From Ubud To Hollywood For Balinese Medicine Man

A 95-year-old man sits cross-legged on the mat in front of me. He looks comfortable in his white polo shirt and batik wrap, with a piece of yellow cloth worn looped round his waist like a belt.

Silver hair frames his wrinkled face and his old eyes sparkle every time his index finger finishes drawing a line on the palm of my left hand.

“And the other line, I show to you again this, the luck line to the middle finger,” the old man says in his knows-no-grammar English. “Oh, you have two luck line there. This is meaning in your life. Don’t worry, you will be lucky.

“According to the line to the ring finger, I show to you this is money line. And I see money line to the ring finger very deeply, long, start from there to there. Very good.”

The old man is Ketut Liyer, a Balinese medicine man, artist and palmist whose name has been the talk of the town since Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel “Eat, Pray, Love” — which details the author’s friendship with Ketut — became a best-seller.

The story is being made into a film, featuring Hollywood star Julia Roberts. Filming for the movie recently took place in Ketut’s hometown, Ubud.

Ask any local taxi driver if they know where Ketut lives and chances are they will quote you a pricey fare for the short ride — but they all know where the medicine man’s house is.

Ketut’s house in Pengosekan, in the Ubud area, is barely discernible from the main street. Like most Balinese houses it is dominated by light gray and orange bricks and has intricate designs around the edges. The home has several buildings, and the main house stands out elegantly with a wooden door decorated by floral-patterned carvings.

A number of black-and-white paintings of Balinese gods by Ketut himself are displayed on the walls. The sound of running water from a small fish pond and the scattered frangipani flowers on the ground create a peaceful ambience in the quiet garden.

Earlier that morning, when I arrived, a middle-aged man was talking to Ketut while a Chinese-Indonesian woman waited for her turn.

The woman, Alexandra Tjoa, or Alex, flew from her home in Switzerland to Bali for a vacation, she says. While there, she decided to visit Ketut, the man she had read about in Gilbert’s book.

“I was just curious,” Alex says when I run into her the next day at a restaurant. “He is such a sweet grandpa.”

Perhaps it is the way Ketut talks that makes him seem such a character. He hardly uses the word “ saya ” (“I”) when speaking in Indonesian to his clients. Instead, he addresses himself as “ kakek ” (“grandfather”).

He talks slowly as if he wants to make sure his words can be understood. When he speaks in English, he often checks to see if I follow him, saying, “My English not good, but you understand, right?”

Ketut is said to have the ability to cure sick people, mostly with herbal remedies, and foresee people’s futures by reading their palms and studying their ears and faces.

The knowledge was gained from his ancestors, he says, with manuscripts written in ancient characters on palm leaves passed down through the generations for centuries.

He focused on becoming a medicine man when his second wife passed away many years ago.

“I stayed single after my second wife died because I was determined to be a medicine man,” Ketut says. “I was so occupied with painting and curing people I forgot to look for a wife.”

He doesn’t dwell on past misfortune, believing instead that everything happens for a reason.

“My first wife left me and married another man,” he says. “But I believe that was the way thing was meant to be. Then I met this beautiful woman and married her.”

From his second marriage Ketut had one child who died when she was very small. He then adopted a son and a daughter who have blessed him with four grandchildren.

Being someone many people turn to for advice — or just out of curiosity — Ketut says he always tells them nothing but what he really sees.

“Once a man came to me and I could see that he would suffer from a serious illness. I told him that and advised him to be careful,” Ketut says. “If it is not good, I will tell them it is not good. And if it is good, then I will tell them that it is good. If I made up things, according to my religion, my spirit would go to hell when I die.”

Ketut takes my left hand and tells me to bend the fingers. He draws a line near my pinkie. Later he tells me I will marry twice in my life, to which I respond with a laugh.

“Are you serious?” I ask.

“I only tell you what I know,” he says.

There are three more people waiting to see Ketut after me, so I decide to continue the conversation the next day.

When I arrive early the next day, Ketut is holding a newspaper, trying to read the small letters.

“Can you please read it to me?” he asks, handing me the newspaper. “Tell me what it says.”

It is an article about him and how he met Gilbert a few years ago. Once in a while, his eyes look into the distance and he smiles. At times he touches my arm, signalling me to pause so he can comment on what I read.

“Yes, I remember Liz,” he says when I mention the author’s nickname.

“Who is Julia Roberts?” he asks when the article mentions the movie being filmed. I explain that she is the actress playing Gilbert.

He nods when I ask if he remembers meeting Roberts, and laughs when I say he should have been in the film too, playing himself.

“No, I am too old. Besides, I have this kidney problem that causes pain here,” he says, touching his waist.

Asked if his life has changed since Gilbert’s book shot to fame, Ketut says that everything remains the same for him in Bali.

“I don’t think that [my life] has changed,” he says. “I wake up in the morning and meet people here, sometimes they come early, other times [they come] at 10 or 12, or late in the afternoon. In the evening, I meditate.

“I don’t feel famous. Nothing special, you see.”

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