Conversely, the worst massage I’ve ever had was wildly expensive. I arrived in Bora-Bora shortly after a cyclone hit, and the beach was still strewn with the detritus of the storm—bicycles and computer monitors had flown through the air. Miraculously, the beautiful overwater bungalows at my hotel were intact, and that water was turquoise blue. I requested a massage on my sundeck—there were no guests in the neighboring bungalows to impinge on my privacy because so many tourists had been frightened away by the cyclone. A lovely young woman arrived at the appointed hour, and soft breezes fanned me as I lay down. The setting could not have been more idyllic. But her technique was so wimpy, it was like being massaged by Raggedy Ann, and my frustration was exacerbated by the outrageous price tag.
I’m lucky that I need not travel far from home for all sorts of bodywork; New York City is virtually a United Nations of massage. I’ve been thwacked with a broom made of oak leaves before a pounding rubdown at the Turkish bathhouse; rolled with bamboo sticks from the Philippines (rather uncomfortable on the bonier parts of me but pleasant where I’m nicely padded); and walked on by a Korean woman dressed in what appeared to be the house uniform of blue polyester bra and panties, holding onto a pole suspended from the ceiling. (Sign in the dressing room: We love Americans!) My current favorite spot is in Brighton Beach. Since the 1970’s, Russian émigrés have turned this stretch of oceanside real estate into a Little Odessa, and it’s still possible to buy vodka and caviar by the gram at a club on the boardwalk. But recently and happily, Asians have infiltrated the neighborhood, offering amazing 60-minute reflexology for about $25. When I practically levitated after the therapist touched one spot on my foot, he looked at me knowingly and said, “No sleep,” correctly diagnosing my bout of insomnia. The only caveat is that I must escape into my own iPod world to drown out the Chinese warlord movies playing on a huge flat-screen TV.
I generally believe in the maxim that you get what you pay for. I go to world-class doctors; I buy cashmere sweaters that will probably outlive me; and I don’t expect that monkfish is going to taste like lobster. But after all these years, I’ve learned that massage satisfaction is not based on price. And the frequent language barrier off the beaten path is often a plus, eliminating the possibility of a Chatty Cathy. Because the best quality of any massage is…silence.
Aimee Lee Ball is the co-author of four books and writes frequently for the New York Times.