Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Seeing By Hand

The number of Seeing Hands massage shops has grown tremendously in the last couple of years. I seem to see them everywhere. I must admit when I've visited them in the past, I've come out thinking, "never again" but have always gone back for more punishment! If you're not aware of what Seeing Hands is all about, I recommend you read this article by Karen Coates, who penned it for the Nov/Dec 2003 edition of Massage Magazine.

Seeing By Hand - by Karen Coates

Ten years ago, a thief yanked Boun Mao's motorbike from his grasp, threw battery acid in his face and blinded him for life. "I was hopeless, so hopeless," he says now. For months, a German doctor soothed the injuries that scarred his head, his hands, his inner spirit. He didn't want to face life as a blind Cambodian. "I told the German doctor, 'Please kill me.'" But today, Boun Mao is a different man, as head of the Association of the Blind (ABC) in Cambodia. He knows a decent job can restore hope to the hopeless, so ABC is turning blind Cambodians into massage therapists. "The blind can see by hand," he says. And they can work by heart.
Just a few miles outside the world-renowned Angkor temples, down a quiet alley in Siem Reap town, is Seeing Hands 4. It is, as the name connotes, Cambodia's fourth such venture. Sunlight dribbles through windows and doors - the room's only light; the workers need no more. Foam mats, white sheets and towels, and cotton pillows are set on hardwood tables. The floor is spotless; the air imbued with the sound of soft flute music. A standing fan breaks the stifling heat. Masseuse Wan Som starts with a client's head, face down, with cloth between hair and hands. Her fingers travel down the body, slowly pressing on meridian points; then she slaps her hands, up and around. She leans into her work, climbing upon the table, lifting legs, stretching muscles. Wan Som was blinded by fever at the age of one. She says her new skills will keep her employed. "If I didn't know how to do massage, I would ... just stay at home." But now, home is here at Seeing Hands, where work and family merge. A massage teacher affiliated with ABC travels the countryside, looking for prospective employees. After successful training, the recruits work in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh or the coastal town of Sihanoukville. Each Seeing Hands venue has a sighted receptionist to handle scheduling and accounting, and customers pay $3 an hour for Japanese-style Anma and shiatsu massage. Employees can earn "more than sighted people," Boun Mao says - up to $200 a month. "They run those businesses themselves," he says with pride.
Sam San, the 24-year-old Seeing Hands 4 proprietor, was blinded in childhood. "It just happened," he says. "When I became blind, I did not want to be a beggar ? It's very hard to look for a job. Before, I lived in the countryside. I did nothing - just played music. But that wasn't a job." Now he runs a business. On good days, he averages 35 customers. In good months, he earns $300 for rent and $50 to $100 to pay employees - but not always. "This month," he says, "[there's] only enough for rent." Still, a fluctuating income is better than none. There are an estimated 132,000 blind or visually impaired Cambodians, and the causes vary: landmines, vitamin deficiencies, traffic accidents, disease. According to an ABC report, the blind are "socially and economically marginalized," because people think their disabilities preclude an active life. "The blind is lowest in society," Boun Mao says. Begging is a common fate - but not for his protégés. After his own recovery, Boun Mao studied massage through Maryknoll, a Catholic organization whose work preceded ABC's. "This is a good opportunity for the blind," he says. Travelers, foreign aid workers and diplomats are frequent customers, and the more Cambodians see the blind successful at work, the more they "release the discrimination from their mind," Boun Mao says.
Some patrons choose Seeing Hands specifically because of its mission. "I was happy I could help," says Sarah Knight, a tourist from San Francisco. She gives the foot massage top ratings, and the intensity improved her lower back. "It was wonderful. I wasn't expecting quite as much of the deep bone work, but actually that was really great after walking around the temples."
A spin through the Seeing Hands 4 schedule book finds similar sentiments. There isn't a bad comment in the book; just repetitions of "best ever" and "brilliant," written in script the masseurs and masseuses will never read. Knight exits into bright sunlight, leaving a tip for Sam San. He can't see the amount she has left, but one thing is certain: He knows the feel of crisp money between his fingers, earned in an office he calls his own.

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