Thais that bind

One minute she's giving me a mean massage, the next she wants to steal me away on her motor scooter.

Published July 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I desperately needed a massage. Tatia and I had been in the jungle at Khao Yai for days, and our four-hour bus ride out had turned into something twice as long, with a full, harrowing series of near head-on, high-speed collisions. So much for the calmness of the Thais. The bus released us late at night in hot and muggy Phitsanulok ("where the hell is that?" we asked each other), too late for the last bus to Sukkothai. And I had a ferocious headache.

Thanks to the perseverance of our tuk-tuk driver (a tuk-tuk is public transportation, something like a tricycle bred with a lawnmower) and despite our protestations, we ended up at the most expensive hotel in town -- color television with two channels in English, room service, air conditioning, laundry and a massage service. Perhaps the driver knew that our last bed had been a mattress two inches thick, laid over open coil springs, in a tiny cinder block room with a single naked 40-watt bulb dangling from the ceiling. The pit toilet had been in a separate building across the mud.

Hot water streamed deliciously from the Western-style shower over my dusty and tense body, a definite improvement over the ladles of icy water that had rinsed us in the jungle. Fortified further with some clean clothes, I got on the telephone and called the hotel massage service. "Please send two massage ladies to room 66 for two hours, for two female clients." I promised Tatia I would treat her, as payment for having dragged her out of her cafes and into the jungle.

Before we met, Tatia had traveled only to genteel destinations -- Paris, southern Spain, Mexico City. I was more adventurous. After all, I had swum in piranha-infested waters up the Amazon, walked around with naked cannibals in the highlands of Irian Jaya, searched for tigers in remote reaches of Java and trekked in the Himalayas of Nepal. Modestly, I could say I was worldly-wise. Three months after we began dating I started testing her travel limits, and we went to the jungles in Costa Rica. It was an introductory course to adventure travel, and I was glad to be able to show her the ropes, to get her feet wet.

She had survived Costa Rica, and a year later we were in Thailand. This would be the true test of her mettle. I would introduce her to a non-Western civilization, a different cultural reality. I enjoyed the mentor role.

The masseuses arrived at our room both wearing black pants and white shirts. They doffed their thongs at the door. One woman was older and quiet, somewhat tall for a Thai, her black hair falling straight to just below her chin. The other was more chirpy, a younger and bouncier woman, whose medium-length black hair was in little curls. They instructed us to take off our sarongs and lie on the gigantic bed, actually two double beds made up as one.

They wanted to watch Thai soap operas on television while they did their massages, but we demurred, saying I couldn't take the noise because of my headache. Our initial conversations with them were brief, since they spoke only a little English, and Tatia and I weren't that proficient with our self-taught Thai.

It was my first Thai massage, and the older woman tending my head gave me the best work-over I'd ever had in my life. There is a long and honored tradition of Thai massage and a highly esteemed massage school at Wat Po, one of the most venerable temples in Bangkok. The techniques employed are different than those in Western-style massage and include massaging with the feet and applying heavy pressure on the blood vessels. At one point during our treatments my masseuse pressed her hand hard into my groin, stopping the blood flow of the femoral artery. After a bit she pulled her hand away quickly and the surge of the blood back into my leg was invigorating. Tatia, a trained nurse, was skeptical of this approach.

The massage ladies were talking to each other in Thai as they massaged us with strong but languid moves. Tatia's younger masseuse in particular was quite chatty. After a while she seemed bored with her friend, bored without the soap operas, and she started trying to talk to us. "Shampoo," she giggled. Her friend giggled along with her.

"Shampoo?" we asked. Then she started pointing to things, like her black pants and the bedspread, and telling us words we recognized as the Thai words for the colors. She compared her medium brown skin with the milk-white skin on Tatia's body. Then she pointed to Tatia's deep pink nipples and said "shampoo" and really giggled. And so we learned the word for pink.

Once she started talking about Tatia's "shampoos," the younger masseuse went on to point out other points of interest on Tatia's body, such as her trim waist and full breasts. We didn't understand it all, but the tone was approving. She caressed Tatia's long, wavy white-blond hair and called it "sexy," using the English word. That we understood.

Tatia was laying on her back, completely naked, her head in the lap of her masseuse. As the massage ended, her masseuse cupped both of Tatia's breasts in her hands, squeezing them a little, and she and the other lady laughed heartily.

After they had gone, Tatia told me she'd felt a little uncomfortable with all the attention on her body. Even with my headache I was able to muster a superior attitude, as I tried to dismiss Tatia's concerns.

"Oh, it's just an East-West thing," I assured her. "When I was in Bali, they always massaged your breasts, even on the beach with people all around, and they just acted so blasé, like they were touching your arm. It means nothing to them."

"Well, it meant something to me. I was embarrassed. After all, she grabbed my breasts, not yours."

The next day, despite the bliss of the previous night's two-hour massage, I remained quite sick with a migraine. Tatia was out exploring the little non-touristy town we now called Pitstop, and I was alone in the room, keeping it dark and quiet. I called down to the massage service again.

The masseuse arrived. In the darkness and in my pained state I didn't pay much attention to her. I explained that I had a headache, and wanted a massage for only that.

After about an hour of massage she began talking to me. She could take me on her motor scooter for a treatment for my headache to a nearby wat (a Buddhist temple) later that afternoon. I was unsure of her, what exactly she meant, and she quickly made the unclear situation more murky.

"I have no husband," she said, "and I have no madam like you do" -- at this she put her index fingers together, parallel to each other. Although I had never encountered the gesture before, something of its meaning was conveyed to me in the way her eyes lingered on me through her dark eyelashes. A small "uh-oh" sounded in my brain.

"Men are no good," she continued.

"Did you have a husband?" I asked her. She nodded yes, looking glum.

"What happened to your husband?" I asked.

She ran her finger across her throat, making a ripping sound. Oh, great, I thought. She slit his throat, and now she wants me to go away with her on her motor scooter.

I tried to convey to her that I could not agree to go to the wat with her, that I would have to talk to my friend.

OK, she would come back at 4:30 to take to me to the wat for treatments.

To my relief, she left. A little while later Tatia returned, bearing gifts from the world of Pitstop -- beautifully fragrant tiny blessing leis of white flowers and purple ribbons, which I hung on the bedpost beside my head, along with medicines from the local pharmacy. The cool moist perfume of the flowers reminded me of gardenias and I felt blessed.

I told Tatia of my encounter with the masseuse while she was gone, and how she wanted to take me to a wat for further treatments. Suddenly, my feminine Tatia turned into Barbara Stanwyck. "You ain't goin' nowhere, honey," she said in her Jewish-Western accent, "especially not with no madam-hunting little Thai masseuse." Tatia in chaps and fringe and serious boots flashed before my eyes, and I heard the crack of her whip.

"She's going to be here at 4:30," I said.

"And so will I."

"Maybe this is one of those cultural misunderstanding things," I said, not sure who I was trying to convince.

"Show me again how she put her fingers when she said that thing about you having a madam."

I complied.

"Nope, no misunderstanding, my little madam. I'm staying right here."

At 4:30 sharp there was a knock on the door. I cowered in bed, and Tatia let the masseuse in. Basic words of Thai and English went back and forth. Tatia conveyed to her that I was too sick to go get well at the wat, and the masseuse left.

"That was Ms. Shampoo, my masseuse from last night! I told you something was going on with her," Tatia remonstrated.

"God, I was so sick I didn't notice it was your masseuse."

The next day I continued to languish in the room, and Tatia brought me steamed jasmine rice and custard from the outside world. I held the bowl of rice and the warm aroma of jasmine caressed my face. The silky blandness of the custard slithered down my throat.

Thus strengthened, I called the massage service again and this time quite carefully clarified that I wanted the same woman as I'd had the first night. I was relieved when she showed up.

Through the entire massage, Tatia sat beside the bed, reading her novel, saying nothing, acting as if she weren't paying the least bit of attention.

My masseuse gave another excellent massage.

After she left I said to Tatia, "You know, I never thought I'd need a bodyguard to get a massage."

Tatia looked at me over her glasses, and a slow smile grew on her face. She chuckled, a chuckle I would hear again when we returned home, whenever someone asked if we'd had any trouble with the men in Thailand.

By Zona Sage

Zona Sage is a trial attorney who manages to get in trouble in out-of-the-way spots around the world. Her work has been published in California Lawyer and in "Travelers' Tales: Paris."


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