Sure, the life of a backpacker is a sociable one. Within minutes of stepping off the plane you’ll no doubt have new friends that’ll last a lifetime. You’ll forge friendships that can withstand a 42-hour coach trip, with a goat’s breath in your face, no air-con, and a driver whose blatant disregard for road safety awareness is somewhat less than amusing. You’ll encounter thrilling adrenaline junkie experiences you’ll look back on with pride. You’ll probably even share secrets that you wouldn’t ever dream of telling your best friend back home.
But what if one of those friends asked you to, oh, I dunno… Get naked?
You’d be a little surprised, right?
Well what if that person wasn’t actually a friend at all?
What if that person were a total stranger?
Go on, strip off
For most, the thought of being naked in front of a complete stranger is a terrifying prospect. Especially if this isn’t one of those romantic situations.
To get to that level of intimacy with someone, there’s usually a huge amount of trust between you.
Well, on a recent trip to Malta, I was in for a treat: a three day trip filled to the brim with a delicious array of spa treatments, from Oriental Hammam, to hot stone massages. It was bliss.
At my last massage, quite a few months ago, I lay staring up at the ceiling as the masseuse went to town on my shoulders, and suddenly felt uncomfortable. Awkward. Not relaxed at all.
I was very aware that I was naked. Very.
In my anxiousness, I started overthinking everything; where I should be looking? Should I have had my eyes shut? Did she think I was odd for keeping them open? Should I have tried to talk?
Was this as awkward for her as it was becoming for me?
As I lay there, trying my hardest not to catch her eye, it occurred me to: how odd it is that we’re willing to strip off for a complete stranger. How we allow them to touch us, caress us even, in some of our most intimate places usually reserved for those special people we trust. Why is this particular dynamic so different to any other situation?
But the more I thought about it, the more awkward it got.
Conquer your nudity
With this in mind, on our second day in Malta we visited the beautiful Kempinski Hotel in Gozo. This time, I felt uneasy right from the outset. I’d gone for an Ayurveda massage, a type I’ve never had before. I was directed to a side room with a curtain to cover my modesty as I changed. I undressed my top half, and headed over to the table. Every other experience I’ve had, I’ve been left alone to get undressed, waddle over and clumsily position myself on the table ready for the masseuse to re-enter the room when my bits and bobs are covered.
This was not the case. Don’t get me wrong – she was very professional, and held a towel to shroud me, which I’m sure would leave any other (normal) person feeling fine. But my previous apprehensions racing around my head, it didn’t half feel strange!
Suffice to say, I spent most of that massage lying in stone-cold silence, overly grateful at the end as if in a desperate bid to hide my embarrassment.
By day three, I’d started to relax. I don’t know, maybe it was all the luxurious spa treatments, or the copious amounts of divine Mediterranean food and wine (*ahem* BOAST BOAST *ahem*), but I just didn’t care anymore.
My final massage was a hot stone massage at the Corinthia Hotel in St George’s Bay – again, the first of its kind for me. I decided to break all my rules. I was going to break my silence.
Once I’d assumed position – boobs down, bum covered – I got to talking. Like any first date (because that’s what it felt like I was on), I started with the pleasantries. How long have you been a masseuse? Do you enjoy working here? That’s not a Maltese accent is it, where are you from? Etc, etc.
She was a pretty young woman who had moved to Malta a few years ago. She liked the weather, the job, her colleagues. We talked about her exercise regime, and laughingly compared it to mine (or more importantly, lack of). As I grew more comfortable in her presence, her expert hands kneading my back, I asked her about her clients, and how other people act in my situation.
As it turns out, I’m not a complete paranoid nutter, I was actually onto something.
Some people are so relaxed they fall asleep in an instant, while others lie stiff and unrelenting, eyes open, mouths clenched – even more uncomfortable than I was. When it comes to this masseuse in particular, her favourite kind of massage is the friendly kind. She prefers not to be seen as the stranger who we strip off in front of, no questions asked, no niceties exchanged. She likes to have a natter – because it less awkward for her, too. And finally, after three days of farcical relaxation on my part, I’d managed it.
But to my surprise, in all my new-found bravado, I’d made the a rookie mistake – I’d forgotten to ask her name. How intimate.