Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love made Balinese healing famous. But it was the medicine man, Ketut Liyer of Ubud, Bali, that has given it a bad name.
The medicine man so revered in her book is (or at least has become) a fraud. Cashing in on his fame, Ketut does palm-reading for tourists by the droves. And the reading each person receives? Exactly the same. But he charges each a hefty 250,000 rupiah (~$30). I heard this story well before I arrived in Ubud and later read about it online.
So while he told Liz he felt “very empty in my bank,” he definitely isn’t now, raking in roughly $7000 a week. The fact that he had money struggles even before Liz’s 3 month stay in Bali makes me doubt his healer status. A true Balian healer’s priority is to his immediate community, who are also expected to pay for their consultation. A healer of the level of Balian would not rely on income from seeing foreign tourists.
I don’t doubt Gilbert met such a person claiming to be a medicine man and had a good relationship with him, but my real question is, was Ketut Liyer ever a Balian and he just lost his ability? Or did he completely misrepresent himself, even to Liz on her first visit?
In conversations I had with people in Ubud about Balians, whenever this Ketut’s name came up, the most mild reaction I got from locals was a crinkling of the nose (tiny sign of disgust) to much stronger reactions such as shame, outrage, and referring to him at Mr. Liar.
The second healing character mentioned in Bali section of the book is Wayan Nuriyasih who “is a hands-on doctor, mixing herbs and medications in her own shop.” By Balinese standards, this Wayan would not be considered a Balinese healer, Balian, nor ever really consulted for medical issues. She just has, as do most educated Balinese, knowledge of plants, herbs, and the ability to make an Indonesian herbal tonic called Jamu.
From the accounts I heard, Wayan has very serious health challenges of her own. Nonetheless, tourists still flock to see her and she has cashed in on the fame she received as well–raising prices and catering lunches for hotels. But she seems to do more to impress tourists than medicine man Ketut, offering (albeit similar) diagnoses, massages, healthy meals, and herbal concoctions.
For me going back and reading sections of the book relating to the ‘healers,’ I realized what an excellent writer Gilbert is as she distilled and made entertaining and simple the intricacy of Balinese society and healing arts. Did readers help to build a cult of fandom around Eat, Pray, Love‘s two ‘healers’? Certainly, but not without sufficient inspiration from Gilbert herself. And that’s exactly what a good author does.