Breaking down (pain) barriers with traditional massage

Posted on 26 December, 2015

Imagine a pair of strong, spindly fingers sticking into your arms, legs and feet, the muscles beneath your skin flexing with each press from the masseur, your limbs convulsing as his fingertips hit key nerves, and you shout out involuntarily as you begin to question: why did you agree to this excruciating massage?

Such is the case for the many local Indonesians and foreign visitors who stay in a certain Indonesian boarding house, or kos, in Mataram, Lombok. In January-February 2015, those visitors included a number of Australian students studying at the local university through the RUILI In-country Language Program.

One of those students was Frank Genel, a coffee-making extraordinaire born in Turkey, and now an International studies and Indonesian language graduate from the University of the Sunshine Coast. For six weeks he lived in the kos with the infamous masseur, or tukang pijat, who was also the owner, or Bapak kos, of the place.

I sat down with Frank, who is also a professional massagist, to unpack the universal fascination of the man.

Frank with the man of the moment, the Bapak kos, and a fellow student. Photo: Lachlan Haycock
Frank with the man of the moment, the Bapak kos, and a fellow student. Photo: Lachlan Haycock

Lachlan: Why did you travel to Indonesia?

Frank: Indonesian language is part of my degree, minor first. And two semesters I studied here [in Australia], and after that I thought it might be interesting to use what I learned during the study here, with the practice. And also beneficial – two semester equal in just six weeks. Study in Lombok, and use the language, meet with the local people and learn their lifestyle and culture.

L: What was it like living in the kos?

F: The owner just set up separate rooms. In the rooms you have got a private bathroom and toilet – just one room, bed, [you] just sleep [there]. Most of the time we are outside, we just come to the kos to sleep actually. It was really convenient for the students. I really enjoyed it.

(It truly was the authentic kos experience: replete with warm hospitality in an intimate setting – the central communal area featured countless chickens and other animals. The complex itself was surrounded by mosques and was just down the road from a primary school.)

L: Did you meet anyone interesting?

F: Yes, a lot of people actually. A lot of people. And their culture, they have got very interesting culture, much different from Western culture … They are wonderful people and help us a lot … And also a fantastic family environment. The owner, he was very interesting, he was a very well known massage therapist in Lombok. A lot of local people, they are looking at him actually like a healer. He was doing a very good job, reflexology, specifically with the feet – feet massage. It was very interesting, yeah.

L: Why is he so popular among locals?

F: Popular because people are looking on him also as a religious healer. He is healing the people, also praying on the people, and [he is] spiritual. In previous times, there is a lot of proof he healed a lot of people, and that’s why is a very well-known person, not just in Lombok, but in Indonesia; there are tourists who come. When is doing massage, he is feeling and understanding what part of organs on your body problem – kidney, or liver, or heart problem, he tells them and you can get amazed about this.

(During the free nightly massage sessions his actions would prompt moans of agony from those being massaged, which were countered by the playful laughs of glee from both the Bapak kos and onlookers. He also had a unique way of identifying maladies in his patients: diagnoses were based on investigating certain parts of the body for aching or soreness. You have twinges in the lower leg? There’s something wrong with your arms! Foot feeling sore? Probably indigestion.)

L: What kind of impact did he have on you?

F: I had a headache, numbness on my right leg and arms, and after this regularly weekly massage, it was all gone. Actually, it was amazing. I learned from him, because I am also a massage therapist. I was interested always in Eastern massage techniques, and he told me the techniques. And now I am ready to use all these techniques [in Australia].

L: When the man sets about healing people, what’s that experience like?

F: You can see he’s doing it from his heart, and touching, like… healing… in the Western world, we call [it] raking, but he’s touching actually. He’s touching to your heart, and you’re feeling, all around your body; like when he was touching your feet. Because seventy per cent of nerves are under your feet.

F: They make spiritual, home-made massage oil as well … there is a belief in it … they are all praying on it, so… They all give to this massage oil. I just witness, they are all come together and cook on the big pot, and on the fire…

L: Very communal.

F: Very communal, yeah, they [are] all relatives coming together. And they also sacrifice a couple of the chickens as well, before that. And they pray … It was very interesting.

L: How different is it from living in Australia? What are the big differences, do you think?

F: We are very individual, actually, in Australia – when we compare with the Indonesia, they are more communal, community-based. So they, people, they look after each other, and they ask, when you wake up … they say, good morning, where are you going, what’s your plan. They are interesting with your lifestyle, and what time will you come home. And will you go somewhere. They are caring. You can see strong caring culture. Even they are caring for foreigners … I really appreciate it.

L: Do you see yourself returning?

F: Yeah definitely, I would love to go. After my graduation – this is my last year – definitely I will go. Also I am thinking of further study like the ACICIS program … [it’s] great because the government is supporting, there is a lot of funding and options. It is a cheap lifestyle over there, and [there are] great benefit[s] to learn and study and holiday.

L: Sum up your experience in three words!

F: Sharing, caring, and loving.

Truly, the man was fascinating and drew quite a crowd. Unfortunately I didn’t stay in this particular kos­ (what a mistake!), but I was exposed at times to the environment, and from what I saw, it was all about bridging cross-cultural barriers through traditional massage, culture and genuine friendship.

Entry area to the kos I stayed in - as you can see, although great in it's own way, not quite as eventful as the one with free massages! Photo: Lachlan Haycock
Entry area to the kos I stayed in – as you can see, although great in it’s own way, not quite as eventful    as the one with free massages! Photo: Lachlan Haycock

Learn more about the fascinating RUILI Intensive Study Program here (you might even be able to stay in the same place!).