Pak Man the Balian (Trigger Point, Chapter 2
Less than 24 hours from now, I’ll find myself lying belly-up — glazed in coconut oil and sweat like a honey baked ham—while a gray-haired medicine man vigorously jabs his fingers into my abdomen, as though he could rearrange my organs from the outside. Despite the shaman’s reputation for offering the most brutalizing treatment methods in town, this is an experience I’ll deliberately sign up for; I’ll even make a special stop at an ATM for a fresh stack of brightly colored Balinese Rupiahs to pay for it. But on this hot and humid morning — in the ever-present here and now — I’ve been laying awake for hours, watching the morning light spill in through the window in bitter disdain, completely unaware of the quantum shift that tomorrow will usher in.
It’s day eight of my Bali misadventure, but since landing in hectic Denpasar and paying twice the going rate for a cab ride to Ubud, I’ve seen precious little of this enigmatic island beyond the immediate streets around my Airbnb. Although I’ve been making my best attempts to rest and recover from the gnarly flare-up and jet lag symptoms I picked up in transit, I still feel like a chewed-up, burnt-out and depleted wisp of a woman; a faint and frail echo of the over-achieving force of nature I once was.
Looking back on my recently deceased identity as a San Francisco graphic designer, I wonder how I ever had the strength and energy to be so determined about anything. Today, I barely have the stamina to leave this room. Truth be told, I still have yet to do a stitch of research about the first major destination on my round-the-world healing tour — a deliberate unpreparedness that Cassandra 30.0 would have cringed over. But Beta Version 32.5 is trying to embrace spontaneity.
Finally giving up the fight for rest, I fling my heavy limbs off the mattress, wash down a few Liqui-Gels from my nightstand pharmacy and shuffle like a flat-lined zombie to the bathroom before hobbling downstairs for food in the open-air kitchen of the eight-room rental villa, where I happen upon a 30-something chef from San Diego. A self-proclaimed expert in all-things Bali, he speaks with a tone of unmistakable broey condescension, but I listen intently nonetheless (given my own status as a willfully ignorant, rookie vagabond).
“If you’re sick, then you’ve come to the right place!” he says, reminding me of a car salesman. The word Ubud actually stems from the Balinese word for medicine, he says, piquing my interest, and this island has been the healing epicenter of Indonesia for eight centuries. “If you really want to go hard with your healing work, I suggest you book an appointment with a Balian — like the Balinese Shaman Julia Roberts sees in Eat, Pray, Love.”
“Thanks for the tip,” I say with a head nod, excusing myself from the room.
Upstairs, I curl up in bed with a bowl of tropical fruit and my laptop, setting a timer on my phone for one hour. Despite not having an active day job for almost a solid month now, my “work related injury” is more present than ever. Time spent mucking around on any one of my three Apple devises has proven to leave me burning with RSI inflammation and regret.
When my iPhone chimes synthesized fairy bells into the air, I know it’s time to abandon my Balian R&D project and make a decision. Letting my type-A-control-freak tendencies take a back seat, I breathe deeply and look for direction on the back of my eyelids. The phrase “spiritual masseuse” flashes to mind. I don’t know about black magic, but the part about releasing bad memories from the muscle tissue sounds surprisingly sensical to some more distant, less stubbornly intellectual part of me.
I dial the number at the end of a blog post. Less than two minutes later, I put all of my Apple gadgets back to sleep, letting out an expectant sigh that’s laced with one part humidity, one part hesitation and just enough faith to rouse a hopeful half smile from the corner of my mouth.
I never thought I’d say this, but I’ve got my first-ever appointment with a real live, Indigenous witch doctor tomorrow, and I have absolutely nothing to wear.
The following day, a young woman leads me through the front gates of Pak Man’s traditional family compound, silently instructing me to take a seat with the gentle hand gestures of an indifferent Balinese Vanna White. I nervously plop down at a wooden table, correctly assuming that she was the same woman I’d spoken with yesterday.
“Little English. You see Pak Man at 10 a.m.. I send info in text,” she said before hanging up.
As the long SMS informed me, all Balian patients (domestic or foreign) are expected to dress in the customary temple garb of the local people as a demonstration of respect for the spiritual lineage of the healers’ work and their sacred abilities; sort of like dressing your Sunday best for church confession. I’d taken some creative liberties with my makeshift Hindu-holy-look — a long scarf impersonating as a sarong and a blue microfiber camping towel as a sash over a black, shoulder covering t-shirt — but my hostess didn’t seem to judge.
Pak Man materializes from the household kitchen in an adjacent pagoda and is just as advertised: an elder with a youthful strength about him. Wearing his signature form-fitting, white tank top that reveals a lean, sinewy build; his salt and pepper hair is tied back with an air of coolness. He seems dignified and serious in a way that might be intimidating if he wasn’t so strangely familiar.
Chestnut brown skin, stern coffee-bean colored eyes, the Shaman looks vaguely like my father might have, if he’d survived himself long enough to become wise and old. Hands crossed formally behind his back, the healer gracefully makes his way across the garden, up to the tiled patio to join me at the table with the refined composure of a well-practiced Monk. His fluid, deliberate gestures might be misconstrued as feminine back home in Rust-Belt Pennsylvania, but here in Southeast Asia, such mannerisms are a sign of disciplined reverence; as is the long, traditional sarong and checkered sash that’s tied high around his waist.
Pak Man smiles warmly before lighting a cigarette — just like my old man would have — but his is a sweet and fragrant clove to Dad’s never ending supply of cheap Jack 100s. Puffing smoke into the air, the Balian stares into the distance before breaking the comfortable silence that’s taken shape between us.
“Name?” he asks, gesturing towards me.
“Cassandra,” I reply.
“Why Sandra see Pak Man?”
Accepting his interpretation of my name, I do my best to answer in simple terms. Though I’m not sure my words invoke much recognition in him, I keep talking anyways, pointing to various parts of my upper body like a well rehearsed pantomime.
After Pak Man finishes his clove, I follow him through the courtyard and finally step over the threshold into his healing hut. Inside, it’s clear I’m not in Kansas or Northern California anymore. Pak Man performs a blessing in front of a large wooden altar that fills up the far wall; waving a stick of burning incense so close to my body that I feel the heat of it on my skin. The beautiful mantra he sings in a melodic, foreign tongue continues to play on repeat in the back-burner of my mind as I obediently strip away my clothes for treatment.
A former version of myself would have been mortified at being splayed out in front of an old holy man in my most revealing pair of skivvies: a lacy black thong. But over the past seven years as a chronic pain patient, I’ve become accustomed to clinical nudity, having my body poked, prodded and kneaded like lumpy bread dough by a long list of practitioners who promised some form of relief.
Despite the foreignness of my surroundings, Pak Man’s healing hut is a welcome contrast to the many busy waiting rooms and sterile, cold exam tables that were a constant in my Bay Area life; bright lights pounding down on me like a helpless lab rat. I’m thankful for the tropical heat that’s like a blanket on my often-cold, exposed skin and the dim, natural light that peaks in through the door. Outside — in the lush, tree-filled courtyard — birds chirp and water trickles in a fountain swirling with well-fed koi. The modest sized, single room structure is filled with the sweet, aromatic scent of cloves, incense, something slightly fermented and the homemade, coconut-oil concoction that Pak Man feeds me from a small ceramic cup, like a Priest serving the eucharist. Even though I wouldn’t consider myself a practicing Hindu or a Catholic — more like a devout agnostic — this moment feels strangely sacred to me.
Pak Man dips a Q-Tip into a bottle of coconut elixir, traces it in funny patterns on my tongue, then paints a cross formation onto my forehead with my own coconut flavored saliva. The old man then begins to pulverize and manipulate my body in ways I’d never imagined possible. Per his suggestion, I try my best to “relack” and “deep breeze” as he rigorously works over lumps in my arms like buttons on a pin ball machine, then rapidly plucks on my tendons like guitar strings before settling in to rearrange the contents of my organ cavity like a sloppy game of Operation.
The input volume on my sense of touch shoots up to disturbing-of-the-peace levels, while my remaining human faculties feel like they’re fading into a dark, vast and empty space near the back of my skull. Intermittently snapping me back to my physical reality, the medicine man identifies each new organ as he works, rubbing out the bulges he finds in the “livah,” the “kidness” and the “stowmag.” I do my best to surrender — to mold myself around his shifting hands like silly putty .
“Much pain, many years,” he says with a rattle of compassion in his raspy voice, his sincerity forming an uncomfortable lump in my throat.
Moving his undulating fingers lower down my bare waistline, Pak Man discovers a fresh knot, making me wince. “Many problem, many solution,” he says with kindness and a glint of sadness in his eyes. I nod in conflicted agreement as he moves further south; wanting so much to believe him.
“Utriss, no good. Many bad memress here,” he tells me, striking both a physical and figurative nerve. He withdraws his hands to his own lap before speaking again. “Sec painful for Sandra,” he says, clenching the muscles of his otherwise tranquil face into a grimace, closing one hand into a fist to demonstrate constriction. I shoot him a look of astonishment, wondering what other tender, personal secrets his fingertips might pick up on.
Unable to shield myself from the resonance of his last conclusion, my face caves in on itself, eyes leaking onto the pillow like a cut lemon being squeezed. Before this becomes a full throttle eruption, I manage to morph my mangled mouth back into a speaking instrument. “Yes, sex can be painful,” I say, inhaling deeply while an internal storm continues to brew.
“Pak Man work here ness time, ok?” he asks, his hand resting on my pelvis.
“Ok,” I say, bobbing my head in a series of short little bursts.
“Not worry, Pak Man respeck body. Help Sandra,” he says with sympathetic eyes. “Do you truss Pak Man?” I let the question register in my backwashed mind, until I find myself reflexively shaking my head yes.
Truthfully, I trust this strange, enigmatic old man—who talks in Yoda-like, third-person fragments and has yet to master my mother tongue—more than most of the American doctors I’ve seen over the better part of a decade. We may have only just met, but it seems like he somehow understands things about me and my condition that even I have yet to comprehend. And more importantly, he seems to believe he can help me.
Obeying Pak Man’s gesticulative request, I flip onto my stomach, resting my head sideways off the pillow. Mouth agape, I watch the Balian’s hazy silhouette moving in my peripheral vision before darkness envelopes me. He goes for that awful knot behind my right shoulder blade and I wonder how he’s honing in, so precisely, on problem spots I haven’t identified. The pulsing pressure of his calloused thumb hurts like hell, but instead of giving the pain my undivided attention, I focus on those amoeba and worm-like shadows that dance across the back of my eyelids.
When I was a girl, I discovered that I could transport myself somewhere else entirely if I willed it enough; like Dorothy clicking her ruby slippers together. So I take a deep breeze — then another — folding myself into that dark, comforting space in the borderlands between awake- and dream-state. Here, all those painful bodily sensations transmute into a distant nightmare or a hallucination — not my flesh and bone reality. As each painstaking minute passes, my breathing gets shallower, body burns hotter and head spins lighter.
It feels like hovering in a boundlessly open space — far away from my bodily awareness — where I hang in stillness for either an eternity or no time at all, until I hear a crisp popping sound; a large wad of muscle tension exploding under Pak Man’s thumb. My body flops on the cot below me, but my sense of self drifts further away from the healing hut scene.
It’s then that I’m hit with a tidal wave of dark emotion; a mess of abstract feeling too jumbled to have a name. The unarticulatable sensation is a lot like my childhood night terrors; devoid of narrative, yet filling me with an unshakable sense of panic and dread, like being chased by some eerie, formless villain.
My eyelids drift open. I see a Monopoly board below me; hands filled with multicolored funny money. I pass the pseudo-bills to my childhood best friend Missy before making a long-awaited hotel purchase with gloating enthusiasm. I’m twelve (going on thirteen by summer’s end) in the living room of the old redbrick farmhouse I grew up in—the only place that’s ever really felt like home. My kid friend and I sit cross-legged around the coffee table, happily doing kid things until a loud crash shakes the tiny plastic houses on the board. I run into the hallway to find Dad standing on the staircase landing above me, swaying momentarily like a lost hobo before bending down to pick up the full-sized TV he’s just hurled into the wall.
Before I can make sense of what’s happening, my father heaves the television down the second, longer flight of stairs. I watch the old Sony CRT bounce down the green, carpeted steps in slow motion, making its way right for me. I fling myself from its path, mere seconds before the tumbling appliance makes impact with the floor where I just stood. Dad barrels down after it with heavy, enormous strides like a spooked elephant, his wild eyes fixated on the TV, as though I weren’t even there.
Hopped up on adrenaline — heart racing in the all too familiar state of crisis mode, I shout “What the hell are you doing?!”
“Yeeer mmmother watches too much ffffuckinnng TV,” he mumbles with his back to me, bending over to pick up the dilapidated machine, yet again. “She’d rather watch thisss piece of shhhhitt than be with her goddamned huzzzband!” he yells with so much vibrato in his baritone voice that I feel it pulse through my body. I watch in stunned silence as he lumbers through the living room, cradling his cargo with the bent knees of a practiced lifter.
I search for the right verbal daggers to sling at him; something brave and bold and from my gut. After a long pause I say, “I hate you and I hope you go straight to hell” with as much venom as I can muster. For a few moments, he keeps trudging through the living room toward the back door, as though he hadn’t heard me. But then he stops to peer back over his shoulder.
“I hate you too, honey,” he says with a cocky grin, exposing yellow teeth that match the tint of his glossy, wasted eyes. There’s a savageness to his glare that makes him almost unrecognizable to me. His chestnut skin seems two shades deeper than usual; black hair disheveled like he’d been struck by lightning. He spins back around to wedge the TV through the sliding glass doors, hoisting it off the back deck where it implodes out on the lawn.
That’s when I finally feel the urge to bolt — like a hammer making impact with gunpowder in one of Dad’s muzzle loaders — setting a controlled explosion into motion. I take off running, barefoot into the night, abandoning my mother and best friend, who stand dumbfounded in the living room. I sprint right past the raving lunatic who’s screaming obscenities into the sky; past the mess of glass and plastic that he’s still flinging all over the lawn. When my feet hit the gravel driveway I run faster, sharp rocks cutting into my naked heels with every stride. The pain opens up my chest and a big gust of air floods my lungs before the scene goes black.
My eyes flash open and I’m back in the healing hut, sobbing in the fetal position like an inconsolable child.
“Let out,” Pak Man says, his greasy hand patting me on the back, like a mother comforting a traumatized child.
Six minutes later, we sit together at the round table where our session began. My body oily and gelatinous, I bum one of Pak Man’s cloves. We exhale smoke into the humid air, each of us occasionally closing our eyes in silent contemplation.
“Many problem, many solution,” he reiterates, breaking the comfortable silence. He places one hand on his heart before speaking again. “Pak Man suppore you,” he says, reaching across the table to point his opposite hand towards mine, “but only Sandra can heal Sandra.”
You have just read Chapter 2 of the memoir series Trigger Point; The Hail Mary Healing Chronicles of a Yuppie Redneck Drifter.
Once a Rust-Belt tomboy with an unlikely American dream, Cassandra worked as a high-caliber designer in San Francisco for seven years before scrapping it all to pursue the life of a world-traveling freelancer, filmmaker, entrepreneur and a vocal advocate for social change.