Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017
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Beyond The Blast

Bali may not figure on everyone's travel map, but the jewel of Indonesia still shines bright

A split second is when you die fast. The smile you had on your face lingers, the drink in your hand splattered on your corpse. This is a detail that brings home the horror of the Bali blast on October 12, 2002, when terrorists took aim at the world's last innocent culture. Two explosions rocked the tourist hub of Kuta. The primary target was the raucous Sari Club, which, in that split-second, was transformed into a rubble of brick, beam and broken human flesh. The death toll was 186. It was the largest terrorist act in Indonesia's history. Its intent was to frighten foreigners away from Bali. It succeeded.

Perhaps no word in the global village lexicon conjures up the notion of tropical paradise more succinctly than Bali, the diminutive jewel that shines like an emerald in Indonesia's archipelago of 3000 islands flung across the South China Sea. Other islands may boast the hallmarks of earthly heaven -- golden beaches unfurling forever, turquoise Indian Ocean waters, sweet sultry nights under skies sagging with equatorial stars -- but only Bali has a magical human landscape. The Balinese make their island a paradise. "There is simply no taking the light and song out of their souls," a veteran traveller told me on my first visit, when I'd blanched at the prospect of three million Balinese coping with seven million tourists a year.

But in that split second on October 12, the light and song might have departed the Balinese soul. The Balinese, who practise a spiritual fusion of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism, have a belief system that has stood up to mass tourism and Western consumerism. They deeply agonized at the violation of their tranquil island.

Under a full moon last November, 10,000 people showed up at the Sari Club site, transformed into a huge altar swathed in white and gold, to pray for the souls of the slaughtered. Everyone came: not just Balinese, but foreigners in sarongs and sashes. Not just parents, but entire families. Not only Hindus, but Muslims, Buddhists and Christians. Even unbelievers and skeptics came because they wanted it to work so badly. The great cleansing was a purely psychic, uniquely Balinese response to an act of horrific physical brutality. I'm not sure if mass prayer did anything more than highlight Balinese mysticism to the onlooking world, but among the Balinese, it confronted the dark side of the spiritual realm and prompted hope for the healing of the island.

Bearing the Brunt
Thousands of miles away, we were wondering about the warnings, about foreigners getting the hell out of Bali while they still could, about getting blown to bits while tossing back a chilled Bintang, about tourists from the West cancelling reservations by the thousands.

We fell back on common sense. Haven't the terrorists already made their grisly statement? Hadn't they got what they wanted? Was it even smart to run with the herd? It occurred to me that people weren't staying home for fear of their lives so much as fear of association with the blast, as if horror might somehow rub off on them. "We're going," I told my wife.

Forty-eight hours later, we were there. Even more than a year after the blast, Bali was down, if not out: tourism was decimated. Hotels were barely surviving with minimal occupancies. Tacky Kuta was a ghost town, its shopkeepers on their knees for a sale, boutiques boarded up, restaurants empty. Tens of thousands of Balinese lost their jobs. The perils of total dependency on tourism had never been clearer.

I felt an irrational need to see for myself that what was destroyed was a block or two of Kuta, not Bali. I've always been able to find my Bali on the highway that runs from Denpasar to Pupuan, taking me to the high-country rice terraces at Antosari. Whether sprouting from newly flooded paddies or steamed with infusions of ginger and lemongrass, rice is a beautiful thing. The Balinese have been growing it for 2000 years. It's their connection to the land.

Now I saw arcs of emerald fire, their perfect lines broken by stone shrines honouring Dewi Sri, the rice goddess. Farmers in broad bamboo hats, soaked to their knees in mud, began their day with hurried prayers. I could see nothing but rice.

Another road took us to Ubud, the island's cultural centre. The shops and galleries were near-bursting with creativity. Give one of these people a stone and sooner or later, you'll have a statue. It's as if their DNA compels them to transform every millimetre of matter into art. They shape mortars and pestles out of volcanic stone. They make wind chimes from bamboo. They weave beautiful baskets from coconut. They festoon temples, palaces and gardens with bhomas, guardians with bulging eyes, fangs and protruding tongues to terrify evil spirits. They carve gods and goddesses and dress them in sashes and sarongs. Yet there's an earthiness to their art: carvers are equally proud of ornamental gnomes, Balinese Rumpelstiltskins flaunting gargantuan erections.

Pawed and Pampered
In Ubud, I strolled through the gauntlet of souvenir shops on Monkey Forest Road en route to the Milano Spa. This is one of dozens of ersatz spas materializing to accommodate foreigners' understandable appetite for sensuality in these tropical surroundings. Milano's secret weapon is Nura, my favourite masseuse on earth and whose hands bring me two hours of bliss. After her magic, I wanted to run out and hopscotch rice terraces.

 

The Balinese are so festive, they celebrate birthdays every six months. Women spend a third of their lives at the temple, heads piled high with sacrificial flowers, rice, fruit and even whole roast ducks. The men are more likely found gathering in some open court with roosters tucked under their arms. For the Balinese male, cockfighting is nothing short of obsession.

"How does a man feel about his cock?" I asked our driver, Wayan.

"A man takes great pride in his cock," Wayan explained. "In the mornings, even before he kisses his wife, a man will stroke his cock."

"Do women like cocks?" I asked innocently.

"Men may love their cocks more than their wives," Wayan answered. "But women do not love men's cocks. They do not want their husbands' cocks in the house."

At this point, my wife slammed me in the shoulder. Reluctantly, I let the conversation slide.

Wayan drove us to cremations. Celebrating the liberation of the soul from earthly concerns, Balinese cremation borders on carnival: strangers are welcome. Vendors peddle soft drinks and snacks. Mourners talk and laugh as the deceased goes up in smoke. But funeral pyres have become expensive and families must save to cover costs. As a result, the corpse is often kept at home, preserved with formaldehyde, until the day arrives.

Bearers shouldering the coffin weaved giddily as they entered the cremation grounds to confuse souls attempting to return to the familiar refuge of their bodies. Symbolic possessions are set ablaze to signify the end of material life. Cremations are graphic: try not to stare at fire ripping through flesh or an ebony skull gleaming among flames.

Yet the cremation is strangely natural and comfortable, especially when you come from the West, where death is a private, mysterious and terrifying entity. This open cremation demystifies death and the decimation of the flesh. Here you watch all vestiges of humanity crumple, and your response is a cool, "is that all there is to it?"

Death makes me hungry. Food, like sex, is a fundamental affirmation of life. With me, there is always the matter of food. In Ubud, we headed for the streetside Ibu Oka, the best place on the island for babi guling or roast suckling pig. Half a dozen Balinese women formed an assembly line. Plates materialized piled high with juicy white meat and crackling golden-brown skin, and bumbu, the explosive salsa of chilies, garlic and shallots. This cost all of a couple of bucks. It was stunningly delicious.

On our last night, we walked the golden arc of Jimbaran Beach under a big sky flared with swirls of distant lightning. We paused at a phalanx of thatched-roof cafés with tables and chairs set on the sand and lit with candles. Each specialized in fresh fish deliciously barbecued over coconut husks. At Made's, we ate charred squids and boned whole snapper.

Gradually the beach filled with diners from Singapore and Jakarta, in search of paradise desperately discounted. Given some time for fear to move on -- for fear is the ultimate gypsy -- and considering the love there is out there for Bali, it was clear to me that the world will be back. Bali can survive tourism. It can survive terrorism, too.

 

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