THE MASSAGE WALLA OF KALIMPONG
A low cost, high-altitude rubdown in India.
In 1904 David MacDonald accompanied Younghusband on his famous mission to Tibet, becoming one of the first westerners ever to reach the forbidden city of Lhasa. While Younghusband instantly became a household name, history has all but forgotten MacDonald, the expedition interpreter. I would never have heard of him except for the fact that his colonial home, perched high on a ridge in the Himalayan foothills near the hill station of Kalimpong, is now an upscale guest house, and I had just checked in.
Overlooking the Kanchenjunga massif, and engulfed in a luxuriant garden, the vine-covered mansion was "once the biggest nest of spies this side of the Bosphorus," or so a bespeckled Swiss paper restoration expert had whispered secretively to me at the departures terminal of the Guwahati airport earlier in the week. The guest register is crammed with remembrances of an exotic and mysterious past: Heinrich Harrer, George Mallory, Sandy Irvine and Sir Edmund Hillary all stayed here.
And so it was, after days of jolting travel along narrow winding roads, through tea plantations that floated past our jeep windows, we arrived. I walked around the luxuriant home in silent awe. History seeped from every nook and cranny of the dark and musty rooms; vaulted oak ceilings soaring on teak pillars, hand-crafted walnut furniture and faded photographs.
"Hey Bruce! There's a guy out here you've got to meet!"
Michele, my co-guide, was smiling from ear to ear and grasping the hand of a wild-looking Indian gentleman.
"Massage walla," she whispered, as he took her hand, intently pressed it to his dark forehead, and then to his heart. Long silver hair flowed unkempt in all directions, his slight frame draped in a white robe, a brilliant red tikka streaked across his forehead.
"Massage, massage?" he smiled, tilting his head to one side in question, and pointing up and down my body. "Good massage. You? Yes," he proclaimed with a laugh, turning the question to an answer and herding me towards my room.
"You've got to give him a try," Michele shrugged her shoulders and winked. "So you can tell our guests what he's like."
"Time no problem,' the massage walla reassured me. "Half hour only," he smiled, taking my hand and dragging me into my room.
Somewhere, at a deeply instinctive level, tiny warning flags were exploding in my head. I followed the walla into my room and he bolted the door behind us. As he carefully set out a thin sheet on the hard floor, and laid a matted old towel down as a pillow, I shuffled about the room, not sure what to do next.
"Should I take this off?" I asked almost ridiculously, pointing to my shirt.
"Yes, yes. Off," he said absently with a sweep of his hand.
I figured I better take off my pants as well. But I balked at the underwear.
"These too?" I asked quietly, fearing the answer.
"Yes, yes," he looked at me as if I was crazy.
Well, what the heck. I dropped the briefs on my bed and turned to stand, completely nude, before the hunched old man. Well, not quite completely nude. I still had a collection of ratty old necklaces and a wristwatch which the walla indicated should be removed as well.
The walla proudly held out a tattered, oil-stained book for my inspection, full of recommendations from fellow travellers. On the first page, largely obliterated by smeared ink, it read:
Shiri - Massage Man.
I specialize in following parts of human body:
Head, neck, sinus, shoulders, thighs, chest (full body) or half body.
I can heal and soothe twisted ankles, sinus, and "something-else-indecipherable."
Half shoving, half motioning, the massage walla indicated he wanted me lying face down, then stripped down to a sarong and sat on his haunches beside me. A look of supreme concentration clouded his face. Using one finger as a hammer, and another as a pad, the walla proceeded to tap every bony protrusion on my back, neck, and hips, watching my reactions and occasionally muttering with concern. Suddenly he dug his fingers directly into a knot in my neck I hadn't even known was there.
"One." He proclaimed. Tracing his fingers slowly down my back, he stopped at another. "Two!" And finally, "Three! Sore no?" he smiled. I nodded, still breathless from the pain.
Reaching into a thin plastic bag he pulled out an old shampoo bottle filled with thick, yellow-green oil, its stale scent frighteningly similar to a mechanic's garage. Now the walla got down to slapping, smacking and occasionally rubbing. He used his forearm to dig at the knots. Finished with my back, he moved upwards, kneeling by my head and grasping it tightly between his knees and cramming his forearm against my skull.
He then poured a healthy glob of oil into his hands and rubbed it aggressively through my hair. My pony tail became a whip that the walla used across my shoulders and neck. I loved it. I had to bite the towel to stop from laughing aloud. Shiri muttered and chanted, then moved on to my hands, and in one swift motion, cracked every knuckle on both hands at once.
The massage went on and on. Just when I thought it was finished, the walla would nimbly jump to a new position and begin again. I almost forgot I was lying nude on the floor of a turn-of-the-century house, in northern India, with a tiny dark man who spoke almost no English rubbing oil all over my body.
"Name Shiri. Group coming, you and Madame telling, Shiri, massage walla, very good massage."
He wanted a recommendation to the group of well-heeled travellers we'd be bringing next week. No problem. I would send the troops in.
The massage walla went back to his muttering and tapping. As the walla went to his plastic bag for more oil he gave a motion like flipping a burger. 'Front side,' he smiled. We were too far down the road to stop now. Screw inhibitions, I told myself, flipped over and laid back.
The walla returned with a new oil in an old mango pickle jar. Squatting beside me, he carefully poured drop after tiny drop into my belly button. Then he moved up and liberally splashed oil across my chest. Then he threw a large splash right across my crotch, finished the bottle off on my legs, and started rubbing circles around my stomach. The tickling was almost too much to take, but it was tempered by a growing fear of what was to come next.
Sure enough the walla worked his way down, smacking the hip bones, and then suddenly reaching between my legs, grabbing everything in a handful, and pulling it over to one side. I froze like a board. As the walla worked the inside muscles of the other leg, I gritted my teeth. With a deft flip he moved all the goods to the opposite side and dug in to the other thigh. I relaxed, and began to feel OK with the whole procedure. It even felt good.
But my relief was short lived. Once done with the inner thighs, Shiri focused on the package, waving his open hand rapidly back and forth, from hip bone to hip bone, an action that affected a rapid slap-slap-slap of my penis from side to side. I wavered between abject terror and uncontrollable laughter, simultaneously closer to both than I had ever before thought possible. To finish off Shiri used the heel of his palm to mash everything in the general area. I was left stunned, and wondering if this was normal protocol for Indian massage. The good walla had been trained by his father, and he by his father before him. It was a family skill.
Finally, after smacking my chest, poking my armpits, and cross-arming my neck, I thought the worst was over. The walla went to his bag and pulled out six bottles of oil. They ranged in size from an olive oil container to a spice jar. All looked to be about 50 years old, with rusty lids.
"One. three. four. five. seven!" he counted out, sure to hold up each one so I could see it, coming to crouch above my head holding the sixth and smallest bottle. The walla took several drops and worked the fragrantly scented oil into his hands. I relaxed. Again, a mistake.
Before I knew it the walla grabbed my head and began vigorously massaging the inside of my nose. Then he almost popped my eyes out with a sharp hard push. Finally he was into my ears, finishing off by rubbing the wax he had excavated there across my nose and cheeks.
More perfumed oil appeared, and I watched dumbfounded as he carefully and elicately began rubbing it in circles on my nipples. And of course, the crotch could do with a little perfume as well.
And finally, sitting up he performed a series of raps to my noggin that sounded like machine gun fire going off in the room. "Finished!" he said with a proud smile. "Good?"
Good, I said, feeling like a rubber man on the hottest day of summer.
"Massage man shower?" he asked.
I was about to slip my underwear on, hoping to bring the situation back to some level of normality, but realized from head to toe I was a greasy mess.
"Come, come," the walla yelled from the bathroom. He pointed to the shower and impatiently motioned for me to turn it on and then for me to get myself wet. I did, and was about to grab a bar of soap and wash up, but the walla put a stop to that.
"Yah, yah," he motioned for me to put my arms up in the air. Now this was too much. Only a week earlier I had boarded my flight to Dehli a perfectly sane young man. Now I was standing in a hotel shower, totally nude, with an old Indian man vigorously rubbing my back with soap.
The shower was no simple procedure either. The hair had to be washed. Then rinsed. Then checked to make sure it was rinsed. Then I had to rinse my body again. Then the walla towelled me off. All business. No funny stuff at all. I swear. And to finish it all off, Shiri wanted me to sign his book of recommendations.
"Next week, you and Madam, group bringing? You telling, Shiri, massage, Himalayan Hotel, good."
Oh, not to worry! In four days time I was bringing 10 very well-heeled North American travellers, and you can bet I would be recommending Shiri, without even so much as a warning. I'd send them in blind, and wait with eager anticipation to see them at dinner. And I am telling you too. If you are in Kalimpong, you must see Shiri. Plus, you're going to be sore after a long ride on bumpy roads, and your head will ache from the diesel fumes. Give it a try. It is only four bucks. Besides, everyone needs the plums tickled from time to time!