There’s some kind of demonstration today in Renon, on the street that runs in front of Starbucks. People are holding up signs and shouting and singing and they are being escorted by a squad of brown-clothed policemen. Just up the street, at the large park at the center of Renon, some sort of military program is underway. There are soldiers and displays and armored vehicles. Perhaps it is a recruiting event. One of the fellows at Starbucks tells me just now that it is a ‘pro-government’ demonstration. Yay Indonesia. For some reason, they sound angry. I guess maybe nationalism always sounds angry.

Words Matter

When Samuel arrived yesterday morning to clean the house, I found him in unusually high spirits. It soon became clear that the reason for this was that his wife had just given birth to their first child, a son.

“Well, that is happy news!” I said.

As there were no cigars in the house, I offered him a shot of whiskey instead, which Samuel enjoyed so much that he offered himself another, and another.

“Just take the whole bottle,” I said. “I don’t drink anyway. It’s just been sitting here untouched for a year.”

When Sam was done working, we sat and talked for a time (strangely, he was rather more talkative than usual), and before he left, I congratulated him once again on the birth of his son.

Later on in the afternoon, I was visiting with my friend, Hendra, at the nearby Starbucks, and I mentioned the unexpected celebration of the morning. I explained to him that Sam’s wife “beranak”, which I understood to mean ‘had a baby’.

Hendra broke into laughter.

“No, no, Bapak. You can’t say that! Beranak is only for animals. If a human being, you must say ‘melarhirkan’.


I really must apologize, next time I see Samuel, for referring to his wife as an animal!

The Flow

I have heard it said in the past that the traffic flow in Bali has a certain logic and natural pattern which one must simply adapt to. What seems mindless chaos is just a matter of being foreign to ‘the flow’.

Don’t you believe it!

This is chaos pure and simple, every man for himself. If this is to be called natural, it can only be in the sense that a hurricane is natural, or a tornado, The only thing ‘natural’ about the behavior of motorists here in Bali is that it naturally causes many more jams and accidents than would otherwise need occur.

There is no such thing in Bali as a ‘relaxing drive’. Every time one goes on the road, he must be acutely aware, keenly attentive through every passing second. Relaxing tends not to be done on the edge of one’s seat. One does not learn a flow so much as he learns to anticipate the ridiculous.

There are many, many motorbikes here in Bali. Many more than there are cars. And those driving the motorbikes do not believe that lanes of traffic have anything to do with them. Regularly, they will crowd into the oncoming lane of a street, and then when that is full, they will use the sidewalk (pedestrian beware). Of course, this causes no end of trouble when a car or truck happens to be trying to use the proper lane of the road. The driver of the vehicle cannot move because of all the motorbikes facing him, the drivers of the motorbikes cannot move because they have encountered a vehicle in its proper lane. And these knots take a good while to undo themselves.

Just yesterday, I was coming home from an outing to Sanur. I was approaching the point where I would need to turn right onto my street. I put on my turn signal, crowded the middle line of the road, slowed my speed, and then, just as I began my turn, I’ll be damned if a motorbike didn’t come blasting around the right side of mine. Good thing I had learned the ‘flow’ after six years of experience. I did not hear the oncoming bike, nor did I see it until the final split second–I simply suspected that it would be there. You anticipate the absurd, because, you see, it happens all the time. It is the regular, predictable flow of stupidity. Ah! So that’s what they mean by ‘flow’.

There is no such thing as ‘road etiquette’ in Bali. If you wait for someone to let you into a lane of traffic, you will wait forever. No, you must steadily advance your vehicle into ‘the flow’ until you reach the point where either you or the other driver is going to get hurt if someone doesn’t yield. If you yourself kindly stop to let another vehicle enter the road, you will be serenaded by a band of impatient horns. How dare you interrupt the flow!

It may seem a bit strange, given the obvious dangers of the road, that I prefer to ride a motorbike here in Bali. One might suspect it would be best to at least surround yourself with the protection of a car’s fenders and bumpers. But the thing is, I am more afraid of hurting someone else than of hurting myself. When  you drive a car, you drive amid a constant buzz of motorbikes on all sides, like swarms of bees. The drivers of these motorbikes appear to believe that anyone driving a car possesses perfect 360 degree vision and is able to see all things at once. The thought of hitting a motorbike, or of being in the way of a motorbike that hits my car, is terrifying to me. And of course, if a car hits a motorbike, it is always considered the fault of the driver of the car. Don’t ask me why. Therefore, I stick with the bike. It is less murderous than a car. And hey, if you get stuck in traffic, you can always use the sidewalk.


Agung – 3

One of my neighbors back in Portland, Oregon, was Mt. St. Helens, about 70 miles north in the State of Washington. Thus it happens that angry Gunung Agung brings back some memories.

In 1980, Mt. St. Helens erupted. It turned out to be the deadliest, most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States. Fifty-seven people were killed, 15 miles of railways, and 185 miles of highway were destroyed. The eruption itself reduced the elevation of the mountain’s summit from 9677 feet to 8363 feet. Ash covered the earth all the way down to the streets of Portland and hung in the air like a thick, acrid smog. People were advised not to go outside without wearing a facemask due to elements in the cloud harmful to the respiratory system.

The house I lived in at the time just happened to be high on the slope of one of Portland’s higher hills, Mt. Tabor. The big picture window at the front of the house faced directly north, such that it became like a movie screen. We watched the whole thing, never having to turn around the look at the TV at the back of the room.

Praying now for the folks in the danger zone of Agung, and that old man Agung, the axis of the universe, may soon take a deep breath and reconsider more peaceful options.

Agung – 2

Mt. Agung (Gunung Agung) has now been upgraded to a Level IV warning, as ash and stones have begun to spew from the crater. Aid stations and supply depots have been set up in strategic locations, flights from Australia have been cancelled. It appears that government planning, along with volunteer efforts to gather supplies and provide emergency housing, has paid off. The mountain itself is still thinking about whether it wants to launch a full scale eruption or just put on a temporary show.

Mt. Agung

We have now a level 3 (out of 4) warning for an eruption of Mt. Agung. Agung is the highest point on the island of Bali, at 9,944 feet. The Balinese believe that Mt. Agung is a replica of Mt. Meru, the central axis of the universe. The most important temple on Bali, Pura Besakih, is located high on the slopes of Agung.

The volcano last erupted in 1963-1964. The massive pyroclastic flows devastated numerous villages, killing approximately 1500 people. Heavy rainfall and flooding after the eruption killed an additional 200, and a second eruption several months later killed another 200 inhabitants.

This time around, people are being evacuated in an orderly manner from all areas within 7 kilometers of the base of the mountain. It may be that Agung will settle down after huffing and puffing for a while. One hopes so, at any rate.

Hurricanes in Florida, earthquakes in Mexico, volcanic eruptions in Bali — Oh my!


One of the interesting things about living in Bali is that as you begin to know people, you will begin to find yourself receiving preferential treatment. There is a certain sort of ‘culture of connections’ which one would not find, for instance, in America.

Say, for example, that you go to the same Starbucks almost every day. You get to know the Baristas. Soon, you will find yourself receiving a discount here, an upsize there. On “two-for-one” day, I realized, upon finishing my first cappuccino, that it was a grande rather than the tall associated with the advertised deal. The second was also a grande.

Say you meet someone who owns a Vape shop. You’ve been wanting to purchase a Vape (because you’ve been wanting to cut down on tobacco use), and so one day you ask for a price. Regular price 500,000 Rupiah, the man tells you. But for you, 400,000. And then he throws in a free bottle of Vape liquid (milk cheese cake flavor), and tells you that you will need to change your filter once a month, but he will bring one once a month “gratis”. Because … well, because he knows you. Because you are you.

Once a year, we must renew the registration for our motorbike. This means milling about half the day in a non-air-conditioned bureaucratic nightmare, OR … Yes, if you know someone, you give him the money for your fee, with a little tip, and he takes care of the thing for you. That is his job, you see. He is a self-employed personal navigator.

It’s all about connections, it’s all about relationships. It is one of the things, in a sort of ironic way, that keeps the Indonesian society interconnected, a sort of glue that holds the many parts together. It is not a question of ‘one price for all’; it is a question of ‘what price for who’.


Old Times

At least  couple times a week, I like to take a walk on the beach down in Sanur, about 10 minutes by motorbike from my house in Renon. Our first couple years in Bali, we lived in Sanur, which was very convenient, I must admit. Back then, I went swimming almost every day. That’s what one does when he first moves to Bali and lives only a couple blocks from the surf. They were good times, those. I was newly retired from a long career and basking in the sheer freedom of the thing, floating about in the warm, salty sea, as aimless as a chunk of driftwood, and happy for it.

In those days, only 7 years ago, much of the coastline in Sanur was still open beach, dotted here and there with little warungs and tokos (local cafes and shops). The tourist section was at the east end, starting with the old Grand Bali Beach Hotel and some long established restaurants. Further up was the Bali Hyatt and further yet the Mercure, but both those are situated back from the beach in their own enclaves, hardly noticeable from the beachfront.

Things have changed now — again, in only 7 years — with hotels springing up all along the way, and overpriced restaurants clustering nearby to reap the benefits of the hotel clientele. It’s kind of sad, really — all these grand, beautiful resorts crowding to the edge of the hitherto pristine sea. It is difficult to find a spot nowadays where you can just throw down your towel and lie in the shade of a tree or the bow of a primitive fishing boat as I used to do.

The last beach to the west — Mertasari — was for a long time the least populated spot on the entire Sanur coastline. There would be days when one would barely see another soul. I would lie in the shade beside one of the gaily painted catamarands, stroll into the surf three of four times, and return to the house several hours later as brown as a coconut shell. In fact, I was told by a waitress in one of the popular little bars nearby that I was no longer attractive, because I looked like everyone else now, no longer a fair-skinned bule.

Fond memories of those ‘ancient’ times prompted me, earlier this week, to climb into my swimsuit, pack up a backpack with suntan oil and a bottle of water and a book and a towel, and revisit those old haunts. But yeah … they’re not there anymore. Seems that everywhere you go, you find a hotel standing in the way. Where once there was vacant beach, now it is difficult to find a spot between restaurants. Add to that, that by the time I got down there, the ocean tide was far out and the remaining water was only knee deep or so. Keenly disappointed.

Plus, I had chosen the wrong beach (although it used to be the right beach, in the day).

The best bet is still Mertasari — or the west end of Mertesari, anyway. Here, the coast takes a sudden turn to the southeast as it approaches the mangroves further along the way. It is the most popular beach with locals, and I think it is protected, to some degree, from too much development. Every Sunday, you will find hundreds of Balinese at Mertasari, families, children. They will go there to swim or bathe or picnic, or fly kites when it is windy. Sunday is the Indonesian one-day weekend (most folks work six days a week). On all other days, however, Mertasari is still relatively peaceful, with just a couple small restaurants standing in the way (which themselves are cheap and pleasant if you feel like having a coffee or a simple breakfast or lunch).

But anyway, I started out to talk about walking. This day, I walked along a fairly peaceful section of beach which yet retains the character of the old water front, with a row of open-faced little shops selling fairly worthless little souvenirs for a wide range of prices, ready and willing to bargain. It’s a cultural thing. Let’s make a deal. They know, as well, that many tourists are unaware of the whole bargaining thing (and equally unaware of the relative value of the Rupiah or of comparative prices elsewhere), so why not start the bidding for that baseball hat with Bali written on it at 100,000 Rupiah (about three times what it’s worth)? Of course, there are also sarungs and shorts and flowered shirts and dresses and wooden sculptures and wrist watches (real Rolex!). And so on. And if you don’t want to buy any clothing, they can always offer a massage instead. More and more, however, these little tokos are being pushed into oblivion by the hotel boutiques. I can envision a time, perhaps within 5 more years, when these little shops will be things of the past. Bali steadily outgrows its own character, which, I fear, will ultimately be replaced by assembly line businesses and chain stores.

Along the way, I stopped to talk with a man sitting on a wall in the shade. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, and then he asked if I would sit down and chat for a while. He wasn’t selling anything (to me, anyway), had no deals to make, but just liked to talk. And so we talked about his family and my family and the hurricanes in America, and the American electoral process and how it could possibly happen that the people had elected one president but ended up with another, and about the beachfront in Sanur and how much it had changed in such a short time, and the superiority of motorbikes over cars, and so on and so forth. We sat and smoked together, and the placid morning turned to tranquil afternoon, shadows sliding gradually toward the surf.

This is my favorite thing, really – the impromptu conversation, a meeting of two people, one American and one Indonesian, separated by space and culture, united by the common concerns of all men, sharing the simplest of all things — a smile, laughter, a pat on the back, a forthright, unfeigned grasp of hands in parting.

Sampai jumpa.

Until next time.

The Reiki Master

[The following piece was written in 2010 and details, among other things, my visit to the Reiki Master, the Balinese healer. Although it seems, now, a bit callow, which itself serves as a measure of the displacement and confusion one experiences after first setting down in a strange, new environment. Familiarity, as it turns out, does not really breed contempt. It breeds personal growth and expansion]

Handoko is the most compact man I have ever met. He is stout, brawny, with four distinct sides, like a square–somehow reminiscent of the tactical formation adopted by Napoleonic era infantry to defend against cavalry assault, thereby avoiding attack from the rear (except perhaps by the lone hapless horseman who happened to land smack-dab in the center–in which case the rear of the enemy would have been equally his own).
And I think that my mind happens upon this military metaphor not by accident, for there is something imperial about the man in general. He is stolid, regal, fiercely composed, as if the long odds of Austerlitz were always before him. Such strength in composure is the habit of generals and emperors, not of mere mortals.
We are new here in Bali, and Handoko is our first connection. He is the man who knows. Ten years ago my wife had known the man fairly well, he and his daughter Feni–but ten years is a long time, especially as Indonesian time goes. Things have changed, some people have fled to far locales, others have simply gone out of business, and my wife has perhaps grown callow on a nine year diet of American culture and law.
Things are different here in Indonesia, and in Bali the ways are the same but the faces have changed. In any case, thriving here is a matter of who you know and what you can get because of who you know. It helps (immensely) to be Indonesian as well, and so we are at least one foot up there, since my wife fits the bill–native, as she is, to Jakarta, in Java, that well respected hub of government, commerce, education, and corruption.
Case in point: When you arrive at Denpassar International Airport you are immediately ushered by airport security to the end of a line which really has no end. Here most people wait until death, or at least until their vacation visa has expired. And if you are actually moving to Bali, as we are, and are therefore burdened with about 27 pieces of luggage, this can be quite bothersome.
But here is the catch. My wife is Indonesian. She is a young, pretty Indonesian. She is a Jakartan Indonesian and of course she speaks the language fluently (and speaks some Balinese to boot). By the time I come out of hiding in the smoking room she, our son, and our baggage are surrounded by most of the employees in the airport. Everyone wants to carry a bag, everyone wants to bring a luggage cart, more than a few want to carry my wife.
In such a manner we are whisked away, leaving behind a mass of suffering humanity, our fellow sojourners–straightaway through Visa, straightaway through customs. One bag is inspected for good measure, the inspector is rewarded with one carton of Kools from the bag, and the bag itself is then sealed with tape, with something very official looking stamped thereon.
The airport itself is put on hold while our army of carriers and accommodators follows us out the doorway into our first shocking blast of equatorial heat. Here is where money is exchanged, and generously so. Negotiations ensue, one fee is put forward, a counter offer is returned. It’s a complicated business, and the denominations are far beyond the kin of one used to the American dollar–for we are talking Rupiah here, thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions in Rupiah. Who has that much money?
Why, we do, once we exchange a few tens and twenties of US currency.
Our team in the this process of bargaining is joined by Victor and Iluh, our former telephone and e-mail friends made during the initial process of the move from America.
Iluh is a quiet, business-like woman of 50 or so. She knows how these things work and keeps smiling sweetly and shaking her head no. Victor is British, 62, brusque, determined, outspoken (especially when asked not to be), a not so perfect match for his reserved Balinese wife. They remind me rather of my own wife and I.
“Bloody hell!” Victor shouts in his normal tone of voice. “Did the man say one million? He’ll not get a million. He not get fuck-all.”
Victor is quietly shooshed by his quiet wife. He is given two heavy bags to carry to the car, and the patient, the knowledgeable are left to proceed, while I myself and left to wonder the bloody hell whether the fellow did say one million.
I too am shooshed, and sent to help Victor lift the bags he had been given into the rear bay of his SUV.
“Bloody scalpers,” Vick says, wresting the bag from my erstwhile assistance. “Bloody cheats and vipers, the lot.
“Glad to meet you, by the way,” he adds. “You’ll see a lot of this, mate, but you’ll learn, you’ll learn, don’t worry, don’t worry.”
The truth is, I am not yet aware enough, of anything, to worry. Worry is too focused an emotion just yet. Mainly I am hot, astounded by the heat, and I am frankly too busy wiping sweat from my formerly cool American brow to entertain anything, the effort of thinking for instance, that might further strengthen the unfettered flow of perspiration.
Vick tells me to give it three weeks. Acclimate. I am two weeks into this process when Handoko visits our hotel for the first time, and though it is evening, my pores and showing no sign of acclimation.
We are looking for a house, somewhere to more or less permanently stow our gear, and we are not so far having a lot of luck. My wife, always the optimist, seems to have been at least somewhat mistaken about the ease with which we might settle here. Victor and Iluh had done their best, but real estate is apparently not their forte. On our last house hunting excursion Victor had driven us down a lane just about wide enough for half a car. Along the way a woman wearing a red miniskirt and no top to speak of approached the passenger side door, tapped on the window, and inquired whether we were looking for a party.
“Party Mister?” she said. “You want party?”
That was right before she noticed our two wives sitting in the back seat.               Scowling.
Later that night, back in the hotel, my wife called Handoko.
We sat on the patio–I, Sant Louis, Handoko, and Feni. Handoko smoked unusually fat Kreteks, one after another. Feni continually sniffed at a Vicks inhaler, and sneezed when not sniffing. Puffing, pondering, Handoko listened, collected the details, seemed to scrutinize an actual picture playing out before eyes set deep in wrinkles of hard won wisdom.
And then he said this:
“I, Handoko, have done many things in my life. Many things for which I cannot now sleep. I lived this way, not sleeping, for a long, long time, many years. I have seen people die. Too many people. And then I had a heart attack.”
Instantly, I fail to understand what this has to do with our hunt for a residence. I am quite frankly sick to death of living out of a suitcase and my son is dying because we have no TV. I look to Louis for some indication of what this departure from pertinence might mean, but she returns a sharp glance, quite familiar to me, which just as instantly imparts a message to the effect that I should keep my mouth shut.
Handoko proceeds with an ever more fantastic story of employment by the Indonesian Secret Service, assassinations and beheadings, mafia style executions. He had no heart back then, he said–or at least he didn’t think he had until he got the heart attack.
After that–after realizing that he had a heart–he had to quit that business.
Now he works in the tourism industry. He has more clients, he says, in the Sanur/Kuta/Seminyak area that anyone else in Bali. People know his name.
Those who are still alive, I’m thinking.
My wife gets up to refill Handoko’s coffee mug and I quickly follow her to the kitchen.
“What’s up with your friend?” I whisper.
I roll my eyes. “Yes, that’s the one. Handoko. I thought he knew something ab out houses.”
“He has had hard times,” she explains.
“I’ll say. I haven’t heard a story like that since H.G. Wells.”
“Who is Archie Willis,“ she asks, and pushes me out of the way to get to the cupboard where the sugar is kept.
“H.G. Well’s. He’s . . . oh, never mind. He’s the quarterback for the New York Yankees. What difference does it make?”
“Exactly,” Louise answers.
To my great relief, Handoko is standing when we return to the patio. Feni has remained sitting, looking up at the man, her Vicks inhaler suspended, frozen in air. My wife sits down as well. It is clear somehow that Handoko is about to make a pronouncement, or a declaration, a speech. The birds have stopped their singing. The Cicaks have stopped their panicked skittering–one fixed to the wall, another to the ceiling. The air itself waits, the wind, the clock.
“I have heard your story,” Handoko begins. “I have considered your troubles, your frustrations, and your desires. And I have decided . . .”
Here he leaves a space. A space about the length of two puffs from his fat kretek.
“What?” I say. “What is it? What have you decided?”
I cannot help myself. My wife frowns. Feni giggles. And the man himself,          Handoko, smiles. Yes, he actually smiles. It is the first time I’ve seen this since he arrived.
“I have decided, he says, that Handoko will help you.”
And he did help, Handoko did. He got right to work.
There was a house to be had in Denpasar. Well, not a house really, but a building. A three story building (perhaps it had been a former Secret Service HQ, I cannot say). It is a building designed quite perfectly to frustrate any attempt of my own to live comfortably, given the condition of my health, but my wife likes it, and so Handoko proceeds.
My wife likes it, as I say, but there is much lacking. Lacking, for instance, is a kitchen, although there is the skeletal appearance of one, on the third floor, or rather on the roof, in the open air, where several significant looking metal pipes jut out from the wall and shriveled wires climb about like ivy.
This will need a bit of work.
My wife says to go forward. Handoko proceeds. And my wife flies to Jakarta to visit relatives. I am to supervise the process.
But a problem soon arises. The problem is that Handoko will not communicate with me. He adopts an increasingly familiar habit of turning his back whenever I speak.
And so I turn to Feni. The Vicks sniffer.
“Is there a problem, Feni? It seems like there is a problem. But Handoko will not speak.”
“Is problem,” Feni says.
“Yes? Problem how? Problem what?”
Everything in the Indonesian language is backward, you see. We do not say what problem, but problem what? And although I am speaking English to Feni, I give the structure an Indonesian spin to be as accommodating as possible.
“Problem electricity,” she answers. “Not enough.”
“In the house, or in the Country?”
“In the kitchen.”
“What kitchen?” I catch myself. “Kitchen what?”
“Kitchen of the future,” she says.
Now my first impression upon hearing this harkens from times long past, having myself grown up during the 50’s. The kitchen of the future. It sounds like an old television ad. I picture a well groomed woman in a conservative skirt and blouse, perky breasts, no doubt wearing one of those bygone pointed bras underneath. The kitchen of the future. The space age kitchen. Plates hover about like flying saucers, picking up food from oven and stovetop. Meet the Jetsons.
But Feni and never heard of the Jetsons, and says so when I mention it. She has no idea what I’m talking about, in either language.
Maybe, I think, this is why Handoko will not speak to me. He has no idea what I’m talking about either, and is wise enough to understand that the same is true of me where his own efforts to communicate are concerned.
I wonder for the first time what the hell I’m doing here. I cannot speak, I cannot be heard. What I do hear, suddenly, is the voice of my first wife.
What is wrong with you? Are you crazy? What do you know about Indonesia? What do you know about those people? What are you going to do when you get sick, and have no doctor, and have no medicine?
And then the voice of my second wife chimes in as well.
That woman never loved you. You never listen. Once a fool, always a fool. She’ll take your money and dump you in the jungle, and if you think I’m gonna come save you, think again!
And so I call Louise. My wife. In Jakarta. And end up interrupting a party of some sort.
“Can you handle one thing?” she says. “Can I trust you to handle one blessed thing for me?”
And so it goes. The rest of that is a long story, folks–which I do not have the heart, nor the words to tell.
Saturday rolls around, and Handoko the man himself shows up at my door very early in the morning. Pagi-pagi, they say, which means very early. In this language the doubling of a word indicates either plurality or more of the thing mentioned. Pagi on its own means morning. Pagi-pagi means very, or early morning.
Pagi-pagi it is. I am in fact still in bed.
Handoko therefore waits on the patio, smoking fat kreteks.
While I throw on some clothing my son asks if we can get a TV today. He has already watched from my laptop about 52 times the Mr. Bean cartoon I bought for him on DVD, and he’s getting a bit bored.
“No,” I say, briefly, but not without sympathy (in my heart anyway).
Handoko, I realize, is not the sort of man who shows up for a social visit. He is here for a reason, and awaits an audience. It is with some trepidation that I join him, wondering if he has gotten wind of my complaint about his silence, wondering if in fact he is going to tell me to butt out of his business, or else. This is not a man to trifle with, as apparently many in the past, who have now passed on, have found out the hard way–their only recourse having been to trouble his sleep. I don’t want to trouble Handoko’s sleep.
As it turns out, however, Handoko wishes to address the issue of my illness. It has come to his attention that I suffer from multiple sclerosis, which, as he speaks about it, sounds even more serious for his utter inability to pronounce the words.
Multiplexosis, he says. Multiactosis, multicirrhosis.
And so on. I’m beginning to feel significantly more diseased than usual.
He has read about the disease all night long, he says.
Oh Christ, I’ve disturbed his sleep after all!
He has studied it in detail. On the internet. All night. He is concerned, and he wants to help. He says so.
“Handoko will help.”
I will be taken, by Handoko personally, to see the Reiki Master. Not eventually, but now, today, pagi-pagi. This morning.
A Reiki Master is, of course, a master of Reiki. Reiki itself is a Japanese healing technique, with subsequent add-ons from India, Indonesia, Bali, Hinduism, and probably a few other isms. The practice involves a manipulating of the life force energy–essentially that invisible set of nebulous spiritual components that keeps us alive. The man or woman who is sick or disturbed needs to have these forces aligned, massaged, kneaded, and generally rubbed down. A sort of chiropractic for the soul. (I should know, I looked it up on the Internet). A subsequent program of meditation don’t hurt neither.
But you have to know someone. It’s all by word of mouth. You hear about it, you ask around, you make the preliminary connections. Then you drive up into the countryside, past the stone cutting shops, all the grey faced finished and unfinished idols cued up on the earthen sidewalk like sullen beggars, awaiting devotees, almost to Ubud when you turn to the left and follow the long road between rice fields until finally you arrive in the Reiki Master’s village.
There you find a little community of Java style huts, open to the air all the way through, wooden racks for beds, a porch and chairs, all sweltering under the sluggish sun. The air is incense, everything breathes–the foliage, the earth, the grass, the moss, the stones, the very wood of which the huts have been made.
An old man sits on the porch, still, like a growth, a complimentary form of dilapidation. This is the Reiki Master. Younger men and women sit back languidly on benches and chairs, patiently waiting their turn to be healed. The Reiki Master is never in a hurry. When either he or the powers or both are ready, he will examine the Chakras of each person–head, throat, chest, pelvis, sex organs, limbs, back and shoulders, and divine by the use of a little copper L-shaped rod which Chakra is healthy and which is not. The Master makes the diagnosis, and then sends his patient to the healers, the worker ants, within the humid bowel of the hut.
And so we wait. But we don’t wait long. I do not know if this is because I am a Westerner (and will be able to pay 100,000 Rupiah up front), or if it is because I am with Handoko, well known as he is, and a patient himself of the Master’s.
“I came here after the heart attack,“ he told me on the drive up to Ubud. “I was very sick, and nothing worked. I was dying. I was tired, no energy, just lying in my bed all day, although I could not sleep (again the trouble with sleep).
“The Master helped me. Now you see Handoko and Handoko is well.“
He meets briefly with the Master before my session and explains the nature of my disease. Multiple Cyanosis. Soon I must surely die, he says, if I don’t get the proper alignment.
Alignment. Every time I hear that word, I think of the front wheels on a car. If the front wheels on your car are out of alignment, the rubber on the tires will wear at the edges, and then pretty soon you will end up with a flat tire.
Is that how it is with me? Am I about to go flat? It is true enough that I am not feeling all too well, and haven’t felt well for the past few years, but I don’t feel like I’m running on my rims or anything like that.
And who told Handoko I was about to die? It certainly wasn’t me. Maybe my wife, I’m thinking, inclined as she is to be a bit dramatic.
I ask the man straight out.
Handoko looks a bit taken aback initially, almost as if I had made an accusation.
“No one tells me,” he says. “I read this on the Internet.”
This, in fact, is an answer which provides some clarity, for depending upon what word or words he had typed into the search box–be it multiferous skytosis, melting cytosis, malignant scamosis, or any one of multiple other possible variations–I may well be dying indeed.
But then again, I think, who says I have anything at all? What is multiple sclerosis after all? What is any disease except for a name invented to sum up various sets of various symptoms. Maybe I’m just getting old.
How can the doctors really prove that MS is what they say it is, or whether it is something else altogether? Specifically, it has been the long held belief that MS is an autoimmune disorder, wherein the wrong sorts of cells are allowed to cross the blood-brain barrier–destructive cells, killer cells–and these proceed, on the wrong side of that barrier, to inflict damage on the otherwise (or theretofore) brain and spinal cord. Yet, a growing body of evidence now arises that suggests this is not an autoimmune disorder at all, but a vascular disorder, wherein the blood itself regurgitates, flowing every now and then in the wrong direction.
Which is it really? This, that, or something else altogether?
And then there is this: When I had my first MRI back in 2005 it was read by the radiologist as being suspicious for possible MS, and in turn dismissed by the neurologist as showing nothing specific or diagnostic. Two years later a second radiologist read the old MRI as classic for MS, and a new one as confirmative.
Was the first doctor wrong, or was the second doctor wrong? And why, come to think of it, are we so generally inclined to favor the positive (and therefore negative) diagnosis over the neutral or nondiagnostic one?
I guess it is because we don’t feel good, and insist on knowing why. We want a word, a definition, a prognosis, a pill.
The facts of the matter, in my case, are that in May of 2007 my right foot suddenly went numb, then my left foot, then both legs to the knees. I believed nothing at the time, suspected nothing, premeditated nothing. The problem was simply, undeniably there. Call it MS, call it vascular disease, call it just plain weird-it doesn’t matter. The numbness climbed to my thighs, climbed to my groin, and for a time switched off all sensation to my penis (an alarming, terrifying circumstance indeed, though thankfully, at present, a thing of the past).
If the symptoms constitute the disease, is the lack of symptoms therefore the absence of disease?
Since 2008 my symptoms have been increasingly mild. In fact the worst symptoms I experienced during the period of about a year were from the injected medications, not from MS at all. Upon stopping the medications in later 2009 I felt yet better with each passing week, so that now I find myself suffering hardly any symptoms at all.
Or do I?
We human beings seem to have been made to adjust to circumstances of almost every sort. The mind and the spirit both pursue peace, we acclimate, we shift and turn, we love ourselves whomever and whatever we are. Take the convict for instance who grows so fond of his cell that he has no desire to reenter life on the outside. Take the child who becomes so accustomed to abuse that he takes abuse to be the norm. Take the Cicak, which when threatened discards its own tail, yet carries on with the remainder of its body, making do.
Am I only used to my MS symptoms? It is possible that I have become actually fond of them? They are, after all, mine and nobody else’s.
And what about the healings? I have been healed now by three Christian pastors and one Hindu master. The Reiki Master tells me that I was healed two years ago and need now only to have my chakras cleansed. That’s interesting, because I received a healing from the first of the three pastors just about two years ago. Hmmm.
Your faith has made you whole, Jesus said. This was echoed also by the Reiki Master, who told me that he was doing nothing, I was doing everything within myself. He simply recognized and focused.
When the Lord was walking along a road with his disciples, pressed by the crowd, a woman pushed through to touch the hem of his garment, and Jesus immediately turned and asked Who is it that touched me just now, for he felt power go forth from him.
What power? Desire. Desire had touched him, faith, belief. If only I can touch your garment, then I will be well.
What are the mechanics of this, really? Modern quantum physics instructs that nothing in the world happens without our participation. No sickness, therefore, exists without the participation of the one who is sick; no diagnosis is made without the doctor actually looking at the test, the MRI, and thereby setting the conclusion into motion.
And yet one day my legs went dead, my brain went foggy. I was told that this was because I had multiple sclerosis. I believed it. Beforehand I did not even know what MS is, but now it was in me, of me, and I was explained to myself by the disease itself.
The Reiki Master–a very old man by all appearances–a mix of Chinese, Balinese, ethereal being and witch doctor, has me sit down opposite him to get acquainted. He is acutely interested to find that I am an American. I have found that most people in Bali have the same response. Ah so that’s what they look like!
The old man then closes his eyes and pointed his little L-shaped copper rod at my head. The idea seems something along the lines of a divining rod for detecting water, only in this case a flow of life force is divined, or a lacking in the same.
The little rod spins.
“Head is good.”
It spins again.
“Neck is good.”
And again, and again.
“Chest is good. Legs are good. Back is bad.”
Again, the pronouncement of something bad interests me, whereas all the good parts had not.
“What’s wrong with the back?” I ask.
“Not aligned.”
I try to sit up straighter.
“Pelvis good,” the Master says. “Pelvis very good. Can still have babies.”
On the one had this makes me feel pleased, and virile. Can still have babies. Many babies. Especially after my frightening experience with numbness, this feels nice.
On the other hand, I’m done having babies, so to speak. There is no way in the world I would want more babies. And my wife doesn’t want any more either. So this is more of a confidence builder than anything of actual pertinence.
Still and all, I don’t mind.
Handoko, seemingly disappointed at these large positive findings, leans into our meeting to mention again that I am dying.
I receive a rescanning with the magic copper wand, carefully, patiently, eyes squinted tightly shut.
“Not dying, not have disease,” the Master pronounces again. “Disease gone two years ago. See?”
He spins the copper smoothly, three times.
“But this is very good,” he adds, and clutches his own crotch. “Have many more babies if want.”
I was told by the Reiki Master to come once a week. For how many weeks, I do not know. But truthfully, I have no desire to return. If you feel just fine, why take further notice of what once made you feel not just fine?
What healing have I received that has healed me indeed? Is there a man who has the power to arrange the nature and circumstances of the body, or is the power already there for the use of all men?
Where is the Kingdom of Heaven? the disciples asked.
The Kingdom of heaven is in your midst.
What has healed me, if I have indeed been healed? Exactly what is it, was it, that needed healing? And if one does not start with a disease, how is it that he may receive healing at all? Is not disease the necessary precursor to health–else, how do we know we are sick or well?
I do believe that we are all led throughout life from sickness to health, from question to answer, from corruption to perfection, from being lost to being found. From the earliest time we yearn to somehow return somewhere, or then again to arrive somewhere.
Yet is it not true as well that the more we gain in consciousness, the farther away we find ourselves?
Slip-slidin’’ away, as Paul Simon put it. You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip-slidin’ away.
We come to understand that we are not in stasis, but on a journey. We sense that the journey has a destination. Since the actual destination is lost in the fog of all that we do not know, we most often provide our own definitions. Perhaps, one may decide, the point is success on worldly terms. Perhaps the point is money, comfort, leisure. Whomever has the most toys wins. Maybe this is all about family, or love, or survival of the fittest. Maybe even it is about nothing at all. So said Sartre and Camus. Maybe it is all vanity, maybe it is senseless. So said King Solomon.
What guide can we have along the way? And if we go astray, what can pull us back, reset the compass, turn the rudder?
How about disease? Is it possible for disease itself to be a cure? We find ourselves in the grasp of illness and wish instantly to be released–but what if disease is sometimes The Power’s idea of health?
Is disease necessarily the bane, or is it sometimes the blessing?
We choose according to the patterns of the world those things that we understand, and yet find ourselves chosen nonetheless, not by permission, not by desire; unasked, unbidden, unwilling, and yet fully apprehended.
Even as we seek magic–the touch of the Reiki Master, the good man’s prayer, the laying on of hands, injected medications, miraculous pharmaceuticals, devastating doses of intravenous chemicals–the true magic that brought the disease remains fiercely contained in the same.
Look then, learn, listen, feel, struggle and grow; surrender, love, persist, and prevail. It is your faith that has made you whole.
As a postscript, I feel obliged to say that Handoko’s three story military intelligence headquarters did not in the end pan out as a house for us. There was simply not enough electricity that could be made available for the kitchen of the future, nor really for the first and seconds floors of the present day.
Moreover, Handoko decided along the way to pay himself a wage of his own choosing, no more inclined to consult his employers than Napoleon had been to consult the Pope.   It became clearer and clearer that what we were facing was a money pit. What we were facing was a Waterloo.
And so it was Louis who made the ultimate decision in the matter, just after she returned from Jakarta, just before she left for a visit to America.
“Handoko will no longer help,” she said.

[My apologies for the imperfect formatting. The piece was originally composed in a WP program that resists tinkering in WordPress]

Worlds Apart – 3

Of course, I wasn’t about to move into a cardboard box, not just yet anyway. I had my investment savings from my career to fall back on, and within 7 years, I would have my Social Security funds. No, upon arriving in Bali, we began straightaway to look for a suitable little house–nothing grandiose (our budget fell far short of grandiose), but something more than a box.

We were met at the airport by Iluh, an old friend of my wife’s, and her husband, Vick. Our 12 boxes were carried by at least 12 eager helpers for a fee that was also less than grandiose to Vick’s car. I began to see on that first day of arrival, within the first hour, the power of just a little bit of money in Indonesia. We were assisted, for instance, through customs, our route expedited, long lines avoided, the bothersome process of inspection bypassed. One box was cracked opon as a sort of proprietary measure, peered into, and sent on its way to the car. Any one of these boxes might have been filled with cocaine, as far as they knew. Of course they weren’t, but one did contain MS medications that would be considered illegal here in Indonesia–specifically, Vicodin, which is a narcotic pain medication, for people who actually need it for pain, but is also, as I understand it, crushed into a powder these days and huffed for a high. (Narcotics are illegal in Indonesia, even in hospitals. Good luck if you’re in pain. I guess you could always meditate, or go to a Hindu healer–which I actually did do, and will cover in a future post).

At first, having not yet had the time to search for a house, we stayed in in a villa, and got a taste of ‘the good life’, enjoyed as a ‘way of life’ by many of the wealthier bules here. The villa was complete with private pool, AC units in each room, an expansive kitchen with all the modern bells and whistles, and a ‘staff’ — cook, gardener, maid, and so on.

We soon found that common housing was a bit, well, common in comparison to what we were used to in America. It was, however, incredibly cheap compared to housing in America. The places we looked at ran between 20 and 30 million rupiah per year–given the exchange rate at the time, between 2 and 3 thousand dollars–kind of like one would pay per month back home. These were two or three bedroom houses, generally one bathroom about the size of a closet (water closet is indeed a fitting term here), with sometimes a small yard, and oftentimes the kitchen would be outdoors. No pool, of course. No garage, no basement, one floor. One that we looked at featured a steep stairway that ended at the ceiling, at which point the builders had decided, apparently, Well, nah, we don’t need no second floor, but the stairway is kinda nice anyway.

From the villa, we went to a hotel. From the hotel, we went to a home stay. And we looked for houses. Part of the problem is that landlords here in Bali don’t seem to acknowledge any particular responsibility for the properties they seek to rent. One will find each in some degree of disrepair. There’s a toilet, for instance, but the toilet doesn’t work. Maybe you (the prospective renter) can repair it. There’s a hole in the roof, but, hey, it doesn’t rain that often. Just put a bucket beneath the drip. One of the doors is permanently locked. No one knows where the key is. Maybe you can find it? Some have stood empty for perhaps a year or more, during which time they have never been cleaned. Some of the former tenants belongings are still in the corner. The point for the Balinese landlord is to collect rent. The rest is your problem. In house we lived in, a pipe somewhere beneath the front yard sprung a leak. Soon, the entire yard was a lake. I called the landlord to report this, and she advised that I (yes, I), might call the number of a repairman she knew. But why would I call the repairman? It’s your house. Right? Oh, no, I had nothing to do with that leak. It’s just my house. I’m not responsible for things that go wrong.

So, you see, one enters a new reality, full of strange procedures and expectations. I still have not gotten used to the viewpoint of the landlords. Two winters ago, for instance, a panel flew away from the roof of the carport (luckily missing my wife’s car as it fell). I called the landlord to politely inform him of the occurrence, and he said he would take a look. About six months later, he did take a look. And the panel is still propped against the wall at the side of the house.

The roof of my neighbor’s house sprung five leaks, requiring five buckets. Oh well, it is rainy season, he was told. And so he paid his final dues and moved out, much to the astonishment of the owner of the house.

And our own home search? Well, it went on, much longer than we would ever have anticipated.