It was anniversary #8 and my sweet husband surprised me on vacation saying, “5:00 – massage at the villa. Enjoy!” I was already quite relaxed from spending days on a mountain top with sun, wild toucans and monkeys, and an infinity pool overlooking an oceanview…but I know when to just say thank you and enjoy a treat.
Echoed many times, life – and massages – are not always what you expect. At 40 minutes after 5:00, a tiny Colombian woman found her way down the short path from the clubhouse to our jungle villa. With the help of my husband translating, we quickly realized she spoke little to no English and I spoke little to no Spanish…and then he left us, a little reluctantly, to start our session.
Stumbling through our communication as we got started, she signals that she wants to set up her table on the front porch instead of inside the more private doors of the villa. She simply pulls the veil of the mosquito netting to surround the area while I pray that people will pass by on the path below on their way to dinner while I am still clothed.
The masseuse – I’ve decided to call her Gloria since I don’t actually remember her real name – gives me a Colombian hard candy and puts the smell of lavender under my nose and, when I nod in approval, she strokes the oil onto my nose, cheek, and other cheek with her index finger, while looking into my eyes. Then, she lights her incense. As I awkwardly bite down on my candy, listening to it crunch in the silence between languages, she offers yet another layer of aromas: cocoa or chocolate spray massage oil (I choose the cocoa as it was the less acute of the two smells).
Now it’s time to undress: down to my underwear, she motions, as is normal. Not ordinarily, she stays right where she is as I shed my dress and bra, tucking them politely into a corner of the patio couch, and pseudo-confidently take my place on the massage table, burying my embarrassment under the provided sheet. Just as I’m trying to get my shoulders to shrink away from my ears, she ruffles my hair and – after more ruffles and half-words between the two of us – I realize she is insisting on the necessity of a hair tie. I obey, get off the table and proceed inside the villa without a robe or a protective sheet, pleading that the glaring lights over the front porch do not give me away to those on their way to the clubhouse.
When I finally settle back into the massage table, hair securely on top of my head and face down, she begins. She kneads my back, my shoulders, and my neck. She contorts my limbs and laces my fingers with hers as she pulls me like her marionette. She rolls her arms down my body like a rolling pin, leaving ligaments and cartilage throbbing with pain and taking the breath out of me. Without hesitation, she yanks my underwear up to my hips, tucking it in my buttocks, and grabs and pounds the muscles, her skin on my skin. Replacing the sheet momentarily, Gloria takes her hand, aimed like a knife, and slides it between my lower cheeks. She locates a part of my tailbone no hands have ever touched, deep within the crevice of my buttocks, and rubs the bone in a circular motion with two fingers.
Gloria signals me to turn over after afflicting every part of my back side. She puts a cloth that smells like someone else’s sweat over my eyes which half keeps the bright lights above at bay and half nauseates me. Taking off the protective sheet that usually stays upright in massages while you lay on your back, she instead places it by my hips and lays a flimsy hand towel over my breasts. She kneads my stomach in a swirling motion, making suggestions I don’t understand when discovering different intestinal organs. Her cell phone rings and she quietly leaves my side to answer it five paces away, speaking her native language at an ordinary volume. After a 3 minute conversation, she returns to my side with no fanfare.
She grabs my ribs and reaches around and inside them. She takes one tiny hand and reaches between my breasts and under the hand towel, rubbing from my neck – passed my sternum – and down to my belly button in one swift, but repeated, motion. Gloria plays the piano on my face, rubs each molar outlining my jawline, and plucks-plucks-plucks at my eyelids with pinches of skin between her fingers. She massages my nose with such long strokes that I am anxiously deciding whether to keep holding my breath or succumb to open-mouthed breathing. She takes out the hair tie. She tousles my hair.
With my underwear still up around my hips and my hair wild, she communicates that we are all done. By this time, my husband has already wandered back into our villa, so I quickly dress in front of her and retrieve him to help close out the session. With no time to explain anything privately to my husband, he asks how it was and she beams with pride as I say how much more thorough it was then a typical American massage. He gives her a hefty tip and she packs up quickly and heads back to wherever she came from earlier tonight. I look at my husband with shock as I try to process and relay the details of the last hour of my life. If not a gift of relaxation, it was definitely a gift of amusement and life experience. As the saying goes…when in Costa Rica, do as the Costa Ricans do…and don’t forget your Colombian massage.