Urgently present

Sunday morning I wandered around George Town in Penang by myself. I had a coffee and got talking to a couple of English girls; in Little India I met a monk in saffron robes, an affable Aussie now very much at home in Penang; I had an excellent pakora, had my foot run over by an errant driver, and got rained on.

It was hot and steamy. We were scheduled to leave just on 2 and so I figured I had just enough time for a massage.

I selected a place we had popped our heads in the night before. I had spied on the menu a Balinese massage that seemed just right. I negotiated a rate and was led down a passageway to a dimly lit room screened by curtains. It was a pleasant room, a spicy aroma in the air and on the floor thick mattresses in purple fabric. I sat and waited for the masseuse.

She arrived about a minute later, a slender Chinese woman, tall for her race, with long hair. She confirmed my massage and then standing there asked me to take off my clothes. Unsure of the etiquette I stripped down to my undies. With my shirt off she exclaimed at the size of me and said she needed two hours to massage me properly. I told her I didn’t have 2 hours to spare.

She directed me to lay on the mattress face down, and then with fragrant oil she began to massage the back of my legs with long, sweeping strokes. Her fingers were strong and pliant. They soothed the tight muscles of my legs and up into my groin in a way that had my complete attention. Gripping at the elastic of my undies she asked if she could remove them. At my assent she casually peeled them off of me as I lifted my body to assist.

Now her hands reached all the way to my buttocks, kneading them into happy submission. As her hands moved her fingers curled and brushed against my scrotum between my parted legs. I have to be honest here and admit I lived for those fleeting touches. Even as I felt the soothing effects of her work that subtle sensuality was enough to lift the sensation into another realm. There was the physical – something I was to further understand as the massage proceeded – in that middle part of us men is sensitive, and is at the centre from which filaments of sensation tease and tremble throughout the rest of the body like errant charges of electricity.

There was the psychological also. We are such sexual animals that even the hint of excitement inflames us. As a man I spend a lot of time thinking about sex in any case, and identify a large part of who I am in my sexual persona. Hell, there are times I am my cock, and perfectly happy with that I am. Lying there in the dimly lit room in a foreign city and an attractive and unknown woman touching me sensually all of that suddenly became a whole lot more. I waited, feeling her fingers probe and caress, traced them in my mind as oil slicked they slid from calf to thigh to buttock and down…

It was all so matter of fact, something else I’ll return to later. I don’t doubt she knew the effect she had upon me, but it was not contrived, it was not sexualised. This is what she did and did properly, this was the job she was paid to do and as she told me later had been doing it for 8 years since leaving China. Because it was not sexualised it was so much more sensual.

She moved to my back, my arms, commenting as she did so upon the size of my muscles, asking how old I was and telling me I was a strong man. By now she was astride me as I lay on my front. She was perhaps half my weight, but sitting there on the back of my thighs she would lean forward and put all her weight into the long strokes that went from the small of my back to the tips of my shoulders. As she did stray bits of her long dark hair would brush against the sensitised skin of my back and her fingers would lightly play along the curved balls of muscle of my shoulders. I would feel to a patch of her skin press against mine as her top rode up her midriff as she leaned into me.

She turned me. She massaged my face, my head, then my chest. We spoke, she asked my name and told me hers – Shenzen? – which I heard at first like Ginger. She was 29, had lived in Hong Kong and KL and now George Town. Her English was halting and uncertain, but she smiled with it wanting to be understood, and to know more of me, which I shared.

By now I have had an erection for about 30 minutes. I don’t care. How many times would I have been paranoid about such a thing? But not now. It seems irrelevant, besides the point, so bloody western. So what if I have an erection? That’s good isn’t it? That’s how I feel, and she cares not one whit though it’s plain to see. It matters not a bit because it seems – and is – so natural.

Her fingers now are caressing my stomach, my groin, my upper thighs. A small towel covers my cock, but her fingers travel all around it, touching everything but it. Then she presses down on me, once, twice, three times, her hands to either side of my groin with all her weight. I feel the pressure quiver in me, feel my erection jerk like it is a living thing keen to get free.

Then, soon after, it ends. We smile, she hands me my jocks, I dress as she departs, everything going through my head.

I feel strung tight, beautifully so, alive, vibrant, urgently present. Had she offered me a happy ending I’d have said yes without hesitation. I needed it in the way every man knows, but it would have felt almost normal. I’d always thought of it as sleazy and cheap, and it probably is often – but perhaps it needn’t be. I’ve had sex with less sensuality than that massage – most sex really is short of what I felt there in that massage room. In a way it was like the best foreplay you could imagine, close, intimate, sensitive, teasing, for nearly two hours. I left feeling like I needed a cold shower; and feeling half in love with the unaffected and generous woman who had provided so much unexpected pleasure to me.

I expect many will read this as evidence of a depraved sensibility. Not surprisingly I feel it differently. You may not understand but I feel as if I have had my eyes opened again to something I once knew instinctively and with simple pleasure: sex is good, clean, natural. We may make it otherwise at times, but that is the flaw in our make-up. What I felt on Sunday was simple, uncomplicated and good, because that was how it was presented to me. It was the best massage I have ever had by a country mile, and reminded me of how civilisation inhibits us. Life is simpler, and better I think, when we accept things for what they are and not for what we choose for them to become.


Today it’s KL. I’m sitting in a funky café in one of the more salubrious areas of the city. I’m waiting for breakfast to be served  me while the fans whirr above me once again. I’m well rested after a hectic few days and looking towards doing the rounds of the city proper: first stop the Petronas Towers.

I should have been sitting here 24 hours ago but for the sort of unexpected occurrence that somehow becomes normal on holiday. We had packed up and checked out and where driving around to the other side Penang island for a look-see when a grinding noise coming from the left rear wheel made us stop. It had made troubling noises all the way to Penang, a sort of crunching sound, but it had become clearly worse since, and added to it was a squeaky, whiny sound. We stopped at a mechanic, were told it couldn’t be fixed before morning, and that was that.

Whisky and I continued up the road by taxi and checked into one of the mid-range resort hotels overlooking the beach. We had a complimentary drink by the pool and then a beer. Later we had a swim in the pool and played a round of table-tennis. Around us largely Asian couples mixed in with portly Brits enjoyed the facilities. As two clearly single men of relatively robust health we were out of place – family friendly is not really our go.

That evening we went in search of a massage further up the road in Feringhee, which in itself was a mix of luxury accommodation – including a 6 star hotel – a night market, and a bunch of restaurants and shops lit up like Vegas. Here there was a good proportion of Arabs. Most, if not all, of the women were covered up, including many wearing the full hijab. In these conditions it must be suffocatingly uncomfortable to be covered head to toe while your husband swans around in shorts and t-shirt.

I had my third massage in as many days, and the second for the day (the first deserves a post all of its own). Massage is big business like I say, and there are all sorts of variations on it, right down to cupping and ear candling (two I’m happy to avoid). On this occasion my masseuse was an acrobatic girl called Janet, who swung from poles embedded near the ceiling and walked up and down my back – not the first woman to have done that.

I left contemplating whether I was any better off for the experience. I certainly felt a kind of invigoration, but it was the kind that had me hobbling slightly. Given my experience with remedial massage earlier in the year that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing and besides, what the fuck, all part of the experience.

The rest of it all is pretty sedate. We had a lovely dinner that night eating delectable Malaysian curries served by an equally spicy hostess who – pun intended – clearly hoped to curry favour with us. She had her hair tied back tightly in a bun, large expressive eyes and wore a long, billowing, print dress which she would lift daintily past her ankles as she took the stairs. She played up to us, flashing those expressive eyes and indulging a verbal byplay that few men can resist and few women can approve of. We’re no different and so we generally fell over each other trying to flirt with her while she lapped it up.

Yesterday we finally started back with the car all mended. We circled Penang before taking the long road towards KL. Our car is a Proton, the people’s car if you like, an ordinary, under-powered lemonish sort of vehicle locally made and promoted. We managed to tool along at about 130 kmh on a freeway limit of 110 – an arbitrary number seemingly as no-one heeds it and no-one seems to police it. Every so often a European car – a BMW or Mercedes – would whiz by at about 150 kmh, as if with the car they had been given dispensation to drive as quick as you like. Mixed in with them were Hondas and Toyotas, prestige cars in relative terms to the Proton. Often they would rush by tail to nose, not so much tail-gating as drafting, sometimes three or four cars in line.

Along the way the sun shone and the rain plunged down. Then the sun would come again, and then the rain. The freeway cut through the sides of hills surrounded with lush vegetation. Often we would pass by these huge outcroppings of rock that emerged from the surrounding countryside like a pimple. They too were covered in a thick grown jungle, with sheer sides of rock that looked as if it might have been near liquid once with stalactite like croppings. Throughout all this I saw one monkey – roadkill, dead at the side of the road.

Penang today

I sit here in the dining area of my hotel in Penang. The hotel is a converted mansion, sprawling, elegant, finely detailed and just a little bit quirky. Peter Carey called it the finest hotel in the world. In the centre of the building is a courtyard open to the sky. Over breakfast this morning we watched as the rain fell. Now I look over it, the fans whirring furiously overhead and a pot of tea on the table in front of me. It is late in the day, quiet time after walking through the hot and humid streets of Penang in search of food.

Food's not hard to find, and most of it is pretty good. It's a challenge for me to remain sensible. Tempting as it may be to try everything it's not completely healthy. Still, the local cuisine is one of the great attractions of the city.

We went from one place to another this morning, walking mainly but sometimes employing the services of an undersized rickshaw driver to pedal our oversized bodies around town. With the early rain it was even stickier than normal. The heat feels clammy, and in the open sun you feel yourself steaming. I've experienced much worse than this, but it serves as a reminder of how it can be.

The highlight this morning for me was when I separated myself from the group and went off in search of the next cafe on our list. It was a place typical of the town, and in other ways typical of a thousand other places around the globe. At the round tables men drank coffee and smoked and shared their stories. A cook whipped up the odd noodle dish. People came and went, laughter rolled around the place and excited voices of men gathered together minus their other half.

It felt very familiar to me. There are not many cafes like this back home in Melbourne, but standing there it recalled to mind a multitude of other such places from all over the world. The cuisine may change, but much else remains the same.

I sat and managed to convince the uncomprehending waitress that I wanted one of the coffees the cafe was famous for. The men at the next table watched with interest. One leaned over to assist with the order. That done he asked the usual questions, where I was from (to which he responded "oi, oi, oi", and another "downunder"). They asked how I liked Penang, then how I liked the coffee. They were especially impressed when I ordered another, this time iced. They razzed me gently, glad to have someone different to rub up against.

I too enjoyed it. It's what I like best about travelling. I watched and listened, I nodded my head and joined in and I thought there is a difference in enjoying the pleasures of a place as if they are laid on for you and in going a little further and actually interacting with the place. To intereact is to engage with the people; my greatest memories are not of the Eiffel Tower or a great beach. They are of the occasions I have fallen in with the locals and experienced something otherwise invisible to me. This was on the smaller scale of things, but reminded me of the great possibilities of travelling, particularly when you're solo. People open to you when they think you are alone.

For the rest of the day we have had small bites here and there, a few beers on a thirsty day, and some refloxology – massage is a big industry over here, and who am I to sniff at that? I'm happy to support the local industry.

Now my tea is drunk. I should shower and freshen up, more food tonight, and a festival of the 9 gods my friends at the cafe told me about.

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