Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Happy Birthday to Me, Korean Style
My own birthday was on October 10. I spent it at the base of Mt. Pinatubo, a not-much-thought-about volcano until it erupted in the Philippines in 1991, after hundreds of years of slumber. I’d heard about hot springs occurring naturally after the eruption near the crater, and that a spa—called Spa Town—had opened, somewhat making the best of Pinatubo’s ghastly emission, which made the area a ghost town and displaced a local tribe called the Aita. (Though I’m not sure you can displace nomadic people. Actually what happened is that they ended up taking root in the area and, with some help, they’ve been taught to make touristy objets d’art from the ash that almost destroyed them. Progress? You decide.)
I should preface my day at Spa Town by saying that in the 10 or so days I spent in the Philippines I visited more spots that I can only describe as paradise and experienced more insanely divine Asian spa treatments than any mere human like myself should be allowed. (Not really; I deserved it, but so does everyone else. I wish I could have taken you all with me.) So if my birthday wasn’t spent in total bliss, hey, it’s an interesting story to tell and like I always pray, May I live an interesting life, I got my wish.
Spa Town is a decidedly different kind of spa experience. First, it’s Korean and though I can’t make judgments, the only other Korean spa experience I’ve had is in my hometown of Chicago and is called Paradise, which has become a sort of post-modern cult-y spa-esque experience for a small group of hipsters and lots of Korean-Americans. I’d post their website, if they had one. But I don't think they're in on the joke. In fact, I think they wish those hip, young Americans would just go away. Like Spa Town, the style and vibe in Paradise is not relaxation-, or luxury-, or pampering-focused. In fact, it’s sort of the antithesis. It’s a little gruff and, I found out, it can be a lot scary.
At Spa Town the facilities are totally outdoors and look beautiful, peaceful and serene. There is piped-in music that’s not quite ethereal spa music we’re accustomed to hearing. It is more like classical with a contemporary Asian flavor. I liked it. An enormous covered pavilion sat in the center of the grounds. Ladies in beautiful gold tunics were giving Thai massages while other workers industriously polished the pavillion's wood floor and the like, and generally emanated gentility. Off to one end, there was bricked-in area, this one filled with grey sulfur that had been raked smooth. On its edges were two ovens with attendants feeding the mouths kindling to heat the sulfur (check out the photo on the left). Another one exactly like it but filled with salt sat next to it. Circling further, there was a great mud bath, some showers and then a locker area.
I’m going to somewhat spare you the comical/grim trip to the hot springs, which are higher up alongside the volcano and require a 45-minute drive on what looked like the moon but was actually just a rocky, craggy and sometimes-covered-in-water expanse. I'll just give you the thumbnail sketch of that portion of my birthday. Yes, the drive up was surreal, sometimes spooky. But what was spookier is that Spa Town is located just next to Crow Valley. For the unacquainted, the U.S. essentially colonized the Philippines at the turn of the century for about 40 years, until the 1940s. They used Crow Valley to test bombs and munitions, and it continues to serve that purpose for the Filipino Air Force. We were stopped twice while trying to get to the hot springs by soldiers wearing military uniforms and carrying big guns, which was admittedly freaky except when you looked at their feet and saw that they were wearing flip flops when it became sort of sad.) Apparently, even though we were given the OK to proceed by the major on duty, target practice was in full swing and so we had to keep stopping to avoid, um, death.
It was idyllic Spa Town that really put me on the edge, however, and tested my will. Once it was decided my spa treatment was to begin, three staffers, one of them carrying a shovel, took me by the arms and walked me to the sulfur pen. It’s highly unusual for the Philippines, but none of these people spoke much English—and I was beginning to need some reassurance. All I heard was great discussion in Tagalog on how big a pit to dig—for me. It was dug quickly and they motioned for me to step in. What I remember most is the inner battle I was having with myself: Should I bail now, just say No Way, and regret forever that I will never know what could have happened, could never write about it like I am here? Or should I foolishly, cavalierly and because I don’t like to offend, get in that pit, get buried and risk a full-out panic attack?
I got in. They started shoveling. I didn’t like it. It felt creepy, grainly, itchy. And very hot. Shake your body! Shake your body! They kept saying. It wasn’t until my left leg felt like it was on fire that I understood what they meant. By shaking, your body settles into the sulfur, the better to feel the hot spots. As I lifted my legs as much as I could, the guy with the shovel put more sulfur under them. Better. But not much. Someone took a cloth and put it over my eyes. I don’t like that I can’t see. Not. One. Little. Bit. For the ash! For the ash, they say, when I struggle to get it off. I am now buried up to my neck, though they’ve taken the cloth off my eyes.
Half hour is my sentence, I’m told. I’m already sweating hotly and two of the attendants are gone. One young boy remains, but I don’t know that yet. I think I’m alone and so I gather my senses and begin to breathe as deeply and as evenly as I can. I think of the Sanskrit mantra Elizabeth Gilbert recites in “Eat, Pray, Love:” Ham-Sa. I Am That. And for now, “that,” for me, is terrified and sweating profusely.
Suddenly, I feel a hand holding a soft cloth to my face, and, with the same expert touch a mother has with her child, the boy begins wiping the sweat off my cheeks, around my eyes, on my chin and finishing on the forehead. He’ll do that every few minutes, or whenever he sees me twitch. That boy saw me through my half hour burial and I love him for it—though I think he was lying to me the final ten minutes when I began to ask for a countdown; I KNOW how ten minutes feels, and my friends, this was longer than 10 minutes. I struggled again and again. Just get up. Just get up. But I stuck it out until the boy gave me the okay.
I am super lady! For a moment, anyway.
After showering the sulfur off I am led to Dante’s next level of hell and am packed in mud and told to bake in the sun. This time a female attendant sits with me. She asks me questions about the US and why I am there. She is a nice distraction.
By the time I had my Thai massage, boy, did I need it. The therapist was great and the spa feeling I love so much returned. Best of all, I lived to tell the story here. Whoo-hoo. Happy birthday to me!