How I met the Balian Medicine Man
I visited my first Balian healer today.
I’d sought out mystical healers before. Kurt Hill, an energy worker and spiritual guide I used to regularly see in Chicago, once told me, “Life isn’t about how much you can take on; it’s about how much you can let go.” I think that he said that four years ago…still waiting for that train to roll into the brain station. I came to Kurt at my lowest point, a month after my mom died, after weeks of moving as fast as I could, working non-stop, bearing a feeling of melancholy but feeling no grief. I was numb, I was manic, and I was going insane.
I can’t describe what voodoo body work Kurt performed that day; he was opening my chest (my heart chakra?) and it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Afterwards, he told me that if I experienced any fear, not to run away from it, but to let it consume me and…kill me.
I went home dazed and almost immediately fell asleep. And I dreamed of a lion.
Have you ever been chased by something in a dream…clowns, wolves, killer geese? I dreamed I was in the camera room at my job I no longer loved. The lion was behind the camera, looking fierce as hell. I backed away slowly; I shut the door; I watched as the lion opened it with its opposable thumbs, just like the raptors in Jurassic Park. I turned to run…and then I lucidly remembered, in the dream, to let it kill me. I turned and fed the lion my arms, and I remember it actually hurt. I fed it my head, and it actually hurt. And I was just about to feed it my gut when I woke up, screaming.
(Side note: I’ve always wondered what would have happened if I had fed it my guts…or my heart…)
The next morning, I woke up, quit my job, and decided to move to New York. The day after, my one-man show, Sparkle Hour, got into the NY Fringe festival. By the end of the week, I had locked in an apartment in Williamsburg —an apartment that allowed dogs! — rooming with my best friend Aaron Gannon (who synergistically is also the person who convinced me to come to Bali). And then Mick Napier, the Artistic Director of the Annoyance Theatre, asked me to open up a training center for the Annoyance in Brooklyn, which eventually became a theatre.
I have faith in the workings that real healers can accomplish, though I’ve no physical evidence or hard proof. It may be all in my head, but who’s to say that doesn’t make it real (yes…this is a bastardized quote from the sixth Harry Potter book)?
So today, I hopped on my scooter around 9 AM to seek the healer Tjokorda Gede Rai. All I knew was he sets up shop at some temple somewhere near the Bali Zoo. No addresses I found online were searchable in Google Maps; his phone number listed in TripAdvisor forums was defunct; the man was a legend, a mystery, and I had no idea how to find him. There was always the easier way of hiring a driver who knew of him, but I felt journeying on my own was important. It would be a leap of faith to find the guy.
I also decided not to eat ahead of time so as to be in a clean, fasting state. So imagine my hunger rising as the following events transpired.
You have to drive a scooter to get around Bali. There’s just no other way. I took two lessons in a Brooklyn parking lot with my lovely friend Brian Pisano, and I’ve managed OK out here, especially once I’m up to cruising speed. The air this morning was thick and overcast. I’m driving via my memory of the directions to the Bali Zoo, occasionally stopping to check my phone’s GPS (Fun fact: did you know your iPhone’s GPS always works even if you have cellular data turned off?)
Once I’m near the Bali Zoo, I pull over into an alleyway where I can furtively change into a sarong and black T-shirt, instead of my short shorts and tank top. Why I didn’t just wear the former to begin with, I don’t know…maybe I thought I’d look like an idiot cruising at 50 km/hr in a sarong. To dress thus is a sign of respect — or so I’ve read. Modesty is important in Balinese culture, so I’m changing out of sight next to a pile of garbage, which I almost fall into. A couple women drive past me mid-changing, and I turn my back to make it look like I’m taking a piss, as if that looks any better. I finish up and get back on my bike as it starts to lightly rain.
I’m now standing across from the Bali zoo, the pavement turning wet, asking every bodega I come by, “Hello…speak English? Do you know where Gede Rai is?” People do seem to know him, and I get three conflicting sets of directions and try to combine them into one vague general direction, which leads me directly into bumper-bumper traffic.
Scooters in Bali do not obey any traffic laws. You are duty-bound to weave in and out of traffic lest someone crash into you from behind.
It starts pouring rain, near monsoon levels. I’m trying to get through this traffic jam, to find some shelter for awhile, when a van suddenly pulls right into my scooter and crunches it against the sidewalk.
In shock, I try to assess the damage to the bike, looking up a second too late to see the driver of the van snatching my scooter keys and walking away. I start shouting for him to give me my keys back; he stonily replies that he is calling the police, that my scooter hit him, and that I have scratched his car. Sure enough, there is a tiny black scratch where my handle bar graced his bumper, but my bike is scratched all along the left-hand frame (alarm bells going off already in my head — there is no rental insurance for anything in Bali, you just sign a waiver agreeing you’re on the hook for the first $300 of damage). He has my keys! This aggressive move enrages me — I start reaching for this far beefier guy’s hand. “Give me my keys back! Give me my keys back!” He has his cell out in his other hand, dialing whatever the 9–1–1 equivalent here.
I freeze mid-grapple, realizing of course that if the cops come, there is no way they are going to side with the story of an American tourist (without a motorcyle licence) over that of a Balinese driver, so I let go, grab my wallet, and shout, “How much!” The man replies, “No, no, no, I call police,” but I see him eyeing my wallet.
He pivots like he’s been waiting this whole time to spring this on me, and looks me direct in the eyes. “500,000 Rupiah.”
I do not blink. “300,000.”
“Fine.” I count out the money (which to be fair, is only like $30, I’m getting off cheap here I feel) and reach for my keys.
“No! Money first.”
Risking it, I hand him the money, he hesitates a split second, and then I’ve got my keys back, and I’m back on my scooter. It’s pouring rain; I am drenched; and I still do not know where Gede Rai is.
I down an iced coffee at the bodega (still the only food I’ve eaten all morning…if you can ‘eat’ iced coffee), and hit the road as the rain is clearing. I ask five more people for directions, until finally one lady says that she’ll drive me there.
We drive for about 8 minutes in the opposite direction I was going. I end up back near where my homestay was. Oh well. I tip her 10,000 Rupiah and walk into the temple, transported.
Gede Rai is sitting calmly surrounded by ten other Caucasian visitors, who I assume Googled the guy like I did, waiting their turn to be healed. With each person, he looks directly into his or her eyes (his eyes seeming to twinkle, or sparkle, or other whimsical adjective), then turns each person 180 degrees, puts his knee into the back, and starts prodding head, shoulders, neck. He hums to himself and his young apprentice as he pokes around until he exclaims his diagnoses:
- Ah! Too much worry! Think too much — this or that, this, or that? You always no choose! Better to choose, yes, and be strong.
- Your head and your body no work together! Your head strong but your body weak. Your head commando, but your body soldier. Soldier must work harder!
- How old are you…50?! (He asks this of a 30-something girl). You act like old woman! You young, much experience to have, go! You get married later.
- Your passion…is gone! You work hard, but no passion. Your passion in your belly — you must believe in you! You must do you, not do like other do. If you have no passion, you have no desire. If you have no desire, you can no create. If you no create, you have no fortune. I give you blessing.
- Your hormones…now, you are going to change. You menopause. You do not know yet, but change is coming! Yes…big change. Too late for baby!
- You healthy, yes. Why you come here, what can I do for you?
Then he orders you onto his mat, and he gets the stick.
The stick is a piece of wood, or perhaps strong plastic, about the length and width of a pencil. He drives it into each person’s left toes, finding the exact spot of intense agony (the difference where he thrust the stick on the toes is miniscule — at one point he turns to his audience, beaming, and shows exactly where each internal organ lives on each toe). People yelp, jump, pull away, beg for him to stop. He just smiles and waves his wand in circuluar motions around the victim’s groin area and over the tits, muttering incantations. Sometimes, he stands over the supplicant and offers a physical blessing, his hands moving in what looks like a more complicated version of the Macarena. Then, he returns to prodding the toes and by the end of his treatment, the patient’s pain is miraculously gone.
After an hour of waiting (and stomach grumbling), it’s my turn. I approach him too early, before he is finished (he had yet to mix some special herbs for the last patient, to help her with her knee and back problems), and I sheepishly stand in the middle of his sacred space while he putters around. He finally calls me to sit next to him.
I’d been making direct eye contact with him every time he scanned his audience earlier. He seemed to observe me in those moments, before I even approached his throne. Now, his look is sly, knowing…mischievous almost.
He motions for me to turn around. Immediately, he says:
“You serious. Why no laugh?”
“I do laugh,” I start to say. He interrupts:
“You laugh?! Hmm…but no laughter. Laughter is…(he mumbles about three sentences I can’t understand at all) in everything. You laugh with job. You laugh with girl. You laugh with me. Hah!”
“Yes, I laugh..but sad right now.”
“How old you are?! 20, 24?”
“30.” (I am flattered.)
“You…so young! You no experience life yet. What you do?!”
“I built a theatre, and…”
“What this?! Theater? You architect!”
“No, not a building…I created a theatre…(I give up). I’m an Artist…Singer. Performer. Actor.”
“AH!” he exclaims. “Yes! Artist! And this is new job!”
“Yes…a new job.” (I’m taken a bit aback; how he would know I just quit and am doing a ‘new job’ now?).
“Come.” He lays me down.
He prods every toe — but I feel little pain. He goes through every single organ on my toes, and I barely feel anything. Every person before me he had screaming at one point.
“Hmm…yes, body good, though mind busy, worry, worry…but you good.” He continues to poke my feet. “But you must find laughter, yes, in new job. I give you blessing.”
I close my eyes but can only imagine him waving his hands like a wizard above me.
This frail, thin man suddenly pulls me upright, stronger than he looks. “You work hard now. No marriage. You 24, 29, yes?! Much experience to have! Girl later. Marriage later. You have new life now. You have new job. You must work hard. I give blessing. But you must laugh! Not so serious! Hah!”
I thank him, and thank him, and meekly walk away, then turn around and trip on the rug as I try to put an offering of 200,000 Rupiah in his urn, like I’d seen others do. His eyes track me, winking a bit, amused.
I’m back at my bike. I’m no longer hungry. I feel like…nothing. No thoughts, no emotions, just empty…and charged. Lighter. And looking around at things with a bit of wonder. I think over what he said and remember when laughter accompanied me, especially when we started the theatre — how we’d dance almost every night until late and everything felt easy and new and promising and funny! I remember when (usually after some long vacation or trip) I would return, taking things easier and laughing at drama and my own reactions to stress.
I nod a bit to myself and laugh at today's insane journey, then get on my scooter and go stuff my face with Thai food. I’ll figure out how to buff out that ‘scratch’ on the scooter later.