I had read about Wayan, the Balinese healer in Eat, Pray, Love, and stumbled across her shop here in Ubud during my ramblings around the town. I was curious...but also felt a little silly about my curiosity, like I was being a groupie. Outside her shop, there is a list of different treatments available. But there is nothing really wrong with me, well, aside from hereditary high blood pressure, tendonitis, and shoulder and hip issues. That is, nothing that could be cured in one day. Otherwise, I'm completely healthy. Still, I was curious, so I decided to go have lunch at her shop and give it a look.
As I walked in, two women, an American and Australian, were bidding warm and affection farewells to Wayan, the healer. She was dressed in a lacy top and a long sarong, with a scarf tied around her waist - Balinese traditional dress. Except it was somehow more alluring on Wayan, her bra visible under the lacy top, dripping wet hair down to her waist. She is petite, but with a commanding presence. I entered the shop, and she cleared off a table, motioning for me to sit. The other table in the small shop was covered with plates of leaves, seeds, packets of medicines, and papers. The walls were lined with shelves labeled in Indonesian and English with the names of different ailments, papers stacked inside, shelves of dried herbs, books, and a jumble of all matter of things.
I sat there waiting. And waiting. Wondering if perhaps I had been misunderstood. Finally, a young man in a sarong and t-shirt came to my table and started grating turmeric root (looking just like a carrot) on a piece of banana leaf. He added water and some sweet syrup and told me to drink the pungent liquid, to clean my blood.
As my blood was cleansing itself, a Japanese woman arrived and Wayan told her she would "read her body." I watched as Wayan lit incense, turned to the shrine, raised her hand with little finger bent, chanting. Then she turned to the woman, running her hands along her body, stopping to touch, feel, listen. I was entranced - maybe it was the influence of the turmeric - and was seized with the desire to have my body read. When I arrived, she had handed me a piece of paper which said "Treatment One Hour Rp. 150,000 Included Medicine," with a long description of the treatments involved, like "Piper Bettle leaves are soaked in hot water then placed on the chest to improve the strength of the heart." And "Coral tree and leaves, onion, and coconut oil is mixed together and placed on the stomach to help with constipation." As I sat there, my initial skepticism transmuted into fascination and curiosity.
Finally, my food arrived: various small plates made of banana leaf, each with a different small dish - this one for Vit E, this one for Vit. B, this one for iron, my server explained - seaweed, red rice, mung bean sprouts, sautéed ginseng leaves, spinach, grated coconut, tofu satay. Starving at this point, I inhaled the food, while listening to Wayan's diagnosis of the Japanese woman:
"You have busy mind. You need calcium. You have low oxygen in your stomach, left side. Your blood pressure low. Your left knee hurt you sometimes. Your low back hurt you sometimes. You have gas, problems with digestion, your digestion is not good."
Wayan spoke and moved authoritatively, comfortably, in her own time, at her own pace. The rest of us in the shop, clients and helpers alike, watched and waited for her to turn her attention to us. The reading finished, she called out instructions in Balinese to her helpers and started laying out various packets of vitamins and herbs, giving elaborate directions for what to take mornings, what to take afternoons, how much, why. The Japanese woman carefully copied her instructions down, the packets were placed in a small paper bag, and then she was whisked upstairs for the treatment.
At this point, raindrops began to fall heavily, taking my plans for afternoon explorations with them. I was completely entranced by the way Wayan moved around the shop, spinning the web of clients and helpers around her. I mention this to help explain why I completely neglected to confirm the price before placing myself in her hands. Me, who earlier in the day had bargained my hotel room price down 25,000 rupiahs a night, who is a coupon-clipping Ms. Frugal, always alert for a scam and ready to bargain. Entranced, I just let myself be led into the web of mystique of the traditional healer.
When it was my turn, she had me write down my name, address and birthday, which she repeated as she made her invocation at the shrine before beginning to "read" my body with her hands, pausing to shine a flashlight into my eyes and throat, using a pen as a tongue depressor. I waited with anticipation for her verdict:
"Your blood not so clean. You like sweet, too much sweet in your blood, diabetes coming up. You should fast for one week, no sweets. You need calcium. Your colon not so clean. Need to do colon cleaning, some toxins. Your digestion is not always so good. Your blood pressure low."
It wasn't exactly what I had expected. After all I don't eat sweets that often (then I remembered the Kit Kat the day before, the ice cream yesterday). And my blood pressure was rarely low. And no mention of "busy mind" for me - how could that be?
Then it was my turn for the vitamins: one packet of this, with lemon and honey in the morning for general health; 5 capsules of something else for blood cleansing in the afternoon, 7 pills of another packet for skin the evening...something to prevent diabetes, something for cleaning the colon, something for the pancreas, something to lower my blood pressure after I eat pig, fish from the sea, or eggs. Something for healthy eyes...pills and powders for things I didn't even know were wrong with me. Mahogany seeds to soak in water and then drink the liquid - to prevent diabetes, fresh green leaves to chew three times a day to prevent cancer...
Then, I was led upstairs and told to change into a sarong. I was led to a chair and oil, smelling of geraniums and peppermint, was rubbed along my scalp line and down my arms. I was told to close my eyes. A rough paste was rubbed on my feet and calves, while another pair of hands started rubbing warm, wet leaves on my arms, shoulders, and face. A cucumber was rubbed carefully across my face, and more oil dabbed by another pair of hands. Many hands were working on me - I don't think I've been touched by so many hands at once since I was a baby. At one point, a clove of garlic was pressed to my face and I was told to hold it in place. Then my face was rubbed again with a cucumber, and my scalp with a piece of aloe. All the while, my feet and legs were being rubbed with the paste. A hand parted my sarong and rubbed oil on my belly and placed a wet leaf there.
Then I was led to the massage table, and two pairs of hands massaged me. First one pair of hands would go up one side of my body, and then the other would follow suit. More oils were rubbed on me. They seemed to fixate especially on my calves - maybe this was where the dirty sweet-filled blood liked to hang out?
My blood was definitely being pushed around and forced to circulate, as even my little toes were rubbed vigorously, so maybe it was cleaning itself. I've never been rubbed so much in my life by so many hands. I started to wonder if any layers of skin remained. As the massage went on and on, it slowly dawned on me that this had to cost more than 150,000 rupiahs. It had easily been hours since I arrived at the shop. But I tried to push these worrying thoughts away, as they rubbed small glass bottles filled with warm liquid down my arms and legs. A clump of wet leaves was placed on my belly. And then, they told me it was time for the shower, which consisted of a young woman tossing buckets of warm water, well, not quite water, but water soaked with betel leaves and cinnamon on my naked body. Then, I was done. It was 5.30 - I had arrived at 1.30.
As I dressed upstairs, marveling over my smooth skin, I heard two women come in, saying to Wayan: "We're from California, and we read about you..." I went downstairs and was handed more medicines: more leaves to chew, a bottle of oil to be used for pimples or insect bites, a glass filled with leaves and bark, the liquid of which I was instructed to drink later that day. I didn't really want them, and as I braced myself for the bill, I heard her diagnose the American woman:
"Your blood not so clean, you like sweets, you are coming up diabetes. You need to fast, one week, no sweets. You need calcium. You have a busy mind. Your have little oxygen in your stomach, right side. Your digestion not so good. Your right knee hurts you sometimes. Your low back hurts you some times."
It sounded suspiciously like a hybrid of the diagnoses she gave to me and the Japanese woman. I was even more cynical when I was then presented with an oral bill of 550,000 rupiahs -- a small fortune by Balinese standards, and the most I had paid for anything in Bali (for comparison, my last massage had cost 60,000 rupiahs, my aircon guesthouse 150,000/night, dinner 40,000). It's the equivalent of $61, which while much more than my daily budget here, is really nothing in US standards for lunch, more than an hour of multiple-handed massage, and a bagful of herbs. But I was shocked - after all, the paper said the price was 150,000 rupiahs. I tried to point this out, but she said that I had been given the "complete treatment," and I knew I couldn't really argue. I had been foolish not to agree on the price beforehand. I had gone to the ATM that morning, and mutely I counted out the bills, half the amount of my withdrawal that was meant to last many days.
Immediately afterwards, I felt taken advantage of. And in my more cynical moments, completely scammed. Who knows what those leaves were? Maybe it was all an elaborate bit of theater. But perhaps and more likely, I was victim of the assumption that the young American woman wanted the Full Monty Traditional Balinese Medicine Experience, and she was happy to deliver it.
And I did nothing to correct this assumption, until it was too late. Wayan is a healer of the body, not the spirit, but at some level I lost track of this and was seduced by the idea that she could "read" me, body and soul, and cure me of all my ills, even those unknown. Naturally, I completely forgot to mention the tightness in my shoulder and hip, the two things that perhaps could be treated by massage.
Even though she told me that my problems were too much sugar in my blood and too many toxins in my colon -- the typical American body profile -- I wanted to believe she could see deep into my soul, detect my sorrows, and heal me. I sat there as many hands rubbed all sorts of strange smelling substances onto my body and thought of the experience as sloughing off the cells of the past years, taking away the layers of myself still permeated with the discipline and shame of graduate school, and with heartbreak. I imagined that the treatment was scrubbing away the layers of "shoulds" that structure my life, psychically clearing me of all the negativity of the past years, leaving me reborn, able to see clearly and to find my path.
But Wayan is not a spirit healer, but a traditional medicine healer. And I was presenting a healthy body, probably much like many of the other young foreign women who come to her. No doubt she is a skilled healer with people who present specific ailments. But when these healthy foreign bodies show up, she tells us we have the ailments of modern life -- "your low back hurts, too much sugar in your blood, digestion not good, busy mind" -- and gives us the Full Monty Balinese Traditional Medicine Experience. Not really understanding what has been done to our bodies, we can walk away and interpret and narrate the experience as we wish - an encounter with an "authentic traditional healer"; a brush with celebrity and an experience straight out of a best-selling book; a traditional blood cleansing ritual; an intense exfoliation massage; or a psychic house-cleaning. Perhaps by telling us we have "sweet in our blood" and giving us an afternoon of rubbing, leaving us with smooth and glowing skin, she heals us in other, unexpected ways.
I still feel lingering feelings of foolishness and being taken advantage of over the unexpected price hike. But I will try to fast one week without sweets and will take my mountains of pills, leaves, seeds, and potions as directed. Who knows? Maybe I will be cured....of something I didn't even know was wrong with me?