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Where's the Rub?

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.


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