Around Asia Which is the better healer: a Borneo-born acupuncturist, or the ocean beyond Bali's black sand beaches?
Bali beckons visitors to return to reap its rewards
There is something about Bali that repels or enamours. Yanto Irjanto refers to it as "the calling".
"It's like when you do yoga and you don't practise for a while," the Borneo-born acupuncturist says. "The yoga is calling you to practise. Bali is the same way - it calls you back."
He sighs as he prods my rib - another problem there, no doubt. Or, he's sighing at the state of the island - our conversation has oscillated between both topics this morning, and I wait for either a bleak diagnosis or another profound Yanto-ism.
"Your whole body not balanced," he declares finally. But of course, my dear Yanto. Anyone who knows me can tell you I'm unbalanced. What I had come to see was not what was wrong with me, but how Yanto cured the hundreds of people who swear by his treatments, including Cindy Crawford, Bebel Gilberto and Jasper Johns.
Having learnt acupressure at the age of 10 in Borneo, Yanto has developed something of a cult following among diplomats, artists and last-resort cases. His testimonial books brim with ebullient comments in the garden at the back of his house, where you can read them amid signs that say "This is a Nuke, War and Smoke-free Zone".
He has treated back problems, digestive ailments, insomnia and chronic pain. One time, he travelled to France to work on a half-blind man ("A challenge," he said. "Not like you"). Another time, a woman returned after one year of receiving treatment for her endometriosis to tell him that doctors were astounded to find no trace of the ailment. He's been called Dr Feel Good, Walking Painkiller, and X-Ray Fingers for his ability to take away pain through touch.
But on this quiet morning in Legian, Yanto seems less miracle worker than philosopher. "Bali: not like it used to be," he says. "Too much traffic; too many people. I worry about resources. How can such a small island hold so many people in the future?"
A former Dutch enclave, Bali was painted as an idyllic playground by anthropologists and artists in the early mid-1900s, lending it - whether in practice or through perception - a preternatural quality that continues to attract visitors.
These days, post-cinematic Eat, Pray, Love hysteria has drawn hordes of tourists who descend like locusts to a harvest, foraging for spiritual enlightenment and healing. Traditionally, families rely on a bailan, or healer, who uses a number of curative methods ranging from chanting mantras to incense or amulets. Tibetan, Chinese and Ayurvedic methods are incorporated into a system that relies on the intangible as much as it does the physical.
Yanto is not that kind of healer. He is a blend of many things I can't quite decipher, even though I try.
"Are you pressing the liver point?" I ask as he squeezes my foot painfully.
"Correct!" he says.
"Are you pressing the energy point, or the muscle?"
"Correct!" he says again, pushing fingers her and there and jostling my ankle around. He tears up the interconnected fascia throughout my legs, stretches my back, pulls my arms, presses my collarbones, and squeezes every square centimetre of my jaw and face.
"Much better," he says.
"Uh-huh," I say, touching my cheek, which feels like pulled taffy.
I stumble through the streets of Kuta and Seminyak after, feeling half-drugged, and take in the sights of coastal Bali through a semi-conscious haze. Warungs, or traditional restaurants, ebb and flow with the traffic of tourists; the patter of children's feet comes and goes as their beggarly hands reach up for money; tinny music blares from clubs whose nightly debauchery has grown in equal parts expensive and irritating in recent years; and beyond it all, the swell of the beach as my feet touch black sand at last.
I flop onto a lounge chair, semi-conscious.
"Do not watch me surf!" my friend Patty declares, strapping a short board to her ankle. (The whole point of coming to the beach was to surf, but the waves are bad, and the board is foam, and she predicts a debacle of Patteristic proportions.) Hours - maybe days later - I don't know at this point - she drags herself back, saying she won't be able to move her arms ever again. "That was no joke, Effie. Those were serious waves."
I crack an eye open and peer at the smooth beach. Its wet grey, sand granules sparkle with the silica of volcanic rock.
My father likes to say that the ocean is one of the greatest healers, so off I flop out of the chair, stumble towards the water in a vaguely straight line, and plop into the cold, shallow surf. Rumbling waves spill over each other and race towards the shore. People aware of the laws of physics jump the wave while I, thinking I'm floating above the water anyway, meet a hard wall of water that drags me under.
I let the sea pull me in as it rushes away from the shore, gathering itself before it thunders back. Salt stings my eyes, the sun peers down at me through slanted clouds, and there is nothing but the timeless pull of a force far greater than I, soothing in its tremendous, frightening strength.
And in that moment, the calling begins.