Please note that everything below took place in my version of Spanish, which is a story in and of itself.
Thing #2 bounced from his position on my shoulders as I dashed across the busy street to get to the beach. He was on my shoulders because he’d left his shoes back in our room in the hotel across the street. It was, I thought, easier to just carry him.
The instant we reached the beach side of the street a man ran up, shoved laminated menus in my face, and began shouting out all of the potential dining options, including hamburgers. I declined, trying to get the wriggling #2 off my shoulders whilst tracking down the rest of my crew.
A few minutes later we were talked into renting a nearby set of beach chairs by a nice lady. Menu Guy immediately made another pass and I again waved him off. I’d purposefully brought a small amount of money. This was going to be a short, uncomplicated dip.
As Things #1 and #2 shucked off their shirts and resisted attempts to apply sun screen several other folks showed up at our chairs. They each carried a small bucket which held a small bottle of what appeared to be dish soap.
The leader of the Ladies of the Bucket leaned down into my face. “You like massage?”
She took the bottle out and squirted some of the dish soap onto her hand.
I needed exactly none of this action, and clearly stated my feelings on the matter.
“No. I don’t like massage”
“You want massage. You look like you want massage.”
“No,” pushing her soapy hand off of my shoulder, “I don’t want massage. I want to go swim with my kids.”
I dove under her arm, ignored the taunts shouted at me as I fled, and yelled back to my bride to duplicate my approach. A few minutes later, as our boys and I frolicked in the dark waters of the ocean, I looked back and saw my wife undergoing a somewhat voluntary massage by two Ladies of the Bucket.
I took an overly large, hubris-smacking internal bow at my success in avoiding the ploy, and an equally large victory lap at knowing that I’d only brought the equivalent of $30 U.S. with us—a chunk of which had already gone towards the chair rental. With the cost of a good beer here in Colombia the equivalent of 75 cents it was hard to fathom a scenario where purchases would exceed assets on hand.
About four minutes later my bride, glowing with health, or soap, ran into the shallow water and waved me in.
“They said it’s your turn.”
“I don’t want a turn. It’s a scam, and you’re making the fish die.”
My wife noted the suds leeching off of her into the water and frowned. “It’s fine! They said you and I were splitting the time.”
“Really?” It almost made sense. How could anyone think that a four minute massage was sufficient? My defenses still up, I frowned back at my bride and again declined. She, like the Ladies of the Bucket, would not relent.
“I already told them we only have 70 Mil Colombianos. They’re only charging us 50. They know!” She gently pushed me towards the Lady of the Bucket.
I grimaced and made my way back to the plastic lawnchairs where I was told, in order: 1) that I have a good heart, and 2) to lie boca abajo (face down).
The liquid soap was dispensed and, through the thick, plastic supports below me I loudly restated,“50 Mil for both of us. There is no more.”
Menu Guy chose this moment to wade back in to things and waved one of his menus under the slats of my chair. He said quite a few things at a speed at which I could understand nothing, but whatever he said irritated my Lady of the Bucket.
Speaking into the plastic slats, with the menu still waving underneath, I restated, “I have no money for food. My wife lost our money on massage.”
My Lady of the Bucket pushed Menu Guy away and leaned down to my ear, whispering that I still had a kind heart, and that all was indeed well. Feeling somewhat claustrophobic, and very used, I pushed up to flee, but noticed that Thing #1 was now also receiving a massage in the chair next to me. He smiled and said, “It’s ok Daddy, they said it’s only 20 Mil.”
As I was pushed back down onto the hard plastic lounge chair I yelled out one more time, for effect, “70 Mil Colombianos! That’s it! There is no more!”
In return I received pats of encouragement that generated more suds. 30 seconds later I was asked to flip over and my masseuse used her knuckles to release unknown tension and create new pain in my shins.
Two minutes later I received a polite jab in the belly. “Finished.”
I sat up and took it all in. I was still fat, pale and completely ill at ease. I was also quite slimy. What I’d experienced could best be described as a light sudsing. Thing #1 sat up as well and looked quite happy. Of course, he had nothing to be unhappy about and wasn’t exactly stressed to begin with.
I fumbled in the sand between the chairs and found the spot under my flip flop where I’d stashed our 70 Mil. The sand sticking to my soapy hand, I handed my masseuse the money. “Thank you.”
All pretense of happiness and hospitality immediately disappeared. The two masseuses working on Thing #1 and I were now joined by several other Ladies of the Bucket—all swearing and gesticulating angrily at my fat belly. There were joined by the lady who’d rented us the chairs, who clearly represented the other side. I tried getting a word in edgewise but there was nothing doing. The angry crowd closed in to within inches of me. I told Thing #1 to run to the water as I prepared to grab our shoes and shirts and make whatever version of a proud march I could muster under the present conditions and BMI.
My accusers saw my plan and held their hands out to repel me when my bride stuck her head into the scrum. I saw my opening, and I’m not ashamed to say that I took it.
“They’re all yours baby,” I said as I gently pushed my way through the crowd and let it envelop my bride.
The yelling continued for several more minutes. When it finally became clear that we had no additional funds buried under the sand the conversation shifted away from my bride and instead became a shouting match between the various Ladies of the Bucket regarding which four minute sudsing deserved the lion’s share of the take.
My bride and I took it all in from a spot just a couple of feet from the water where Things #1 and #2 frolicked, and were soon joined by Menu Guy. I geared up to restate that the answer to none of our current problems was a hamburger and, further, we really, really now had no money on us, but his rapidly spoken Spanish went a different direction.
Menu Guy advised us that the Ladies of the Bucket were technically not allowed to be on the beach. What they were doing was against the law, and if we called the police we could, perhaps, get our $30 back — presumably to then use those dollars to buy hamburgers.
I decided that an international incident was not what I wanted for the holidays, recalled that reality and the law didn’t always exist on the same astral plane, and went back into the water, keeping an eye on our shoes. Like any well-rehearsed play, the actors soon took their bows and prepared for the matinee.
I optimistically hoped that this lesson in the proper response to any advance involving a massage—NO, and please tell cheeseburger guy we’re out—would stick. Unfortunately, just two days later my bride again accepted a massage offered by a gentlemen who apparently made his home, and his living, in the mud pit we were visiting. I nervously watched the proceedings for a minute, wondering how a debate with the mud pit masseuse would play out, before calling an end to it. Fool me once, shame on me…
About 20 minutes later, freshly bathed from buckets dipped into lake water, I sipped a Coke and had happy thoughts about how we’d dodged the latest massage bullet. These thoughts were soon dashed by Mud Masseuse, who’d apparently climbed out of the pit and tracked us down. He tapped me on the arm, leaving a muddy spot, and demanded compensation.
I looked to my bride, who smiled and said positive things about how helpful he’d been. I pulled out my wallet and asked Mud Masseuse for the damage. Perhaps because he’d cornered the massage market in the small pit, and therefore had no competition, the damage was actually quite reasonable. I paid him and he marched his muddy self back up the small hill to his home in the mud pit.
My bride beamed. “See, that wasn’t much.”
“Sure,” I agreed, “but he could demanded ten times that amount. What was your plan if it had gone that direction?”
My bride had no good answer besides smiling and ignoring me, and I silently promised myself to find a large stick that I could use to keep other would-be-masseuses at bay during the rest of our stay here in Colombia.