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Special Service, Mister?

John walked into a gloomy four-square-metre room. Four blue candles were lit in the corner. The lingering aroma of a blend of eucalyptus and lavender oil was in the air. A spotless white towel covered a kinky looking bed in the middle of the room. The bed looked like guillotine table without the blade. There was a hole at the end of the bed. He guessed that he was supposed to stick his head in the hole. John was thinking of the dual effect of that; he will probably end up with a face full of pothole pores while choking on the steam from an aroma-therapeutic burner positioned underneath.

"Please lay on the bed, I will start with your toes," said a woman in her mid twenties standing beside the bed. She wore long pants and short-sleeved khaki uniform. Her face was concealed with thick make-up.

It was John's second day in Jakarta. Suffering jet lag and aching from being cramped like a sardine in an economy-class seat for eighteen hours, he wanted to have a relaxing massage. I had suggested he should go to the spa in a hotel nearby. I heard that they have a good massage facility.

The manipulation began.

After some time, the masseuse broke the calming silence; "Do you want some special service, Sir?"

"Just the regular, please," said John, thinking what on earth would 'special service' entail. Minutes later he screamed in agony as the woman pulled and cracked all of his toes at once. She suddenly seemed to be in a hurry. A few notches here and there then she said 'That will be all, Sir'. The special service must mean a big deal to her, thought John.

Released from the torture table, John left the room suffering a lot more aches than before. Luckily he had managed to stop her from spinning and cracking his neck just in time. Picturing a headline 'Tourist's fatal accident in massage room' on the morning newspaper didn't take his fancy.

John looked puzzled when I explained to him what she had meant by 'special service' later on.

"Are you saying that she will give variations of sexual services depending on the price I agree upon? But I was in a spa in a star-rated international chain hotel! And the managers just turn a blind eye to all of this?"

Well, yes, what do you expect? The managers probably even get their cut.

In another five-star hotel, the health club's café, which I used to visit, is located right opposite the massage rooms. I've seen numerous funny and awkward scenes there. One day I saw a masseuse walk out from one of the massage rooms, not realising part of her pink bra was poking out from the pocket of her pants.

Shortly after, a guy tried to sneak out from the same room without being noticed. Wow, he looked so shocked to see me sitting there (with a pen and a piece of paper in front of me, of course). When he quickly walked away and headed toward the changing room, I could see the word 'BUSTED!' written all over his back. Doesn't it sound like a story from a sleazy place somewhere in North Jakarta? No, in fact I was sitting in a place frequented by a lot of snobbish guests with penguin-uniformed staff running around them.

My friend, Jenny, used to own a home-based beauty business that provided house call service. The services included cream-bath (it's a scalp massage with that white-gooey hair conditioning stuff on your head; most of the time you get a migraine from it anyway), foot and hand grooming and body massage. You wouldn't believe the nightmare she has endured because of that business.

Men made up more than half of the phone calls requiring house-call service. Their most typical requests were:

"Hi, I would like to have a body massage. How old is the girl you are sending?"

What has that got to do with the treatment anyway?

The classic midnight call was made by karaoke bar refugees: "I want massage .haik ... you send pretty little girls... haik... come now to Mr. Masako house!".

There was not even one straight male client who didn't expect some sort of sex-related special treatment. My friend closed down her business three months later. She could barely carry the moral responsibility much less restrain herself from shouting: 'I know what you are doing when your wife is away!' every time she saw one of her clients on the street.

Why has alternative body therapy received this connotation? If you drive through central Jakarta, just behind the Presidential Palace in fact, you'll probably grasp why. You will see rows of night entertainment spots, promoting 'massage treatment' facilities in bright pink neon. Some of them are so obvious, bearing such names as 'The Powerful Hand' or 'The Ultimate Happy Ending'. Or try to flip through the classified ads section in some local newspaper. It's very easy to spot an ad like 'Earthquake Body Treatment' or other bombastic headings, under the 'health' section.

I remember when I was young, there was a traditional massage lady who came by our home once a week. She was in her 50s, and we used to call her 'Mbok'. Vividly I can recall the Javanese rhymes she would sing while massaging my father with her pre-prepared fresh lime induced oil in our pendopo. What has happened with that? Since when have the rhymes officially been replaced by 'special service, Mister?'

Mbok: Familiar term for an older Javanese lady

Pendopo: Javanese style gazebo structure

First published in The Jakarta Post