Mystery Revealed: A Love Affair with an Old Flame

Originally because it felt right, and now in deference to culture, I wear a long skirt and long sleeves when I go to The Street at night. The Street is a delightful mix of shops and restaurants for tourists, and stalls and stores for everyone.

Behind its often bustling facade is real Balinese life, lived at the back of stalls and down a maze of lanes in Bualu Village at Nusa Dua. It was my initiation ground, where I began to grow to know Bali – where I was the only female sitting on its rickety, paved edgings in the dark after closing time, sharing my wine with the boys from the beach and developing a taste for their arak.

We talked politics, corruption, economics, family, aspirations – even religion. I learned a lot in The Street, and it continues to be my teacher.

On a more recent evening, the Balinese owner bounced out of her convenience store, pulled a chair over to our small table at The Streetside bar and leaned forward, conspiratorially.

Today I have been to the spa near my home, she breathlessly confides. Ooh, very nice. You should come. Not tourist price. Ooh, very, very nice.

She is so flushed with excitement that I feel obliged to seek details of the treatment. Massage, she replies, and something that sounds like “vague een a my rokok.” As far as I know, she doesn’t smoke, so why is she going on about cigarettes (rokok)?

Vague een a my rokok, she insists. I don’t get it, but notice the two young bar boys stifling grins and hanging precariously over the bar to get closer to the discussion.

In exasperation, she moves her chair into the centre of the Streetside courtyard, sits with legs spread out beyond the chair frame, bunches up her skirt and proceeds to sweep her hands up and down from the ground to the top of her inner thighs, making swooshing sounds with each upward sweep.

It’s women’s business, advises The Playmate, who has been exchanging strange looks with the bar boys, whose eyes have grown big with incredulity.

This can’t really be happening in the street, he mutters, leaving us to the increasingly animated sweeping and swooshing and taking his embarrassment to the bar.

The whole “sweep, swoosh, vague een a my rokok” performance is causing chaos in The Street as passersby stop in their tracks to watch the show, causing followers to stumble into them.

Sweep, swoosh, vague een a my rokok. She pauses from her trance-like routine and shakes her head in frustration at our idiocy. Smok vageena, smok vageena, she screams desperately. Ooh. Very nice. Sweep. Swoosh.

And I get it. Smoke Vagina, I inform The Sister, who is visiting us and whose own eyes grow wide. The bar boys giggle and blush. I translate “Vague een a my rokok” to “Vagina merokok” and become curious. Do many Balinese women have this treatment? I ask our educator, who will henceforth be known as Smok.

Oh, ya, ya, many, says Smok and fans her imaginary flames to life before embarking on another lively sight and sound exhibition.

Sweep, swoosh. Very nice. We can go together.

She will kill her husband tonight, a bar boy predicts with a grin, imagining the outcome of Smok’s satisfaction with her spa treatment.

Smok explains that for the treatment, women sit on a special chair with a flame under it. At that moment, at the bar, The Playmate nonchalantly produces his lighter, flicks it into flame and the bar boys lose control. Actually, they collapse. And there’s not a cigarette in sight: Naughty Playmate.

We are intrigued, and at every spa we visit from then, we search the rooms for the Smok Vageena chair – and it is everywhere.

Often the chair, which can be a timber bench with a hole in it, is enclosed in a canvas tent with a zip up the front, so only one’s head protrudes at the top. Less sophisticated models have been cobbled together from wire framework.

On a website I find the following (abbreviated) definition of Vaginal Smoking:

“In the USA referred to as Venus Smoke and often included in a Balinese Beauty Package. In fact it is not Balinese in origin but an ancient Javanese custom where women go a “secret place” to beautify and rejuvenate their bodies prior to weddings and other special occasions … The woman sits naked in a chair with a hole in the seat while a bowl of seeds and herbs is burned under the hole. The smoke that wafts up into her vagina is meant to stimulate and disinfect the region.”

Hmm … but I am tempted by this pleasant description, at a trusted spa, of “The Incense Fumes Scented Ritual: Time-honoured femme sensual smoking with nice fragrance.”

Ya, sounds nice. But what makes me giggle is the picture of my own widened Western eyes imagining hoards of modestly attired, submissively behaved and religiously dedicated Balinese women rushing off regularly to get naked for a sensual smoke; and then being upfront enough to tell – and very nearly show.

Cultural sensitivity can be so misguided. And scratching the surface can be so enlightening. I promise to always wear my sarong and sleeves before having a smoke.

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