Baptism in Bali
“Go to the ocean, somewhere with water, and say your name, many times. It will give you your power back,” the healer said, ring-stacked fingers resting on my shoulders.
“Like the Spring Water Temple in Ubud?” I asked.
“Yes, the Spring Water Temple,” he answered, with a long gaze through flickering brown eyes and a tooth-gapped wild smile.
It was day 11 of my two-week solo trip to the island of Bali, and the first morning of a four-night stay at a resort.
Yet with the healer’s words, I knew I couldn’t spend another night floating in a leaf-shaped neon-lit pool to a New Age soundtrack. I wouldn’t be breathing through downward facing dog, cobra, and tree poses, either. And although I would lose more money in one day by leaving than I’d spent so far on the trip, I had to let it all go, because I needed to be somewhere else.
* * *
Payogan village, a few minutes’ drive from the center of Ubud, was where I had first landed in Bali when I had arrived from San Francisco. Ketut, my homestay host, had greeted me with a handshake and friendly smile.
Drinking a Bintang beer, he had guided me through the time-warped wonderland of his extended family’s compound, dodging pink and yellow balloons and shrill cries from a child’s birthday party as we walked along the path to about a dozen small homes. He showed me his green tropical sanctuary, fruit trees, and farmland, and invited me to a home-cooked chicken satay and lawar dinner that night as his guest.
We said goodbye a week later.
“You are welcome anytime, Liz,” he said, after a firm hug, an action I had rarely seen between men and women on the island.
* * *
In San Francisco a month earlier, I had impetuously decided to travel to “the island of the gods,” which had beckoned me with its art, rituals, terraced rice fields, mystical temples, and healing traditions.
Travel had been in my bones since I first flew solo at age six, when a flight attendant had pinned PSA wings on my purple sweater. But it had been more than five years since I’d lowered my in-flight tray table without a companion next to me.
On that flight as a six-year-old, and as an adult solo traveler, I often experienced loneliness, a feeling that coursed through my fingers and toes and that had been with me for as long as I could remember.
As a child at home, I’d lie in my floral wallpapered bedroom on lime-green shag carpet, my elbows chafing as I wrote stories for hours in a notebook, which was sometimes speckled with tears. When I was alone, I was away from the tempest—an ongoing conflict with my mother to defend my worth, strength, and power. Like a gray cloud, it swept through the hallways, rooms, and doorways of my house, its presence constant, its downpours unpredictable. I grew to loathe the loneliness and its sadness, and at the same time to rely on it to keep me invisible and safe.
Years passed, and I learned to avoid the loneliness with a busy life, but when I traveled alone, it would often lure me to its cave. So I stopped traveling alone.
Still, my wanderlust called. I dreamed of living in Southeast Asia—the “big leap”—but didn’t have the courage. I came up with the trip to Ubud as a “mini-leap” and lifeline to myself.
Once I was on the ground in Ubud, I found myself asking, why? Why am I in a dance class simultaneously holding up my left leg and bending my left arm, tapping my right index finger to my pinkie, tilting my head, and not blinking to achieve the “Big Eyes” my teacher is demanding? Why am I rushing from a cooking class, to a massage, to a dance performance, instead of watching the sunset on the rice fields? Why am I not spending more time with Ketut and his family?
I had thought a busy regimen would strengthen my traveling muscles, but as I translated my over-scheduled life in San Francisco into Balinese, the loneliness still lurked.
* * *
I sat with the healer at the end of a polished teak dining table facing the leaf-shaped pool. After he asked my name and if it was my first time in Bali, he looked for something in my eyes.
“So, why do you come to see me? What do you need healing from?” He took a long sip of mango juice from a bamboo straw.
“Sadness,” I answered.
“Why sadness?” he asked, setting the juice down, and holding one of the many amulets around his neck.
“When I was a child, I didn’t get along with my mother. She was mean to me, and I felt very lonely. I worked hard to get rid of this feeling, but it is still here,” I spoke slowly, with my hand to my heart, wondering if he understood.
“Ahhhhhhhhh. Yes,” he said, turning the amulet over in his hand, gazing at its amber stone. “Something like this happened to me as a child. But if we are not as close with our parents, it is easier for us to leave them—that is good. We make our own strength. We can have more power this way.”
I wasn’t sure I agreed with him.
He paused again with a long gaze, and then asked, “Do you love your mother? You forgive her?”
“Yes. Yes, I do,” I answered, through soft tears.
“Good,” he said, smiling. “There is power inside you, but it is blocked. I will do healing, and then we will see what else you need to do.”
I followed him past the pool to a cabana with a massage table. I lay down on my stomach and covered myself with a sarong. He sprinkled my back with chemical-smelling arak and herbs, and massaged my legs, feet, and hands with black pestles intended to release blocks in my kidneys and heart, sending momentary yet excruciating pain through my fingers and toes. Then he placed an amulet on my chest, sprinkled more arak and herbs, and we harmonized a series of “Ommmmmm”s, centered at the heart chakra where the amulet was resting.
The healer removed the amulet and fastened it around his neck with the others. I sat up awkwardly on the massage table, clutching the sarong to my healed body. That’s when I received my prescription for power.
* * *
Ketut was sitting in his home’s outdoor living room when I returned to Payogan.
“What happened?” he asked, knowing I had booked and paid for the resort in advance.
“I can make more money, but I can’t get more time with you at this moment in Bali, my friend,” I said, removing my flip-flops and resting cross-legged next to him on cool white tiles.
That night, Ketut and his 27-year-old son, Wayan, showed me how to roll raw spiced chicken between my thumbs and index fingers to form satay skewers. Wayan tended to the small hibachi grill, with coals glowing orange in the shadow of a desk lamp powered by an extension cord.
Two of the family’s chickens scowled at us from the stone wall across the way.
“They’re upset we are cooking their family for dinner,” laughed Ketut, flashing one of his ever-present grins, a hand on his white T-shirt and round belly.
The next night, Ketut’s wife wrapped a purple sarong around my waist to prepare me for a procession honoring the temple’s birthday. She paused to hold my brass-swinging obelisk necklace, and her kind eyes met mine.
Twenty minutes later, a lighter sparked incense as I sat peacefully in the crowded village temple, where a baby on his mother’s lap next to me continually dropped his hat, I picked it up, and we all smiled.
Sandalwood smoke burned my lungs and cymbals rang in my ears as I joined the procession with Ketut, his cousin, his brother, and about two hundred other villagers, from Payogan’s temple to Ubud’s main temple.
I watched teenage boys laugh as they traded places under the two-person Barong lion costume, teasing each other for being too weak to carry its massive gold head and blonde and brown mane, up and down the vine-covered twists and turns of the main road leading to Ubud.
Young mothers with coiffed hair, white lace blouses, and babies balanced on their pink-and-purple-wrapped hips, giggled at me, as I stumbled in my own sarong, mismatched with a striped t-shirt, and flip-flops.
Ketut’s cousin encouraged me to keep going during the two-hour-long procession through 80-percent humidity, when I asked him, “Almost there?”
“We exercise together!” he said, eyes shining behind wire-rimmed glasses.
A sea of white, pink, red, purple, and gold moved from the dark night into the bright crowded ceremony. Women balancing gold trays on their heads, stacked with tropical fruits, cookies, and coins, stepped through the temple’s narrow doorway. I closed my eyes to absorb the feeling of pure joy, and carried it with me as I walked down the temple steps and up the hill back to Payogan.
* * *
On my last day in Ubud, I embraced my final stroll alone through the rice fields with a deep inhale and exhale. I felt the first raindrop on my sunburnt shoulder. The wind chime’s rolling melody began its crescendo. Gray clouds swept up blue skies and swaying palm trees. At the thunder’s clap, my stroll became a jog until I reached the end of a narrow path leading to the main road. I asked a taxi driver “Payogan?” as raindrops turned to showers.
I ran through Ketut’s front gate, and Wayan looked up from the rear view mirror on his scooter, where he was concentrating on getting a clean shave. “Liz, ready? We have to go now. Big Rain is coming.”
“Can we still go if it rains?” I asked. We had saved our trip to the Spring Water Temple for my last day.
“We can try, but if Big Rain comes, we have to go home,” he answered.
Rain couldn’t stop me from following the healer’s words. Not on my last day in Ubud.
I contemplated telling Wayan that I had to go to the temple, even in the rain. It seemed out of place, and I didn’t think he would understand. He must be wrong about the Big Rain, I thought.
I ran to my room at the back of the compound to grab my swimsuit, and we left.
Our eyes met with worry as raindrops pecked the windshield of Wayan’s white Suzuki SUV as it inched through traffic past the rice terraces we had visited on my first day in Ubud.
“Remember?” he asked, worry dissipating as his left arm pointed across me and towards the window.
“Of course!” I replied, thinking of the coconut hacked open on the ground by a young woman with tight jeans, flip-flops, flesh-colored socks, and a machete, whose sweet water we had shared with two red straws overlooking endless green.
It was one of many moments I had cherished with Wayan, my guide and instant friend, singing, and making jokes like his dad, as he taught me Balinese and Indonesian words, and I taught him new English ones.
During one of my earlier nights in Payogan, before my stay at the resort, Wayan had grabbed a guitar from the corner of an empty restaurant, tightened the strings, and begun to play. A warm breeze rustled the rice fields next to us outside a floor-to-ceiling window. We belted out lyrics to a song I’d never heard before my trip, but had learned to sing by heart. Especially the chorus—”This is gonna be the best day of my life. My li-i-i-ife.”
* * *
The traffic cleared, and as we approached Tirta Empul, the Spring Water Temple—the site where Balinese Hindus purified for beginnings, life, and death—the rain became a cool breeze and cloudy gray sky.
“No rain!” I proclaimed, lifting my arms in victory next to a banyan tree at the temple’s entrance.
We sat cross-legged in matching purple sarongs on a stone platform, facing the holy pool of midnight blue and its 13 fountains. Worshipers waded in waist-high water, tourists cautiously milled with oversized camera lenses, and guides whispered and pointed with restrained animation at an intricately carved stone dragon.
Wayan held two incense sticks and flicked his lighter. He placed the incense in two woven palm leaf offerings in front of us, filled with money, sweets, and flowers, and waved his hand over sandalwood smoke fronds.
“Like this, Liz, three times, and pray,” he said, picking a saffron-colored flower from an offering, raising it to his forehead, rubbing it between his thumb and index finger, and dropping it with eyes closed.
After a few minutes in silence, he took my hand as we stepped slowly into the depths of midnight blue. I heard the faint sound of cymbals and gamelan drums. The air was crisp from fresh rain.
I watched Wayan as he raised his hands in worship, dunked his head in the first fountain three times, and waded to the second one.
As I approached the first fountain, I looked up at a dark, gray, merciless cloud.
I thought: Not today. Not now. Not here.
I pressed my hands together just above my forehead, and closed my eyes. Cymbals and drums stirred the water as I drew my hands down to my chest.
Water rushed over my face, and stung my eyes, one, two, and three times, as I whispered: Liz. Liz. Liz.
I followed Wayan this way through 11 fountains.
When we approached the 12th fountain, he shook his head. “Only if someone died,” he said.
A part of me was dying, the sad and lonely part, I thought. No, not dying, changing. I hoped. I skipped the fountain.
Then we came to the end, facing a stream about three times the size of the others.
Wayan went first—one, two, three splashes—and as he waded away from the fountain, he motioned for me to be careful.
I contemplated this small rushing river, flowing in sheets into the depths of the pool.
I felt a chill as my fingertips touched in prayer. As I closed my eyes, the water pulled my shoulders in and was deafening. I went underwater and remembered the healer’s words as I repeated my name louder each time: Liz. Liz. Liz.
As I stepped away, the cymbals and gamelan drums vibrated through my ears, fingers, and toes. I almost lost my balance and scanned the crowd for Wayan. There he was, waving, smiling, waiting for me.
With feet steady on the stone floor, I exhaled, and gazed up.
I felt like I might float, between the midnight blue water and peaceful dark clouds, in a moment that could last forever.
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