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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Come Feed The Fish

Fish food:
While you tittle, the Garra Rufa will nibble. - KEE HUA CHEE

You've heard of Turkish massage, Turkish steam baths and Turkish Delight, but what about Turkish Doctor Fish?

Fish reflexology? This treatment being offered at the Underwater World Singapore must be a foot massages underwater, right?

After all, I am surrounded by huge aquariums. But no, when they say fish, they mean just that.

First, I am asked to wash my feet with cleanser - lest my stinky toes overwhelm the poor fish. Trousers rolled to knee, I am taken to the first pool which is filled with tiny 2cm-long Garra Rufa, the so-called Doctor Fish, found in Turkey and parts of the Middle East.

Also known as Nibble Fish, Kangal Fish (named after their native town in Turkey) and Log Suckers, they resemble ikan bills as they swim and swarm by the hundreds. Dull, brownish and insipid-looking, they would never qualify as aquarium fish. But, as the sages say, appearances can be deceptive!

"They are toothless, so don't worry," says my nursemaid (she looks the part, dressed in starched white uniform).

I sit and dip my feet into the 36~C water. It's a marvel that these fish can thrive in this water without going belly up.

Even before I put my legs in, the greedy fish come flocking, impatient to bite the legs that feed them!

Moving as one, the little fish surround my legs and begin nibbling away, even in between my toes.

The sensation? Ticklish and just a wee bit painful!

I stare transfixed as the little predators (they turn carnivorous if left to starve) feed on my legs, giving me a micro-massage, and hence, a sort of foot massage. Despite their minuscule size, the school of Garra Rufa certainly make their tingling presence felt!

Initially, I have to lift my legs out of the water now and then as the nibbling gets, well, on my nerves.

After 10 minutes, I decide to try the second pool, filled with the larger, 2-5cm Cyprinioo macrostomus species, which is supposed to be more aggressive and effective. Since they are not members of the piranha family, I give it a go.

These are the "strikers", while the ikan bills are the "lickers". I can't argue with that. If they were piranhas, my legs would be just bone right now. They pounce on me in a feeding frenzy that is slightly unnerving, The discomfort from the nibbling is more intense, although after 10 minutes, it subsides to a more tolerable sensation.

I lament to the lady across me that the fish prefer her to me. (1 like being the centre of attention, you see!)

"Be thankful your legs are not as popular as mine!," says Mariam Sarah.

"I suffer from psoriasis, a persistent skin condition resulting in red eruptions that are very itchy. They form plaques which are like layers of scales on the skin. I had a very bad case and went to Kangal, Turkey for a 21-day treatment. These fish remove the red dead skin by eating them away."

I stare at her reddish legs with the silvery scales and immediately lift my legs out of the water.

Mariam Sarah laughs, "Don't worry, psoriasis is not contagious - so I am NOT polluting the water! These fish have really helped eased my pain. Now I come here regularly for maintenance."

Mercifully, these Doctor Fish can differentiate between dead and normal skin, nibbling and quickly eating just dead cells to allow new skin to regenerate, it's almost like a feet facial!

However, unlike in Turkey where people can lie submerged in the water, Underwater World in Singapore only offers toe dipping.

Fish treatment is the most economical says Mar am Sarah, "The medicines cost me a fortune, so this is cheap by comparison,"

Singapore's Underwater World charges S$35 (RM78) for 20 minutes in the fish pool and 20 minutes of reflexology. For another S $10 (RM22), you get 10 minutes of head and shoulder massage. The au naturel spa therapy in Kangal, Turkey costs at least US$2,000 (RM6,800) per person (excluding flight) for the 21-day treatment, which includes soaking for eight hours a day in the selenium-rich waters.

As the two fish species are not endangered, I suggest to Mariam Sarah to build her own pool or fill her bath with them. But maintaining the right lying conditions for them would be difficult - and she would have to semi starve them!

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