The Medium is the Massage

A while back now I was in Tashkent in Uzbekistan and developed a bad back. Someone arranged for a physiotherapeutic massage. I turned up at what seemed to be a night club in the basement of a high rise block of unsympathetic concrete. The tale could be a long one. Suffice it to say that the masseuse was a lithe woman, dressed only in a white towelling dressing gown. She spoke no English and I no useful language. The effort to beat, pummel, knuckle, twist, scrunch and slap my back utterly exhausted her. At the end she collapsed into a chair, her gown fell open, revealing her nakedness and in this intimate and frank posture, she had a cigarette. I suspect that if the course of events had been what she had expected, she would have been less tired!

This week I visited a health spa in Ghana, near Accra, run by a doctor and with a little flock of engaging Ghanaian masseuses. I had a two hour session of oil massage. My masseuse, Celestine, worked very hard for the entire period. She did not want conversation and was very careful about unwarranted physical contact, other than what her fingers and palms intended. It was almost pitch black. Music played at a level below really hearing. Two hours went by and all but the obviously taboo areas were kneaded and cajoled into soft rubber. It struck me how extraordinary such activity is. The meeting of strangers who are in constant physical contact but with their own thoughts and mental isolation. What did she discover about me in that long silence? Did my muscle and skin speak? What did she learn from these daily encounters with passing human trade? What fulfilment was there for her in this work?

I never had the opportunity to ask her. She blanketed me at the end and told me to wait five minutes before getting dressed. Like an oil-slicked creature from a deep sea, I emerged into the light, no wiser about Celestine and only a little wiser about myself. My body had been like Braille but I had no idea how literate its reader had been.

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