"You like old lady massage?" the receptionist inquired.
After 22 hours at 35,000 feet and another one spent slumped against the check-in counter of my Bangkok hotel, my joints ached. I felt a creeping paranoia that deep-vein thrombosis, aneurysm, life as an institutionalized turnip loomed unless I quickly found someone to restore what remained of my circulation.
The sign on the establishment door had indicated generic Thai massage. Old lady massage?Was there some other kind?Fixing me with a glazed expression, the receptionist said flatly, "Young lady massage."
It became clear that, Bangkok being one of the global capitals of sex tourism, old lady massage was code for a standard therapeutic rubdown, perhaps provided by the rare practitioner who does not moonlight at a local nightclub performing unprintable acrobatics with a Ping-Pong ball. Young lady massage was the other sort, the kind where gentleman customers are manually eased toward what is politely termed "release."
I forgave myself the confusion, signed up for a therapeutic package, and was escorted into a neat cubicle where a tidy mat was made up with clean sheets. Since Thai massage is done clothed, I stripped and dressed again in a pair of cotton pajamas and then found myself greeted by a wizened fireplug, who said something merry in Thai and went briskly about her work.
Two hours later she had finished stretching and pummeling me, and I felt that my spine was once more in alignment, my blood flowing, my sinews holding the joints in their sockets. I no longer seemed like one of those weary, discombobulated heaps of bones and organs that one so often sees shambling down a Jetway. I felt relatively new. Past a certain age and mileage status, it is an achievement to be able to make a statement like that.
As if to defy writer Elizabeth Hardwick's observation that when you travel the first thing you discover is that you do not exist, I felt securely located in my body, which after all is the only fixed address any of us will ever possess. It was the old lady's hands that had set me right, and it is for this reason that I make it my business whenever I travel to seek out a massage.
The habit was formed years ago. What began as a defense against jet lag evolved into a means of getting physically oriented to new places, and of easing the existential dread that takes hold when one spends eternities in airport purgatory and inside metallic tubes hurtling through space at inhuman speeds.
Over time, I have been administered Swedish massage in the New Mexico desert by a muscular pregnant woman who had to reach across her own body to get to mine; received massage from a therapist at a chic spa in Paris, a woman whose feline attentions might have been more effective had she been less fastidious about preserving her manicure; experienced reflexology in a hut in a Tanzanian treetop; been double-teamed by a pair of Ayurvedic experts at a strip mall somewhere in New Delhi; and gotten lomilomi massage from a New Age nut job at a luxurious spa on Maui, where my sinuses and my aura were simultaneously cleared.
At home in New York I alternate between seeing whoever happens to be on hand at my favorite basement acupressure center in Chinatown and a talky masseur who used to mend broken dancers from the New York City Ballet. I once visited a place called the Osaka Center for Oriental Therapy on the west side of Manhattan, but quietly dressed and slipped away after spotting a poster of a hapless victim beneath the legend: "Simulate epileptic seizure with flapping palm sole knee elbow rock and roll."
Many therapists advise massage as a kind of prophylaxis for the wear and tear of journeying. Luckily for those of us who travel often, proxy mothering now appears on the roster of services offered to travelers. Virgin Atlantic has been known to provide massage as part of its first-class service. Guests at many hotels can place an order for an in-room massage on their way from the airport. If massage professionals are often leery of making broad claims for the medical value of their services, they are not shy with consumer advice.
When it comes to travel and massage, the consumer is, at some level, always taking a gamble. It is not just a matter of old or young lady massage. Few circumstances come to mind in which a normally conscientious traveler will obligingly park clothes, wallet, and assorted valuables while a stranger manipulates his or her naked form. The kind of advice masseurs give on the subject tends to be commonplace, but no less essential or sound. As with any transaction, it pays to patronize establishments that straightforwardly demonstrate businesslike intentions. There are simple things to look for, such as good sanitation and lighting, and easy access to what is preferably a busy thoroughfare. The masseurs themselves should look clean and understand enough English, sign language, or mutually arrived at Esperanto to pick up on cues from clients, particularly those involving words like ouch and stop.
People in the business insist that as a cardinal rule a client should be comfortable ending a treatment at any time. That is not always a cinch to do. I once booked a massage at a hotel in central Warsaw. Should I have turned back when I first laid eyes on the basement massage room with graying walls, a table covered with cracked Naugahyde, and the general air of having preserved intact all the bacterial flora of the Soviet era?Of course. But I'd made an appointment. I felt obligated by that and by the beefy masseuse's ingratiating smile.
The massage went fairly well until, midway through, this woman began inquiring about my marital status as she concentrated her strokes on my inner thighs. Fortunately I was able to block further inquiry by improvising a fiction. As a priest, I told her, I was married to my faith.
A masseur once extolled the beauty of massage to me with the kind of phrase that called to mind grade school reports on multiculturalism, with accompanying dioramas. "It's about enjoying cultural differences," he said, by way of explaining why it is that one would intentionally seek out shiatsu in Iceland, New Age woo woo in Santa Fe, or the knee in the back at Bangkok's Wat Po.
"You can't have a friend go to Istanbul and not rave about the hammams," says the New York decorator Carey Maloney, who not long ago visited one of those traditional Turkish bathhouses with his partner, Hermes Mallea.
"First, we checked into this room that was reminiscent of a bus station," says Maloney, "and then we went up to a cubicle where we took off our clothes, put on polka-dotted towels, and stood around until some surly attendant told us to go lie on a slab."
Once on the marble bench, Maloney was left to marinate in his own perspiration until summoned by a 350-pound masseur. "He soaped me, then pointed me to a spigot in the wall and doused me, and then sent me back to the slab again," Maloney explains. There was a certain amount of massage involved, he adds, but "it was more of a karate-chop-type thing." Have I mentioned that the masseur himself was unclothed?It's a matter of thresholds of tolerance, I guess; my own is fairly high, although it stops short of participation in naked martial-arts sessions with former extras from Midnight Express.
In my experiences with Indian massage, I have sometimes left feeling like a lab rat (as when an Ayurvedic doctor in Kerala insisted on blowing turmeric smoke up my nose, administering a raw flower paste to my hair, and applying medicinal goo to the insides of my eyelids) and sometimes been moved toward a state of consciousness one associates with recreational drugs.
At the newly built spa of the Taj Malabar hotel in Cochin, I recently found myself drifting in white-light serenity as a masseur slathered me with medicinal oils. The oils had been prescribed by an Ayurvedic physician, who first analyzed the doshas that apparently constitute my energetic essence, and then noted that I would do well to spend the first 10 minutes after waking meditatingon my priorities. But I already do that. And, let's face it, what one seeks from therapeutic treatment is relaxation and increased well-being, not self-help advice filched from some faded text by Dale Carnegie.
I want to feel better when I leave than when I came in. Is that so odd?I want the sort of treatment that I received last winter in an Austrian resort, where a young attendant told me that he would "make Swedish, with stomach" and spent an hour unraveling what felt like skeins of muscular knots. Did I ski any better for that?Who cares?In an age when yoga is practiced competitively, when reward is inevitably yoked to endurance, when it seems more crucial than ever to forgo the idiocies of "no pain, no gain" for the indulgence of touch, it's important to remain vigilant against creeping Puritanism and to get naked with a stranger every once in a while.
GUY TREBAY is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure and a staff reporter for the New York Times.