Falling Through Doors


For Bonnie, Who Went to Bali

FullSizeRender 3When you’re a teenager in a place like Canada, a place like Bali is the epitome of exotic[1]. The first time I ever thought of Bali as a place rather than an abstract concept[2] somewhere near the other side of the world, I was in a remedial[3] math class at Victoria High School in Victoria, BC, sitting opposite my friend Bonnie – the one thing that made Math 11A tolerable – who told me she’d be away for two weeks because her grandmother was taking her to Bali[4].

Bali seemed impossibly far, and impossibly glamorous, and impossibly unlike a place I thought one would go with one’s grandmother[5]. In my head it was the promised land of travel. You could get no further away. It wasn’t Honolulu or Cabo or Anaheim or Fort Lauderdale where other people went at Christmas break to shed the cold of Canadian winter and pretend for a week that resort life was real life[6]. Either way, Bonnie went away and I skipped Math for two weeks.

Then, thirteen years later, I went to Bali. I was no longer a teenager; I was twenty-eight years old, and at that point had travelled for various lengths of time throughout a smattering of countries in Asia and the Middle East[7]. I was living in Australia at that point, which is also a country on the other side of the world from the one in which I grew up, and which is not far from Bali at all. And what that means is that Bali is to Australians what Acapulco is to Americans; that is to say, it is teeming with Australian holiday makers, some there to get a bit of sun, others to get a bit of culture.

My brother and brother-in-law were renting a villa[8] just outside Ubud and asked me to join them for a week or so over Christmas. Since I’d just gone through an ugly breakup[9], the timing was perfect. And so I went and joined them and we did Bali things. We went to the monkey temple and fed tiny bananas to tiny aggressive primates. We rode rented scooters around without helmets, our hair floating dangerously in the breeze. We drank Bintang and cooked with tempeh and snake beans. We had regular massages. We took cooking classes, learning to make delicacies we were all so certain we would make again. We swam in pools and lay and read in the sun. I got so into the spirit of Bali, in fact, that J–, my brother-in-law, and I decided to go together one day[10] to see a spiritual healer.

I know what you’re thinking, and it’s probably something like: groan. There are blog posts a-plenty on my unique and humbling experience getting healed (or finding myself, or finding enlightenment, or being moved by something I don’t quite understand, or finding some kind of truth) in Indonesia (or India, or Thailand, or Tibet). As travellers from the Global North[11], we love this stuff. We love that all we need to do to find spirituality or a life-enriching experience is to leave where we’re from and visit the Global South; countries both cheap and rich in spirituality. As Australian writer Helen Razer eloquently puts it: “It’s not only atheism that disinclines me to this twaddle. It’s the darn assumption that wisdom is as easily and as cheaply acquired in Bali as a knock-off Hermès bag.”[12]

Anyway, the healer. Tjokorda Gde Rai is a Balian/shaman – a traditional Balinese healer. He is in his mid-eighties. He is the grandson of the last king of Ubud. He has been practicing for more than forty years, a period over which he has developed his own technique of first reading a person’s body–mind condition by placing his fingertips on various points on his or her head, followed by a diagnostic assessment via the use of meridians in the feet.[13]

The name Tjokorda Gde Rai floats around Ubud like the rising scent of SPF50 from the shoulders of tourists, and by the time I joined the guys they’d heard his name enough times from travelers and locals and know-it-alls about town that they were more than a little bit curious. Everyone said he was meant to be the best and we viewed this as a good thing, even though we had zero point of reference. Everyone said he doesn’t take appointments, that we’d just have to wait. We went by taxi earlyish one morning to Puri Negari, the royal compound from which he works.

I will give minimal details here[14], and they follow:

We sat and waited. The compound was beautiful and leafy and I saw a kitten I fantasized about pocketing. There was a group of tourists finishing up ahead of us. When it was my turn, I sat on the floor, my legs straight out before me and my back resting against the healer’s legs. He touched points on my head. Some felt fine while others yielded a searing pain[15]. As per his instructions, I then went to sit on a mat. He sat before me, and with a short wooden stick began to apply pressure to points on and between my toes. Again, the pain[16]. I’m not sure if it was the emergence of my inner cynic or the persistence of my physical pain, but I began to grow irritated, telling myself that this was just a show for the white girl; she paid her fee and after a bit of pain she’ll feel like she got her money’s worth. I was feeling pretty over it when he asked me to lie down and, using the same stick, began to trace lines and patterns over my abdomen. He manipulated my hands, interweaved my fingers, pressed my knuckles together. He spoke of a disconnect between my mind and my body. He said the smile thing. I sat up again, and he pressed the stick into the same spots on my feet. No pain. He touched the same parts of my head. No pain. Ta-da! Something had taken place that I didn’t understand. Did this mean I was healed? I was pretty cranky by now, and walked away from him not knowing what to think. I thanked him emphatically and sat down again, irritated. It was J–’s turn. The process began again.

We sat in a cafe afterward, waiting for my brother to pick us up. I asked J– if he felt different. He said he didn’t know, and I said same here. We didn’t speak much to each other, because we couldn’t. I drank some tea and my frustration began to subside.

In the car, my brother asked if we felt different. We bumped along the road, and as I stared out the window and the day approached noon, I began to cry. Heavy, heaving crying. I looked across and J– and he was doing the same, his shoulders shuddering, his cheeks glistening. We sat together in the minivan and cried all the way home. We cried for hours and afterward spent most of the day wordless and aimless, able neither to concentrate nor move with any kind of speed or urgency, showing and feeling no emotion.

I’m not saying that what we experienced was spiritual or profound, but I’m not saying that it wasn’t. Something happened that was outside of our realm of knowledge or experience, and really it was one of two things: he did some massage and release and said a few catch-type phrases, or he did some healing. Either way, we got what we had gone looking for.


[1] And since there is no way to use a term like ‘exotic’ without addressing western hegemony and the condemnation of the term in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), I will address it by saying that I was a white, middle class teenager and Bali was super far away and, for what it’s worth, it was the nineties. While the ‘exotic’ and post-colonial western ‘othering’ have come to sit heavy on my shoulders throughout a decade of travel, I was a teenager and had only ever travelled to the states and to see family in Western (oops, there’s that word again!) Europe.

[2]  Possibly a palm tree–shaped island?

[3] They didn’t use that term.

[4] I think the only reason I remember Bonnie’s name, as well as where this conversation took place, was that either shortly before or shortly after she told me this, I coughed unexpectedly and launched a tiny globule of phlegm onto the table between us before I even had a chance to cover my mouth, and Bonnie started laughing like crazy, which in retrospect was extremely generous of her.

[5] My grandmother liked to take me to church, to view her friend Joan’s rose garden, and once a month to the symphony.

[6] I think of an episode of The Office (US) in which Michael Scott, after returning from a holiday at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica, conflates his resort experience with actual Jamaican culture (“I got to see how Jamaicans live. It is great. You know, they just relax, they party all the time”). This, for many, is travel. And if we’re being honest, most voluntary travel represents some form of this very delusion. The cringe is real.

[7] Please pardon the Eurocentric term, but as far as I know there’s no better one yet.

[8] Because in Bali, you can.

[9] On account of me having fallen in love with someone else.

[10] After our morning smoothies.

[11] Including, for now, the Western antipodes.

[12] I recently sent a link to Razer’s article to a friend of mine whom I met and became close friends with while studying in Melbourne. She is originally from India, and one of her biggest pet hates is hearing white people gushing about their life-changing spirit-finding experience during their Panchakarma cleanse or while participating in Holi. The accompanying note I wrote went like: This made me think of you and one of our frequent conversation topics [upside-down smiley face]! She wrote the following back to me: Ha! what a coincidence, I just read this and thought of you [winky smiley face with tongue sticking out]! On a side note: have you thought why you visited India a few years back? As in, I know why, but considering there is so much literature to suggest that most white folks travel to ‘spiritualize’ their lives in India, I wonder what about the genuine ones? Where is their voice? This is where the Messenger thread has been left dangling for nearly two months. I can’t answer. I have no answer. What is ‘genuine’ travel? Simply because I am aware of the grossness of the colonial behavior exhibited by Global North citizens who eat-pray-love throughout South- and South-East Asian countries, does this mean I’m not guilty of it? Why did I travel through India (or, as in this article, Bali)? Maybe I wasn’t fetishizing spirituality, but was I fetishizing something? I didn’t go during Holi, but I did do a cleanse. Is saying it was for “life experience” or “something to write about down the road” any better, really?

[13] Body–mind condition refers to matters of the lymphatic system, memory, anxiety, focus and sense of direction. Through the meridians he can address skeletal condition, vital organs, hormones and matters of the heart.

[14] This is because all you have to do, really, is spend five minutes looking on personal my-healing-journey-type travel posts to get identical accounts of Tjokorda Rai’s process, right down to the thing he seems to tell everyone, the tenuous poignancy of which seems to blow everyone’s mind – the thing about smiling, about taking your smile, about putting your smile in your mouth and about swallowing your smile.

[15] To be clear, this was a contorting of the face, yelling aloud level of pain.

[16] Kicking of legs, gnashing of teeth, pounding of fists, etc.

2 Responses to For Bonnie, Who Went to Bali

  1. This is a thoughtful piece, Alison. There’s lots there to unpack. It makes me happy you wrote it. Travel, like writing is a political act. But some choose to ignore the fact. I look forward to the Panchakarma piece, I know it’s brewing.

    Some thoughts: Im always intrigued by the word exotic. Not for what it means, but the desire of it. From what I read (and maybe I don’t read enough), it seems there are only two types of people: those who want the exotic experience and those who are the exotic experience.
    Is there a third kind? Or have we exhausted the framework of how we categorise experiences and people and places?

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Jasmeet!
      I’ve been thinking about your question, and I think that the “third kind” doesn’t have a voice because it is, thanks to the binary you mentioned, difficult to authenticate. For example, what makes my travel different from that of a woman who goes and spends a week in an ashram and declares herself found, or spiritualized? What I mean is, I DID stay at an ashram, and if I wasn’t going to find myself or collect spirituality, why was I doing it?
      I suspect that I am driven my a deep inner curiosity, and a deep need to try to connect with others, and that might be the only difference. But there’s a difficulty in giving that a voice because the difference itself is slippery: I see a difference between my curiosity as a writer, and the curiosity of someone who wants to “find themselves” in two weeks in South Asia through a most likely unconscious process of othering, but that person may not see the difference at all. This is because of the point you have raised: our framework allows space only for those who are the exotic (gah, I hate that term, but it serves its purpose here!) and those who want the exotic, a reality that distils the conversation into another not-very-useful binary.
      It is an immensely fraught subject, and very difficult to articulate! The fact remains that there is a location-based power imbalance, an uncomfortable privilege problem that makes the differences between various motives for voluntary travel somewhat unreconcilable.
      Perhaps the differences are in the nuances of one’s approach to travel: in openness, in respect, in conscientiousness, in willingness to listen, in eagerness to learn, and in trust.

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