I had spent the day touring Addis Abiba, Ethiopia with two colleagues who were all working together on a project for the African Union. Both of my colleagues were regulars to Addis and our team leader suggested that as a treat for the end of our trip we go for a massage at a spa he had enjoyed. He recommended the “Moroccan Special” treatment which he characterised as a soothing scrub experience including a massage and it was the premium experience of the spa. I had visions of a massage table, soft white sheets, soothing music and a very gentle rubbing of deliciously scented scrubs and massage oils. The receptionist did not have the best English and so it was very difficult to understand exactly what the treatment entailed but our team leader assured us it was amazing.

My female colleague, Nomfundo, and I were led away into a changing room and were instructed to take off our clothes and put on a towel. We debated whether to leave our underwear on as we would do for a massage in South Africa but because we were led into a steam room first we thought it was prudent to be naked. They also did not provide any disposable underwear but we still had the towels with us to cover up. But as soon as we arrived in the steam room, they took away the towels (never to return) and we were left to lie naked on our two plastics beds that were already dripping wet from the steam. There was also no indication as to whether the beds or the room had been cleaned from the previous occupants with anything other than water.  Nomfundo soon slipped on the surface of the wet floor, fell and burnt herself on the scalding tap outlet of the steam room, we were off to a bad start.

What happened next was best described as us being prepared for entrance at a women’s prison. We were rubbed all over our naked bodies with highly chemicalised soap, and then washed down with a hose. Then there was layer after layer of scrubs that was roughly applied, sitting our skin while being baked in the steam room, and then washed off again with a hose and buckets. At one point, while I sat on a plastic bucket having my hair washed, Nomfundo was led away and optimistically said “See you later Alligator” gleefully thinking that her time in the steam room torture chamber had ended. But instead she went to wash off at an outside shower and then was brought back in.

We each had our own female “guard” to assist us but sadly the ladies could not speak much English and at no stage explained what to expect or what was happening. There was no gentle and soothing tones of a professional beauty therapist. Rather they shouted at us with one word at a time, pushed or gestured us to move and Nomfundo was even called “Zulu” to get her attention by her therapist. Apparently the therapist had decided that all ladies that looked like Nomfundo must be Zulus, perhaps related to the famous Shaka Zulu, but who knows where it came from.

Eventually we did get to the oil and massage stage but it was not a luxurious full body massage. Rather it was brief and painful with the use of elbows mainly to engage the pressure points.  I found the whole experience so bizarre, past my comfort zone and incredibly invasive that I just burst out laughing making the entire room, including the two ladies who were working on us, laugh too. It definitely lightened the mood. I kept on thinking the whole time, that we would get out of the the steam room. Surely we would get to the comfortable part and those clean white sheets. But it never happened.

Eventually after 2 hours of being entirely naked and uncomfortable, we were led away with robes and given a weird tasting drink of papaya and avocado. Avocado should not be drunken like a juice. Nomfundo and I were now bonded together by our mutual nakedness and a sense of survival of a traumatic experience. But I understand why my male colleague recommended it. For him being naked and rubbed down all over by a female therapist must be an entirely different experience and he couldn’t understand why we didn’t enjoy it.

Although I always love a good story and new experiences, I will now stick to the traditional spa experiences.

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