I have extremely vivid memories of a certain spa in Ecuador.
My travel-buddy Sarah and I had just had a splendid day out in Baños, an Ecuadorian spa town set in a fantastical landscape of mountains and waterfalls. We were walking down a rocky track in the mountainside, exhausted and very happy, and I decided that what I really wanted was to treat myself to one of Baños’s volcanic spas.
Sarah didn’t fancy it, so I picked an establishment on the route to our hotel, and she said she’d come back to meet me when I was finished. “Please could you bring me a spare pair of boxers?” I said. “I’ll need to use the ones I’m wearing as swimming trunks.”
At the reception, I was handed a menu by a small, unsmiling lady with deep frown-lines. The spa treatment I picked was “Steam Bath and Full-Body Massage,” for ninety minutes. My body was worn out from a day of rafting and hiking, and I was very much looking forward to being pampered for an hour and a half.
The spa was eerily empty, and it was starting to get dark. The lady led me to the changing room and handed me a fluffy white dressing gown. Once I was changed, she took me to a long room with a low ceiling and made me disrobe. There didn’t seem to be anything in this room except for some ominous wooden boxes.
I’d assumed that “steam bath” meant some kind of steam room, or possibly a volcanic hot spring. I was wrong. The lady led me to the furthest box, unlocked it, and plonked me on the seat inside. She pointed at a handle next to the seat, near the crook of my knee, and mimed turning it, saying “More steam – less steam.” Then she put some aromatic leaves in the box with me, turned the handle to maximum steam, and locked me into the box.
As soon as she turned the handle, hot steam started gushing out of a metal faucet. She walked out of the room, leaving me entirely alone, with my head sticking out of the box like a prisoner in the stocks. The steam was much too hot, and it was filling up the box around my body, so I groped for the handle to turn it down. Instead, I burned my hand on the metal faucet. Tentatively, I tried again. I couldn’t picture where the handle was, and I burned my fingers again.
The steam was trying to escape through its only outlet: the hole that was filled by my neck. Steam gushed upwards, making my neck hotter and hotter, but the hole was tight around my skin. I flailed my head back and forward, trying to make a gap to let the steam to escape, but the wood was uncomfortably hot and it was starting to burn my neck. With my hands, I pressed against my wooden prison, but I was locked in and it didn’t budge.
This was part of the spa treatment, I reasoned to myself. I was supposed to relax and enjoy it. So I sat there and tried to go with the flow, as my skin boiled in the steam bath. I couldn’t wipe the sweat from my forehead, and I couldn’t scratch the intense itch on my nose. The steam hissing past my neck smelled like the sprig of leaves that were locked up in the box with me.
I had no concept of time in that box. After what felt like far too long, the grim-faced spa lady returned and released me. Gasping with relief, I stumbled out of that hellish steam-box – and she poured a bucket of ice-cold water over my head.
The shock was intense. Before I could recover, the lady wordlessly pushed me back onto my seat in the box and locked me in again. She walked out of the room, leaving me to my misery.
The wood of the box was now hotter than ever. What if it actually burned my neck? I couldn’t wriggle away from it because it was so tight. I grew desperate. Perhaps if I pressed the back of my neck really hard against the box, it might cool off enough for me to be comfortable…? I tried it – but the heat was unbearable. Groping for the handle to turn down the steam, I only succeeded in burning my hand twice more.
Hot sweat was running down my face. Scrabbling at the lid of the box, I heaved against the locks. It came loose – just an inch-wide gap, but the steam poured upwards in a plume, and my neck didn’t have to rest against the wood anymore. I was still in that position, gasping for breath, when the wrinkled little lady arrived. She looked at me with deep disapproval as she unlocked the box properly. I stepped out to freedom, she wordlessly doused me with more cold water, and then she pushed me back in and locked me in again.
I stayed there, awaiting my rescue, as my body was parboiled in this scalding crate. I didn’t know how much more of this I could take.
For a third time, the spa lady arrived when I was close to despair. She let me out from the box – and this time she made me sit in a basin which looked like an oversized urinal. I braced myself and winced as she splashed pails of freezing water over my back, my shoulders, my legs, my head. I understood the concept of alternating between hot and cold, but this was much more extreme than anything I had ever experienced. But I gritted my teeth and told myself that this horrible icy bath was a good thing. It presumably meant that I wasn’t going back into that box.
It turned out that my optimism was premature. My heart sank as the lady pushed me back into the box and left me there to cook some more. The steam billowed around my body, my neck stung from the heat, and my lungs were filled with steam. It was hard to remember a time before my imprisonment in that box.
Once again, the lady returned and set me free. This time, it really was the end of the ordeal. Dizzy and dazed, I let her lead me to the other end of the long room. She produced a hose, spraying me up and down with breathtakingly cold water. I endured it because I was so relieved to have reached the second half of my treatment – the massage.
The lady tossed me my dressing gown and led me back to the spa changing room to take off my wet boxers. For the first time, I realised that this didn’t leave me with anything to wear during the massage.
The masseuse was younger than the woman who had overseen my steam bath experience, but she had an equally stony expression. She indicated that I should take off my dressing gown and lie on the massage bed. When I hesitated, she realised that I was naked, and she was not at all pleased.
“No pants?” she said sharply.
“I could wear my wet ones?” I replied unhappily.
“No, no,” said the masseuse, still visibly put out. She produced a white sheet and laid it over the massage bed. Indicating that I should hide my nakedness under the sheet, she left the room for a minute. I disrobed, climbed under the sheet, and lay there awkwardly until the masseuse returned. She peeled back the sheet to expose my back, and began the massage.
The first part was fine. I was busy being grateful that I was out of the steam-box, and I started to relax. But then the masseuse moved onto my legs. She covered my top half with the sheet again, and rolled back a different corner of the sheet to reveal my leg and my left buttock.
Theoretically, my nakedness was still covered by the sheet – but only theoretically. I wouldn’t have minded feeling this exposed, if the masseuse hadn’t been so awkward about it in the first place. Then she began kneading my buttock, and with a jolt of alarm I found a new concern. Maybe I’d signed up for the wrong kind of massage…
I lay very still. The masseuse finished digging her thumbs into my bottom and started massaging my leg. Then her hands began to work their way back up, via my inner thigh. I am extremely ticklish on my inner thigh.
My teeth were gritted and my leg was tense. I told myself that this must be a family-friendly massage, because otherwise the masseuse wouldn’t have been so unimpressed by my nakedness. She seemed to have got past that prudishness, though: her hand was sliding up and down my inner thigh, dangerously close to my balls. Her touch was so ticklish I wanted to cry out.
Her fingers slid up my leg and brushed my testicles. My stress levels reached new peaks. Moments later, it happened again. My eyes were watering. I didn’t dare say anything.
She moved onto my right leg, and my right buttock. I willed the time to pass faster. Now she was tickling my inner thigh once more, and then the dreaded ball-brushes happened again. I squeezed my eyes shut and grimaced at the floor. It couldn’t have happened by accident, not repeatedly…
The masseuse walked out of the room, and I slithered from under the sheet, scrambling for my dressing gown. Staggering to the reception at the entrance to the spa, I found Sarah cheerfully waiting for me with a change of clothes.
“How was it?” she said brightly.
“I’ll tell you about it when I’m dressed,” I muttered. “Let’s get out of here…”