Fish Spa

About a month ago, Curtis and I visited Kuala Lumpur. It was our first time there. Kuala Lumpur is a strange land—Malaysian mixed with Indian and Chinese. For tourists, two of the most popular areas of the city are the Indian section, where fabrics after fabric shop lines the streets, and China Town. China Town is famous for knock-offs. People go there to find knock-off purses, t-shirts, music, movies, perfume, Tiffany jewelry—and for entertainment. In China Town, the day market is for produce, meat, spices—more like a traditional market. The knock-off market opens at night. It is made up of fabric-sided stalls jabbed full of merchandise, much like those at a street fair or flea market. The hawkers call to us as we pass by, luring us with their “cheap purses” or “genuine leather belts.” Others stop us as we make our way through the narrow passageways enticing us with DVDs and “genuine” Rolex or Omega watches. At the intersections, vendors roast chestnuts. When they aren’t stirring their smoking woks, they peel a chestnut and break it open, offering it up for us to try.

Beyond the stalls, in the buildings lining the street are the permanent businesses—restaurants, some larger clothing and shoe stores, and massage and reflexology parlors. Narrow doorways lead upstairs too, to other businesses without signs. No telling what they sell, but an interesting mix of people, mostly expats, go in and out.

Now one thing Curtis Bennett loves is reflexology. Since living in Jakarta, he has taken to having regular reflexology schedules, along with pedicures. And rumor had it that Kuala Lumpur reflexology is a must. So, after a long, hot shuffle-push-and-weave through the night market, he pulled me back through the stalls to the reflexology parlors.

Each parlor posts a menu of the offerings with length of time and price. I trailed behind while Curtis searched for the best one. A sign reading “Fish Spa” did the trick.

Curtis loves the TV series Ugly Betty. In one of the episodes, Wilhelmina, the beautiful but devious, needs her feet to be seductively soft so she instructs her assistant, Mark, to “get the fish.” Before seeing that episode, we never imagined that a “fish spa” was possible, let alone that we could have such a treatment. We signed up for the full package—a 15 minute fish spa followed by an hour of reflexology.

The spa worker led us into a side room, instructed us to remove our shoes, scrubbed our feet, gave us sandals to wear and led us up to a raised pillow-covered island encircled by tanks filled with tiny fish, no more than finger-length long. We were instructed to sit down and put our feet in the water—but not our hands. Only our feet.

Slowly the fish move in

At first nothing happened. Then, as soon as the water stilled, the fish attacked. They swarmed around our feet nibbling, tickling, gobbling our skin. Now, anyone who has ever been swimming and had a fish nibble them knows that it usually, doesn’t really hurt. But it does pinch or tickle and a zillion of these little monsters gobbling at the same time is like feeling ants crawling over you.

I held my feet still and tried to endure the fish tickling. They wouldn’t be nibbling if I didn’t have dead skin on my feet,

would they?... They won’t keep nibbling after the dead stuff is gone will they?... What if they don’t stop… What if they draw blood?... Am I bleeding?

Are the bleeding?

—Jerk the feet out, take breaths, get my nerve back up and plunge them in again… “Hold still, try not to notice as the fish nibble, nibbling….nibbling… too much. And I’d pull my feet out again.

Curtis loved it! And the fish loved him. He must have had loads more tasty dead flesh on his feet that I had on mine, because those fishlets were fighting each other to get at his feet.

Fish feasting on Curtis's stinky foot skin

And, after a while, I did get used to the feeling. And the idea of tiny fish nibbling off all my dead skin was appealing. I asked the spa owner how often they indulged.

Every night,” he said.

“Do you feed the fish anything else—like regular food?” I asked.

Oh yes,” he assured me. They feed them about 4:00 in the morning so they will be good and hungry when the customers come.

“Can we put our hands in?” I asked. "No, no,” he said, “Your hands are dirty. The fish will die from the oils on your hand.” He went on to explain that before, when they were newly opened, they didn’t wash the customer’s feet first. But the fish died from eating so much oil and lotion and dirty foot stuff. So they bought new fish and now they wash the feet and the fish are fine.

“Do you ever sit in the pools,” I asked. I was imagining having my body exfoliated by these fish.

Curtis poked me. He was thinking I meant without a bathing suit. No telling what the spa owner was thinking, but he said, “Never, never, no.”

These spa fish are grayish with dark heads and they look like some type of carp—their bodies are shaped the same as those plant eating fish we had had in the pond way back when….

After a few days in Kuala Lumpur, we flew to Penang where we met up with our friends, Joy, Michael and Alexander. Curtis and I didn’t tell them about the Fish Spa, but he was on the look out. Curtis checked every reflexology parlor we passed. (No telling what our friends were thinking he was after.) We finally found a Fish Spa Parlor with the tanks right in the window so passersby could watch. That fish nibble session was even better than the first because we knew what to expect, because I had learned to work through the ticklish phase, and especially because we got to watch Alexander the Most Ticklish try to endure.

Hmmmm Penang Fish Like Curtis's Stinky Feet, too.

 I can’t get those dead-skin nibblers out of my mind. Every time I look in the pond that is not my pond anymore, I think about those spa fish. One afternoon, when Rusnati and I were out in the backyard together, I told her about those spa fish—it just slipped out.

She asked me what the fish looked like.

She said back in Cirebon her father raised fish in a pond and when she was little, she would wade in the pond and the fish would nibble on her legs.

I said I would like to fill the pond with those little fish and have them nibble the dead skin off my legs.

She seemed to like the idea, too