and I felt even proud that I was nowhere near tears. I looped back to my original thought that if my husband had managed to sit through the massage this long he would have been in tears, no doubt.
After this interaction, the massage therapist asked me to lay down on my back. If the arms were the most painful part of the massage, then this next part on my back was absolutely the most bizarre. He began with a series of stretches that reminded me of a physical therapy session. He pressed my straightened legs down toward my torso at different angles until they were open in butterfly position. I’m flexible by nature so I had no problem with this part, but I can imagine that it would probably be an extremely painful portion of the massage for less flexible people.
The massage therapist seemed to give up on stretching my hips quickly after finding that he couldn’t press my knees any further into the ground, so he straightened my legs out completely. Maybe if I hadn't been so flexible we never would have made it to this next part. Maybe if flights to South Korea had been less expensive, I would have been there, on a raised massage table, instead of here on the floor. Maybe if, maybe if.
In any case, we had time; the sun still cast a pink line of light on the mountain. He stood over me, slipped his hands under the small of my back and whispered what seemed like an incantation—though it was more likely a jumble of Sasakese curse words—before he picked me up by my back in one fell swoop and caught my hips in between his legs, the knobs of his knees managing to hold up the weight of my entire body as I hung there limp as a doll.
Holding me in this position, which I could see through my squinted eyes took a lot of effort on his part, he pressed his fingers into my collarbone and the muscles beneath it. I couldn’t help laugh a bit from the tickling. It felt disrespectful to be giggling while suspended in air by a man exerting so much energy on my behalf, but I kept my eyes closed, so maybe he didn’t notice.
The final part of the massage was my head. The massage therapist pressed into my scalp with his palms and soon made his way to my face, sliding his hands across my forehead and temples. He pressed my ears inward and rubbed them, and I suddenly wondered in horror if he would massage my eyes. I think it’s clear where this is going.
He put his hands across my face like he was blindfolding me, and pressed down, rippling his fingers several dozen times over my eyeballs. In this position, it was possible to appreciate the full strength of his hands, and it was the first time in my life that I really understood that someone could kill another human being by suffocating them with only their hands. I could never have pried his hands off my face, and I do believe he could have crushed any bone in my body. After a few minutes of the face massage and a few intense scratches on my head, he said the massage was over. Just like that, it was over.
There was still a tiny bit of light left in the sky, so I knew it must be a bit before the sunset at six thirty. I asked the massage therapist if I could take a shower in the bathroom, but to my surprise he told me no. He said that I needed to wait thirty minutes. I asked him why and he said something that I didn’t understand and the word red. It was something like, you have to wait for the red to stop. I guess he was referring to my blood, which had just been jostled every which way, so I got up and left.
I assume I was supposed to sit there and relax, but at that moment, the last thing I wanted to do was stay in the same room where everything had just gone down. I got up and put my clothes back on, still wet from an encounter with a giant wave on my way to the massage, and I remembered an earlier time, a world where I didn’t know that the inside of my arms and legs felt pain, a world that no longer existed.