by Kevin White Barth
With a two-hour break after the morning OR routine, I went with two women from SEVA Foundation of Canada to try out a blind massage. I had no idea what it was about, but I knew it would be interesting! Part of me was tempted to head back to the hotel and rest, away from the dust and the crowds in the street . . . but there would be no story there! We got a street map and headed out. My Khmer (the official language of Cambodia) is limited to pleasantries—“thank you”, “good morning”, “good night”, “you’re welcome”–so ducking into the little Chinese Medicine Pharmacy or a stall at the open market to ask for the location of the Blind Massage place proved to be tough. Performing a pantomime of a blind massage brought stares and giggles, but no directions.
We finally found the BOCC Eye Center run by Dr. BalKumar K.C., the SEVA Foundation eye surgeon from Nepal. I asked Dr. K.C. what he knows about the blind massage places that dot the city. He told me that they are all victims of landmines. He still sees half a dozen cases of blindness caused by landmines each year. Unfortunately, in Cambodia, very little can be done to restore the landmine victims’ vision. Cambodia has the largest population of amputees in the world caused by landmines. It is hard to imagine not being able to walk out in the countryside without fears of being severely injured.
The Eye Center staff kindly pointed us in the right direction, and it was actually just around the corner! The sign outside read “Blind Massage…Seeing Hands Massage”. The front of the space was draped in sheets, and we peeked under to see what awaited us inside. We saw a woman in her mid thirties, her eyes completely white, standing by five massage beds. We stood there with our hands in prayer position–a common greeting in Cambodia– waiting to be invited in. After a few moments, I realized that an oral greeting was needed. “Hello!” I said, “May we come in for a massage?” Within seconds, two more people with fixed smiles came from a back corridor, also blind and horribly disfigured–victims of land mines.
We were given plastic baskets with cotton shirts and pants, one size fits all, and led to a changing room. I am taller than the other women and not as full-figured, and my pants refused to stay up. I finally twisted the waistband to pick up the slack. My companions are already laying face down. If my pants did fall down, there would be no witnesses, since I am now the only sighted person left standing. My masseuse, a woman half my height, is waiting next to the bed. I had heard the other women respond to the question “Hard, Medium or Light?” “Hard,” they said. Not me. “Light,” I whispered, “I am a wuss!”
A little over an hour later, I was grateful for the experience and grateful that I said “light”. This was not a wine country spa, essential oil massage. This was just short of rolfing. I do have to admit some parts of me felt better after my tiny massage therapist’s pressure-point probing. I am sure she wished that she had charged me by the inch instead of the hour, as my massage lasted 10 minutes longer than my companions. We paid our $7 ($6 plus tip) and changed into our street clothes in the dark. The changing room light had been turned off, and we had to find our way in the dark–interesting. With our hair comically rearranged and our post massage cradle faces, we headed back to the hospital–grateful for the blind trio and their hands and grateful to be able to see the dust and the crowds of Battambang.