Blokes Swap Bars For Bali Beauty

By Vyt Karazija

When I started visiting Bali more than a decade ago, my experience of the ubiquitous beauty salons here was limited to dropping The Companion off at the front entrance, and sometimes glancing cautiously inside to marvel at the incomprehensible things transpiring within. Not only were there strange things being done to hair, but even stranger rituals were being performed on body extremities.

The patrons were almost invariably women, although a sprinkling of persons of indeterminate gender, possessing improbably large breasts, Adam’s Apples and large hands and feet were often there as well.

It was all just too strange for a bloke like me. Finding a nearby shady bar in which to while away a couple of hours was absolutely essential while the baffling alchemy of beauty pampering was administered to languid female customers.

From this vantage point, one could watch young girls emerge from the salons, their hair a mass of braids pulled so impossibly tight that their faces became bland, waxy masks, upper lips were peeled back in permanent moues and ears were laid flat like those of scared kittens. But they always seemed pleased and cheerful. So did their mothers, who despite looking not much different to the way they were before now acted happy and relaxed.

It took a few years before I noticed that men were starting to frequent these places, too. It took another few years before I dared, somewhat uncomfortably, to sample the services myself.

My first time was for a manicure, which was shock to the system. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want someone just to trim their nails, but found that there was slightly more to it than that. I also discovered that I had cuticles, whatever they are, which apparently need to have things done to them. And that other strange bits of skin need to be attacked with something resembling lino-cutting tools, and that they use a weird cream on nails, which I was told does something “good.” All in all, it was an eye-opening experience, albeit a quite pleasant one.

More recently, a weird thing I discovered was that these places are half-full of men. Not theatrical types, but big, boofy, singleted footy-player type of men, unselfconsciously relaxing while having manicures, pedicures and foot massages. Last month, I even saw one of them (I think it was an NRL player) getting a facial – a procedure which I needed to have explained to me, but haven’t been game to try yet.

In the last two years, I have wholeheartedly adopted the salon regimen, especially pedicures, even though my peculiarly large big toes always cause the beautician to dissolve into giggles, and the sheer bulk of my toenails breaks at least one set of jumbo clippers. One therapist even asked me what I do to them to make them grow like that. I replied that I soak them in a special jamu to condition them so that after cutting, I can use them as guitar plectrums. Without missing a beat, she offered to shape my nail off-cuts so I could take them away with me in a little bag. A bungkus pedi service, she called it. To this day I don’t know if she was taking the piss – it’s sometimes hard to tell with the locals.

There is still stuff on the menu at many of these places that I haven’t tried. A cream bath is one, but that’s mainly because I only discovered last week that it’s a hair treatment, not a dunking in a vat of dairy product. Colonic irrigation doesn’t appeal; if it ever does, I have a garden hose at the villa. And of course, the mechanics of those back-room vaginal smoking chairs completely elude me. I mean, how is the smoke supposed to get up there anyway? Is there a built-in speculum or something? If you know, don’t tell me. Some mysteries should remain hidden from mere men.

But I have tried a lot of the treatments on offer. Massages of all kinds are fantastic, with and without oil. A body scrub is great – well, the smooth-skinned end result is great, even though the process itself feels like being sanded by a wrestler wearing muddy gloves laced with #60 abrasive grit. Getting pedicures has changed my life, not only because my feet feel better, but because nowadays I simply can’t bend my knees far enough to reach my own feet without considerable pain. Growing five-centimetre toenails is not an option in Bali, where snagging one’s feet on footpath cracks and random motorbikes could well cause serious damage.

Never in my early days did I ever think that this would happen, but I have become a beauty salon tragic. Do I miss sitting in the pub while the womenfolk get pampered? Not at all. I’ve just about stopped drinking anyway. Ever since I accidentally became old, standing up fast has exactly the same effect as eight Bintangs, so I may as well spend the money in salons, look sleek and feel good.

But there is a downside. I have been getting a disturbing number of unwelcome propositions from other smooth-looking, immaculately groomed characters around the traps. I guess that’s the price of beauty. Maybe I need to roughen up a bit.

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