I once worked and lived in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta where I hooked up a British woman who was of similar age, with a similar professional background so we had much in common. That common background and comparable experiences enabled a quick transition from acquaintances, to solid friendship. Mel was a good looking women with flaming red hair, a quick turn of phrase and a wicked sense of humour. However, one significant difference was that she had a Romanian husband, who happened to be more than 15 years her junior. This kept Mel permanently obsessed in trying to look younger so that the husband wouldn’t stray. She had sourced and investigated every plastic surgeon, nail technician, beautician, dietician and hairdresser within a 100 kilometre radius of Jakarta. When we would meet socially at weekends, she would regale me with blow-by-blow details of lotions, potions, cures and the cost of the latest available treatments.
An extensive choice of therapies and treatments is typical of most Asian countries, where many of the wealthy classes are preoccupied with enhancing beauty and maintaining youthful looks. It’s also a region where you’re as likely to walk into a beauticians and find more men than women having deep facial cleansing; for some reason I was always felt more than a little uncomfortable lying on a therapist’s bed beside a strange man….I digress. The wide choice of available treatments is matched only with an equally generous selection of charlatans offering therapies.
I arrived one day to meet Mel holding an airline magazine with a story about some therapy that didn’t require surgical intervention. When I showed it to her she dismissed the article and began to rave about one particular acupuncturist who held a practice on the other side of the city. Mel swore that after attending his clinic several times she dropped a full dress size. In addition, this miracle man could tighten sagging facial skin using acupuncture – in other words, a face lift without a scalpel.
My curiosity was sparked and Mel suggested we make an appointment. Battling my weight since childhood, losing a dress size was always met with keen interest. I couldn’t believe my luck that there was also the additional bonus of a face lift without a scalpel and that there may be a ‘cure’ for an increasingly severe nerve pain in my foot, where I had suffered a fracture a few years previously.
Mel booked an early Saturday morning appointment so we could avoid some of Jakarta’s notorious traffic. When we arrived, I’m not sure what I expected to find, but was taken aback to find a room was packed with about 30 therapists beds, with just enough space between each bed to allow the acupuncturist move between clients. I couldn’t have been closer to these strangers if we were sleeping in the same bed.
Pins and needles
With my limited Bahasa Indonesian and his limited English I explained that I wanted to lose a few kilogrammes and would be very happy to reduce the (ahem), laughter lines on my face. I was asked to expose my belly, so opened the zip on my jeans. The acupuncturist proceeded to place needles all over my tummy before inserting more needles in my jaw and around my eyes. In a room packed full of Muslim women, still holding onto their modesty by wearing hijabs ensuring their hair was not exposed to a strange male, but all exposing pin-filled bellies and covered with needles sticking out of their face, the absurdity wasn’t lost on me.
I felt like a voodoo doll once I was all pinned up and proceeded to explain the pain I was experiencing from the pinched nerve in my foot. The therapist nodded sagely, then making a circle with his thumb and middle finger, he looked through the circle as if it was a magnifying glass, moving up and down my leg before honing in on the problem area of my foot. Raising his index finger in the air he announced there was a devil living inside my leg and it would need to be exorcized. I could see several heads raised on the beds with curiosity as the therapist began sucking in deep breaths over my foot, throwing his head back, he exhaled deeply with his head angled towards the ceiling and repeated this action several times. From my reclined position all I could see was the pin-filled bellies of the other women shaking as the supressed giggles could no longer be supressed and rose to full-blown belly laughing.
Despite being the source/object of such great hilarity, I dismissed any feelings of embarrassment and returned for further ‘treatment’ two weeks in a row. On the fourth Saturday when the bathroom scales had somehow stubbornly stuck on the same weight, I tackled the therapist asking when I could expect to see some weight loss. “Do you eat dinner?” he asked. “Of course, I eat my dinner,” I responded indignantly. When he suggested that in order to see some results I was to skip dinner, I decided at this point, enough was enough. I was paying out good money to have needles stuck in my tummy every Saturday morning to lose weight when all along it was just a simple matter of….skipping dinner? It was the skipping dinner suggestion that helped in my decision not to return and waste energy sitting in Jakarta traffic each Saturday morning.
I eventually managed to achieve a small measure of success in the weight loss department by eating less and exercising more, without the need for acupuncture. I have to admit though, the laughter lines multiplied in the proceeding years, so much so that my face could be mistaken for a map of Ireland, without makeup for camouflage.
Funny thing was the nerve pain in my foot miraculously disappeared, never to come back again.
Mel and I had several more adventures before I moved on to work in other countries and we lost touch. Mel managed to track me down several years later on social media. Our lives had taken different paths but we kept in touch. She had however, lost the battle to hold on to the younger husband. No amount of pins, potions or lotions could save the marriage when the Romanian found a young lover and discarded Mel like a used acupuncture needle.
PS Mel returned to the UK and sadly succumbed to breast cancer in the summer of 2020. She was a sweet, gentle soul who was a great friend and a great source of entertainment in an otherwise big and lonely city. May she rest in peace.