If you’d told an eight-year-old me – a mousy girl unable to swim in a splash pool after seeing Piranha – that her adult self would one day volunteer her limbs to flesh-eating fish, she’d have said you were mad, before bursting into tears. Yet two decades on, here I am, my legs submerged in a pool of garra rufa fish. Sure, these ‘doctor fish’ are without ferocious teeth and are the Pee Wee Hermans of the aquatic world (minus the criminal record), but my long-forgotten neuroses still rear their head as I sit down, ready to become fish food.
The swimmers originate from Turkey and have become national treasures there, so much so that the country won’t export them. Why? Because they love munching on dead flesh and have a distaste for healthy skin (gross, I know – just don’t dwell on it). This means they can not only exfoliate the skin, but also help people with skin conditions such as psoriasis; most dermatologists say the process isn’t a cure-all, but that it will relieve symptoms. Since 2006 the tiny fish have been making waves with Asian beauty fans and now, to the horror of all Dubai residents with ticklish feet, we have our very own flesh-eaters at Wild Wadi (brought in from Germany – they’re obviously efficient eaters).
I tentatively dip my feet into the tank. The first 10 seconds are the worst, but once I acclimatise to both the feeling and visuals of the tiny fish swarming around my legs, the weirdness melts away and it’s actually quite relaxing. Yes, it’s ticklish, but not as bad as the spine-shuddering scrub usually administered during a pedicure, and after a while the process feels like strong bubbles of water combined with tiny static shocks. I’m enjoying it, but I can’t say I’ll be trying the full-body version next time I’m in Asia or Turkey – I’m not yet ready to give the little guys an all-access pass.
Hygiene is high on my list of concerns – bathing in other people’s dead skin has never been a dream of mine – but the tank looks very clean and staff insist we wash our feet thoroughly before submersion. I later find out that they treat the water with ozone and UV (whatever that means), as well as ensuring it circulates well and is constantly filtered. They also change the water every other day to make sure the process is as hygienic as possible.
While I’m there, I see a young lad hop in worry-free while his mum tentatively submerges her feet and keeps shrieking that she doesn’t think she can go on. ‘Get over it,’ I say to myself, but looking down I see that her feet are absolutely covered in fish and his young toes are left alone: proof that the garra rufa prefer old, dry skin and tend to steer clear of nubile, healthy feet.
Before I know it my 20 minutes are up. I still have a small area of dry skin around my heels, but the rest of my feet feel remarkable, as though they’ve been lathered in cocoa butter, and my legs tingle for about an hour, reinforcing claims that the process improves circulation. My only gripe is that Wild Wadi is an odd place for the treatment – you’re required to pay the waterpark entry fee, although you’ll be able to jump on the slides afterwards. I’d personally prefer the calmer environment of a spa, sans kids screaming down slides, where my rejuvenated feet could be pampered with a pedicure after feeding time.
FISHO Fish Spa in Wild Wadi costs Dhs55, or Dhs40 if you pay in advance at the gate, plus an additional Dhs200 for entry to the waterpark. Call 04 348 4444 for more info.