Indonesia can affect both body and soul, from medical tourism to hanging with the locals. By Brigid Delaney.

Bali high

Rice paddy temples in southern Bali.
Credit: Cindy MacDonald

There is a place you can go if you want to extend your strict 30-day visa in Indonesia. It is behind a juice shop and up some rusting stairs that lead to a room belonging to a Swedish woman who keeps envelopes fat with rupiah and US dollars on a card table also cluttered with paperwork and passports.

Waiting in the stairwell are some young Americans, listless in the heat. They have the scrawny bodies and dead eyes of junkies, although they could just be on a juice fast, like everyone else in Bali.

In this room you can buy time – literally – just a little bit longer, because a month in Indonesia is not enough.

“Have you read Louise Hay?”

I’m at a restaurant in Ubud with a group of six women and everyone is talking about the American self-help author who believes we cause our own illnesses by having negative emotions. A fiftysomething from Sydney seated next to me, with a friendly, open face, has read Hay and agrees: “I take responsibility for my cancer. I don’t like to use the word ‘fault’ but I had stress and didn’t deal with it – I was running two small businesses, looking after kids. I didn’t look after myself.”

She had breast cancer and now it has come back. The tumours, she says, are “everywhere”. She’s had chemo and radio – been through all that. This is the next thing – the Bali Thing.

She’s in Bali for two weeks without her family, staying at a guesthouse. Each day she visits different healers she’s read about on internet forums or on flyers at the Ubud organic food shop, or via the community of New-Age expats here who work for or are connected to Ubud’s spiritual-industrial complex.

Her hair is springy in the humidity, her face flushed. She looks well, but tomorrow she’s headed a short distance out of town for a session of shaking therapy. It involves participants shaking their body for hours as if they are receiving electric shocks. The aim is to “shake out physical and emotional blocks”.

It’s medical tourism through the glass darkly, but tonight – in the heat, over nasi goreng and herbal tea – is not the time for scepticism. These women – many of them unwell – don’t want to argue. They want to believe.

In my own time, I stay with a Sufi meditation teacher in a $27-a-night room with a ceiling fan and a shared garden. But I have also been commissioned to write articles on some new luxury accommodation in both Bali and Central Java.

I have shit luggage and stained sarongs – and a butler, villas with my own plunge pool, limousine drivers that carry treats and cold bottled water, and people who stand to attention and hand me a lemon-scented, chilled, damp face towel the minute I step from the cool of the car.

There is a disconnect: my credit cards are maxed but I check into these places and there are two people who have the job of walking slightly ahead of me throwing rose petals on the ground.

They draw me baths – also littered with tropical flower petals – and give me slightly invasive “body treatments” involving warmed yoghurt, sea salt and chocolate paste.

The clientele of these resorts are honeymooners, older Europeans, rich Indonesians with large families. I feel conspicuously alone. I imagine the other guests speculating about me: have I come on my honeymoon alone? Was I ditched at the altar? I try to look aloof, even busy, as I scribble furiously in my journal: “My butler’s name is Dewi and this morning I rang him at 4 o’clock and he came to my room with a cappuccino and a copy of Condé Nast Traveller.”

For company I befriend the general managers, who take me for martinis on beaches and gin and tonics on rice terraces. We talk about Indonesia and their exile from their homelands – decades in Asia where their news of home comes as air-freighted copies of the International Herald Tribune. When we talk politics they sigh and admit they can’t remember the last time they voted – or even if they voted – because they left home when they were 20 or 21 and, well, that was a very long time ago. The guy who runs the hotel where I’m staying is Texan and carries around copies of The New Yorker. He’s been in Jakarta too long and is dying to talk about books.

We stay up on the rooftop bar by the pool talking about Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo and pound through four bottles of wine and two packets of cigarettes until the 4am dawn call to prayer. At dawn I am floating on my back in the swimming pool and see the early light is kind to this city that too often gets described as ugly. Floating, floating, I feel as if in a dream.

Jakarta is famous for its hideous traffic but it’s Eid, a holiday, and I drive with a group of American expats around the empty streets. Even the food vendors are gone and the vibe is that of a patrol after a plague. I feel sick, which could be the pollution and the shallow cough it has given me, but is more likely a hangover.

We arrive at our destination – a flat, vaguely oily sea, with the occasional floating container ship. Behind us are McMansions with pillars of gold, Greek columns, satellite dishes, glass towers, southern plantation verandahs, security guards, Hummers and high walls.

Jakarta is not poor. Not here. Rap music is playing in the empty restaurant and we drink Coronas. Another American – not the Texan – says, “This is like their Christmas. Merry Christmas, dude.”

I am in Lombok and befriend the driver of the posh hotel where I am staying. He takes me to a temple where a man tries to sell us marijuana – a huge plastic bag of it – like garden clippings. The man is wearing a marijuana leaf T-shirt and a belt buckle with a carved leaf.

The driver takes me to see monkeys, a public swimming pool and a market with exotic birds in cages where I don’t look at anything. He shyly asks if he can have a cigarette in front of me and buys me a coffee.

He speaks Arabic and English and lived in the Gulf working as a driver, where he was treated badly by his employer and finally left after seven years.

I like this guy a lot and would rather hang with him than see another temple. He asks if I’d like to see his house and his village. We go to a place by the sea, which is startling in its contrast to the expansiveness of the area around the resort.

In his house I meet his children and his sister and her children – who he has taken in after she left her husband who had a gambling problem. I count seven people living in two rooms – the house hard up against his neighbours, a motorbike parked in the kitchen. I take a photograph of the driver holding his little daughter. His face shines with pride. Everything is illuminated.

I’m back in Bali to attend a retreat. It’s hectic but also relaxing. Up at dawn each day for yoga, excursions to volcanoes and more yoga, hikes, bike rides, organic restaurants, more yoga, a ceremony in a temple at midnight where we are told to dress in white and submerge ourselves in a bath, our garments floating around us like Ophelia.

On the last day of the retreat we are told to write down the things we want to let go of and then we sit in a circle and take turns throwing our paper in a fire. Each woman gets up – one by one – and burns her paper.

By the time the second person has burnt their paper I am sobbing. I am also embarrassed. No one else is crying. My face is swollen with snot and tears, the sobs move through me like a current and I feel not sad or upset but deeply connected to not only the people in this circle but everyone on the planet. I’ve never felt like this before – particularly since I became an atheist in 2007. I feel a profound sense of connection, empathy and compassion with everything and I am feeling it so much that the only physical response commensurate with the enormity is these full, body-racking sobs.

With a mixture of awe and shame I guess that I am having what’s called a religious experience, which I try to hang on to because it feels so good. As soon as I try, it goes.

We walk in single file down to a river where there is a Balinese dude singing and the yoga instructor mixing the ashes of all our combined fears and stuff we want to let go. He throws them in the river, which is flowing fast. I feel a twinge of disapproval because it’s bad for the environment, but quash it because the action contains an allusion to something bigger – that this will be all of us one day, ash in a bowl, returned to nature.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "Bali high".

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Brigid Delaney is the author of the novel Wild Things.