Boredom leads Derek Cheng to use an afternoon to get some Filipino beauty treatment ... for his underarms.
The beautician peered nervously into the black hole of my armpit and squinted, expecting something rancid. Then she calmly lowered a metallic wand into the virgin depths of my underarms.
This was nothing more than a daily task for Sherilyn, a Filipino beautician in the bustling city of Baguio, where there is no shortage of middle- to upper-class women fussy about how they look.
But in four years as an armpits-shiner, she'd never had to work on a man who'd decided to step into the shoes of a beauty-obsessed Filipino woman for the afternoon.
Sherilyn's weapon of choice: a drill-like tool with a round metal tip, apparently infused with chips of diamond and known as the Diamond Peel. It was attached to a tube that sucked dead skin from my sensitive areas.
With childlike enthusiasm rather than surgical precision, she firmly rubbed the tip against my skin.
It's a good thing my armpits aren't ticklish. It's a bad thing that I'd also decided to step into the shoes of a metrosexual for the day and have a pedicure and a foot massage. My feet are extremely ticklish and I frequently howled with laughter at the heavens, making Felma, the foot specialist, turn away in embarrassment and raise a hand to her face to hide her giggles.
"Siiiir! Pleeeease!" Sherilyn said every time I sent another guffaw skywards.
Our group of journalists had arrived in Baguio that afternoon. A typhoon had thwarted earlier plans of hiking and caving in the mountainous region, so we remained city-bound. Walking around, I noticed that you can't go 5m without seeing another poster offering armpit bleaching or some other miracle beauty therapy.
Advertisements offering whiter skin abound across the Philippines - "advanced placenta care: skin whitening and anti-ageing in 1", screamed one billboard - as well as other parts of south Asia. As every Caucasian braves the cancer-giving sun to get darker, the golden beauties of the Orient are pasting themselves with layers of secret potion to become paler.
The best way to understand the mystery, I decided, was to live it.
The salon I chose, called Oxygen, told me a full body bleach would take longer than I had available, and armpit bleaching took several applications to see any real benefits. But a Diamond Peel would produce immediate results.
"It looks nice, neat," Sherilyn said when I asked her what was so good about white armpits.
"As a personal thing, or for someone else?" I asked, but she just shrugged her shoulders, as if white armpits were obviously the holy grail of all good things and needed no further justification.
She took me into a small room that resembled an operating theatre - dimly lit, lifeless colours, tiled floor - and I lay on a bed as Felma started attacking my squirming feet with a large file, peeling off layer upon layer of dead skin, while Sherilyn smothered my pits in long strokes of Diamond Peel goodness.
Suddenly she noticed the state of my hands. "They're disgusting," she said.
"Do I need a manicure?" By way of answer, a third beautician was called in and she quietly went about carving away my cuticles.
"It's okay," Sherilyn reassured me. "She's used to disgusting hands."
When Sherilyn finished, she removed the top of the Diamond Peel to show me the dead skin.
"You can come back tomorrow and we can take care of all your warts," she added, pointing at several spots.
"They're little freckles," I protested.
"They're warts and they're ugly," she replied, emphasising the ugly.
Seeing me weak with laughter had apparently given her a licence to drop any veil of professional courtesy.
I told her I'd consider it, and tipped her and Felma more than the equivalent of their daily wage, a pitiful $7.
I returned to my room, my fingers and toes glistening. In the bathroom, I stood before the mirror, topless and with my arms aloft. There they were. Exquisite armpits. Not white, but definitely lighter, cleaner and strangely inviting. In the way a soft cotton pillow can be inviting.
No more would this cultural obsession confuse me. I understood. I had found enlightenment.
Getting there: Malaysia Airlines flies from Auckland to Manila via Kuala Lumpur.
Getting around: Intrepid Travel's Philippine Discovery trip from Manila takes 15 days and includes the landscapes of Banaue, a village trek through lush rice paddies, the mysterious hanging coffins in Echo Valley, a climb to the crater of Mt Pinatubo and a getaway on Boracay. $2530, including all accommodation, ground transport and internal return flights to Boracay, some meals and an English-speaking guide.
Derek Cheng went to the Philippines as a guest of Intrepid Travel.By Derek Cheng Email Derek