Local Cures of the Lamaholot

Uncategorized, Anthropology, Religion, Indonesia, Travel, oral history
  1. Severe Dental Pain 

Suggested by Pak Tokan (late fifties, retired politician and corner-shop manager in Larantuka, East Flores)

It’s not easy to find top dental care in East Flores, Indonesia. In fact, it’s not possible. Have a cavity in your teeth that brings you fits of pain? Your options are few. You might ask a friend to extract that rotten tooth with something sharp, or with the old tug-and-pull. Another option is to grow accustomed to the pain, or if you have the funds, hop on an overnight boat to the city of Kupang, where the few region’s dental specialists work at a snail’s pace. Alternatively, you can squelch the pain (but not the problem) with a quick, natural remedy that begins in your kitchen cabinet.

Not all families of East Indonesia host termite colonies in their homes, but those who find themselves looking up at tumor-like mounds on their wood-paneled ceilings should consider themselves blessed.

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If the problem is a simple cavity, the cure is simple. Take flakes from the termite nests inside your kitchen cabinet, crumble them, and put them in hot water. Gargle and spit like saltwater for a strep-throat. Afterwards the dental pain will subside, although the hole will remain.

2. Prostate Hyperplasia 

Told by Tekla (mid-forties, office assistant at the central clinic in Lewoleba, Lembata)

Tekla’s father suffered from prostate hyperplasia (enlargement of the prostate gland) when Tekla was still a girl. Healthcare in Lembata can’t boast much today, but was truly defective twenty years ago. The closest thing to a hospital was in the city miles away from Tekla’s mountain town of Lerek, and the road to get there was as broken as a dried-and-trodden bean pod.

Tekla’s father’s condition brought him pain and poor humor. He couldn’t take a whiz, and each day the discomfort grew worse. Tekla’s mother tried to persuade her husband to visit the city clinic, but the man wouldn’t make the trek. At last, when the pain grew unbearable, he went. At the clinic, Tekla’s father received the news everyone expected. He would have to travel to a far island to receive advanced inspection, and undoubtedly stay weeks for the care.

Tekla’s father refused to go abroad. Instead he lit candles for the ancestors in front of his  house, poured local liquor on the front stoop, and prayed to Father Sky, Mother Earth –Tanah Ekan and Lera Wulan – to lift his misery. He ate the roots of a medicinal tree, as a local shaman taught him its properties, and shortly thereafter found himself cured.

3. Broken Hip 

Tekla. She told me this story story about her father the second day I stayed in her home, when she learned that my passions lay in collecting personal narratives which tap at local wisdom, as opposed to mere/collective origin narratives. 

Tekla’s father was climbing a lontar tree when he fell and broke his hip. The break was so bad that the bone in his hip tore through the skin and the wound let out a pint of blood onto the forest floor. Tekla’s father, who was in his seventies at the time, couldn’t move anything below the pelvis. A family member called Tekla while she was working at the hospital and demanded she come home with medicine while the neighbors carried the bent body back to the house. She grabbed the pain medications and bandages the hospital had in stock and hurried home. Upon processing the news of her father’s fall, Tekla was convinced nothing could be done, and her father would surely be paralyzed for the rest of his life. 

Here, logical predictions fall short of ancestral magic. When Tekla came home, the shaman, Bapak Joni, already stood in her living room. Pak Joni was a trusted healer of the Atodai people, young and gifted. Pak Joni’s ancestors were also known for their knowledge of natural herbs and strength of communication with the invisible, and when Tekla found the renowned shaman in her home, she paused in her steps, letting her bag of provisions fall by her side.

“Leave the western medicine at the door”, said Pak Joni. Tekla did as she was told, as if Pak Joni, rather than she, were the owner of the home.

Pak Joni lit candles for both his and his patient’s ancestors and placed leaves on the open wound of the reclining man, so that it clung to the man’s broken body like plaster. The shaman bid the man’s family members to leave the patient alone as he slept. Visitors might entertain him while he was awake, but he must under no conditions be accompanied at night. In the man’s bedroom Pak Joni hung a carton of Tuak (local alcohol acknowledged as milk of the ancestors) on the wall, along with other sacred totems. Then Tekla’s father was left to heal.

Tekla’s father, by this time inculcated by Western projections, thought he would be crippled forever, and threatened to kill himself. The old man lamented that someone who couldn’t work the bush, climb a tree, and couldn’t drink wine of the lontar tree was as good as dead. But his family bid the man to stay patient, and kept all their kitchen knives far from the bed.

Gradually, miraculously, the old man healed. Soon after the incident his youngest child pledged to marry on a faraway island, and begged his father to come give his blessing. Afraid the journey might reverse the healing process, Tekla demanded that her younger brother pay for their father fly on a plane while the rest traveled by boat. Pak Joni would also get a free ride. The shaman would travel alongside the wounded man or the old man wouldn’t travel at all. So it was done, and Tekla’s father not only survived the injury, but recovered well enough to walk and work the fields. 

Now Tekla’s father, in his eighties, still works the bush. Every year the entire family attends an annual ceremony held by Pak Joni in which a chicken is slaughtered for each illness Pak Joni cures. All who are healed by Pak Joni must come with offerings to thank the local ancestors for their miracles. If they skip out on this ceremonial expression of gratitude, another accident might very well occur…

 

4. Fish Bite

Account by Ado Nunang (host, healer, spearfisher) and his wife, Regina 

If you’ve never heard of a “fish bite”, come to the island of Lembata, where ocean currents bring some of the world’s most diverse–and deadly–sealife. There’s an especially high prevalence of Stonefish (Synanceia) on the shores, where this little-bit over-a-foot long creature sits camouflaged among the mossy rocks on the shallow sea floor. The stonefish  attacks with poison so strong that it kills or cripples its victim within a matter of hours.

Ibu Regina had a cousin who, upon wading one day into shallow waters, found his fingers on the back of a stonefish. The stonefish bites with pressure equal to that put on it by its attacker, and so one prying finger prompted a narrow but deep bite in the hand. Knowing what had attacked him, the man ran out of the water. Blood drained from his finger as he ran to the home of Ado Nunang, neighbor and healer, and there he collapsed on the floor in agony. 

Ado Nunang brought the roots of a medicinal plant and bade the wounded man eat them. Then he juiced some of the roots into a serum which he placed over the wound to prevent infection. The man slept and woke up in good health.

“Why travel far for a remedy and die along the way,” asked Ado Nunang to me, “when the cure is right here?” 

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(Above: Ado Nunang and Ibu Regina at the breakfast table in the town of Loang, Lembata)

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(Typical Mountain view from a backyard of Loang, Lembata, after a funeral)

 

The Woman Who Married the Mountain

Anthropology, Indonesia, oral history, Religion, Uncategorized

I collected and wrote this story over a year ago. It’s based on a true account relayed to me by the main character in the privacy of her courtyard in Karangasem.

Mount Lempuyang is a mountain god who governs East Bali.

Lempuyang

The Woman who Married the Mountain

I

Beta enlisted. There were six pilgrims at first, and she would have been the only woman, but in the end the ayam kampung, or village prostitute, also volunteered her company in an attempt to cleanse her soul. Her desire was typical: a suitor for marriage at last. Beta wanted to tell the ayam that she was better off a whore.

One day when Beta was at the local temple, her neighbors announced they were about to embark on a pilgrimage to Pura Lempuyang, one of the holiest temples in Bali, and the home of the Protector of the East. To venture to the shrine was to endeavor a test of the soul, and all locals knew that only the pure of heart could mount those 1,700 steps.

Beta was a good widow who bowed to her husband’s body as it burned in the pyre a year prior. But in the privacy of her garden she arched her back in the heat, in the company of plants who babbled because they knew her intimately and encouraged no secrets. It was a widowhood that brought Beta, at 42, freedom in another’s death.

Her husband had not hit her hard or often, only occasionally when he came back from the fields and she wasn’t home with a pot of rice. But the words thrashed from husband at wife, attacking her dowdiness, and his ritual dismissal of affection, was enough to make her cry to the gargoyle in the garden.

II

On the morning of the pilgrimage, the last Spring festival basket disappeared from the floor of the pagoda at the center of town. The seven pilgrims set out to the forests. The forests became the fields, the fields became wet and overgrown, then dry and humped, and then flatlands morphed into another forest with bits of clearing in which the trees stood chopped to stumps. Beta thought she would faint into each bush she passed. She had never traveled farther than the circumference of her village, and, as a pedestrian widow working long hours at Ashram kitchens, she weakened quicker than the others. Beta huffed, but she did not complain. After a full morning and afternoon walk, when they reached the shadow of Mount Lempuyang, the caravan sat to rest.

It would be another several-hours walk before they reached the gates of the temple, and so they decided to rest for the night in the shade of a gargantuan banyan tree.The monkeys watched the party from the branches overhead. It was known that the macaque monkeys ruled this part of the forest, here where the mountain sank His feet into lava and His hairs spread out into branches on which His guards might sit. The animals and fauna were a part of the mountain, and it was condemned to interfere with them. Beta and her companions threw the macaques a few slices of fruit, which the creatures caught and devoured greedily.

That night, tucked beneath a batik cloth beside the ayam, Beta felt something like hands reach out. They sprouted up from the ground next to her armpits, just visible within her peripheral vision: white fingers sprouting from the dirt as stem growths. They scooped up the excess flesh on her chest and hugged her body to the earth. Beta remembered half-waking, hearing the monkeys squall and remembering that this was the sound of grappling. In that moment she remembered the prostitute beside her, the young chicken asleep, plumbing her lungs for air, a monument of endurance and bone. Beta could not sleep through the hands. Her late husband complained that her breasts were small. Surely whatever held her must have wanted a handle more robust. She had no conception of what siege would come.

III

The seven pilgrims woke to find the monkeys watching over them. The steady incline of forest weighed heavily on the pilgrims’ legs as they traversed the final stretch, and they stopped frequently to rest and breakfast on handfuls of rice. By the time the pilgrims finally reached the base of the temple steps, the pilgrims’ batiks clung with sweat to their hips. They prayed in front of the the carved dragon heads that crowned the railings to the shrine.

To everyone’s surprise, the swiftest ascent up the 1,700 steps was by the ayam, whose hair fell loose around her arms as she climbed. Beta decided it was the girl, after all, who Mount Lempuyang wanted best. Not to be out-blessed by a prostitute, Beta’s five male companions climbed quickly behind the ayam, while Beta meditated behind, step by step. At the top, Beta stood between two stone slabs of gate, which resembled the profile of a giant heron. Inside the temple grounds was a court, where dozens of pilgrims prayed at separate stations.

As soon as Beta let her knees fold before a vacant shrine on the court wall, she heard a rumble. The trees and the monkeys, the people and the beetles, the rocks of the temple shook and dispersed. And just in time. From the void in the sky came streaks of electricity. Clouds clashed open, shut, like the mouth of a fish.

By the time other worshippers began running, Beta was deep in a trance. She did not know that her knees bled through her batik onto rock. She didn’t know that a little hair had come loose from her bun and that an ant took refuge in the stillness of her neck, or that some of her hair follicles at that moment resolved to go white. She didn’t know that when the rain came the monkeys were the first to retrace their steps. They were soothed at the presence of a new queen. The insects, meanwhile, lost all sense and defecated under shields of bark.

When Beta awoke she knelt in the same position as before, only now she was soaked with rain and sweat. Her left shoulder pulsed in pain from when a bird, thinking her a statue, sprung off it in its turn to flee. Beta looked down at her hands, which lay on her lap. There rested a knife from the mountain. It was from Him, she was sure. Only later would she learn what it meant to be gifted. At the moment, Beta felt a surge of empowerment. Whatever had opened up above had taken possession of her body; at the same time she knew it was there to free her. There was an eclipse of sight. She heard familiar murmuring, and then she drifted out of consciousness.

IV

Back in the village, Beta writhed under the the old woman’s hands as one of the other pilgrims, Deta, held her down and patted her head with a wet cloth. Dehydrated apples brushed against Beta’s mouth, but she wouldn’t open up. “Alone,” she groaned when the edibles were stowed away. “Leave me alone.” Neighbors crowded at the gate and watched as if she were a pig flinching before slaughter.  

Beta overhead the other pilgrims tell her mother the story. The men had taken turns carrying Beta. They had enough hand-rolled cigarettes to last the journey home. Beta’s body was not so heavy, so she was not so hard to carry. As Beta’s mother thanked them, Beta let her body slump into a stupor.

Then this happened.

Beta felt a shock in her lower rib. She heard a call from the direction of the courtyard. With one wrench from her seat, she leapt towards the sound. She rushed through the hallway to the birdcage. There was a solitary bird inside, hardly larger than a duck’s egg, brown and with a black beak. Beta unhooked the cage from where it hung and rushed it into her bedroom, which promised seclusion a mere pace away. Once inside the room, Beta shut the door and secured the bolt.

With the bird’s head placed partially in her mouth, Beta reclined slowly onto the bed, and her eyelids dropped. This was part of His plan. A suction came from where the bedframe stood against the wall. Shloooooop. It was dark, cool where sunlight had never been. First it swallowed her head, then her shoulders, her lowest rib. She felt her limbs grow weightless like twigs blown from a patch. She heard the vortex close shut as her feet, flexed, drew themselves into the swallow. Her metamorphosis began then, because when she awoke, she never felt the widow again. This was beyond forgetting; it was a disappearing act.

V

Beta placed her hands on the bed and looked around her bedroom. The head of the bird sat on the floor a yard away, separate from its body, feathered frame arched into sprawl. She admired its fat gut, a spherical container with no thought. Within Beta, power mounted behind a levy of consciousness in her own brain. She knew that she could crank her consciousness back, and in those moments a companion would come to inhabit her.

Beta kicked the bird’s body beneath the bed and stood up. When she released the bolt to her bedroom, the first thing she asked for was a glass of water.

For twelve months Beta ate nothing except fruit. Her union with Mount Lempuyang required that she quit her job at the Ashram and tend to the spiritual health of hundreds of visitors. They visited her daily, calling her “Woman Who Marries Beyond Her Caste,” and from that point on she, as the hand of High Nature, lived an exalted life as a treasured healer.  

With each visitor, Beta entered a trance. In those moments, Mount Lempuyang descended into the watery space between her organs. He spoke and acted, told truths from across the island, across oceans, spirit dimensions. People asked for protection against curses and spirits, for blessings in business, plump newborns, post-mortem bequests.

When Beta woke from her trances, she would see her patients’ faces bloat with renewal. She did not always remember what preceded their joy, and wondered if it was wrong to accept their gratitude. Her days passed with a series of absences in which no details mattered, and the moments of waking were full of transformation.

As for Mount Lempuyang, who knew what he felt, if anything at all? He was a providing husband, if not more possessive than most. Beta suspended assertion of her identity for the greater good, and for the partner she convinced herself she loved. The Beta of previous years did not entirely disappear (although this was what the plants, her friends, supposed). Mt. Lempuyang fused his fist with her gentleness, and this became a symbiotic relationship. Nothing stood beyond Beta’s reach or request, but she chose not to exercise the privilege. Beta was grateful, if only for her own resign. And people paid her, not in money of course, because this would cause her to lose the gift, but in other items: dried fruit, worship baskets, boiled eggs marinated in coconut milk.

Beta become so famous that word of her traveled overseas. She went with her son to India, where she was lauded publicly by a provincial ruler long-bearded and costumed in white. He fed her round beans, and awarded her a medal when she cured him of chronic wind sickness, which she knew to be gas.

Meanwhile the garden wilted. Carbon dioxide bled to the leaves. One day as Beta emerged from a trance, she noticed the state of her garden. “Are you growing sick of this?” she asked them. “Know it’s not our choice.” She asked volunteers from the Ashram to help her tend her garden, and the plants revived.

VI

It all changed in a season, when Mt. Lempuyang abandoned Beta as she slept. He told her he had found another vessel: a younger woman who had won his faith sooner than expected. The news was delivered matter-of-factly, in a dream in which Beta sat on a stinking shore and Lempuyang stood in human form smoking a roll of tobacco. Through puffs of smoke he explained how the youthful were efficient for great causes.

Beta spoke up for the first time.

She said All these years you slip your hands into my hands, sneak your words into my mouth, and they become extensions of myself. These limbs have never failed you, and you desert me in a night’s passing, just like that? In what state do you leave me, now that you have occupied me for so long?

“You wanted it…” said Mt. Lempuyang, and drifted off. He did not know what she wanted.

His last gift was to kiss, at every demand, the water Beta blessed for the pregnant women of the East. After that, her other magical faculties dissolved away. Alone in her home apart from a few hormonal visitors, Beta went back to socializing with the plants and the gargoyle in the garden.

Now Beta looks longingly and often at the mountain. She fantasizes about Mount Lempuyang entering her deeply. She remembers, in the months before His coming, the days of embodiment when the owners of the Ashram touched her. This made her feel dirty and powerful. There was nothing wrong about being human then. Those men went off to do great things, and came back only for funerals.

She imagines the mountain shaking with joy at her emptiness. If he was merciful, he would transform her into His rock body, or turn her into a tree on which the monkeys might dump their waste and exchange their faith. She will be a continuum of fruit, dropping down from the trees on younger, female-bodied pilgrims.

Beta does not leave her home, and waits for patients who rarely come. Vacancy is a shared sensation, isn’t it? Or so says the gargoyle. But then again how can he empathize? Like her husband, he’s just a tub of rock.