I have been to Bali a few times since I moved to Hong Kong in late 2008. Never before, though, did it occur to me to seek out Ketut Liyer the medicine man/palm reader from the memoir Eat Pray Love who, because of author Elizabeth Gilbert’s dependence upon him for spiritual guidance, gained fame and a cult-like following. Many people don’t know that he was pretty well-known as a spiritual healer in Bali before the popular book and film.
Why did I seek out Ketut this time? My husband and I came to Bali (and Ubud to be more specific) to detox and revive our bodies and minds. Ubud means purification in Balinese. On a personal level, I desperately wanted to get away from big city life and routines in order to get unstuck – in writing, for my relationships and in caring for my diabetes. I needed inward time to re-prioritize what I believed to be most important to achieve goals. Lately, it has been a struggle for me to find order and clarity in daily life. Included in my frustration was a feeling of burn-out and increasing tiredness related to blood sugar testing, infusion set pump changing and maintaining exercise for optimum control. In my 36th year with diabetes, I have begun to feel tired and worn-out. I guess you could say I have been feeling wearily out-of-control.
Funny enough, this goes against the grain of thinking here in Bali where there are no shoulds or shouldn’ts and doing nothing is actually seen as an activity. My idea was to find my center in a place where time is kept by the rooster’s crowing at dawn and late afternoon thunder signals the day’s end. Beauty is harmony here, and sadness the worst kind of sickness. Our driver to Ketut’s home assumed my need to see the palm reader was because I sought a cure for an illness or a problem, and even suggested I bathe in the Ubud holy waters for healing. I denied that I had any problems, telling him that my desire to visit Ketut was only a curiosity. Nothing more.
When we arrived we saw that a handsome commercial sign had been posted in front of the entrance, signaling Ketut’s celebrity status. We walked along a small path and Ketut’s brother gave me a ticket. “You are number seven.” The wait was long, but relaxed. I read for a bit then walked around the village keeping an eye on my watch. Ketut spent anywhere from 15- 20 minutes per person. Four women from Jakarta, 2 college students from Northern Europe and a couple fom Japan were all ahead of me. About 50 people a day come to seek guidance from Ketut, who is 96-years-old. I began to see how the daily crush of visitors was somewhat of a burden for the old man as more people arrived through the archway. When it was my turn, he greeted me and immediately began telling me about his ill health and his kidney stones which “required many expensive operations and I have to pee a lot, you see.” He excused himself for the bathroom while I waited alone on the straw mat. He returned smiling and thanking me, grabbed my hands, and told me he would look at my ears, back and palms to see what is “inside my life.” He asked me my name and when I told him my name, Elizabeth, he laughed and asked “Eleezabeth Gilbert?” Turning from his sitting position, he grabbed a hardback book worn and dirty, and showed me what Ms. Gilbert had written,
“To Ketut, my teacher and friend”
“That’s very nice Ketut.” I told him, wondering where this was going.
“I need you to read from her book because I not understand it all – you read it for me? Start here where it says medicine man…”
“The medicine man, as it turned out, was a small, merry-eyed, russet colored old guy with a mostly toothless mouth,” and there he stopped me.
“As it turned out – what is that meaning?” Ketut looked at me very seriously.
“Hmmm, well here she means expectations. Before she met you she thought you would be someone else, perhaps. Something different than a very old, merry guy.”
He looked at me with disappointment. “It is true I am very old and toothless. I am ugly. What is this word russet?”
“Um, brown, dark in color like coffee.” I wasn’t sure if this activity was a device Ketut was using with some deeper intention but I continued to read and interpret. In doing so, I slowly began to realize I was giving him English lessons. Cunning. I closed the book when I finished and asked “Now what?” He laughed, took my palms, called me “preeety” a hundred times, told me I was like a “quinn” (queen), that my lips were like sugar (could he tell?), and how the double lines (wrinkles) on my brow meant that I was smart. Sometimes “too smart.”
“You know the difference between hate and love – what’s right, what’s not, when so many do not.”
I wanted to believe Ketut was a visionary and at the same time reject him as a benevolent fraud. The truth is, he is neither. Ketut just said the things that came to his mind, and that wasn’t hard to do as he was suffering a bit from senility. He was surprised I only had one child, marked me as inpatient and too quick – “don’t drive so fast – please” and told me that I had nearly married another man before I met my husband. That was all true. How had I given it away?
I never told him I was sick and he never mentioned it. He told me I was strong and so young – I guess 46 might be youthful to him. I wasn’t disappointed or surprised that he had not said anything about the pump hanging between my breasts (obvious and visible) or that he had failed to recognize the childhood illness in the palm of my hand or at the back of my neck.
It was a worthwhile visit, but I didn’t realize this for a couple of hours. I think Ketut wanted me to understand that he appeared old, ill and ugly… but what was the truth? Underneath his self-deprecation and praise for me, I wonder now if there was a little Balinese psychotherapy going on with the intention of helping me see things more clearly. I walked away understanding how I sometimes blame diabetes when I feel weak and incapable. I admit I use my condition as an excuse for not being able in the widest sense of the word. I get angry and upset with lack of control, and those emotions are what get in the way. I feel sick and worn, and I allow myself to feel like that. Diabetes becomes a barrier because of my negative feelings and outlook.
Sometimes diabetes really is a barrier, but I work diligently through the frustrations of every day to ensure that I am maintaining adequate blood sugars for a long healthy life. It’s not easy, but worth all the effort. It is in fact a very positive aspect of my personality, of my life. According to Ketut I am a beautiful queen with a rich life, and a family. I have harmony. “You will live to be 100-years-old.” This is what Kutet saw. It’s time I believe it, too.