It’s February 2001 and I’m a 22-year-old backpacker.
Staring out at the Indian Ocean, I bury my toes into the burnt vanilla-coloured sand of Kuta Beach in Bali while watching the sky turn a pinkish-orange. Suddenly, a woman approaches.
“You want a massage? Only 70,000 rupiah,” she says.
Ooh, that sounds lovely, I think to myself. And right here on the beach for what was about US$7 at the time? “Sure, yes,” I reply.
“Manicure, too?” asks another woman, who seems to come out of nowhere with a basket filled with nail polish.
Hmm, I think. It has been a while... “Sure, why not,” I answer, nodding and smiling with approval.
They lay out a sarong and dig a small hole in the sand under it for my face. I nestle down toward the Earth. One woman sits on my lower back, while the other takes my right hand. Just as I begin to lose myself in the sounds of the waves crashing onto the shore and the scent of coconut oil mixing with my salt-kissed skin, it begins to feel like there are more than four hands on me.
Is my hair being pulled? I wonder. Is someone braiding my hair? And my feet... how can my feet be getting rubbed at the same time as my back?
I try to ignore the notion that something is wrong since everything should feel so right, but then I pick my head up to notice no fewer than six women gathered around my every limb: one on each of my hands, another two on my feet, one on my back and another up by my head.
Feverishly warm with embarrassment, I scramble upright wondering how many people saw me get “spa-attacked” as I lay there like an oblivious tourist, but more on this later.
On The Road
It’s September 2019 and I’m a 41-year-old professional journalist.
Once again, I am alone on a beach. Only this time, I’m staring at the azure Mediterranean waters and actually seeking a spa treatment—one that I can do for myself.
The partly sandy, partly pebbly Kalogeros Beach on the Greek Cycladic Island of Paros is known for its clay-based boulders that can be used to make do-it-yourself mud mixtures to exfoliate the skin. I see the boulders, but I am not quite sure how to turn Mother Nature into a beauty regimen, so I approach a couple who appear to be there for the same reason.
“Hi, Bonjour, Shalom,” I say, using an amalgam of the three languages I can muster. “So, how does this work?”
“Come,” says the girl, “I’ll show you.”
I follow her and watch as she uses one hand to shed dry rubble into her other hand, which is cupped on the edge of the rock. I do the same, accumulating as much as I can before walking with her to the water. She then rubs it all into a gluey grey paste before covering her arms, legs and face.
I immediately regret not only wearing a one-piece swimsuit, but a very expensive one at that. I wonder whether it will stain, but I slather myself in the stuff anyway.
Camouflaged in mud, we stand awkwardly for a bit exchanging traveller pleasantries—Where are you from? How long are you travelling for? Where have you eaten?—before retreating to our own swathes of sand to blissfully (and carefully) sunbathe in peace.
It doesn’t take long for me to get restless, so after catching her eye and receiving a nod of reassurance—as if to say, “You can wash it off now!”—I return to the sea to do so. Sure enough, my skin is newborn baby-smooth. Better yet, I’d had a quintessential Solo Travel Moment: I relished a solitary experience, only to have it amplified by strangers who became friends, if even for an instant, resulting in a memory for a lifetime.