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BALINESE CULTURE

How a Medicine Man in Bali Can Heal You with a Stick

Michelle Hope, Wandering editor & MFA-sanctioned writer. Devoted to coffee, books & plane tickets. EditorMichelle.com and Instagram

19 February 2019

The medicine man’s family compound is twenty minutes outside the jungle town of Ubud, Bali, its crumbling front gate opening up to overgrown grass and cracked cobblestone pathways connecting stone-carved structures. The early-morning air is already heavy and hot and thick with incense, with rooster song. A scrawny Balinese dog winds around the corner and out of sight.

The first ones there, we roll out the rug on the open-air temple dais in the center of the compound, and sit, cross-legged, our taxi driver handing out the woven banana-leaf-basket offerings he purchased across the street.

As we wait, I wedge three hundred thousand rupiah in beside the offering’s plumeria blossoms — the medicine man’s fee.

“He’ll poke your feet with a stick, or something — the healer,” was all I’d been told before folding myself into the stuffy van that morning. “He must make bank doing this,” an older woman in our group says skeptically, glancing back at the steady trickle of sarong-wearing Westerners piling onto the rug behind us, each with their offerings, their three crisp pink bills.

Pretty woven offering baskets, known as ‘Canang Sari’

Ubud, Bali

The medicine man arrives with slow, quiet steps, smiling, and settles into a chair at the front of the platform. A friend of mine is waved up first.

The old man sets her offering to the side, instructing her to sit in front of him on the floor with her legs out straight, her back against his shins, her head cradled between his knees. He brushes the hair off her neck tenderly, rests his hands on her scalp.

Then, crablike, his fingers start roaming over her skull, cresting her forehead, pressing the pressure points on her temple, sinuses, jaw. He runs his fingers lightly along her earlobes, stopping to place one in each of her ears. Jiggling his fingers as she grimaces, he says, “Does this hurt?”

“Yes, yes,” she replies through clenched teeth.

“You are anxious,” he says.

“Yes.”

He has her open her jaw, breathe, presses his fingers down her arms as if looking for buttons.

Later, over smoothie bowls, my friend says that reviews online mention that the healer tells that to a lot of people — diagnosing anxiety.

“Americans — ” I guess. “It’s a national disease.”

“He stands then, suddenly tall and powerful at her feet, and moves his arms in wide circles toward her body, as if transferring his energy to her, saying soft Balinese words that none of us can hear…”

The medicine man asks my friend to lie down on the bamboo mat next to his chair, and he crouches his thin, deeply wrinkled body beside her feet, pulling out a long but delicately carved stick. He starts prodding her, methodically, between her toes.

“Stomach, liver, pancreas, mind, lungs, heart,” he lists as he jabs at different areas on her feet, her body occasionally going rigid with pain. He stops to look up at her face, pushes a little harder as she writhes.

“This is your pancreas,” he says. “You must eat less sugar.” He recommends omega-3 to balance her hormones. Tells her to drink less. When he presses beside her little toe, and she remains at ease, he says, “Lungs, good.” Press. “Heart, good.”

He stands then, suddenly tall and powerful at her feet, and moves his arms in wide circles toward her body, as if transferring his energy to her, saying soft Balinese words that none of us can hear, and wouldn’t have understood if we could. Healing her.

Everyone is silent without being told.

He kneels again as my friend props herself up on her elbows, smiling contagiously, the memory of pain now far away. He pokes between her toes again, and she laughs, her body completely relaxed.

Up next is the older woman in our group — in her sixties with cropped curling gray hair and bright eyes, her petite body wrapped in a stylish, loose sundress — and as she shuffles up confidently, I wonder what the hell I’m doing here, giving an old man with a wand $20 to poke me back to health.

Bali’s famous healer, Tjokorda Gede Rai, during a consultation at his family home.

 

I arrived in Ubud, Bali, the month before, an almost accidental side trip after a grad school diploma that left stress and weariness thick on me like mud. After a rent increase in Seattle, I put all my things in storage and bought a plane ticket to Fiji to visit a friend who was working there for the summer.

A week before my flight, standing on the rooftop of a Seattle apartment building at sunset watching my ex-boyfriend’s band play a show, a friend said, “You should check out Bali while you’re over there, in Fiji. It’s not too far.”

I brushed aside her comment but found myself googling Bali the next day, centering in on Ubud, the inland artist town full of digital nomads who work on their laptops between yoga classes and massages and scooter trips to the beach. A town whose name comes from the Balinese word “ubad,” or “medicine.”

I bought a one-way flight.

“You’re not active,” the healer is saying to the older woman as he crouches over her on the bamboo mat, his stick running up and down her thighs, outlining the triangle between them. She is crying softly, now. “You need to open your heart again,” he says, his stick on her groin.

Later, over breakfast, she tells us that she is certain the healer meant sex. Her prescription: a lover. “The body doesn’t work right,” she says, “without regular sex releasing all its toxins.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” another woman says, smirking, the one who has been here the longest. “Bali always gives you what you ask for.”

I volunteer to go next. “Why are you here?” the medicine man asks after I deposit the offering among the growing pile and say good morning in Indonesian: “Selamat pagi.”

“Balance,” I say. “Joy,” I suggest. I shrug, unsure.

“Sit,” he says. He brushes my hair to the side, and I close my eyes, waiting for the pain.

His fingers skim over my face, my jaw, my scalp. “What do you need healed?” he asks me after a moment where his fingers stall, as if giving up, on the back of my shoulders.

I think to say, stress,bad sleep, bad habits, listlessness. But all those familiar ailments — so omnipresent in grad school they had become part of how I self-identified — hadn’t been evident since I got here, didn’t exist in Ubud, where I was open, social, curious, calm. Where I’d been going to yoga, art classes, eating well, riding a scooter through jungle roads, editing novels, writing poolside, wandering the streets slowly, and saying yes to new friends and adventures.

Ubud itself, it seemed, had already given me my medication.

“What do you need healed?” the medicine man repeats.

After a moment, I say, “I don’t know, anymore.”

“My fingers aren’t picking anything up,” he says. “Work, good. Money, good. Relationships, good. Stress, good. Health, good. Mind, good.” He indicates for me to lie down.

He pokes between my toes halfheartedly. “Your body is healthy,” he says. “Your mind is healthy.”

He smiles at me mischievously then, his crumpled leather face lighting up the way an old man’s expression can take on that of a boy’s, and he says, “Love. You find love, and it will all be even better.”

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