Did you read “Eat Pray Love”? Do you want to meet with a famous Balinese Shaman? Ketut Liyer, thanks to the best-selling book, “Eat Pray Love”, has found himself catapulted to fame and at least some small fortune as the most important Balian on an island of very spiritual people. And earlier this year, Spirit Quest Tours was in Bali for two weeks with a group of 35 American tourists, many of whom had read the book and were hoping to meet Ketut. Luckily, our Balinese guide knew him, and where he lived, and I was able to send him over to Ubud to set up an afternoon for our group to see him.
What is a Balian? The Jakarta Post, Indonesia’s local paper, defines many different types of Balian or holy man. “[One type of Balian] are called balian tulang or bone setters. There are many other types of balian – shaman or traditional healers. There are the balian uwut, the name originating from urat or muscle, which refers to a masseur who has mastered the traditional knowledge of human anatomy and is capable of healing muscle strains or any other bodily stiffness. The Balinese also recognize balian ushada (shamans whose traditional medicinal knowledge is based on ancient lontar or papyrus inscriptions) and balian tenung (soothsayers who spiritually heal people affected by black magic). The balian uwut, especially, still play a significant role in traditional Balinese medicine. Despite the fact modern doctors are practicing in rural areas, people still choose to go to balian uwut for help.”
Of all of these types of Balian, The Balian Tenung is the one that most accurately describes Ketut Liyer, not the least because he is over 80 years old (no one I asked, including Ketut himself, had an exact age for him) and cannot perform the physical requirements of massage or bone setting.
Ketut’s home is a typical Balinese compound, a gathering of buildings which are situated North, South, East and West, and a big open pavilion at the center with a low bed or sofa. Ketut meets people under a smaller side pavilion, and the waiting group sits under another open area – in our case, we brought about 30 people with us, so it was a large group hanging around, and Ketut saw us in twos. According to Liz Gilbert, author of “Eat Pray Love”, Ketut complained that the lack of tourists in Bali a few years ago led to him being “empty in his pocketbook.” I do not think that is much of a problem now. People come to see him every day – the big issue is making sure we don’t completely tire him out.
He smiles a lot, but when you take a picture of him, he is quick to point out that he is ugly (he is not, in fact, just mostly toothless and quite old, so sweet and charming). Ketut’s English is heavily accented, and his voice raspy. The combination makes it hard to understand him, even with our Balinese guide helping with the translation, and Ketut speaking English. One of our group was asked to show him her back, and as she turned around, Ketut nodded sagely, running his hand across her shoulder. “Mah dick,” he kept saying. “Good for mah dick.” Oh, we were all in a tither over that one, our eyes darting from person to person as we assessed the situation. Was he really saying what we thought he was? Could Ms. Gilbert have neglected to mention that Ketut was rude, and made passes at the female guests right in the middle of a reading? Suddenly, the light dawned. “Magic,” I practically shouted, patting my client reassuringly on the arm. “He says you have good magic!” Our traveler nodded vigorously, looking relieved. “Ohhh. Thank you, Ketut!” Ketut’s head bobbed a few times. “Yes,” he rasped. “Good mah dick!”
Every person in our group gets a palm reading and is told the same thing – you are smart, and you will live to be 100 (after looking at your lifeline). But I got to sit in on all the readings, and there were many other variations. Ketut will talk about some interesting things – your sex life, your work, your need to be married (or not!) and sometimes he will ask you to turn around so he can look at your back. He did not give anyone in our group the kind of invitation that set Elizabeth Gilbert on the path to her enlightenment, “Come live with me here in Bali” but he did say a remarkable number of things that resonated with our guests. In fact, several people said it was the highlight of their trip!
The other thing that was wonderful about the compound was Ketut’s family – one of his sons and two of his granddaughters were there, selling wood pieces the son had carved, and the little girls showing off their school drawings. We were so impressed by the art, we actually asked to buy some of the girls’ paintings, which were extremely colorful and original pieces, and they were thrilled to sell them to us. And outside the compound, a few doors down, was a school with about 15 little boys and girls. We spoke with some of them while we were waiting our turn, and eventually they shyly poked their heads into the compound. Posing for pictures, they grew bolder and bolder, until all of them were hanging, grinning, around the door frame and waving at the American tourists and our myriad cameras.
Back for my turn with Ketut Liyer, he told me my husband and I would be together for a long time, which I have suspected myself ;-> We promised to bring all our groups back to see him, as long as he feels healthy enough to do so. Then he winked at me. “See you later, Alligator!” Wow. This was Liz Gilbert territory. And I knew just how to respond: “After a while, Crododile!”
*** Spirit Quest Tours leads Eat,Pray, & Love Bali – tours that pay homage to the best-selling book, Eat, Pray, Love.