My masseur was a small, softly spoken man. After replacing my clothes with a meagre loin cloth, he set to work on my face, prodding and rubbing as if applying an invisible coat of make-up. It was only when he finished that my skin felt softer and muscles more relaxed as if my face had been remoulded into a happier expression.
I did not have long to absorb the pleasures of this appetiser as there was still the rest of my body to work on. I lay on the table and, as the man rubbed oil onto my arms and torso, the smell of coconut filled my nostrils.
In Kerala most of what you touch and eat is derived from the state's vast crop of coconut trees. Every part of the plant is used for building materials, utensils, hair products and, of course, cooking. Coconut oil is a ubiquitous ingredient in Keralan cuisine and it's good for the skin too, judging by the copious amounts I was basted with.
He began probing every inch of my body outside a narrowly defined bathing suit area. It was sensational! But some of those sensations caused me to stifle giggles or jolt as if electrocuted when a knuckle hit a nerve. As he pounded my back I had to fight the urge to fart. Maybe the treatment was designed to release such internal pressures. At one point I heard a series of bloodcurdling screams coming from the TV playing in reception.
After about 40 minutes of being squeezed and pounded like an artisan baker’s dough, I was directed to sit in a small wooden chamber for a steam bath. A panel was inserted across the front and another at the top leaving only my head exposed. It reminded me of a magician restraining his assistant before a trick involving sharp swords.
The temperature was cool at first and rose at a comfortable rate as the steam built up. As I began to sweat I remembered hearing how a frog will remain in cold water as it is slowly heated even until it is boiled alive.
After ten minutes I emerged soaked in perspiration, but it was clean and fresh, not like the greasy, smelly sweat from a workout. The man dried me off and marked my forehead for good luck before I got dressed.
Back in reception I waited for the rest of my group who had booked an extended session. I sat next to an Indian man with a grey beard. After a few minutes, my masseur reappeared holding bunches of long, rusty nails. He and the old man discussed these at great length and my eyes fell on a small brass crucifix, one of several religious ornaments decorating the room.
I wondered what my companions were going through, but they soon emerged looking radiant and, all in all, I felt pretty good too. As I fell asleep that night I fancied I could still smell the coconut oil deep within my pores releasing its nutrients into my supple skin.
|Coconuts: a staple ingredient in Keralan cooking and good for the skin|