Grace, Andy, Nene, and Joel all live in Cagayan De Oro city in the Philippines. And, they are blind. In a country were the physically-abled find life challenging I found their story refreshing and inspiring.
Throughout the Philippines, massage parlors are quite common. And not all are as seedy as one might first think. Indeed as a male, if I get a haircut, it comes with a shoulder rub for free. It's a normal thing in the Philippines.
Every Friday and Saturday night during Cagayan De Oro's weekend open market Nite Cafe sighted Lou along with her non sighted husband Andy and a group from her organization set up a stand in the center of DVsoria’s pedestrian area. Here for a remarkably cheap 50-peso-for-half-body massage. That's less than 1 US Dollar.
It's all out in the open air, and one remains fully clothed. The first time I passed by, and to be honest saw the cheap cost I was hooked. There were fevered whispers amongst the guys and girls as they heard a foreigner’s voice. Silence fell as Joel rubbed some alcohol on his hands and reached out to begin on my forearms.
"You guys seem pretty busy?"
Silence fell over them. It seemed awkward. Then ...
"You speak good English!"
It was Grace, a 20-something year old blind girl, standing nearby. Her English was excellent. She'd been practicing online with chat mates in Canada and the UK. With Grace's help I soon got introduced to all the staff, and, was thrown into the deep end of gray humor that they constantly thrive on. Laughter is common place amongst the staff. It made for a chance in a country where I found getting to know the real people quite hard.
The Blind masseurs’ friendliness
showed me another side of Filipino life. They invited me to a promotional day time free massage they were having one day. It was here
I learned a lot more about them all.
Grace was made blind by an accident when she was 12. After that her parents felt over protective of her. She didn't go out, and could do little. Then, through a friend, she found an opening: a massage course. Fighting the will of her parents, she completed her course and gained employment at Andy Massage Place. Now she earns a living, and makes her own way from home, to work at weekends.
Joel came from Davao where he attended the Philippine School for the Blind. He moved to Cagayan 5 years ago to work as a masseuse. Now he's got a girlfriend and doesn't intend leaving any time soon.
Two things struck me about the blind Masseurs of Cagayan De Oro. The first was the incredible sense of humor they all have.
"Can I take a picture with your camera?" Grace asked.
At first I didn't know what to say? Then they would all break out in laughter as they won a humorous victory over me. Several would then begin teasing Grace or Anna on their respective boyfriends.
And so the banter would continue: smiles emblazoned on the faces of those that can only feel laughter.
The other thing I noticed is that being blind gives one an incredible ability to use ones hands. Nene, who's from Cagayan, asked me if I a firm massage, or soft. I opted for firm. Like a professional sports masseuse her expert hands made magic on my back.
They all work from 6pm until midnight. Lou uses some of the proceeds to help run the house that many of the masseuses live in. Here they have a computer that they use to help chat with people around the world and improve on their language and cultural knowledge. Lou prints off and reads emails on a daily basis to everyone. They're hoping to one day be able to afford a legitimate license of the JAWS computer software that lets a computer be operated by a blind person, but it's seriously expensive.
I asked the guys about the biggest difficulty they had in the Philippines. I expected to hear them say 'getting around'. But instead they said it was simply acceptance from their own people. Acceptance in the sense that they can work in normal jobs, and not looked upon as needy. 'Give us a chance, train us, and we can do just about anything.'
I then asked if they had a message to the world, what would it be. The answer was immediate.
"Please treat us as normal people ... and if you come here, come for a great massage!"
The Blind Masseurs of Cagayan De Oro
(left to right - Nene, Joel, Grace, Andy and Lou)