Sunday, August 28, 2011

Spa Day

Surgery has made it so that I can not visit the spa for at least a month. Here is a piece I wrote four years ago about my first experience of the public - yet segregated - bath houses in Korea. Enjoy!


People often comment on my shower. LIke many people, I have bottles of body wash, shampoo, conditioner, and oils in my shower. Hanging from hooks are scrubbies, back brush, pumice stones, exfoliation towels. What may be different is the amount of skin care products that line the shelves - white musk, peppermint, lilac, lemon, grapefruit, pine, ylang ylang, olive, every scent that is lives in the creams and soaps and unguents and perfumes and lotions that take up residence in my shower. Everywhere I turn there is a scent and a softness that lures me in. It's a sorcerer's workshop in there. Plants and stones bring an outdoor, rainforest feel. The sound of nature piped in from speakers adds to the exotic, sensual, perhaps even erotic feel. One small candle glows in front of a mirror, its reflection doubling the small flicker of light. My own personal spa.

Here in Korea, there are spas everywhere. For between $3 and 10 you can get in for a full day of liquid decadence, based in practicality. There are extras as well - massage, facial, exfoliation... My friend Liliana is visiting me, and we follow the rules of a tiny little adjumma yelling at us to remove our make up before we slip into a warm tub, dozens of women lounging about, a modern-day seraglio.

The whirlpool loosens the muscles which have tightened in response to the harsh winter winds, and in turn we try one of the kitchen-sounding baths - blueberry, apple, and grape. There is a waterfall that drops nearly scalding water on your back or shoulders, a liquid massage courtesy of gravity.

The opposing feel of hot water bath in the outdoor pool mingles our breath with the steam that rises, and I can't help but wonder what it would be like to lie there with the stars high above, the chill in the air, and heat all around.

We each choose from the menu of extra services - I opt for exfoliation while she goes for a massage, and we slide into clothes to explore the co-ed areas while we await our appointments. The hot infrared room has mats with people sleeping - Liliana joins them - and my muscles now loose and flowing, I practice yoga. There are restaurants and snack bars, and families are enjoying their time together. We explore the saunas - these are co-ed, and the young lovers jump apart as we enter the mild room. Romantics at heart we step out and go to the igloo. It seems warmer than it is, but it is a calming change.

It is time at last for her massage and my exfoliation - side by side. An older woman, her face shiny with sweat and steam tells me to climb on the bed with a flick of her wrist and a nod of her short curly capped head. She is completely naked. She speaks in Korean and deferentially as I wiggle my body up the table I tell her I don't speak Korean, and I apologize in the most respectful form I know. She just smiles and goes to work. A good sport, she taps my ankle or moves my arm as she pleases for the next hour. I look over and Liliana, her black as night hair, piled in big waves upon her head, has green goo on her face and the (naked) masseuse is walking on her back, balancing with the help of a metal bar that runs, along the ceiling, the length of the table.

Before I have time to think of a clever comment to hold upon my tongue, the intimate scrubbing begins! My curly haired adjumma with her smiling eyes scrubbed me in places I did not know I had skin. The initial shock tensed my body, and then somehow it became thrilling and pleasant - I felt truly like I was having a You-aren't-in-Kansas-anymore moment. The tactile experience was just this side of pain. There was an absolute realization of my body completely devoid of any sexuality.

Every now and then the women working there (all naked) would say something to one another and look at me, and we'd all smile. I had no idea what they were saying - ignorance is bliss as it turns out - but there was always something friendly in their voice, in their movements, in their eyes. I reflected on how the joy of not knowing the language lets me be more pure, more in the essence of who I am with them. I didn't get lost in words - I just experienced communication. At one point something bubbled over in me, and I started and then couldn't stop laughing. It was contagious, and soon we were all laughing together, Lillian's grin, in her freshly cleansed face, joins us as well.

Too quickly, the scrubbing ended, and I glanced down, spying the aftermath of all those oils and unguents and exfoliated skin beading into little pebbles, gathered in the various valleys of my body. Just as the realization registered of what they were, I was doused with warm water that washed those same beads away.

My skin sang in its pink shine. The silk of my unmentionables were silkier than ever before as they slid across my body. Wrapping my woolen scarf around my neck, the scratch was louder, the leather of my boots touched my sensitive ankles, and the wind, streaking across my cheeks as we stepped outside, was cooler. The world seemed more alive than ever before! I could swear I could hear the tingle in my fingertips.


And now back in my apartment, I smile as I read and update this piece, remembering. And I'm grateful for the surgery that allows me to see and to inadvertently appreciate my spa experiences. And with that I step into my own personal spa, allowing the steam to fill the room, feed the plants, create rivulets of water down the stones. I pick up an exfoliating towel, squirt a tiny bit of dewberry scented soap upon it and begin to laugh. It bubbles up and through me for no reason at all.

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