Monday, July 9, 2012

Ichthyotherapy. (Ich. And Fich.)

I have done something that I may have cause to regret. As a birthday present, a friend took me to a day spa for a session of ichthyotherapy.  Have you heard of it?  And if you have, are your alarm bells ringing, or did you find it fun and faintly ticklish and are you wondering what all the fuss is about?
            Ichthyotherapy is an elegant way of describing a piscene pedicure.  You put your feet into a tank of water and hundreds of little garra rufa fish - a sort of miniature catfish of Turkish origin - descend upon your toes and feet and ankles and strip you clean. And leave you well moisturized afterwards. And now - also afterwards, I find myself wondering- what was I thinking?
            I had plenty of warnings.  When I told my mother-in-law what I was going to be doing, her mind shut down.  I mean it quite literally - she was half-way through a step and her foot froze in midair and her mouth wavered about half-open and I could see the mental processes come to a gluey halt.  She couldn't even muster up the necessary muscle control to make a 'yee-urch' face.
            I love my mother-in-law very dearly, but if I ever want to throw a real spanner into her mental workings, I now know how to do it.
            Alba, a friend, took me out for coffee the afternoon beforehand and filled me with dire stories about  water-borne communicable diseases - Athletes Foot on all my toes and mobile Veruccas settling on all of the exposed skin surfaces while little fish nibbled their way into the blood vessels and let in the HIV and Hep C pathogens that would be swirling about in the water.  My skin rose in chicken-flesh and all my hair stood on end and I shuddered   Alba is something of a germophobe and when she saw that she had my attention,  she moved on from fish-spas to movie-theatre seats - by related ways of ringworm and head-lice transmission - and when Mr Tabubil dropped by to say hello, he found me pressed into the corner of my chair, hyperventilating and grappling with a bottle of hand-sanitizer.
            But Alba is a germophobe, and  I've never contracted ringworm in a movie theater.  And mi Suegra is Dutch, and the European landscape has been reasonably effectively neutered over the last couple of millennia - they don't have much in the way of wiggly things over there.  Neither fishy things nor wriggly things bother me particularly, and it was a birthday present, you know?
            So I went.

The ichthyotherapy happened at a manicure-and-pedicure joint in the basement of the Plaza Peru Parking garage (if you're still interested).  The 'Salon de Pesces' (fish room) was windowless and dimly lit, with soft-chiming music on the stereo, low japanese-ish benches around the walls,  a mini-fridge packed with champagne - and four glass tanks, lit from beneath and softly bubbling, filled with white pebbles and hundreds and hundreds of little grey fish.
            There were three of us doing IT -Ximena (who had had her birthday around the same time that I had), myself, and Ema, who was treating both of us to the experience.  We stood in a small huddle next to the tanks and giggled, nervously. (How very girly of us.) 
           I was up first.  At least - the others weren't volunteering.  An attendant washed my bare feet and delivered an orientation lecture:
            No foot wounds, please, no athletes foot, no exczma.  And no need to panic.  Seriously.  Garra rufa fish do not have teeth, they do not break the skin, they are not eating you - they are fed their very own fish food and when you put your feet into the tank they are simply doing what they do - foraging and sucking, and all of the dead skin cells will be hoovered away and a digestive enzyme in their mouths will leave your skin soft and supple.  And Very Important, when you put your feet into the tank, the sensation will be strange but you do not need to worry - the strangeness will pass and you will enjoy it, so please don't wig out on us, just relax and envision those bottles of champagne waiting in the mini-fridge behind you, okay?
            And all the time I was thinking "Yes, yes strange sensations, got it, of course it's going to feel a little odd, I mean it's fish, and how often does anyone experience something like that?"
            And when I sat down on a wooden bench and lowered my feet into my very own glowing white garra rufa tank, I was smiling up at Ema's camera and I wasn't paying quite as much attention as I might otherwise have been, and, dear reader - I shrieked.
            Not very mature of me.  I admit it, but the sensation was one of being mobbed.  Attacked and Swarmed and Overwhelmed - when I looked down, my feet were entirely invisible in a cloud of hungry fish, fighting for position and propinquity.  It wasn't hugely attractive.  They were long and whippy little things and  resembled nothing so much as a cloud of leeches.
            Ximena was next - and she screamed, and then Ema, who had a very very bad two minutes of it, and then the attendant, confident that we were not going to start gibbering, left us to gaze down at our feet and wiggle our toes and watch the fish pass under and between them and to giggle at the tickling.
            The absurdity and sheer strangeness of it all passed swiftly.  Soon it became fun.  The fish felt like a thousand feet with pins and needles, like a thousand Jacuzzi jets running all at once, and as their first competitive rush passed off the fish settled down to some serious nibbling and became almost - and then actually - cute. 
            Ema had purchased us a half-hour with the garra rufa fish, but the time passed and the attendant didn't come back.  The fish hoovered up their fill of us, and drifted away, and came back - and drifted away again- we waved our feet idly and watched the fish swish about to follow us, until we noticed that an hour and a half had passed - and in all reasonableness, we decided that we should probably come out.
            When we did, our feet were soft and emollient - and after an hour and a half in the water, there wasn't a single prune or wrinkle between us.
            "We need to do this again."  Ximena said.
            "Once a month."  I said.
            "We need our own tank."  Ema said.  "Who has a spare room for an ichthyotherapy  salon?"
We were drying our feet when the attendant came  back in.
            "But I haven't given you your complimentary massages yet!"  She wailed, and stared at us reproachfully.
            Ema giggled and she melted.
            "I forgot all about you."  She confessed.  "It's been a slow morning.  Won't you take your shoes back off anyway?  The massage comes included with the treatment."

While she rubbed our feet, she answered our questions:
            "How many fish are in there?"
            "There are about 300 in each tank."
            "Where do they come from?"
            "The owner imports them from Turkey.  Behind those curtains- " she nodded toward the back wall- "we have all the master-tanks.  We check the fish every day and rotate them in or out depending on how they're looking and how they're feeding.  We make sure that they're healthy and if we have to shut down a tank for a day or two, we do that."
            "Do your clients ever panic?"
            She smiled.  "Most people with fish phobias are weeded out before they come in here - it's pretty self selecting.  I've only ever seen five people come as far as the tanks and have real problems.   There was one woman - she came in and went completely gaga over the little guys - leaning down over the water and waving her fingers at the fish, and cooing 'Ay, que LIIIINDO, que PRECIOOOOSO - how cuuuute, how adoooorable, WHO'S a pretty fishie then?  WHO'S the PRETTIEST little fishie in the whole wide WOOOORLD?'   Then she popped her feet into the tank, and screamed, curled up around herself in the fetal position like a baby.  I spent 15 minutes holding her hands and rocking her, soothing her like a child, and my boss brought cups of coffee and cups of tea, and we talked to her and brought her back down from whatever place insider her head she'd gone to.  She was strong.  She insisted on trying a second time.  And she kept her feet inside the tank for 10 whole minutes, before she had to come out.  I was impressed. 
            The other four problem people -  well, they came in, saw the tanks, discovered that they had full blown fish phobias and went the full screaming wiggins.  We gave them refunds."

I went home entirely happy with my position in the world - and even thought of treating mi suegra to a session for her birthday next month.  My state of piscatorial bliss lasted all the way until this morning when I sat down to write all about it and did some preliminary internet research.
            And had my very own full screaming wiggins.  A cursory google search for 'fish pedicure' leads to several hundred pages of seriously inflammable headlines all screaming 'BACTERIA!  PATHOGENS!  HIV!  HEP C!  IMMUNE-DEFICIENT-PERSONS BEWARE!!!!'
            It was a good quarter hour before I could bring myself to read any of them.  It's not actually entirely terrible - the headlines are wildly alarmist, and the actual horrors lean heavily toward 'hypothetically plausible' and an 'extant, but extremely low, level of risk' and appear to be based on one rather nastily infected shipment of fish into England in April of 2011.  Even so, the most hyperbole-free, science-based article in the upper levels of google stressed caution and common sense:  the practice can't possibly be good for the long-term well-being of the fish, and the fear of athletes foot and veruccas is well founded.
            In a nutshell, I was a twit who didn't do any advance reading, and Alba the germophobe might have been onto something.   
            I can feel my feet breaking out in psychosomatic rashes all the way up past my ankles as I type.  I will be cancelling the repeat performance, and will look upon it simply as a splendid memory.  And I will feel spectacularly superior to the people in the google-image search who are shown in bikinis, smiling, and having a whole body ichthyotherapy experience.
            The brain just shuts down.  I can't even summon the muscle control to make a 'yee-urch' face.

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