CHENGDU, China -- My interpreter, Yanjiao (Ivy) Zhang, one day pointed out a clinic a few doors up the street from my hotel where I could get a foot massage for a reasonable price.
It's a common and sensible thing in Chengdu but seemed a foolish extravagance at the time. As the days passed and the miles piled up, however, a foot massage seemed ever more inviting -- even necessary, I rationalized.
Finally, I relented (in the service of inquiry, of course) and walked up the street to where a sign painted on a window promised speedy acupuncture and massage.
When I entered the building, however, I found myself in the waiting room of a small hospital dedicated to spinal treatment, or so I concluded after an inspection of glass display cases featuring what could only be diseased or deformed human spines.
I returned to the street and asked the doorman if this was a place to get a massage. He spoke no English and so, after several pointless attempts to make myself understood, I lightly massaged his shoulder while pointing at the signs in the window.
He smiled broadly, nodded yes, pointed upward and flashed two fingers -- the second storey.
He escorted me to an elevator which opened to reveal a heavily-perfumed lobby, all black and gold with huge lighted stands topped with enormous bouquets of flowers reflected in mirrored walls. There was a black-lacquered counter in front of which stood a billboard listing services and prices and a lovely young woman in a blue skirt-uniform who beamed at me.
It turned out a foot massage could only be purchased as a 70-minute package that included a back massage.
I explained I had only 40 minutes but was willing to pay the 70-minute rate, about $22.
The receptionist agreed instantly and led me down a dim, narrow hallway past rooms from which the sounds of pleasure emanated.
I started to become apprehensive about the meaning of "massage." And with good reason.
Some nights I would return to my room to find little business cards covered in lewd pinups of hot Chinese women had been stuffed under the door. They would include phone numbers, addresses and offers of "outcalls" for "erotic massage."
Prostitution in China is illegal but tolerated. Erotic massage, in particular, is offered everywhere but is not considered "prostitution" and, therefore, is treated as if it were legal.
Places that offer erotic massage euphemistically are said to promise "a happy ending."
Recognizing which massage shops are traditional and which are erotic is not easy. I was surprised to learn, obvious seedy brothels aside, the only way you can really know is by asking, and that includes at the spas and massage centres in the best hotels.
There are clubs, spas and KTVs (karaoke) where you can have a perfectly innocent meal and drinks with friends, or you can be attended by a female companion who will make small talk and be your friend, or you can ask for more.
If you don't ask you won't know, which was the state of ignorance in which I operated.
At the massage clinic my apprehensions evaporated when we entered a room filled with stuffed recliner chairs, much like first-class seats on long-haul flights, evidence privacy was not an integral part of the package.
Then it got a bit weird. The receptionist, who had left me alone to remove shoes and socks, returned with a man in a suit carrying a camera.
If this had been the first time it had happened, I might have worried I was about to be blackmailed.
But I knew from experience in Chengdu what the receptionist wanted was photographic proof a white man (as I was often called) who looked like Santa Claus had been in her shop.
After several poses and a break to admire the shots on the camera's screen, the receptionist ushered in my masseuse -- a five-foot nothing wire of a woman in a red hot-pants outfit.
She filled a wooden pail with water in which I soaked my feet while she massaged my head, neck and back with hands like tiny vices, occasionally using her elbow to work larger muscles.
Within minutes I was reduced to mush.
After a suitable soak, my feet were dried and oiled, the chair was reclined and I found myself lying on my back in a state of pleasure, wishing I could stay the full 70 minutes.
I had never before had a foot massage.
When it was over I returned to the lobby and another round of photographs. This time they included the masseuse, who joined in the fun squealing and hopping with delight.
I finally departed to smiles and hand-waved goodbyes and thank yous.
I walked back to the hotel on wings and began another afternoon and evening on my feet. By the end of the day I was thinking I should go back -- this time for the full 70 minutes.
On another day I was walking in a tourist market when Ivy pointed to two men in red silk smocks with funny little forehead lamps held in place by straps.
"Oh look," she said. "You can have your ears cleaned. It's very traditional."
I watched for a while as the men in red (the colour of good luck) worked, peering into ears and scraping around with probes and tuning forks.
I can't say I relished the prospect, but it seemed obvious they wouldn't be in business if they were puncturing eardrums with their instruments.
And so I stepped up with my 30 rmb ($6) only to be told the price was double because "white people" secrete stuff in their ears that make them harder to clean.
It seemed like a scam but who was I to say they were wrong?
And so I took a chair and raised my ear for inspection.
He began by cleaning it (with swabs I think) and then probed it with little sticks that in my imagination were needle nosed and likely to do serious damage.
I got so tense my ear-cleaner called to Ivy and told her to tell me to relax, which I did, mostly.
It wasn't unpleasant, and at times was quite pleasurable in the way that scratching an itchy inner ear can be.
When he was all but done he struck a tuning fork and applied it to some fuzzy feathered thing so it tickled inside my ear.
Westerners are still relatively rare in Chengdu, in particular older guys with white beards having their ears cleaned in the street. I attracted a fair amount of attention and photographs, which I hope don't come back to haunt me.
It was over in about 10 minutes. The ear cleaner showed me some soiled swabs to prove I got what I paid for. I thought what they proved was my ears hadn't needed cleaning, certainly not at double the price.
I remembered later that as a kid a bug got up my ear and I didn't know it until much later, when the ear became infected.
I remember the relief I felt when it was identified and removed by a doctor.
I suppose ear cleaning can prevent such mishaps. And in principle it can't be a bad thing to keep your ear canals clean.
But I would say all I got out of that $12 experience was this short story.