We are lolling about on faded carpet on a warm concrete block worn smooth by time. It’s mid-afternoon and the sun is strong, the heat lying on us like wet bears.
The Balinese healer, or Balian, is asleep somewhere in a building behind the concrete platform. He is in his eighties and, thus, deserves his afternoon nap. I’ll call him Wayan, for the sake of privacy.
I am part of a women’s retreat in Ubud, Bali. It is the second last day of the retreat and five of us, and the facilitator of the retreat, have come here as part of the programme.
I have imagined this many ways. I have seen ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and read the book. In my mind, we will be sitting in a small dirty compound, and in front of me will be a cluttered low table full of messy piles of herbs. The healer will be small, hunched over, wizened. He will mutter, and it will be all too reminiscent of the Hollywood version of voodoo. I will feel nothing, and come away wondering what it was all about, and why I’d wasted my afternoon when I could have been having yet another massage, or buying yet more cheap trousers.
The compound is large by Balinese living standards. A tall Scandinavian man sits, waiting patiently for Wayan to appear. Several times a year he travels from Sweden to study with Wayan. He is assisting the Balian today.
We wait half an hour, and then suddenly, Wayan is sitting in the chair he uses for diagnosing clients. He is thin, and has an almost Chinese face, with prominent cheekbones. His eyes are still, calm.
Our facilitator greets him, and I can see the affection they have between them. She has visited many times, and last year helped care for him when he became ill. She cups her hands around his and they talk softly.
Then, I am motioned forward. Of all ten ladies in the group, I am the one who has confessed to being ill. Fibromyalgia, and deep, biting exhaustion from being a carer for an autistic son. I have come to Bali to rest, to heal, to let my body open like a lotus flower in the heat and humidity. That it has done. The heartspace of the retreat has cracked the hard dented armour I wear, and the terrified girl within has peered out at the world of greenery. I have not seen her since age 25, when I birthed my first child. Before that, I only saw her last in full flight, at age 18, in my first year at university, before my first boyfriend told me I had to ‘grow up’, and started playing me the song ‘Sugar Mountain’ by Neil Young.
I sit with my back to Wayan, between his knees. The other ladies are watching intently. None of us knows what to expect. His dry, bony fingers grab my ears, and feel all about my head, plunging into my hair, getting into the base of my skull, passing across my forehead, around my eyes, my cheekbones.
He returns to my ears. He finds every sore spot and presses them. I am to tell him if they hurt, and which side is worse.
He says little, but when he does, our facilitator helps translate.
“Anxious, lots of anxious,” he says in English.
That is true. I suffer from depression and anxiety, and with age, the anxiety is getting worse. Just before coming to Bali, I was close to suicidal thoughts.
Wayan gestures to his healing mat, another piece of carpet. One end of draped over a wooden bolster, where I am to lay my head.
I lie down, and he moves easily from his chair to the floor. He produces a narrow wooden stick, shaped thin at one end, and a knot carved at the other. It is dark wood, smooth, and about the length of a butter knife. About as thick as a pencil. A small Harry Potter wand.
He uses it to probe points on the insides of my toes, and presses my shins to look for water retention. The pain in my toes is awful, just as though electrocuted several times.
“Heart good, liver good, stomach good, kidneys good.”
I am pleased and surprised. Thanks to a 2009 trip to Peru, I copped some intestinal bug that ripped through my guts and left me with leaky gut syndrome, and gluten, fructose, and lactose sensitivities. Leaky gut lead to body inflammation, lead to fibromyalgia. I am working with naturopaths to manage all this, and heal.
So, as I have long suspected, it’s stress and anxiety doing me in.
Wayan dictates a series of sacred hand gestures to the big Scandanavian. Each series has a number, and I am given 3, 4, 6 and 7. Bjorn stands up, and from my prone position, his head looks close to the thatched roof.
Twice the tall man goes through the gestures. I watch through half-closed eyes. I don’t want to witness anything I shouldn’t, but I’m deadly curious. He works confidently, smoothly, his big hands going through gestures, drawing down energy from above and offering it to me.
I don’t feel any different. There is no heat or cold rushing through me, no massive internal shifts. Certainly no pulling mystery tumors from my belly, or slopping out of intestines from a psychic healer’s ‘cut’.
He finishes by moving forward from where his feet have stood in front of mine, my soles barely touching the tops of his feet. He touches my forehead lightly, and makes a gesture in the air of smoothing my energy down, like a sheet, and he’s done. He moves back to the sidelines.
Wayan is again at my side, and tests the spots on my toes. They feel numb. There is no pain.
He pats my leg.
I sit up slowly, return to my spot on the floor. I place my hands in prayer position and bow slightly to him with my head and upper body, as thanks.
And I spend the rest of the visit thinking nothing. My mind is a jack-rabbit, running and hopping through a hundred thoughts a minute. I think nothing. I watch the others in the group get treated. I observe, take photos, talk with another lady, but my mind is not running fast. The moments pass, and I watch each one. I am not consumed with: what time is it; where are we eating dinner; is there yoga tomorrow; have I done enough shopping; oh gods, I’ve done too much shopping, I should have done more sightseeing; am I incubating Bali belly?
None of that at all.
I watch a rat run across the rafters and down to Wayan’s neat wooden table of herbs stored under a big square colander. Our facilitator has made an offering to Wayan and the rat wants the banana leaves and food within the offering. It is allowed.
“Everything is for everything here in Bali,” our facilitator has remarked. The offerings are for the gods, but in essence only, in honouring. The physicality of the offerings – the woven banana leaves, the rice and flowers within, are eaten by wild life.
“Maybe I’ve come to Bali to learn not to hate rats,” one of the ladies says in a low voice. Even she is amused by the rat’s scurrying. It has a pink nose and paws.
When we leave Wayan, with bowing and many thankyous, our driver is waiting in a dusty car park. A Spanish couple are getting out of their car and going in to visit. The woman looks at our radiant faces. She quickens her steps.
I sleep well that night, and for the first time in ten years, without my herbal sleeping pills. My dreams are quiet.
Everyone in our group has now seen the Balian. We all look different. We smile more, our talk is softer. The non-crier in our group cries. It is as though we are healed.
Photo: The Healer - Ubud, Bali, Indonesia _ Helen Patrice