Remember the Sauna Bath? It’s Where Your Dads Used To Go

Few local slang words carry as many implications as “sauna.” (look up: spakol) It can imply sleaze and indulgence, relaxation and stimulation. It is also a polite reference to prostitution.

by Totel V. De Jesus

There were the three of us, drunk and wanting the warmth of a woman’s touch.


It was the late 1990s, and I was a young writer for a newspaper called Today. I was doing lifestyle and entertainment and it was unusual for me to be drinking with hardcore police beat photographers, much more those covering the night shift. I was supposed to be gay or at least effeminate, covering fashion shows and art exhibits, drinking Chardonnay and forking gruyere. But there I was in the neighborhood carinderia most nights, chugging San Miguel Pale Pilsen and munching pieces of two-day-old pork chops.


There was Rodel, a photographer with an Italian sounding surname, covering camps Crame and Aguinaldo and anything in between. The other was Bernard, an all-around lensman who could do Malacañang events or lifestyle product launches by day and the filth-and-gore of an EDSA mishap or a Roxas Boulevard breakwater salvaging by night.


The carinderia just behind Today’s office had to close at midnight and we were so drunk, Rodel was flirting with Tita, the pretty 50-year-old Ilonggo widow tending the counter.


Going to a girly bar and losing our remaining cash to ladies drinks—that’s beer with lots of ice—was not an option.


We wanted action. We wanted the main thing.


Sauna tayo. Sama kayo sa ‘kin!” said Bernard. It was past midnight and since the Today office building was along EDSA in Guadalupe, it was easy to hail a cab.


In less than 30 minutes, we were at a crowded portion of Taft Avenue that went straight to Pasay Rotonda, where vendors had made both sides of the streets their permanent homes.


There were groups of drunks walking around, and bums on drugs arguing. There were a few pedicab drivers on the streets still waiting for fare. Jeepneys with sleepy passengers inched past, toward the deepest portion of Baclaran, careful not to sideswipe a fruit vendor’s cart or a parked pedicab.


The taxi driver didn’t want to go further into the crowded area, which decades later Dan Brown would immortalize in his novels when he described this side of the metro as the “Gates of hell.”


We walked the rest of the way, and for a while I was nervous, despite the alcohol. Bernard led us to a street corner with videoke beer joints and cart-driven lugawan stalls.


And there, hidden behind a row of fruit vendors, was Rashomon Sauna and Health Club. From the outside, it looked like an abandoned building. In my inebriated state, I imagined ladies in kimono with tea, and a Jacuzzi.


There was a wooden stair leading to the second floor and the reception area. A young, thin man with a big stomach was sleeping there.


“Sir, may mga kilalang masahista na po ba kayo dito? Anong room numbers po?” he said, while scratching his beer belly and stretching his other arm.


Bernard talked to him. He gave us keys to our designated rooms. Those days, if memory serves me right, it was only around P240 for a room with an electric fan. If it was an air-conditioned room with a bathroom, it was around P300. I can’t even remember the room number given to me.


We were led to a dimly lit area with rooms facing each other. It was the setting in Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love. As a first-timer in this joint, I was immensely in the mood for lust. Still, I was deliriously nervous.


I wasn’t a virgin anymore but, admittedly, I was a late bloomer in that department. I lost mine after graduating from college, with my girlfriend who was still an undergraduate. My younger brother lost his when he was a freshman, or was it in fourth year high school? He used to tease me about my virginity.


For a time, I knew some friends and cousins thought I was gay. I had shoulder-length hair because I adored Eddie Vedder and many thought the name Pearl Jam was so effeminate compared with Soundgarden or Stone Temple Pilots. The name Totel is actually so feminine, some invites I received from PR people read “Totelle.”


But looking back, my fear of the sauna started in my fourth year in college. I was sharing a room with five other male students in a men’s dormitory in the belly of the University Belt in Sampaloc, Manila.


During long weekends or the usual holidays, my dorm mates, whose hometowns were in the farthest island-provinces of Mindanao and the Visayas, stayed behind. One time, they kept on talking about a sauna bath on Avenida Rizal. By midnight, they were wearing their Sunday best, smelled of Jovan musk (the fake ones bought in Binondo), and about to spend their savings for a biyak.


Loosely translated, it means “cut through” or “penetrate.” That’s how they called it. “Tara, bibiyak kami.” I never joined them, afraid I might get infected, or the place would be raided by the cops; my parents would have sent me back to the province.


They talked in particular about a certain room number that was a must-try, because the masseuse looked like the younger version of Anna Marie Gutierrez. No reference to Scorpio Nights, though they had seen the film in Betamax.


I learned later that all the boys in the dorm had made that Avenida Rizal trip, aside from me and my cousin Noel, who was a member of the Opus Dei. Even our gay roommate, a dentistry student whose name escapes me now. I remember he had a crush on Noel, but had participated in biyakan due to peer pressure. He was still the same happy gay guy the morning after. He was more accepted by the group than my cousin and I. We were outcasts.


It was the early 1990s, and Mount Pinatubo had just erupted, spewing ash as far as Morayta Avenue. The joke at the dorm was, “Mabuti pa ang Pinatubo, nakapagpaputok. Eh yung iba dyan.”


Going to a sauna, I realized back then, was an undeclared initiation to the group.


So there I was in Rashomon, hoping for biyakan, if many years late. I was ushered by the boy attendant into a room adjacent to Rodel’s. Bernard was at the farthest end of the hallway, which I later learned was the special room serviced by two masseuse.


My room was about four meters wide, with a bed, a towel, and a dry, small, thin piece of soap that I suspected was already used.


Despite the cold, I took a shower. Surprisingly, there was hot water. Tension still gripped me. There was something about not knowing what was going to happen. A police raid again crossed my mind. That was how it went in the Bagets movie.


But I reminded myself that I didn’t have to fear a raid, with two police beat photographers with me. If memory serves me right, they still had their camera bags with them. It was easy to reason out that we were doing an investigative story on saunas.


Bernard and Rodel were the type of photographers who would spend the night in police precincts for a scoop. They had access to beer joints. They knew which sergeant or lieutenant co-owned this and that girly bar. They were creatures of the night, and I was a lifestyle guy who just a few hours ago had covered the Philippine launch of Clinique for Men. I actually sprayed some on me because they gave sample perfumes in the loot bags.


Refreshed and back on the bed, I waited. In supine position, I chose to keep my underwear on, and have the towel covering my back. I was close to falling asleep when I heard a knock on the door.


There she was, carrying a small plastic box with oils, powder, and lotion. My masseuse scantily dressed in what looked like a short white skirt and tight white upper garment.


I don’t remember her name, if those in her line of work ever give their real names at all. She was thin, petite, and surprisingly bubbly. She was probably in her late 20s. In the dim light, she was neither ugly nor pretty. Just the girl in class you don’t pay much attention to. She smelled of Johnson’s Baby Powder, Sunsilk, and Safeguard. These are not product placements, but the combination of those smells would always remind me of my first Sauna experience.


I complimented her on her freshness. She said she took a bath before going to the room, which probably explained my long wait. It was okay because in those days, sauna guests could stay for hours. Unlike now, with a one-hour limit. Or so I heard.


Suddenly the room was filled with her simple, natural scent. “Hello, sorry na-late ako. Anong gusto mo?”


I couldn’t think nor answer straight. “Amm, anong pwede? Magkano?”


She laughed, and pointed to her box of oil and lotion. “Powder?” I said.


She removed the towel on my back and poured powder. The warm strokes of her hands were calming. I had never had a massage like that in my life, and it was just what I was looking for.


Ang bango mo naman. Amoy sampaguita ka,” she said. And I realized the smell of Clinique lingered despite the alcohol and quick shower.


Sino mga kasama mo? Tatay mo at uncle?” she said. I said yes, laughing at the knowledge that my two companions were only a few years older than me.


Marami akong customer na ganyan. Mag-ama or mag-tiyo. Pinabibinyagan yung mga teenagers,” she volunteers the information. “Minsan nga pareho ko pa naging customer yung mag-tatay. Siyempre, magkaibang araw.”


Pinoy macho culture, I thought, but I just laughed at her tale. I remembered a sexagenarian senior editor—let’s call him Sir Abe—who once told me: “Hindi ka astig ‘pag hindi ka nagso-sauna.” I thought he was referring to a coverage of the violent dispersal of rallyists during the annual SONA (State of the Nation Address) outside the Batasan.


Astig also meant getting away with it. Sir Abe recounted how a colleague in the police beat was caught in a raid at the legendary but now-closed Maalikaya Health Complex in Quezon City. “He showed his media ID and they let him go,” said Sir Abe. Those days, macho alcoholics were so common among members of the Fourth State.


The masseuse returned the towel and began working on my thighs, then my legs and feet. Afterwards, she worked her way back up with soft, slow, gentle rub and strokes.


When it was time to massage my neck and head, she climbed giggling on top of the bed and sat on my butt. Her fingers started doing gentler strokes on my head. That was the clincher. I dozed off for a while. I thought it was eternity. She woke me up and made me turn around for the second part of the massage.

She sat on the side of the bed and poured oil on me this time, as I had requested. She started making those slow, rolling strokes on my chest. It was meant to excite, rather than relax. I cowered as her hands brushed my nipples. She giggled and thought it was so girlish of me to have done that.


And then she asked me, “Do you feel all right?”


And I said, like in the Eric Clapton song, “Yes, I feel wonderful…tonight.”


When she covered my, er, breasts, with the towel and started massaging my thighs, there was something different about her strokes.


Just as she stood up to turn off the lights, there came an incessant knocking on the door. It was dead drunk Rodel. There was a commotion. I thought it was a raid.


It turned out that Rodel had a fight with his masseuse. In his drunkenness, he forgot to take a shower, and wanted the masseuse to go down on him. The masseuse refused, and later slapped him when he insisted. It was much later after leaving Rashomon that we realized that half of Rodel’s face had turned reddish black.


Hindi mo sinabi, gusto mo lang pala ng mabilisang deep-tissue massage sa mukha,” Bernard told Rodel, breaking the ice. Rodel cursed as we headed home.


I learned months later Rashomon was torn down because the whole block was bought by a group of Filipino-Chinese businessmen. A mall now occupies the area but the street vendors and the snail’s pace traffic remain. The Gates of Hell would be in the news as the site of nightly killings of pedicab drivers and bums.


When Today was sold to another news organization in a merger, we lost all our jobs. We parted ways and worked for other, more established newspapers. We all had families of our own.


Nowadays, sauna has become an obsolete term. There are still a lot of Rashomons, but these now go by the generic name “health spa.”


Times have changed and I think even Bernard and Rodel would rather spend their extra money on a new pair of soccer shoes for their eldest or diapers for their youngest or a new dress for their haggard housewife, even a trip to the barber for the shaggy. These days, that is macho and super astig for us. If lives depend on you, the most relaxing thing is arriving home safe and sane before sunrise to feel the warm embrace of loved ones.


However, I have yet to work out if Clinique for Men really smells like sampaguita.


This article was originally published in the Slant section of The Sex & Politics Issue of Rogue, February 2017.