The Tortoise and the Ostrich

Beside the road along the river, under the streetlights and between the palms, each night a quorum of licensed masseuses– licenses pinned to their pink polos, no less– roll out nipa mats, unfold beach chairs, and offer foot massages in the dripping tropical heat. As the sun set beyond the river and behind the Burmese hills (a nightly technicolor lightshow) on Friday, I rewarded myself for a successful first week working here in Kamphaeng Phet with an hour in the chair.

I rolled up on my motorbike, helmet resting like a kippa atop my outsized western dome, and, killing the engine, lumbered toward the two available chairs, side by side. (Perhaps it’s my height, the way I stick out, white and sweaty, in a crowd, or perhaps it’s just the psychology of an outsider, but I invariably suffer the sensation of lumbering, wherever I am in Asia.)

On the left, a droll middle-aged man leaning languorously back on his stool, hands clasped around his knee. He looked up at me with a contumacious smirk, the look of someone with no plans for exertion, whatever you might offer him. He resembled nothing so much as a truculent tortoise. On the right, perched on her stool was a tiny Thai woman, perhaps 50, more closely resembling the ostrich– long neck, beaky features, and a pair of spectacles through which she peered at me with an expectant grin.

Khun poot pahsah tai dai mai?” Warbled the ostrich: Can you speak Thai? And while the answer was most assuredly no, from the context and one disheartening word– Thai– I gathered enough to grin bashfully.  I shook my head like the boy asked if he knows what’s happened to the goldfish he recently flushed down the toilet.

She cackled with derision and gestured to the chair as the tortoise joined her with his own chortle. I gladly took my seat. No sooner had she picked up my leg– the way a butcher might handle a leg of beef– than she was chattering with the tortoise, and I spent the next hour fatuously convinced they were talking about nothing but me, and trying to imagine how their conversation might best translate to English. It went something like this:

OstrichThrusting the cuff of my pants above the knee Hooooboy look at this hairy hock of ham.  Part-baboon, this one.

Tortoise: I’ve seen hairier.  Ever massaged an Arab?

Ostrich: Swabbing my foot and calf with alcohol Arabs, really? Well, it makes me a little ill.

Tortoise: Mm hmm…. I think I could take this guy.  You think I could take him?  I think I could probably take him.

Ostrich: Having swaddled my right leg in a fresh towel, she picks up the left, a process with which I may have been too helpful Oof! Stick me right in the boob, why don’t you, fella? Swabbing the left  Well, we’re seeing more and more of them around here.  There’s the old one married to whatshername at the hospital, and there’s the Belgian pervert who owns the hamburger restaurant.

Tortoise: Taking a seat in his own massage chair Yep. Pretty appalling.  Well, this guy seems quiet enough. Hopefully he won’t knock anybody up while he’s here. Turning to me How about it, whitey? You planning to knock anybody up around town?
I smile back ingenuously

Ostrich: Kneading my feet with vicious, incongruous strength Oh lay off him. You’re not so bad, are you? Now, let’s see what kind of damage we can do here…

The massage, as far as I was able to discern, had three distinct objectives: First, in the spirit of adventure, to explore the tendons and ligaments of the underside of my foot (are there even tendons and ligaments there? I have no idea.), and play them like banjo strings.  Second, by whatever means necessary, rend the flesh of the leg from the bone.  Third, leave no hair rooted in the skin. Working according to the peculiarly Eastern phrenology of the foot (“Reflexology” is the word, apparently: pummel the heel to get the Thyroid working, prod the ball of the foot to lose weight, knead the arch to clear up a sinus infection or cancer) her favored instrument was a black acrylic stick that resembled a tire iron at one tip and the business end of a sharpie at the other. Taking my big toe in her hand, she sighted down the plastic stick like a rifle, and, satisfied with her aim, threw all her weight into it, trying to drill her way through my toe.  As I gritted my teeth (This has to be good for me, right? Isn’t that the point?) she went right down the line, probing the tip of one toe after the next, before moving on to other, still more sensitive parts of my feet. Then, when she was done, she started over again on the other foot.

She and the Tortoise gossiped on, and I imagined ever more slanderous calumny propagated against my reputation. By Monday, the whole town will surely think the worst…

I will say, at least, my feet didn’t feel worse after the ordeal, and my masseuse, generous grin on her face, seemed to think of it as a successful evening. So I paid my hundred baht with a smile. As the evanescent glow of the setting sun faded to a deep navy, and the Tortoise snoring loudly sunk deep in his chair, I walked gingerly up from the river, and mounted my bike.

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