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By the way: Enjoying a traditional ‘torture’ massage

Michael Friis Johansen

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, December 6, 2019  /  01:48 pm
By the way: Enjoying a traditional ‘torture’ massage

A physiotherapist gives a back massage to a patient at a clinic. (Shutterstock/-)

Two separate signs on the front window of a massage parlor in Yogyakarta proclaimed: "No sex. No drugs".

"What about rock 'n' roll?" I asked inside. My joke didn't translate well into Indonesian, if the polite smiles and silence I got back were any indication.

A menu gave me my choices: from a 15-minute foot rub to two hours of therapeutic massage with various cleansing treatments. Since 90 minutes of massage seemed almost too much of a good thing, I chose an hour-long traditional Javanese full-body session.

The receptionist brought me to a curtained alcove and gave me a modest pair of shorts to wear. When the masseuse entered I was already lying down on the padded couch, but without my face inside the hole provided for it.

"Scream if you need anything," my friend and occasional guide joked from the other side of the curtains.

"Relax," the masseuse said, seeing I was somewhat ill-at-ease – not being someone who frequents massage parlors.

Her manner reassured me, as did her appearance. Short hair framed a friendly, intelligent face. She showed little expression except for a smile that was more than polite, but less than familiar. She convinced me I was safe in her hands so I put my face into the oval hole and closed my eyes to surrender myself to her. I did not expect what followed.

The woman began the massage by separating my two shoulder blades from each other and lifting them up like she wanted to see what was hiding underneath. Satisfied with what she found, she put the blades back and proceeded to work her way up my spine, disconnecting each vertebrae from its neighbor and giving it a twist before moving onto the next. This ended at my skull, the two halves of which she failed to split apart, but not for want of trying.

Less than five minutes had elapsed, but the pain induced by the masseuse's fingers digging through my muscles and cartilage seemed to manipulate time as deftly as the woman did my helpless flesh, stretching it until seconds felt like minutes and the minutes felt like an iron bar bashing a paint can flat – no wait, that was something she later did to my calves with the sides of her clenched palms.

When she gave up trying to split my head, she went back to crushing my remaining vertebrae after disconnecting all the ribs, which she flicked like Popsicle sticks before returning them to where they belonged. Then she wrenched my whole spinal column out of my hip bones. My spare tire she kneaded like bread dough, braiding it into fancy pastry.

After that she attacked my arms, pulling the long muscles out like bowstrings to wring them like sodden dishcloths. The elbows she ignored, but she gave my hands obsessive attention, gouging my palms to touch every tiny bone inside. My fingers and thumbs she pulled relentlessly until they came apart with loud snaps.

What the masseuse did with my arms, hands and fingers she repeated with my legs, feet and toes – although the thicker leg muscles resisted her attempts at wringing them out, so she had to beat them into submission.

My calves raised her ire so much she went back to them after she dislocated every bone in both feet and pulled my toes off.

Throughout it all I managed to keep from screaming, but by the time my masseuse was pushing her thumbs into the thickest parts of my calf muscles as if to touch the bone beneath them, I could no longer pretend to be relaxed. I managed to stay quiet, but my whole body had stiffened into a sheet of plywood.

"Are you asleep?" my friend called.

I might have answered, but my ordeal wasn't finished. I had to turn over and I needed all my energy to endure the continuing assault, repeating over and over to myself that as much as my muscles hated me in that moment, they would thank me afterwards. I hoped.

Finally the masseuse ended her therapy, but I needed some minutes on the couch to limply recover.

On my way out of the parlor the two signs again caught my eye. No drugs? A couple of Tylenol beforehand would have been helpful.


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