Where you think of Eat, Pray, Love and instead end up attending exorcisms at night in the compound of a spiritual healer
“I was thinking of going to a spiritual healer,” I said to the hostess of my homestay. I was thinking of Cokorda Rai, a famous healer I’ve read about online. I knew he lived not too far from where I was staying and was hoping to direct the conversation in that direction.
“Yes, the famous one in my village. He died many years ago, ” she said.
She was referring to Ketut Lyer, the healer made famous in the book Eat, Pray, Love, whose house was located not five minutes from where we were.
“Oh…I hear his son gives blessings now.”
“I don’t know about that. Yes, you can go see him. It’s ok.”
I was confused for a minute, thinking she was referring to the son.
“He lives less than 100 meters from here. Kadek can show you.”
We walk down the small village road, Kadek and I. It is about mid-morning. I asked him if he ever went to this healer.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” he said, waving his hands back and forth for added emphasis. Taking a step back, for even more.
I laughed then asked, “should I be afraid?”
“Maybe,” he said. “You will see.”
Right. In my head, I’m seeing the old and spunky opportunistic man from the movie, Eat, Pray, Love, but feeling maybe, something is not exactly right. Yet, I’m in Bali, in Ubud, and why not? This man lives just 100 meters away.
I am number fifteen in line to see the famous healer, who draws people from all over Bali to see him, but none from his own village, apparently. I am to come back at 7pm.
At night, I arrive wearing my sarong, using a scarf as a belt. It is how women in Bali dress traditionally, and it is a sign of respect to the house you’re visiting to be properly attired. Though, I definitely look like the foreigner wearing her beach sarong and tying it down with a two dollar scarf.
The place looks different. Feels different.
Walking there, I pass two giant wooden goats being carved for the cremation ceremony that will take place in one month’s time. The Balinese take elaborate care in creating these edifices – animal sculptures and temples two to three stories high, decorated with hundreds of flowers and coconut offerings. In the yellow light, these carvings looked primitive and eerie.
I walk inside the compound and there are roughly a dozen men wearing identical black tees and black and white checkered sarongs. They are tense, attentive, but not solicitous. People hand over their offerings for the healer. Straw baskets filled with little trays of flowers made from palm leaves, crackers, candy and in mine, which I had to purchase there, a pack of cigarettes. Yes, I am the tourist.
I note a sense of derision in the people in black here, but not out of mean-spiritedness or superiority. I think it is because they operate in the dark. In people’s darkness, and it is a defensive attitude.
I notice that the other visitors speak in a hushed tone. Some are scared. Some angry. There is a nervousness there. I quickly lose my sense of excited anticipation and start to wonder really, what the hell I was doing there.
The first group of visitors line up and sit on a raised platform used for prayers. The healer comes out and performs a series of prayers, sprinkling holy water on them. I find out later that they are calling the spirit, and it’s then I realize that I’ve gotten myself into something deep.
A non-stop demonstration of previous work done by the priest plays on a TV. It is an endless cycle of screaming.
“So much screaming,” I said, and the man sitting next to me laughs. They scream as if possessed. They scream as if in pain. They scream with frustration. It is almost all women, on this best-of reel.
I was thinking that when just then, a man starts sobbing from inside the consultation room. His entire family is in there with him and he is crying. With grief, with fatigue, without reserve.
It happens over and over again. A little girl is twirling around one minute, then next she’s crying out, in that way that sounds like she doesn’t know why she’s crying. A woman, a mother and wife, gives in and starts speaking in tongues. She’s wearing a white sarong with a pattern of light blue flowers, and a white top with lace trimmings. Her son is quick to take the priest’s blessing. A lone man stamps into the little visiting room defiant and angry, and shuffles out with a glazed look in his eyes, hands shaking slightly as he picks up a small plastic bag containing his belongings.
They keep asking me – what is your problem. What do you need to ask the healer about?
I couldn’t really answer them. With each passing minute, I become more and more alarmed. I am safe, but I am in the wrong place and I know it. I am looking for something, true, but not here. I tell them about my runner’s knee and that I am looking for guidance. Help with next steps. They ask again, this time with lowered lids and voice, eyes sidling – do you have a problem you’d like to ask.
It’s funny how things like this puts your life in perspective. Yes, I have problems in my life. And maybe one of them is I don’t know how to talk about them. But sitting here, with all these people, I realize that I don’t actually have a problem. None that would cause me to speak in tongues, scream in agony, writhe against the hold of men in black and white checkered sarongs.
Whatever emotional pain I have – is gone. I can not feel it sitting there. I cannot feel it now writing this. I saw real wretchedness in that place, real demons and know that I did not belong.
I am in the next group of visitors, having been bumped up the line apparently. The benefits of being a tourist I suppose. The healer says, through an interpreter, that my vibration is very hot. That he can feel that I get upset easily. That it was like I had the sun inside of me. I wonder if they caught me complaining about the screaming, but I like what he says. He says I need to cool down. Meditate. Meditate in nature. Do more spiritual practices. Go to him for three blessing with coconut water.
Huh, what? Immediately, my tourist trap alarm goes off. So I ask if I can possibly just get one blessing. He says no, three is the minimum. The tour guide helping with the translation says sometimes, eleven is needed.
I tell him I’ll start with one. He then prescribes me two bottles of sacred water that cost 50,000 rupiahs. Which, is about 40,000 rupiahs more than un-sacred water.
I am blessed, or balanced, by a cool stream of coconut water that is poured over the back of my head. The tour guide instructs me to drink the water (as it’s being poured), and as I keep drinking the water, to also splash the it on my face, but only in an upwards movement. And only seven times. By then, the coconut had run out of water and I am furiously wiping my face in an upwards movement. I hear the priest sigh with frustration.
“I think that’s at least fourteen times,” I say.
I walk out of there in a daze. I feel as if I’ve been to another world and seen part of the misery hidden in people, there in the dark night. I saw how difficult it was to turn down spiritual advice when you ask for spiritual advice. And I contrast the light I felt earlier in the day shopping for batik, with the illness concentrated there in that one place.
And I think of the people there, offering succor. Relief. Instructions. A way out, for their misery. The healer will collect one million rupiahs that night, and twenty gift baskets. Sell some holy water and medicine.
I find out later from my driver that no one visits the healer in their village, for fear of gossip. I ask him if he had been to see one before and he said yes, once, when his family’s pets died and they suspected a neighbor of poisoning them, out of jealousy. Black magic was needed. It was then that I realized that healers are the antithesis of priests, in Bali. Light and dark, and the balance of, after all, is their philosophy.
I laughed then, really laughed, because we’d just driven past Cokorda Rai’s house and my driver could have taken me there if I’d only ask him. Cokorda starts his appointments at 7am and can reportedly diagnose physical ailments by poking your toes with a wooden stick. Sounds fantastic, but this is the land of magic and in that sense, Elizabeth Gilbert got Bali right. But man, did she miss this part of what healers are all about.