Massage Wallah of Kalimpong

Globe and Mail, 2012

My ponytail dripped with stale-smelling oil, liberally poured from a glass jar that once held mango pickles. I was standing in my own hotel shower, naked, and slightly bewildered as a very pleasant, short, brown man with grey hair vigorously scrubbed my armpits, bum and back. He was the massage wallah of Kalimpong. This was my first spa experience.

The day began with a bang – literally – as our Airbus A320 ingested a goose while taking off in Delhi. The great steel bird still managed to lurch into the air. Smoke poured from beneath the right wing. A few people screamed. And on we flew, for almost two hours, eventually making an unscheduled stop in Guwahati, where a bent rotor blade was replaced. Then onward to Darjeeling province and into the Himalayan foothills aboard a Jeep, jolting along rocky roads, past pollution-belching lorries and greening tea plantations.

The sun was low in the sky when we finally reached our upscale hotel, once the home of David Macdonald, a British emissary to Tibet who aided the 13th Dalai Lama’s escape. This vine-covered mansion was, according to a bespectacled Swiss historian in the lobby, “once the biggest nest of spies this side of the Bosporus.” A stopping point for nearly all early travellers in the region, a guest book by the teak doors bore ink-smudged signatures from Heinrich Harrer, George Mallory and Edmund Hillary. The scent of frangipani floated in open patio doors. I peered at faded photographs from another era, sipping chai, when a commotion broke out at the front door.

Shiri, the massage man, had arrived, and my co-guide on the Himalayan photo tour – who had been here before – was delighted.

“Go on, have a massage. Seriously. You’ll love it,” she urged me. Our guests were already tipping back the their second round of cold Kingfisher beers at the bar. There was an hour until dinner. What the heck? It had been a tough day.

As Shiri bolted the door of my room and spread a thin sheet on the hardwood floor, I fidgeted nervously, uncertain what to do next. With a wave, he showed I should lose the clothes. Hesitant, I left my underwear on, but the wallah was not to be disobeyed. Off they came in a flash, along with a ratty collection of necklaces around my neck.

Then Shiri handed me a tattered, oil-stained book. The first page read: “I specialize in following parts – head, sinus, thighs, chest, full body, half body. I can heal twisted ankles and sinus.” Great. The remainder was filled with glowing endorsements from earlier clientele.

I lay face down on the sheet. Shiri began by hammering on every bony protrusion from my neck to my ankle, muttering with concern. He dug into muscles, yanked joints in directions they were never meant to go, and eventually retrieved a plastic shopping bag with seven dirty bottles of oil. One after another, these were poured over me like a sundae. Much slapping, smacking and rat-a-tat finger-whapping ensued. When Shiri began to pour oil in my hair, I protested, but he silenced the uprising, proceeding to use my oil-drenched ponytail as a whip across shoulders and back.

“Front side,” he eventually nodded, giving a motion like flipping a burger. This was it, the point of no return. I contemplated folding, feigning fatigue or some other excuse, but an overriding belief in suspending judgment and experiencing everything possible while on the road pushed me forward.

Shiri retrieved a tiny perfumed bottle, depositing a few drips in my belly button, throwing a splash across my chest, and then emptying the remains on my crotch. As he traced ticklish circles on my belly, an overwhelming dread of what might come gripped me. I didn’t have to wait long. Following a few kicks to the hips, Shiri grabbed the goods, moved everything to one side, and massaged the opposite thigh. Okay, it was mildly unsettling to have a strange man haul the twig and berries aside, no matter what the cause, but really, it didn’t seem too bad. I relaxed, which was a mistake.

Soon Shiri was focused on the penis, slapping it back and forth like a soft whip. I had to bite the sheet to stop from laughing. I fought, with all my might, an urge to jump up and run from the room. Finally, in a move that to this day still baffles me for its therapeutic advantage, Shiri used the heel of his palm to grind everything in the crotch region into a pancake. In the dizzying minutes ahead, he picked wax from my ears and rubbed it into my cheeks, apparently tried to pop my eyes from the sockets and finished with a flying crosscheck to my neck.

Then off to the shower, where he diligently cleaned the rancid oil from my body. A quick signature in his book, a beer at the bar, and then Shiri was gone. He had evening appointments, where he would continue to practise the tradition and lineage he was born into, the art of massage, a skill that his father learned from his grandfather, and so on, back through the centuries.

The days ahead held spectacular views of Kanchenjunga, tours of dazzling orchid plantations, ancient monasteries and silent monks, but it is Shiri I remember most vividly, even a decade later. I must confess though, I have not visited a spa since. Once was enough.

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