Wayan Nuriyasih is, like Ketut Liyer, a Balinese healer. There are some differences between them, though. He's elderly and male; she's a woman in her late thirties. He's more of a priestly figure, somewhat more mystical, while Wayan is a hands-on doctor, mixing herbs and medications in her own shop and taking care of patients right there on the premises.
Wayan has a little storefront shop in the center of Ubud called "Traditional Balinese Healing Center." I'd ridden my bike past it many times on my way down to Ketut's, noticing it because of all the potted plants outside the place, and because of the blackboard with the curious handwritten advertisement for the "Multivitamin Lunch
Special." But I'd never gone into the place before my knee got messed up. After Ketut sent me to find a doctor, though, I remembered the shop and came by on my bicycle, hoping somebody there might be able to help me deal with the infection.
Wayan's place is a very small medical clinic and home and restaurant all at the same time. Downstairs there's a tiny kitchen and a modest public eating area with three tables and few chairs. Upstairs there's a private area where Wayan gives massages and treatments. There's one dark bedroom in the back.
I limped into the shop with my sore knee and introduced myself to Wayan the healer--a strikingly attractive Balinese woman with a wide smile and shiny black hair down to her waist. There were two shy young girls hiding behind her in the kitchen who smiled when I waved to them, then ducked away again. I showed Wayan my infected wound and asked if she could help. Soon Wayan had water and herbs boiling up on the stove, and was making me drink jamu--traditional Indonesian homemade medicinal concoctions.
She placed hot green leaves on my knee and it started to feel better immediately.
We got to talking. Her English was excellent. Because she is Balinese, she immediately asked me the three standard introductory questions--Where are you going today? Where are you coming from? Are you married?
When I told her I wasn't married ("Not yet!") she looked taken aback. "Never been married?" she asked.
"No," I lied. I don't like lying, but I generally have found it's easier not to mention divorce to the Balinese because they get so upset about it.
"Really never been married?" she asked again, and she was looking at me with great curiosity now.
"Honestly," I lied. "I've never been married." "You sure?" This was getting weird.
"I'm totally sure!"
"Not even once?" she asked.
OK, so she can see through me.
"Well," I confessed, "there was that one time . . ."
And her face cleared like: Yes, I thought as much. She asked, "Divorced?" "Yes," I said, ashamed now. "Divorced."
"I could tell you are divorced." "It's not very common here, is it?"
"But me, too," said Wayan, entirely to my surprise. "Me too, divorced."
"I did everything I could," she said. "I try everything before I got a divorce, praying every day. But I had to go away from him."
Her eyes filled up with tears, and next thing you knew, I was holding Wayan's hand, having just met my first Balinese divorcee, and I was saying, "I'm sure you did the best you could, sweetie. I'm sure you tried everything."
"Divorce is too sad," she said. I agreed.
I stayed there in Wayan's shop for the next five hours, talking with my new best friend about her troubles. She cleaned up the infection in my knee as I listened to her story. Wayan's Balinese husband, she told me, was a man who "drink all the time, always gamble, lose all our money, then beat me when I don't give him more money for to gamble and to drink." She said, "He beat me into the hospital many times." She parted her hair, showed me scars on her head and said, "This is from when he hit me with
motorcycle helmet. Always, he was hitting me with this motorcycle helmet when he is drinking, when I don't make money. He hit me so much, I go unconscious, dizzy, can't see. I think it is lucky I am healer, my family are healers, because I know how to heal myself after he beats me. I think if I was not healer, I would lose my ears, you know, not be able to hear things anymore. Or maybe lose my eye, not be able to see." She left him, she told me, after he beat her so severely "that I lose my baby, my second child, the one in my belly." After which incident their firstborn child, a bright little girl with the nickname of Tutti, said, "I think you should get a divorce, Mommy. Every time you go to the hospital you leave too much work around the house for Tutti."
Tutti was four years old when she said this.
To exit a marriage in Bali leaves a person alone and unprotected in ways that are almost impossible for a Westerner to imagine. The Balinese family unit, enclosed within the walls of a family compound, is merely everything--four generations of siblings, cousins, parents, grandparents and children all living together in a series of small bungalows surrounding the family temple, taking care of each other from birth to death. The family compound is the source of strength, financial security, health care, day care, education and--most important to the Balinese--spiritual connection.
The family compound is so vital that the Balinese think of it as a single, living person. The population of a Balinese village is traditionally counted not by the number of individuals, but by the number of compounds. The compound is a self-sustaining universe. So you don't leave it. (Unless, of course, you are a woman, in which case you move only once-- out of your father's family compound and into your husband's.) When this system
works--which it does in this healthy society almost all the time--it produces the most sane, protected, calm, happy and balanced human beings in the world. But when it doesn't work? As with my new friend Wayan? The outcasts are lost in airless orbit. Her choice was either to stay in the family compound safety net with a husband who kept putting her in the hospital, or to save her own life and leave, which left her with nothing. Well, not exactly nothing, actually. She did take with her an encyclopedic knowledge of healing, her goodness, her work ethic and her daughter Tutti--whom she had to fight hard to keep. Bali is a patriarchy to the end. In the rare case of a divorce, the children automatically belong to the father. To get Tutti back, Wayan had to hire a lawyer, whom she paid with every single thing she had. I mean-- everything. She sold off not only her furniture and jewelry, but also her forks and spoons, her socks and shoes, her old washcloths and half-burned candles--everything went to pay that lawyer. But she did get
her daughter back, in the end, after a two-year battle. Wayan is just lucky Tutti was a girl; if she'd been a boy, Wayan never would have seen the kid again. Boys are much more valuable.
For the last few years now, Wayan and Tutti have been living on their own--all alone, in the beehive of Bali!--moving from place to place every few months as money comes and goes, always sleepless with worry about where to go next. Which has been difficult because every time she moves, her patients (mostly Balinese, who are all on hard times themselves these days) have trouble finding her again. Also, with every move, little Tutti has to be pulled out of school. Tutti was always first in her class before, but has slipped since the last move down to twentieth out of fifty children.
In the middle of Wayan's telling me this story, Tutti herself came charging into the shop, having arrived home from school. She's eight years old now and a mighty exhibition of charisma and fireworks. This little cherry bomb of a girl (pigtailed and skinny and excited) asked me in lively English if I'd like to eat lunch, and Wayan said, "I forgot! You should have lunch!" and the mother and daughter rushed into their kitchen and--with the help of the two shy young girls hiding back there--produced sometime later the best food I'd tasted yet in Bali.
Little Tutti brought out each course of the meal with a bright-voiced explanation of what was on the plate, wearing a huge grin, generally just being so totally peppy she should've been spinning a baton.
"Turmeric juice, for keep clean the kidneys!" she announced. "Seaweed, for calcium!"
"Tomato salad, for vitamin D!" "Mixed herbs, for not get malaria!"
I finally said, "Tutti, where did you learn to speak such good English?" "From a book!" she proclaimed.
"I think you are a very clever girl," I informed her.
"Thank you!" she said, and did a spontaneous little happy dance. "You are a very clever girl, too!"
Balinese kids aren't normally like this, by the way. They're usually all quiet and polite, hiding behind their mother's skirts. Not Tutti. She was all show-biz. She was all show and
"I will see you my books!" Tutti sang, and hurtled up the stairs to get them.
"She wants to be an animal doctor," Wayan told me. "What is the word in English?" "Veterinarian?"
"Yes. Veterinarian. But she has many questions about animals, I don't know how to answer. She says, 'Mommy, if somebody brings me a sick tiger, do I bandage its teeth first, so it doesn't bite me? If a snake gets sick and needs medicine, where is the opening?' I don't know where she gets these ideas. I hope she can go to university."
Tutti careened down the stairs, arms full of books, and zinged herself into her mother's lap. Wayan laughed and kissed her daughter, all the sadness about the divorce suddenly gone from her face. I watched them, thinking that little girls who make their mothers live grow up to be such powerful women. Already, in the space of one afternoon, I was so in love with this kid. I sent up a spontaneous prayer to God: May Tutti Nuriyasih someday bandage the teeth of a thousand white tigers!
I loved Tutti's mother, too. But I'd been in their shop now for hours and felt I should leave. Some other tourists had wandered into the place, and were hoping to be served lunch. One of the tourists, a brassy older broad from Australia, was loudly asking if Wayan could please help cure her "godawful constipation." I was thinking, Sing it a little louder, honey, and we can all dance to it . . .
"I will come back tomorrow," I promised Wayan, "and I'll order the multivitamin lunch special again."
"Your knee is better now," Wayan said. "Quickly better. No infection anymore."
She wiped the last of the green herbal goo off my leg, then sort of jiggled my kneecap around a bit, feeling for something. Then she felt the other knee, closing her eyes. She opened her eyes, grinned and said, "I can tell by your knees that you don't have much sex lately."
I said, "Why? Because they're so close together?"
She laughed. "No--it's the cartilage. Very dry. Hormones from sex lubricate the joints. How long since sex for you?"
"About a year and a half."
"You need a good man. I will find one for you. I will pray at the temple for a good man for you, because now you are my sister. Also, if you come back tomorrow, I will clean your kidneys for you."
"A good man and clean kidneys, too? That sounds like a great deal."
"I never tell anybody these things before about my divorce," she told me. "But my life is heavy, too much sad, too much hard. I don't understand why life is so hard."
Then I did a strange thing. I took both the healer's hands in mine and I said with the most powerful conviction, "The hardest part of your life is behind you now, Wayan."
I left the shop, then, trembling unaccountably, all jammed up with some potent intuition or impulse that I could not yet identify or release.