There are plenty of reasons to visit India. The Taj Mahal, the Ganges, and any number of opulent palaces, ornate temples and ancient ruins are practically guaranteed to be mind blowing. Where else is the food so amazing, the clothing so stunning, and the traditional music so moving? India's haunting beauty and raw energy are simply intoxicating.
. . .And totally exhausting.
With a billion people making it the second most populous country in the world, everywhere you turn the throngs share roadways jammed with sacred cows, bullock-pulled carts and auto rickshaws. Whole families astride a single bicycle or motor scooter weave between screeching buses, speeding SUVs and beggars who fan out to idling cars at red lights. Not for the faint of heart, India is seductive in spite of all the poverty, broken-down infrastructure and incorrigible red tape. You can hardly help but fall in love with the place, but by the end of a long day, India will eat you up and spit you out. You'll be wiped.
There's no better way to detox, calm down, chill out and recover from a case of sensory overload than a trip to the local beauty salon for a humble head massage.
I don't travel to India without making at least one stop -- or preferably two or three -- at Shampoo, a local beauty salon in the Defence Colony neighborhood of south Delhi (Block C-261; closed Tuesdays). There are many more like it all over the city in markets, shopping complexes and private homes tucked along side streets. The neighborhood beauty salon is India's best kept secret.
Occupying just one room, the scene in Shampoo is a feast for the voyeur and a chance to peek into the private lives of Delhi's upper middle class. Stealing sideways glances in the room's many mirrors as I wait my turn, I survey the steady stream of ladies dropping in to have their eyebrows threaded, their tresses blown straight and their nails buffed. Hair dryers buzz and hands slap tired calves, while the threaders rhythmically bob their heads as they work a string stretched tight between their teeth and fingers, twisting it against stubbly chins and upper lips. Women are splayed over chairs, surrounded by a harem of technicians plying them with several treatments at once. Faces are rigorously massaged with cold cream, while in the name of deep conditioning, concoctions of egg and curd are smeared onto split ends and flyaways. The one-room beauty circus is pure indulgence for the curious visitor intent on getting beyond the standard tourist shtick.
Inhibitions are checked at the door, and typical of India, no one seems to pay any mind to anyone else's compromised position.
When my turn comes up, a young man with perfectly coiffed hair and a big-handled comb in the back pocket of his tight jeans steps up to my chair with an expressionless face. From a small bowl, he pours warmed almond oil onto my head and begins tossing my long hair like a salad. When the goo's been spread around, his magic fingers start their thing. As he alternates between a vibrating head-vice grip, thumping fingers, and the salad tossing routine, I descend into la-la land. Moving down, firm knuckles and roving thumbs press into my aching neck and across my knotty back, and I slump forward in the chair like a corpse. When I'm pulled back up again, Mr. Amazing goes on tapping, pressing and kneading my temples and forehead.
Of course the end always comes too soon and after 20 minutes, your head's tingling and you're feeling a bit roughed up -- in a good way. As wonderfully loose as a bowl of Jell-O, you're eventually shunted to the shampoo bowl and finally to the hair drying team before calling it a day and forking over the best-spent 10 bucks of your life.
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