Fire Walking

Bali is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen. It has crystalline blue water, deep green terraced rice patties marching off into the distance, and almost every street corner holds a Hindu statue sporting a hat and a red gingham skirt, with offerings of colourful local fruit strewn at its feet. The people are kind and welcoming, and the food is delicious.

You would think given all this that I would have enjoyed my time there, but two other Balinese constants made that impossible; its extreme humidity and malarious mosquitoes. The air in Bali is so laden with moisture that it’s almost visible. Every day, whether cloudy or sunny, it seemed as though the weight of the entire sky was resting on my head and shoulders, leaving me feeling sodden and enervated. As to the mosquitoes, I was taking malaria pills but I still felt extremely uncomfortable whenever I heard one buzzing in my vicinity. There was one place we stayed that had neither screens nor mosquito netting, forcing me to cower under the sheet all night long while mosquitoes hovered ceaselessly over the bed, looking for a means of ingress. My husband was not bothered by such things, or almost anything at all for that matter, but I managed to convince him after two sleepless nights that we needed to find another hotel. The new place at least had netting around the bed, but my nights were still fretful.

We arrived in Bali after a month-long stay in New Zealand and Australia bunking with my husband’s extended family. The plane ride from Darwin, Australia to Kuta Beach in Bali was among the scariest I’ve ever taken. The plane was delayed on the runway and we passengers all sat sweating profusely for the better part of an hour as the flight crew scurried up and down the aisle carrying wrenches and screwdrivers. Finally the pilot came out of the cockpit and smashed the flat of his hand against the roof of the plane about half way down the fuselage, a motion reminiscent of how my dad used to bring our recalcitrant black-and-which TV into focus. This seemed to do the trick and we were soon taxiing down the runway with the pilot offering apologies over the p.a. system. Needless to say none of this inspired confidence in the viability of the plane, and the flight itself was extremely choppy, but we eventually touched down safely in Bali. It was one of those times when the passengers spontaneously break into heartfelt applause after landing.

Kuta Beach is well known in Australia as a holiday destination, with beautiful pristine sand and perfectly warm water. Despite this my husband and I were soon driven away by two annoying factors: multiple times a day, pushy Balinese women on the beach would offer to braid your hair or give you a massage, and come nighttime the streets were overrun by obnoxious, drunken Australians. We decided to visit Ubud, a renowned artist colony situated deep in the jungle at the centre of the island. I currently have a painting, a charcoal drawing and three masks I bought in Ubud hanging on my walls.

One evening while there we ended up conversing with a friendly Swedish couple at a local restaurant. They were a very sporty pair and spent most of their time doing outdoorsy things. Before the evening was over they recommended more than once that we should visit the Batur volcano located about an hour north of Ubud. It was best to go up early in the morning to catch the sunrise, and as I had made it clear through the course of the evening that I was not an athletic person, they suggested we would be advised to take a guided tour. My husband was very keen, so I reluctantly agreed and we booked in for the next available spot.

Two days later at 3 a.m. we were roused by an obnoxiously cheerful Australian guide banging a pot in the courtyard of our hotel compound, calling for us to get a move on. Soon my husband and I, along with about ten other bleary-eyed tourists, gathered outside and piled into the bus, ready for our volcano adventure. I was relieved when we got to the bottom of Batur because it seemed neither overly steep nor high, but we were not long into the climb before I realized how truly shitty my ability to judge such things was. The pitch of the incline seemed to increase the more tired I became, while the summit appeared to move further away with each subsequent step. It’s funny how fatigue and attitude influence perception.

After a nearly two hour vertical slog through increasing heat and humidity, we finally reached the edge of the caldera. The sun was just cresting the horizon as we stood, sweaty and out of breath, trying to leave the difficulty of the climb behind so we could truly appreciate the wonderful experience at hand. I had only made a little headway in regaining a normal temperature and pulse when I noticed some movement on the outer edge of my vision. It was hard to make out exactly what I was seeing because the ever- brightening sun was directly in my eyes, but it looked like a person walking towards me. No – that didn’t make any sense. Ours was the only group making the ascent that morning so there was no way anyone else was up here.

Presently the wavering blur began to solidify before finally coalescing into the shape of a young lad. He was wearing a box reminiscent of those carried by cigarette girls in old movies, only this box was made of rough-hewn wood and rather than containing cigars and cigarettes it was filled with ice and bottles of pop. The boy cooly sauntered over to our group and said, “Fanta?” Are you kidding me!? How the hell did this kid get up here before us and why wasn’t he sweating and panting like a normal human being? Also, how quickly would one have to ascend in order to ensure that the ice was still intact and the pop was freezing cold when one got to the top? These thoughts briefly filled my mind but were soon eclipsed by the overwhelming joy of watching the sun rise over a breathtaking landscape with ice-cold orange soda coursing through my system. That was the best pop I have ever had in my life.

We had to go back to Kuta Beach to fly off the island. It seemed exponentially more crass and loud after the serenity of Ubud, so we decided to walk along the beach until we were far enough away that the noise could not reach us. We headed out after lunch and had walked a fair distance when we noticed a strange undulation in the air ahead of us. It looked like the warping one sees above hot pavement on a summer’s day, but what could be putting off sufficient heat to create this effect in the middle of a beach? We then spied a crowd of people standing at the tree line about ten metres from the source of the heat, all facing towards it and talking in hushed, excited voices.

We finally got close enough to see what they were all looking at; it was a pit, about three metres wide by ten metres long, filled with white-hot stones. A man in the crowd explained to us that a yogi was about to demonstrate his amazing powers of concentration by walking the length of the pit without sustaining any burns. At that very moment, as if on cue, a man in a white sarong emerged from the trees accompanied by a boy. The man went to one end of the pit, closed his eyes and began breathing deeply. Meanwhile, the boy explained to the crowd that his master was preparing his mind for this extraordinary feat, and begged us to be absolutely silent as any distraction at this point could result in dire consequences for the yogi.

We all stood spell-bound, equal parts disbelieving and hopeful as the yogi began to circle his arms around, always ending with his hands pressed together in prayer pose. He did this several times, almost as if he were literally winding himself up. He then opened his eyes, undid his sarong and dropped it on the sand, revealing what looked like an adult diaper made from swaths of white fabric circled around his pelvis with the end tucked in at the front. Without hesitation or even a scintilla of fear, the yogi stepped onto the burning hot stones and walked at a normal pace to the other end of the pit, then turned around and walked back. He then sat down on the sand and pointed the soles of his completely unburned feet towards the crowd.

We all gasped in astonishment except for one man in the front row who crossed his arms and rolled his eyes indicating that he suspected a trick. I’m pretty sure this guy was a plant but it certainly added to the drama of the moment when the seemingly indignant boy confronted him. They had a heated exchange which ended with the boy enlisting our help in getting the man to come directly beside the pit to verify its hellish temperature. The man finally agreed but only if others would volunteer to go with him, so in the end about six people made their way down to the edge of trench. They held their hands out several feet above the fiery stones and called back to the crowd that the temperature even at that distance was truly unbearable. No normal person could possibly follow in the footsteps of the yogi without suffering severe burns as a result.

We all realized that this last part of the act was planned to drive home the truly extraordinary nature of the yogi’s feat (and feet) in the hopes that we would drop more money onto his discarded sarong as we dispersed. My feeling was that he more than deserved whatever he got. I don’t believe in miracles, but what I saw that day certainly attests to the astonishing ability of a well-trained mind to override hard-wired responses of the brain and body to external stimuli.

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