The first words that came to mind when the plane landed are Kekap Manis. And I giggled. It was dark outside like the Kekap Manis bottle. We were introduced to it through our Indonesian nannies when we were children. In Arabic, we called it “black ketchup”. It’s not ketchup, of course, more of a strong sticky soy syrup that made food shades more interesting.
I was worried that Indonesia would smell like one of my nannies’ strange chilis mixtures; they smelled like fish guts turned inside out cooked with garlic and sewage water. It would waft around the house but no one would say anything because it would be rude stop the woman from making her native food.
The first thing I do when I arrive, is keep my nose sharp for the aroma. Every country, or part of the Earth has its own aroma. I remember noticing it the first time in England when I visited in 2007 with my mother. The summer countryside smelled so ripe and warm and sweet that it was on the verge of spoiling. In 2008, Japan smelled like Sakura. It was in the sheets, in the soaps, in the food and even on the Japanese themselves. As for Bali - bracing my myself for the possibility of something nasty - it took me twenty four hours after arrival to try to describe the way it smells. In fact, my nose has been introduced to so many new aromas since I arrived here that I don’t, as of now, have the vocabulary to put it accurately together. I can safely say, though, that Bali smells like a mixture of smoky coffee beans, jackfruit, and wet laundry hanging out to dry in the sun.
I’m staying in a room at a guesthouse in Ubud. The guesthouse business is rife here that I wonder if it is ever threatened by chain hotels or even by AirBnb. This guesthouse is owned by a man called Wayan and his son. It’s a lovely meandering place, four little “huts” within the walls of one house with a temple in the middle and gardens sprawling lush in between.
Everyone I have met so far has been startlingly kind. It’s the land, I think. On my drive from Denpasar to Ubud, I witnessed the infinite abundance here. There’s so much of everything and nothing is being extorted. There’s so much grass, so many trees, shingles, motorbikes textiles, pebbles. The Earth just gives and gives and then gives some more without depleting itself. A land that gives, breeds gentleness and you could see it on Balinese faces - well most of them anyway.
The greens painted thickly with a palette knife in the rice fields from a never-ending tub of pigment. Confused blue and white sky.The roads travel through impasses in the jungle where the trees fight through carved stone walls to let their hair tumble above you in golden strings. Lime green butterflies. Herons dipping their feet in the muddy rice paddies. Dragonflies as large as jumbo prawns. Banana trees; wise old crones with bloody flowers bigger than your head. I smelled a cinnamon leaf for the first time in my life. If you break it apart and sniff the moisture you’ll find real cinnamon trapped inside only your nose will find it greener than the stick. Everything was a wonder and a marvel. Yesterday I was in harsh concrete Dubai. And now, I’m walking in a coffee and spice plantation sampling the real riches of the Earth.
Wayan settled me in, very kindly and practically. He’s a short rectangular man with a face that wants to please but ends up looking confused instead. You could see him jumping from thought to thought only to arrive at the first again. There's is absolutely nothing about him contrived or unreal, from his patterned Balinese shirt to his flip-flops.
I had a small stroke of inspiration.
“Do you know Ketut Liyer?” I asked him.
“Oh no! He dead!” he answered.
I was comforted by his answer. Ketut Liyer was a well-known medicine man here in Ubud. He was also, the man who inspired Elizabeth Gilbert to come to Bali and, possibly, the reason behind Eat Pray Love. I already knew Ketut Liyer was dead. He died in the past year, as per Liz Gilbert’s facebook page. The reason I asked was because I wanted to witness how well the Balinese people knew each other. And, also, I was reaching for the confirmation that those people were not just characters in a book.
“Well I want to see a medicine man. Best after Ketut Liyer,” I told him.
“You go Hi-san”
“Hisan? What is that? An Arabic name?” Maybe this medicine man is Muslim.
“Oh! His son!”
Ketut Liyer’s son is now the best medicine man in Ubud.
Why do I want to see a medicine man? At first, I rationalized it as practically experimenting with holistic and traditional methods of healing in Asia. Yeah, my brain liked that. Nice and tidy and perfectly justified. We’ll start making a billboard…we could even throw in “looking for a cure for diabetes” somewhere in the tagline.
But once my mind went to bed, I knew I was searching for something more meaningful. Not the medicine man or his practice. Not the healer and his apothecary. I think I’m searching for signs. Clues. Communications.
In the meantime, I was hungry. I was curious to know if I would like Balinese food as well I liked the Indonesian food we cooked at home. My great grandfather brought pilgrims from Indonesia to Mekkah for a living. Indonesian culture did not come into our family just from our nannies but from a legacy of voyages back and forth from the dessert to the tropics. I grew up eating and loving Indonesian food. It has never been foreign to me. My grandmother is a top chef in Javanese cuisine. My aunt - and her Indonesian helper - come next. But having it from the source must be an entirely different thing. I went for the most popular dish: Nasi Goreng with Chicken Satay. Not very adventurous but delectable to the last bite.
Afterwards, I went to see my friend Dita, my goddess friend Dita. She’s a cottony fiery luscious thing from Latvia that you can’t consume in large gulps because there’s not much of her. You could gobble her up too fast if you’re not careful. With Dita, you must learn to savor.
Dita and I met in London back in March after I had completed the Hoffman Process. We were seated next to each other in a restaurant after being introduced by a friend. We spent the day walking and talking afterwards, as some well-fated friendships start.
In a holistic Balinese hotel, Dita had arranged a “secret” goddess dance workshop for ladies, where she taught us bellydancing and celebrating our sexuality. It was a sublime experience but I left still a little deflated, not because the workshop was lacking- in moments it was ecstatic - but because, in the background, I was longing for a time past when I used to dream about sharing a trip like this with some people who are no longer in my life. There was also that ennui and sense of abandonment, being all alone on a tropical island with barely someone I know.
I walked around Ubud at night feeling a heaviness settling inside me. The heartbreak that I was nursing in Dubai came back to be my shadow, tugging at my sleeves, my face, my eyelids. I didn’t know if I had the energy to nurse it some more.
What was is it I was searching for and why wasn’t it happening already? I heard you calling, Bali, from miles away, months ago, like a large juicy mango-something had risen inside me and sung in an operatic note: Go to Bali! And then this large mango-something breathed like a living being, and made sweet juices in my belly to make sure I arrived.
Well I’m here.
It’s only the first day, I argued impatiently with my impatience.
Then, in that instant, I found myself walking into a Buddhist shop of miniatures and statuettes. There was a hum, a tune, playing from behind the counter…playing from before, reminding me, luring me further into the store…
Aum Bhoor Bhuwah Swaha, Tat Savitur Varenyam. Bhargo devasaya dheemahi dhiyo yo naha prachodayat….(See Cyprus Journal).
(To listen to a nice version of it, here's a nice version from itunes)
It was an invitation. I knew it was. Yes. I’m here. I accept. I stood in reverence, in fleeting love.
Back at my little spot at the guesthouse, I sat down in my garden in the dark to meditate. Rain fell; gentle little licks, first here, then there. It would have been a deep dewy meditation had it not been for the mosquitoes! I went to bed wondering if I was really going to find Ketut Liyer’s son.