There must be scores of storefronts in Cambodia where massages are offered by blind individuals. I gather seeing hands massages are available in other countries as well.
Although a massage here is not an extravagant indulgence for me and other expats, I have gone in five years to only two place where it is the blind who do the work.
My first experience — it happened to be in Battambang — was too painful for me to relax. My second time was in Phnom Penh, when I was seeking relief for a shoulder that was sore for months.
A masseur named Hab also administered considerable pain, which my shoulder needed, but it was not until he uttered “no pain, no gain” in English that I caught on to his evident self-taught mastery of the language. He speaks the tongue far better than my command of Khmer, a low bar if ever there was one.
Once I realized how well he spoke, we chatted for the whole hour, which ran me all of $8 plus my $2 tip. Massages at more upscale facilities might cost at least two, three or four times as much.
Blind since his birth 34 years ago, Hab told me that he had lived with his family two hours and not so many kilometers along a rutted earthen road from Siam Reap, the city where the World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat draws innumerable foreign tourists as well as Cambodians. He said that he did not attend school until he was 18.
How then had he, blind and poor, learned to speak English?
The masseur, who doesn’t seem to aspire to a higher calling, learned from lessons on his cellphone or perhaps a computer. One source, the name of which I’ve forgotten, has a useful guidebook in Braille, but he cannot afford to purchase one. The result is that he memorizes common expressions provided free online, “no pain, no gain” being one.
Hab also listens to English-language programs on a radio and presumably on his cellphone. He learns between clients and any additional spare time, perhaps when he visits his wife, their 3-year-old son and his parents in their late 60s back “home.” That trip must take him five or six hours by bus or impossibly crowded van, and that’s only as far as Siem Reap.
What I found inspiring shocked me. Reason: mere survival is the most that the overwhelming majority of rural Cambodians ever can manage.
His wife and he run a nonprofit program that somehow scrounges up a budget to provide free English lessons to the youths in his farming village. Some of the funds come from a German NGO, some from donations that a few of Hab’s clients contribute, he related.
Although the details of my masseur’s story are exceptional, I believe an unknown number of Cambodians of his generation also are highly motivated to succeed one way or another.
Not only did I take Hab to be a good person, but my ailment did, in fact, feel a bit better the next day. Although stretching and the passage of time may well be the best medicine for my shoulder injury, the story that Hab recounted was nothing less than an undeniable balm for my spirit.
Happy Holidays, See You Next Year!