So here I am, an “on-location” reporter for the San Francisco Herald on Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan (actually I’m just a civilian contractor, but reporter sounds more intriguing.) My days off are pretty boring, since there isn’t all that much to do around here except sit in the Kenyan Coffee Shop near the PX or go to the gym and try to lose my gut. I chose the gym, and after having not been to a gym for some time, was a little out of shape. Lifting weights, I pulled a neck muscle that kept me awake nights and bothered me all day. I was happy when I heard that the local barbershop also offered massages, so I called and made an appointment for later that evening.
A quick word about the businesses here on base; with the exception of AAFES, which is the “post exchange”, or government run shopping center, all businesses are considered vendors and are run privately, with AAFES getting a cut of the profits, of course. The barbershop was no exception. Or should I call it “barbershop/beauty salon/spa”? It is run by a Kyrgyzstani guy who brought in a whole group of Kyrgyzstani women. A 50-minute full body massage is $20, a pretty good deal, although you have to remember these aren’t professional masseurs.
I showed up for my appointment and when my name was called, was greeted at the counter by a semi-attractive 30-something year old blonde whose name I wouldn’t dare try to pronounce, so I’ll call her Nina. She said “hello, follow me” and led me down a short hallway with rooms on either side, partitioned off by sheets. One could hear voices form behind the curtains, mostly men talking and women giggling.
Nina pulled a sheet aside at her partition and I followed her in, and I mentioned, trying to be humorous (warning; this usually never works with me and leads to disaster) that I wanted a real, hard massage and asked if she was strong enough, as she was petite and thin as a rail.
She looked offended and without even asking “what kind of massage would you like?” or “do you have any specific area you’d like me to focus on?” or even a “take your shirt off and lay down”, she looks at me and points to a small stand next to the massage table with a crisp $20 bill lying on it. “You give me good tip, yes? I give you good massage.”
Being a well-traveled backpacker, this wasn’t a big shock to be asked for a tip before any service is even rendered, but I decided to have a little fun. I acted a little shocked and said;
“You know, in my country it’s rude to ask for a tip, especially before you even give the massage. Normally when someone asks for a tip, you don’t give them one. It’s considered begging.”
Well, that pissed her off.
“What? Why you yell at me? Why you mean to me? Why you say I’m not strong? Why you insult me?”
Well, this was going downhill fast.
I offered; “Like I said, I don’t tip people who ask for tips. You could ask after the massage, or even casually bring it up near the end of the massage, but you don’t ask before the massage.” I always tip, and was planning on it, but to be asked before makes me not want to tip.”
I suppose she thought she was at risk of losing a client, so she changed her strategy and started giving me a sob story about how she only works for tips, and so many people don’t tip, and I don’t have to yell at her and be mean, etc. She started giving me puppy-dog eyes.
Suddenly I realized what was going on. I was on an Army base filled with thousands of young, horny GI’s, and she was used to flirting or teasing them into getting tips, and most of the guys probably went along with it. I, on the other hand, was simply interested in getting a no-nonsense massage.
I took my shirt off and lay face down on the massage table and told her about the knot in my neck. I thought I would let the bad into go and just try to focus on the massage, but she started in with the guilt trip right away.
“I’m from Kyrgyzstan, and I have 5 kids and they don’t pay me anything here, we only work for tips and many people, they no tip, and why you yell at me, and why you say I’m no strong…” on and on and on.
At first I tried talking rationally and calmly, saying I never insulted her, that instead she insulted me, insinuating that I wouldn’t tip her, that she didn’t need to tell me I needed to tip. But she wasn’t having any of it. Soon, I started getting pissed. When she again brought up the “I have 5 kids” thing again, I said; “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have 5 kids if you don’t have any money, like you said. You know what birth control is, don’t you?” I also had to ask her to start massaging me, not simply softly rubbing oil on my back as if I asked her to apply sunscreen on me.
“You not like other Americans, are you? I been here long time, other American nice, you not nice.”
“No, I’m nice, you just have a distorted view of Americans because 99% of the other guys who come in here are hoping to get laid and are more interested flirting with you than getting a massage. I’ve no interest in you other than getting a massage. I don’t want your phone number. You have no idea who I am and you know nothing about me. I’m a very nice person; you’re just distorting everything I say.”
I’m guessing most guys go there simply to get touched by a girl, as that’s all she was doing, running her fingers through my hair and running her hands up and down my back.
“I’d give you my phone number if you asked me.”
Then I just got tired of it all. The whole massage was pretty much ruined by now. I had planned relax and enjoy it, but she was complaining non-stop. It wouldn’t have been so bad if she was just speaking softly like other masseurs I’ve had, but with this one it was all about how little she is paid, how many kids she has, how no one tips, how mean I am, how different I am from other Americans, etc. I couldn’t imagine being married to her, much less living in a house with her and 5 kids.
Finally I sat up and just said “Do you want to stop? I mean, neither of us seem to be having a good time. All I want is a massage for this knot in my neck. Can we stop?”
She said “Fine.” But instead of stopping she pushed my head down into the table and actually shut up and started massaging me, and strongly, too. Ah, heaven.
She found that knot in my neck and started focusing on it, and the pain started. She was really kneading it, and it hurt so much I thought she was digging into it with her fingernails. I actually cried out and moved my head away. I’m guessing she was doing it on purpose, trying to make it painful. My masculine pride kicked in and I refused to give her the pleasure of crying out again; I just bit the towel under my head.
Then she asked me a strange question, right out of the blue.
“Do you have any diseases?”
This went on for the rest of the massage, until finally she stopped and walked out of the room. My neck was still in pain, this time from her and not the knot. She came back and opened the curtain and was standing there with another Kyrgyz girl, looking at me and talking about me, neither smiling.
I went and grabbed my shirt and caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror; the whole right side of my neck was swollen like a water balloon and there was a huge black spot where the knot was. I walked over and showed it to her friend, who put her hand over her mouth and said something to my Nazi masseur.
I said “do you still think you deserve a tip? You know, I could go to your boss and show him this and complain and you’d be on the next plane back to Bishkek. But despite what you think, I’m not a mean person, as you called me.”
Her friend said something mean to her and I just walked off and paid my $20 at the front desk.
Interestingly, when the male cashier (the boss) asked for the $20 and I gave it to him, he simply slid it into the drawer and didn’t ring it up in the register. I asked for a receipt and he looked shocked.
“You want receipt?”
He rolled his eyes and rang up $20 and gave me a receipt. I guess I was cutting into his profit, as I knew he had to give AAFES ten or twenty percent. I asked him how much the girls make, and without hesitation, he said “$110 a month, plus tips”. I told him that didn’t seem very much, especially since a massage was $20. If a girl gave 6 massages a day, the company earned her monthly payment. The rest was pure profit for the vendor? There were 8 partitions in the back, 4 on each side, and there were a lot of guys in the waiting area. That guy must have been making tens of thousands of dollars a month, which is millions in Kyrgyzstan.
I didn’t mention anything about the huge bruise to the boss.###