So this is how it comes to pass that--the very afternoon I have arrived in Bali--I'm suddenly on the back of a motorbike, clutching my new friend Mario the Italian- Indonesian, who is speeding me through the rice terraces toward Ketut Liyer's home. For all that I've thought about this reunion with the medicine man over the last two years, I actually have no idea what I'm going to say to him when I arrive. And of course we don't have an appointment. So we show up unannounced. I recognize the sign outside his door, same as last time, saying: "Ketut Liyer--painter." It's a typical, traditional Balinese family compound. A high stone wall surrounds the entire property, there's a courtyard in the middle and a temple in the back. Several generations live out their lives together in the various interconnected small homes within these walls. We enter without knocking (no door, anyway) to the riotous dismay of a some typical Balinese watchdogs (skinny, angry) and there in the courtyard is Ketut Liyer the elderly medicine man, wearing his sarong and his golf shirt, looking precisely the same as he did two years ago when I first met him. Mario says something to Ketut, and I'm not exactly fluent in Balinese, but it sounds like a general introduction, something along the lines of, "Here's a girl from America--go for it."
Ketut turns his mostly toothless smile upon me with the force of a compassionate fire hose, and this is so reassuring: I had remembered correctly, he is extraordinary. His face is a comprehensive encyclopedia of kindness. He shakes my hand with an excited and powerful grip.
"I am very happy to meet you," he says. He has no idea who I am.
"Come, come," he says, and I'm ushered to the porch of his little house, where woven bamboo mats serve as furniture. It looks exactly as it did two years ago. We both sit down. With no hesitation, he takes my palm in his hand--assuming that, like most of his Western visitors, a palm-reading is what I've come for. He gives me a quick reading, which I am reassured to see is an abridged version of exactly what he said to me last time. (He may not remember my face, but my destiny, to his practiced eye, is unchanged.) His English is better than I remembered, and also better than Mario's. Ketut speaks like the wise old Chinamen in classic kung fu movies, a form of English you could call "Grasshopperese," because you could insert the endearment "Grasshopper" into the middle of any sentence and it sounds very wise. "Ah--you have very lucky good fortune, Grasshopper . . ."
I wait for a pause in Ketut's predictions, then interrupt to remind him that I had been here to see him already, two years ago.
He looks puzzled. "Not first time in Bali?" "No, sir."
He thinks hard. "You girl from California?"
"No," I say, my spirits tumbling deeper. "I'm the girl from New York."
Ketut says to me (and I'm not sure what this has to do with anything), "I am not so handsome anymore, lost many teeth. Maybe I will go to dentist someday, get new teeth. But too afraid of dentist."
He opens his deforested mouth and shows me the damage. Indeed, he has lost most of his teeth on the left side of his mouth and on the right side it's all broken, hurtful-looking yellow stubs. He fell down, he tells me. That's how his teeth got knocked out.
I tell him I'm sorry to hear it, then try again, speaking slowly. "I don't think you remember me, Ketut. I was here two years ago with an American Yoga teacher, a woman who lived in Bali for many years."
He smiles, elated. "I know Ann Barros!"
"That's right. Ann Barros is the Yoga teacher's name. But I'm Liz. I came here asking for your help once because I wanted to get closer to God. You drew me a magic picture." He shrugs amiably, couldn't be less concerned. "Don't remember," he says.
This is such bad news it's almost funny. What am I going to do in Bali now? I don't know exactly what I'd imagined it would be like to meet Ketut again, but I did hope we'd have some sort of super-karmic tearful reunion. And while it's true I had feared he might be dead, it hadn't occurred to me that--if he were still alive--he wouldn't remember me at all. Although now it seems the height of dumbness to have ever imagined that our first meeting would have been as memorable for him as it was for me. Maybe I should have planned this better, for real.
So I describe the picture he had made for me, the figure with the four legs ("so grounded on earth") and the missing head ("not looking at the world through the intellect") and the face in the heart ("looking at the world through the heart") and he listens to me politely, with modest interest, like we're discussing somebody else's life entirely.
I hate to do this because I don't want to put him on the spot, but it's got to be said, so I just lay it out there. I say, "You told me I should come back here to Bali. You told me to stay here for three or four months. You said I could help you learn English and you would teach me the things that you know." I don't like the way my voice sounds--just the teensiest bit desperate. I don't mention anything about the invitation he'd once floated for me to live with his family. That seems way out of line, given the circumstances.
He listens to me politely, smiling and shaking his head, like, Isn't it so funny the things people say?
I almost drop it then. But I've come so far, I have to put forth one last effort. I say, "I'm the book writer, Ketut. I'm the book writer from New York."
And for some reason that does it. Suddenly his face goes translucent with joy, turns bright and pure and transparent. A Roman candle of recognition sparks to life in his mind. "YOU!" he says. "YOU! I remember YOU!" He leans forward, takes my shoulders in his hands and starts to shake me happily, the way a child shakes an unopened Christmas present to try to guess what's inside. "You came back! You came BACK!"
"I came back! I came back!" I say. "You, you, you!"
"Me, me, me!"
I'm all tearful now, but trying not to show it. The depth of my relief--it's hard to explain.
It takes even me by surprise. It's like this--it's like I was in a car accident, and my car went over a bridge and sank to the bottom of a river and I'd somehow managed to free myself from the sunken car by swimming through an open window and then I'd been frog- kicking and struggling to swim all the way up to the daylight through the cold, green water and I was almost out of oxygen and the arteries were bursting out of my neck and my cheeks were puffed with my last breath and then--GASP!--I broke through to the surface and took in huge gulps of air. And I survived. That gasp, that breaking through-- this is what it feels like when I hear the Indonesian medicine man say, "You came back!" My relief is exactly that big.
I can't believe it worked.
"Yes, I came back," I say. "Of course I came back."
"I so happy!" he says. We're holding hands and he's wildly excited now. "I do not remember you at first! So long ago we meet! You look different now! So different from two years! Last time, you very sad-looking woman. Now--so happy! Like different person!"
The idea of this--the idea of a person looking so different after a mere two years have passed--seems to incite in him a shiver of giggles.
I give up trying to hide my tearfulness and just let it all spill over. "Yes, Ketut. I was very sad before. But life is better now."
"Last time you in bad divorce. No good." "No good," I confirm.
"Last time you have too much worry, too much sorrow. Last time, you look like sad old woman. Now you look like young girl. Last time you ugly! Now you pretty!"
Mario bursts into ecstatic applause and pronounces victoriously: "See? Painting working!"
I say, "Do you still want me to help you with your English, Ketut?"
He tells me I can start helping him right now and hops up nimbly, gnome-like. He bounds into his little house and comes back with a pile of letters he's received from abroad over the last few years (so he does have an address!). He asks me to read the letters aloud to him; he can understand English well, but can't read much. I'm his secretary already. I'm a medicine man's secretary. This is fabulous. The letters are from art collectors overseas, from people who have somehow managed to acquire his famous magic drawings and magic paintings. One letter is from a collector in Australia, praising Ketut for his painting skills, saying, "How can you be so clever to paint with such detail?" Ketut answers to me, like giving dictation: "Because I practice many, many years."
When the letters are finished, he updates me on his life over the last few years. Some changes have occurred. Now he has a wife, for instance. He points across the courtyard at a heavyset woman who's been standing in the shadow of her kitchen door, glaring at me like she's not sure if she should shoot me, or poison me first and then shoot me. Last time
I was here, Ketut had sadly shown me photographs of his wife who had recently died--a beautiful old Balinese woman who seemed bright and childlike even at her advanced age. I wave across the courtyard to the new wife, who backs away into her kitchen.
"Good woman," Ketut proclaims toward the kitchen shadows. "Very good woman."
He goes on to say that he's been very busy with his Balinese patients, always a lot to do, has to give much magic for new babies, ceremonies for dead people, healing for sick people, ceremonies for marriage. Next time he goes to Balinese wedding, he says, "We can go together! I take you!" The only thing is, he doesn't have very many Westerners visiting him anymore. Nobody comes to visit Bali since the terrorist bombing. This makes him "feel very confusing in my head." This also makes him feel "very empty in my bank." He says, "You come to my house every day to practice English with me now?" I nod happily and he says, "I will teach you Balinese meditation, OK?"
"OK," I say.
"I think three months enough time to teach you Balinese meditation, find God for you this way," he says. "Maybe four months. You like Bali?"
"I love Bali."
"You get married in Bali?" "Not yet."
"I think maybe soon. You come back tomorrow?"
I promise to. He doesn't say anything about my moving in with his family, so I don't bring it up, stealing one last glance at the scary wife in the kitchen. Maybe I'll just stay in my sweet hotel the whole time, instead. It's more comfortable, anyway. Plumbing, and all that. I'll need a bicycle, though, to come see him every day . . .
So now it's time to go.
"I am very happy to meet you," he says, shaking my hand.
I offer up my first English lesson. I teach him the difference between "happy to meet you," and "happy to see you." I explain that we only say "Nice to meet you" the first time we meet somebody. After that, we say "Nice to see you," every time. Because you only meet someone once. But now we will see each other repeatedly, day after day.
He likes this. He gives it a practice round: "Nice to see you! I am happy to see you! I can see you! I am not deaf!"
This makes us all laugh, even Mario. We shake hands, and agree that I will come by again tomorrow afternoon. Until then, he says, "See you later, alligator."
"In a while, crocodile," I say.
"Let your conscience be your guide. If you have any Western friend come to Bali, send them to me for palm-reading--I am very empty now in my bank since the bomb. I am an autodidact. I am very happy to see you, Liss!"
"I am very happy to see you, too, Ketut."