Life Skills Unlocked: Surviving the Strip Club

 

What immediately springs to mind when you think of strip clubs?

I’m not asking those of you who have frequented these places. I’m asking those of you who have always wondered about what goes on behind the black door.

Before I’d ever gone to a strip club, here’s what I pictured: Sticky floors. Girls with blank faces and bad posture. Terrible music and worse clientele. Large groups of men gee-eyed with drink, laughing and roaring unfunny jokes at each over the music.

Which is all to say that I wasn’t expecting a whole lot.

A few years ago, one Monday after work, I sat having a drink with colleagues at 4am. Having decided to try my hand at working in a bar, I had just spent a long night delivering shots of tequila and glasses of whisky with complicated names. One of the regulars had stayed behind with us as we cashed out, and somehow the conversation had turned to Frankfurt’s wealth of strip clubs.

“I’ve heard there’s a whole red light district,” breathed one of my friends, eyes wide and twinkling with mischief.

Our regular drained the end of his pint and leaned back in his chair.

“It’s true,” He said. “I’ve been.”

The whole table leaned towards him, as if he’d just disclosed he’d found hidden treasure.

“What’s it like?”

“Where did you go?”

“Are there really red lights?”

“Is it as seedy as it sounds?”

“Are women allowed?”

The questions came from all angles, and he smiled benevolently at our rapt attention before spreading his palms out on the wooden table.

“Alright then. One at a time. What do you want to know?”

It turned out our regular was quite the connoisseur. Tipsy from post-work alcohol and energised by his unexpected wealth of knowledge, we peppered him with questions. He answered them all competently, as if every visit to a strip-club had been a reconnaisance mission leading up to this precise moment. Eventually, the interrogation died down until the only other girl at the table and I were the only ones still talking. We sat with our feet up on the chairs beside us, running our fingers around the rims of our glasses, staring into space.

“I’ve always wondered what they’re like,” I said, thinking out loud.

My friend leaned over the table, her eyes half-focused.

“We should go sometime!”

I nodded in the international language for, ‘Yeah, sure, sometime, maybe, probably never…’

The strip club specialist leaned back in his chair. Very casually – deceptively casually – as if he were suggesting we all go for a coffee, he said, “We could go now…?”

The table erupted into laughter followed by a fast and furious discussion about how ridiculous it would be to visit a strip club on a Monday night after work.

“With no money!”

“Delirious from lack of sleep!”

“Not even nearly drunk enough!”

“On a MONDAY!”

We howled. As our giggles died away, our strip club guru looked around the table at each of us, gasping from laughter.

“I’ll pay. I’ll pay your entry fee,” he said.

We snorted with derision. As if! No need to be ridiculous. We started to get up, ready to disband.

“Seriously.” He said. “I’ll pay if we go now.”

There was a momentary stillness. I looked around the table. I could feel the zip of sudden energy that sparked around the room; that tiny spark that often leads to spontaneous – and not always wise – decisions to embark on adventure.

Which is exactly what happened.

I asked them to wait while I ran home to change my shoes, and rang Scrubs as I kicked off my runners and pulled on a pair of UGGs.

“I’m going to go to a strip club,” I said. “Is that alright? The curiosity is killing me and there’s a nice man here who is offering to pay for all of us. Realistically if I don’t go now I never will, because there’s not a hope I would spend my own money to go to one, and when is this likely to ever happen again? Someone is basically going to pay for me to go to a strip club. So I think I’m going to go.”

“Right now?” Scrubs asked in alarm.

“Yeah. Is that okay with you?”

There was a pause – which I interpreted as a shocked silence – while Scrubs considered this 4am excursion.

“I don’t know if you should…” He said slowly.

My face fell. Obviously I would never go if Scrubs felt uncomfortable with the idea.

“… I mean, they’re hardly going to have their best looking strippers working on a Monday. Why don’t you go at the weekend?”

Thus it came to pass that at half four in the morning, hyped up on post-work drinks and sleep deprivation, my friends and I grabbed orange juice and a bottle of vodka for the road and piled into the strip club guru’s car. I didn’t drink, but watched as my friends passed around the bottle and wondered whether I should have changed out of my round-necked white knit jumper and jeans*.

When we reached the club, our guru paid a not insubstantial amount of money and handed us each our tokens, which came in the form of strip club dollars. They looked like board game money, with the silhouette of a stripper on them instead of the round, jovial face of Mr. Monopoly. They came in denominations of ones and fives. He then paid our entry fee and the large imposing bouncer waved us into the club.

I’m not sure what I was expecting really but this… wasn’t it. It looked like a nightclub. A long bar ran down the right side of the room, with a man polishing glasses under the pink and blue club lights. It was dark, with loud music and plush velvet booths. Sure there was a stage with a pole, but other than that it didn’t look too different from a nightclub when you’re there too early. It wasn’t wall-to-wall sleaze. I couldn’t see a single pair of breasts. All it was missing from the usual nightclub experience was the tight scrum of bodies pressing up against me from all sides, and the floors that stick to your shoes from the thick lacquer of stale beer that has built up over the years.

So really, for the most part, the experience was proving to be more pleasant than a typical nightclub.

I sat with my friends in a booth near the stage and ordered drinks. Or rather, they did. I asked for water. I wanted all my faculties intact for this experience. This was likely to be my one and only visit to a strip club. I wanted my eyes wide on the night and my memories intact the next day. A girl walked past our table and I frowned; she was astonishingly beautiful. She looked as if she had stepped off the pages of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue to join us for the night. So much for Scrubs’ theory about Monday’s girls.

Another girl made her way over and asked to sit next to us. She was petite and blonde and made charming small talk with us until the boys asked for private dances. Two brunettes appeared to lead them away, and the only other girl and I were left with the pretty, pixie-like blonde. We talked a bit about college life, and then she called over her Amazon angel of a friend to join us. I was almost starstruck by the two of them. I had been expecting regular girls like me, not these glittery bombshells.

Just then, our kindly patron returned from his (second) private dance of the evening. He watched the four of us chat for a moment and then leaned towards us.

“You guys should get one,” he said.

I side-eyed him in warning. I didn’t want to get the girls’ hopes up and there was no way I was paying for a private dance.

“No seriously,” he insisted. “How much is it for a double private dance for these two?”

The corner of the pixie’s mouth turned up and she looked us up and down. She named a price and he nodded encouragingly.

“Go for it!” He said, shuffling over in his seat and stuffing money in my hand. “Go on!”

Guys, I tried to say no. I honestly did.

I balked. I tried to hand it back. I told him to keep it, but he just got up and called his girl over for a third dance. As she led him away by the hand he yelled that he didn’t care what I did with it but it was meant for a dance so I might as well get one.

I turned back to face the two blonde babes and looked at my friend, who was riding both the buzz from the vodka and the sugar high from the soft drinks she was mixing it with. I shrugged, and the two girls laughed and clapped delightedly before leading us to the private room.

The private dances took place in a U-shaped booth with velvet curtains that were pulled closed behind us. My friend and I sat on opposite sides of the room. I pulled at the edge of my sleeve nervously, trying to remind myself of the only thing I know about stripclubs, which is that you should never touch the dancers**.

A song started – I couldn’t tell you which one – and the pixie stepped in front of me started to writhe and take off her clothes. She straddled my thigh and ground against my leg. I chewed the inside of my cheek and wished I’d worn something less chafing for her than denim.

My palms were splayed flat against the velvet couch. She was so close to me. Her body glitter sparkled under the lights and she smelled of something outrageously sweet and fruity. Her hands roamed over my knit jumper, making me feel slightly ridiculous. I wondered how many people had worn white loose-knit jumpers to this booth.

She unhooked her bra and dropped it, revealing a perfect pair of gravity-defying breasts. She leaned in for a kiss and I awkwardly turned my face away. I was pretty sure Scrubs might have something to say about me making out with an anonymous Nordic stripper.

She kissed her way down my neck, and I started to feel slightly rude.

Should I touch her? Seems almost offensive to keep my hands on the couch. Should I awkwardly place my hands on her hips? Is she going to think I’m not enjoying it?

She expertly slid her thong down her legs and kicked it off.

No, no. Better to just stay as I am, I thought, mentally nodding to myself.

The pixie pulled my knees apart and turned to grind against my lap. I distractedly examined her tattoos. I had never (and still to this day have never) had somebody’s tattoos quite so close to my eyeballs before. She bent over at the waist, giving me an unexpectedly detailed look at her clitoral piercing. I eyed it and wondered how much it had hurt. I felt strangely detached from my body. Not a single part of me felt aroused. Instead, my brain was busy clinically observing everything as if I were a scientist running some bizarre experiment with a very attractive and very naked subject. I kept waiting to feel something, some tingle or particle of pleasure that I could grab onto that would explain why people found these places so alluring. Instead I just felt… bemused.

I marvelled at the way every inch of the pixie’s now-entirely-naked body was coated in this sheen of fruity body glitter. That can’t be hygienic, I mused sympathetically. I idly speculated whether or not it was likely to be compulsory for strippers to walk through some sort of spray mist before starting their shift.

The pixie knelt on the couch beside me and stuck her tongue in my ear. She sucked on my earlobe and I sat, stiff as a board, suppressing a shudder. There is something almost overwhelmingly odd about a complete stranger sucking on your earlobe for payment. She leaned towards me slowly in a second attempt to kiss me, and I turned my head to the left to dodge her lips a second time. Across the room I saw the Amazon straddling my friend, kissing her with her hands tangled in her hair. I looked back at the pixie and smiled nervously, anxious not to offend. Was I supposed to be okay with this? Was this normal? She smiled back, lifted a perfectly drawn eyebrow and bent across my lap. She arched her back and tossed her fringe out of her eyes as she wiggled her butt playfully.

Am I supposed to spank her? What are the rules here? Are there rules? What is happening?

She pulled one leg to the other side of me and bent over, sliding her upper body to the floor, leaving her bottom half spread-eagled in my lap. I felt like I was in an extremely graphic Sex Ed class. If I had leaned forward I could have touched her clit with my nose, she was that close. The jewel in her piercing twinkled at me.

She switched out with the Amazon for a bit and I enjoyed the novelty of watching legs as long as my entire body bend and flex in front of me. The Amazon ran her fingertips under the hem of my jumper, stroking my skin, making me flinch. My palms were pressed so hard into the seat that I was half afraid my handprints would be forever immortalised in the deep pile velvet.

They switched back and the pixie grinned at me before pulling me forward. She straddled me and rolled my jumper up, kissing her way up my torso. I sat, stone-faced with confusion, as she pulled it all the way up to my neck.

Thoughts ping-ponged around in my head.

Do I still not touch her? She’s undressing me! Should I say something? This is unexpected. If I object will she be offended? What if she tries to kiss me again? Is it rude to say no thank you? Why is there no manual when you first walk in? Why are there no notices with Dos and Don’ts? 

She kissed my collarbone and I felt my knuckles whiten from digging my fingers into the couch. I fixed my gaze on the brass curtain rings as I felt her drag her fingernails up my torso, and then, with startling abruptness, pull off my bra.

I was caught completely off guard.

The cool air hit my chest and gave me a momentary form of brain freeze. For a moment I felt as if my the top of my head had been opened and a steady stream of exclamation marks had been poured in. As I opened my mouth to make a joke about not having applied for a job, I felt her climb off me. She took a couple of steps back, stood in front of me, and tilted her head.

“Are they your own breasts?”

My brow furrowed. What part of the dance was this?

“Yes?” I said, confused.

“They are real?” She was still standing in front of me, no longer on her tiptoes arching every muscle in her body. Now she was simply studying my body. The cool air passed over me and I wondered if a private dance had ever been less enjoyable. I nodded.

“You have really great breasts,” the pixie said, appraisingly.

I blinked and wondered whether somebody had spiked my drink earlier.

“Your breasts, they are really beautiful!” She was eyeing my chest as if it were a painting. She leaned forward and ran her finger along the outside curve of one of my breasts. The sultry, sexy-dancer act had been completely switched off. We seeemed to have reached an interval. I willed my face to stay passive.

“Thanks,” I said, after a stunned pause.

There was silence as she continued to eyeball my breasts admiringly. I cleared my throat.

“Yours too.”

She met my gaze.

“I mean, your breasts are also…” I paused, searching my blank brain for an adjective. “…Lovely,” I finished lamely.

She made a face and looked down at her breasts, cupping them in her hands.

“Yes,” she said, as if contemplating them for the first time in a long time. “They are nice too.” She looked at me and the corner of her mouth twisted downward.

“These are not real though,” she sighed sorrowfully.

I looked around the room, fingernails still digging into the seat. It felt truly surreal to have been stripped by a stripper who now stood holding her breasts and reflecting upon her implants.

Can I pull my jumper back down? Would that be rude?

The pixie crossed the room to tug on the Amazon’s arm.

“Look, look at her breasts,” she said, gesturing towards me.

I closed my eyes briefly. Maybe I could pretend this wasn’t happening.

The Amazon came over and both of them – one gigantuan, one tiny – stood side-by-side, cocked their heads and stared at my chest.

“Are they real?” The Amazon asked.

“Y-yes,” I stuttered, feeling like a watermelon being weighed up at Whole Foods.

The Amazon nodded curtly. “They are beautiful,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“Thank you…?” My voice rose at the end in tandem with my level of anxiety. The Amazon returned to her dance with my friend. I wished I’d had some vodka in the car. I wished I’d had some vodka twenty minutes before to soften the edges of this experience and make it less mind-bendingly weird.

Stone cold sober probably hadn’t been the best way to approach this, in hindsight…

I crossed my UGG-encased ankles, still exposed. I felt my eyebrows rise as I let out a deep breath and considered the fact that this precise moment (in a strip club, in front of two very pretty, very naked women) was easily one of the least sexy experiences of my entire life.

The pixie gave me a giddy smile, as if we had just had a bonding session about our awful ex-boyfriends. She leaned forward, kissed the arch of my breast, and stood up on her tiptoes before resuming her dancing. No more was said between us. At the end, unsure of the correct procedure, I clapped and somewhat hysterically thrust the money as well as a hefty tip into her hand.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, that was so nice!” I gushed, desperate to leave.

She rubbed my back as I tugged at the hem of my jumper. She had pulled a black figure-hugging minidress with strategic slits over her head as soon as the dance had ended.

“Really, it was so lovely. You’re a great dancer.” I was babbling now. She grinned shyly and looked up at me from under her fringe. Impulsively she gave me a quick hug. I looked her in the eye and smiled.

You have a clitoral piercing, I thought. I’ve seen it. In extreme close-up.

I awkwardly patted her on the shoulder.

Once we escaped the private dance booth I grabbed my friend by the wrist and made a beeline for our table, where the rest of the gang whooped as we sat down. Our guru smiled at us. “How was it?”

“It was good!” I smiled. “So now that’s done and we should go.”

“Now?”

“Now.”

I waved at the pixie and the Amazon as we left the club, and spent the car ride home looking out the window trying to process the experience.

Pros:

  • I had been to a strip club and now my curiosity was well and truly assuaged and I never had to do it again.
  • I’d had my breasts complimented by two girls who should know their good breasts from their bad.
  • I hadn’t had to spend a cent of my own money.

Cons:

  • I had to have a shower when I got home to get the sickly scent of fruity body glitter off me.
  • I had realised that as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing actually sexy about strippers.
  • I can never again watch a movie or tv show featuring a strip club without feeling my fingers unwittingly dig into the seat in raw discomfort.

Overall, a perplexing but illuminating experience.

 Would you call having done this trial by private dance a life skill? Probably not, but after having survived the bone-deep awkwardness of the whole ordeal without mortally offending any strippers, I think it qualifies.

 

 

*But what is appropriate clothing for a strip club? You don’t want to be mistaken for one of the staff, after all… A complicated-to-take-off romper? Apple-bottom jeans and boots with the fur? I’m still unclear.

**Thank you Closer for your lessons on strip-club etiquette.

 

Joining in in Jaipur, India

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After the maelstrom of Delhi, Scrubs and I were glad to escape to the relative serenity of Jaipur. The famously pink buildings seemed to glow a warm welcome in the sun as we dragged our battered and dusty bags through the streets of the city. We had finally arrived after a long train journey and, despite feeling a little rough around the edges, I was unspeakably relieved to be out of the capital. From the moment we set foot inside its walls, Jaipur felt utterly different. My shoulders lowered themselves from their protective position up around my ears and I relaxed for the first time in days. If Delhi had felt like a strangling, knotted tangle of a city, Jaipur felt like a long, fluttering length of ribbon. I had a long list of places I wanted to see – The Amer Fort, the Hawa Mahal, Jantar Mantar, Galtaji – and I kept the list clutched in my fist like a prayer.

The first couple of days flew by as we checked places off the list. The Taj Mahal – despite its fame – had left me cold, but I was moved by the intricate beauty, majesty, and ingenuity of the Amer Fort. It had spectacular views, carefully tended courtyards, a glittering hall of mirrors, and a stream of water designed to run through the palace to cool the rooms. Really it had everything you could want and more from a palace built in 1592. Jantar Mantar and the Hawa Mahal deserve posts all of their own, but I’ll have to write about those another day, because this piece is not about them; this is about Galtaji, or as it’s more commonly known to tourists, The Monkey Temple.

Now, I could call myself an animal lover, but that really doesn’t begin to cover it. If I said that, you might infer that I enjoy playing fetch with my dog and finding cat memes online. I mean, I do, don’t get me wrong… but my love of animals extends much further than Grumpy Cat, my black labrador Lia, and Lia’s deep and abiding passion for tennis balls. For lack of a better word, I am enthusiastic about animals. Not just cute animals, but all animals. Where others might recoil in disgust, I lean in with unabashed interest.

Maybe this lively preoccupation stems from the lack of exciting wildlife in Ireland; the glimpse of a red fox is about as exciting as it gets, and the damage they can do is more or less limited to tipping over wheelie bins in their search for food. In Ireland there are no bears, no wolves, and (allegedly thanks to St. Patrick), no snakes. Not only that, but unless you’re a masochist of the highest order, you’re unlikely to set foot in the sea. Even if you are a masochist and choose to embrace the feeling of icy water stripping you of every nerve ending you possess, you’re unlikely to catch a glimpse of anything too thrilling in the murky water.

A seal, maybe.

A confused seal wondering why there’s a human visiting their icy home.

Anyway, with this in mind, you can imagine how much I was enjoying Jaipur. There were camels and cows and elephants and donkeys and stray dogs on practically every street. Days exploring the city turned to evenings eating delicious dinners at the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant, and then we would roll home, stuffed to the gills, ready for a good night of sleep at the Vinayak Guesthouse.

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Even before we had left for India, Galtaji was high on my list of places to go. I had read articles describing it as an abandoned temple teeming with monkeys, and the reviews on Tripadvisor definitely seemed to back this up. People had written sentences like, ‘It reminded me of a lost city found in a clearing of a long lost jungle’ and, ‘Please be aware that not many people know about this place,’ and honestly, to me this sounded magical. In my mind, the temple was a deserted ruin with monkeys on every available surface, and I intended to spend an entire afternoon observing and photographing them in quiet tranquility.

Just me and the monkeys.

Well, just me and Scrubs and the monkeys, but I had a feeling he wouldn’t be as enthralled by the idea of monkey-mayhem for hours on end. Still, I was undeterred. In preparation for our visit I had bought a large hand of bananas. I felt well prepared. Jane Goodall would have nothing on me!

The day we had planned to visit the temple finally arrived. We hopped into an auto rickshaw and asked the driver in garbled, phrasebook Hindi to take us to Galtaji. Since neither of us actually speak Hindi, this was not at all helpful and our driver only understood where we wanted to go after a combined effort to find it on his trusty paper map. A mercifully short (but bracingly death-defying) hurtle through the streets later, he stopped the rickshaw in the middle of a side road and gestured roughly to the left.

“Up there?” I asked, dreading the answer.

He nodded.

We looked at each other. Scrubs’s eyebrows lifted so much they almost disappeared. We paid the man and hopped out. Clutching at the straps of my backpack, I examined the path that cut a sharp zig-zag up the side of an extremely large hill. It looked suspiciously busy for a path that supposedly led to an abandoned temple.

“Are we sure this is it?” Scrubs asked sceptically. “It’s very… populated.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. We might as well go up and have a look,” I said, anxious to see what I had now come to think of as ‘my monkeys’.

Unsure but optimistic, we set off up the hill. We quickly overtook a group of women in traditional saris, laughing and chattering to each other. They smiled at us as we passed, and we nodded and smiled in reply. Our comparitively drab clothing made us stand out against their bright flowing fabrics, and as we caught up with more Indians walking the same way we began to feel self-conscious. Where were these people going?

The first surprise lay just around the bend.

Scarves of different shades and hues lined both sides of the path. I stared at them out of the corner of my eye, trying not to look fazed. There was something scattered on them – seeds, maybe? – and every so often people walking up the path would throw some more on the scarves as they walked by. Since I had only bananas in my backpack, we continued on, confused. I hadn’t thought to bring seeds.

Around the next bend, things only got more confusing.

On this stretch, a cow lay on one of the scarves. An extremely fancy blanket covered its rump, and its wet eyes gazed placidly at us with an air of resigned boredom. As we walked past, I noticed with some surprise that a fifth leg dangled uselessly from the cow’s back.

I say ‘some surprise’ but what I really mean is that I tugged on Scrubs’ sleeve and, practically bug-eyed with astonishment, hissed, “Look! Look! A fifth leg! Did you see that? That cow had a LEG coming out of its SPINE!”

We continued up the hill, and as we walked we met with more lavishly decorated, curiously configured cows. Cows with six legs, cows with seven legs, cows with two tails, or three ears. After a while it started to seem almost normal. It got to the point where it would have felt strange to see a four-legged, two-eared, one-tailed, regular cow. Not only that, but as we got closer to the top, we met more and more people all walking in the same direction.

We still hadn’t seen a single monkey.

I was starting to think we must be in the wrong place. Scrubs and I discussed theories about the sacred, slightly irregular cows as we traipsed along. We passed more scarves, more seeds, and more cows until, after what felt like a climb up the steep side of Kilimanjaro, we made it to the top of the hill. I was expecting to see the temple laid out before me, but instead there was just a small clearing with people milling about, taking a break. Then I looked over my shoulder and there, sitting in the shade of a tree, was a monkey.

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In a move so smooth you would think I’d practiced it, I swung my bag off my back and pulled out both my camera and a banana with one hand. The gimlet-eyed monkey approached me with a swagger befitting a thirteen year old boy with something to prove, and waited with an air of indulgence as I peeled it. I offered him half the banana and he eyed it with scorn, flicking a knowing glance at my bag. Slowly, as if he was doing me a favour, he took the piece of banana from my outstretched hand and began pulling it apart with his long, slender fingers. I walked around and found a few more monkeys. They indulged me by posing for some photos, and I paid them in banana pieces. It was a fair trade. I had almost forgotten about the temple by the time Scrubs tapped my elbow to get my attention.

“Will we keep going?” He asked.

“Oh. I suppose so,” I said, somewhat reluctantly.

“There’ll be more monkeys,” Scrubs said. “It’s called Monkey Temple for a reason.”

I nodded and we rejoined the string of people heading for the next stretch of the path. There were definitely more people now. Indians of all ages surrounded us as we started down the other side of the hill. On this side there were no cows, but the sunken pathway was narrower and it was easier to lose your footing in the fine gravel.

About twenty minutes later a bottleneck up ahead hindered progress, and in our attempts to see why we had stopped we finally got our first glimpse of where we were going. Nestled in snugly, looking like it had been there for at least as long as the hills themselves, sat the temple complex of Galtaji.

The temple did not look lost. It did not look abandoned. Instead, it was absolutely heaving with activity. As we approached, the path narrowed until it was only wide enough for two people to walk abreast. Steps appeared, carved deep into the hillside to ease the steep descent.  Hands pressed briefly on our backs and shoulders as people steadied themselves. An elderly woman placed a gnarled hand on Scrubs’ shoulder without so much as a word and used Scrubs as a crutch the whole way down the steps. I was hemmed in on all sides by women in beautiful clothes and shining nose piercings. They smiled at us as we pressed together, giggling and talking to each other as they flicked curious glances at us, the only two tourists for miles; conspicuous t-shirt wearers in a sea of saris and robes.

As we reached the bottom of the steps, the cause of the bottleneck was clear; a narrow stile led into the temple, just big enough for one person to squeeze through. The eagerness of the crowd around us waiting to get in led to impatient shoving that was less pragmatic than it was perilous, and as I shimmied between the stone blocks and jumped down to the courtyard on the far side, I recalled the news stories about deadly stampedes during festivals in India. ‘I’m not surprised,‘ I thought. ‘That stile is a health and safety officer’s worst nightmare.’

Once Scrubs had safely joined me on the stone slabs of the courtyard floor, we looked around us in awe. It felt like we had walked straight into a copy of National Geographic. The courtyards were a riot of colour. Hundreds of people milled around, laughing and singing and dancing. A square, sunken pool (kund) was filled with women pouring the alarmingly green water over their topless bodies. A smiling woman missing most of her teeth stopped in front of us and said something we couldn’t understand before dipping her finger in a copper bowl filled with vermilion powder and pressing a tilaka onto each of our foreheads with surprising force. She disappeared into the throng as quickly as she had appeared, and we looked at each other and laughed. A lady pressed a flower into my hand as she swept past in an emerald green sari embroidered with gold thread. We stood there for many minutes, just absorbing the mood around us.

It had been claustrophobically crowded at times in Delhi, and while the multicoloured masses at the temple were not dissimilar in density, the atmosphere was entirely different. In Delhi I had felt intimidated, threatened and sometimes downright scared. People – mostly men – had stared, stony-faced, until it felt like their pupils were scorching my soul. Some had used their phones to video or photograph us as we made our way down the street. A crawling dread had crept over me every time we moved through the crowded city, and it had coloured my opinion of it; instead of my usual keen interest in exploring a new place, I had become emotionally shuttered and focused solely on making myself as invisible as possible.

While the pavilions at this elaborately carved temple complex were packed with people, at no point did I feel intimidated or vulnerable. Nobody stared. Some people threw curious glances our way, but nobody took our photograph. Nobody videoed us. Nobody there was interested in us at all. The many, many people who had made the pilgrimage to Galtaji that day hadn’t made it to stand gawking at two ignorant tourists. They were there to celebrate, and meet with friends and family. They were there to scatter seeds, and bathe in the kunds. Their interaction with us was limited to fleeting moments of warm welcome. The old lady wordlessly leaning on Scrubs as a fellow pilgrim. The tilakas. The flower. The smiles.

Out of respect, I didn’t take a single photo at Galtaji. The time spent at the festival felt too precious and otherworldly to capture with a camera. The colours, the people, and the feeling of standing in that deep nook surrounded by hills will live on only in our memories. As we left to return to our guesthouse, our legs aching, I pulled a couple of the forgotten bananas from my bag and silently handed one to Scrubs, hoping the potassium boost would prevent muscle cramps.

I may not have seen my monkeys, but that no longer mattered. We had seen something better; we had stumbled on an unforgettable experience.

 

Stripping Off in Suwa, Japan

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I walked into the Katakurakan onsen with trepidation clawing up my throat.

A smiling lady handed me a small towel and a small key at the window of reception, then gestured gracefully towards a door on the left. This was something I’d noticed a lot since arriving in Japan; every Japanese person I encountered seemed to have been born with the kind of grace that eludes me on a daily basis. Clutching the towel to my chest, I pushed open the door to the women’s changing room and walked in.

In no way was I excited about getting naked with strangers.

I was dragging my feet with dread. My skin had started to itch with a strange, cold, prickling sensation that wasn’t in the least bit pleasant. It hadn’t been my idea to visit the onsen, but the lovely Japanese man showing me around Lake Suwa had seemed personally affronted when I said I would rather not. His smiling, insistent head-bowing had worn me down until, resigned, I had nodded and followed him into the brick building.

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According to Wikipedia “an onsen is a Japanese hot spring and the bathing facilities and inns frequently situated around them. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsens scattered throughout all of its major islands. Onsens were traditionally used as public bathing places and today play a central role in Japanese domestic tourism.”

I knew very little about onsen before visiting, other than the fact that you have to be naked and tattoos are strictly verboten. Now here I was, standing in a changing room, clutching a towel, wishing the tiled floor would open up and swallow me whole.

Once I’d accepted that this was, in fact, happening, I looked around for any hint as to what was expected of me. I knew that I would have to strip down, but where? Here? Signs in unintelligibly bubbly kanji laughed at me from the walls. Trying to act nonchalant, I sat down and started to untie my shoelaces ever so slowly as panic bubbled up in my chest. Nobody there spoke any English, and I sincerely doubted my rudimentary phrases of Japanese (O-genki desu ka? Sumimasen! Kore kudasai) would get me very far in learning the intricacies of onsen ettiquette.

Just then, the door swung open and, as if sent to deliver me to salvation, a middle-aged lady walked in. She might as well have arrived in a beam of light, I was so glad to see her. I watched her out of my peripheral vision as I pretended to be absorbed by the process of peeling off my socks. I could undress myself – that part didn’t present a problem; after all I’ve been doing it every day of my life – but I needed to know what came after. I didn’t want to have to stand there naked like a total gom while I fumbled to understand what to do next.

The woman, unaware that she was the hero of the moment, kicked off her running shoes and started to briskly remove her clothing. I kept my eyes on the bench as she dropped her blouse, her bra, and her bobby pins into a tidy pile on the pale ash slats. I picked up the pace with my own clothes, pulling off my loose knit jumper and tank top in a single movement. Now that I had found this unwitting guide, it was important I keep up with her. I couldn’t let her disappear from view.

When she was quite nude, she put her belongings in a locker.

I also put my belongings in a locker.

She used her key to lock it, then slid the elastic keyring onto her wrist.

I did the same.

Picking up her towel, still ignorant of my careful observation of her every move, she walked through the changing room and passed under an arch into the room with the main bath. I followed, now so intent on following this poor woman like a creepy stalker that I barely registered how weird it felt to be totally naked around perfect strangers.

I said barely.

It was weird. It was very weird. I have a somewhat strange notion about my body in that I’m okay with showing it off to an extent – I feel comfortable in a bikini, and don’t mind changing in front of people if the situation demands it – but I don’t like getting completely naked in front of anyone who isn’t my partner. It’s a personal thing. I’d just rather not share the sight of my entirely unclothed body with anyone else. Make of that what you will. It’s not a matter of prudishness or shame or discomfort with my body… It’s just a personal preference.

I never said it made sense.

So here I was, standing in a room in Japan decorated to look like an ancient Roman bathhouse, stark naked, holding only a small towel and trying not to stare at anybody.

…Which, I mean, if I’m going to be naked around strangers anywhere, Japan is probably far enough away for it to almost not have happened at all.

My mentor turned to an area on the right, and sat on the tiniest stool I have ever seen. The stool was positioned in front of a little washing station, with toiletries on a similarly tiny counter. I followed her lead and sat two tiny stools down, with my knees up around my chest. I watched her surreptitiously as she used the shower head provided to wash herself, and copied her movements while wondering why the uncomfortably tiny stool was necessary. What was wrong with a shower cubicle?

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When she stood and made her way to the bath, I followed a couple of minutes behind. I walked to the far end of the bath and stepped into the warm water trying to look as unperturbed as possible. When my whole body was submerged in the warm water, I folded my towel and placed it on a ledge just like my onsen angel had done, and then I lay back, closed my eyes, and tried to stop thinking.

It’s almost impossible to stop thinking. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but it’s like trying to herd cats. Emptying your mind of all thoughts is a lovely notion, but if you actually sit down and try to do it you can find yourself thinking about how hard it is to stop thinking, and then thinking about thinking about how hard it is to stop thinking…

Basically what I’m trying to say is that my mindful meditation didn’t last very long.

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I opened my eyes to see my onsen guide walking along the bottom of the bath. I stretched my leg out and felt around with my toes. I was surprised to find that there were thousands of small pebbles lining the floor of the bath. I slid down a step so that my chin was barely above water, and pressed the soles of my feet into the pebbles. It felt good. I could see why people loved the onsen. The water was exactly the right temperature; not too hot to step into without wincing, and not too cold to lie there for an extended period of time. It was quiet. The few women in the room were absorbed in their own rituals, washing and relaxing and combing out their hair. I’d never been in an all-female space like this before, and it felt very safe.

Strange, but safe.

I soaked there until my fingertips wrinkled.

Afterwards I stepped out to find my onsen lady getting dressed. Apparently it’s good to keep the minerals from the onsen spring water on your skin, so it’s normal not to shower after your soak in the bath. I pulled my clothes back on with no small sense of relief, and emerged into the cool air with a pink, flushed face and a new appreciation for onsen culture.

I feel like maybe after a couple of visits I might have managed to feel comfortable with the whole thing (although my brother told me he had to go to one with his coworkers and even just typing that sentence out now makes me incredibly uneasy, so who knows?). I’m glad I did it at least once, anyhow.

Have you ever been to an onsen? If not, would you try it?

And the real question… WOULD YOU TRY IT WITH YOUR COWORKERS?