Balinese Beginnings! Community Healing at Puri Damai

Map pictureI left India the day my courses ended on May 3 and headed straight for Indonesia.  I had been planning to go to Bali at this time since last summer to meet up with my class from NYU that would be doing a program the last week of May in “Global Social Entrepreneurship.”  Working in partnership with the Bali Institute for Global Renewal, the NYU class was also offering 2 week ‘internships’ through Udayana, the local university.  I decided to use my free time to come 2 weeks early and do this internship beforehand.

I was ready to leave Auroville when the time came, but already beginning my travels I felt the tinges of culture shock.  I noticed for the first time how truly unsustainable airports were (not to mention air travel at all!), the herds of seemingly mindless people running around, all the crap that was asking me to buy it, the packaged food on planes that terrified me more than ever—I had officially left paradise.  But different from my return from Nepal, these feelings of shock were less emotionally charged; in Auroville I had actually began to understand how these alarming aspects of the world came to be in the first place, and so now I could begin to take steps towards changing them pragmatically as opposed simply being overwhelmed.

Initially, arriving in Bali brought similar feelings. I spent my first two days with a translator from Udayana University navigating Denpasar, the capital and most industrialized city, looking for a place to stay and something productive to do.  I had nothing planned yet and no idea what to expect.  During my first morning at the International Students Office at Udayana, I found myself in a truly bureaucratic academic system  for the first time since leaving last Spring; I was skeptical if I could find here what I was looking for.  But they were very sweet, and after I told them about my studies over the past year they helped me strike Balinese gold!  Saying I was most interested in studying traditional medicine, they only had two words on their lips:  Puri Damai.

“What is Puri Damai?” I asked.

“A traditional Balinese and herbal healer that lives in a village outside of the city in a rice patty.  Many Balinese and some foreigners go to there.  You may be able to stay there and help somehow,” they elaborate.  I felt very hopeful.

So we drove, out of the still disarming urban chaos, into the real Bali: rural landscapes of palm trees and terraced rice fields; the traditional Balinese homes of open compounds with elaborate statues and abundant flowering trees; elderly men in sarongs and women with colorful sashes around their waists carrying platters of fruit and flowers to temples as offerings.  It felt so comforting to see the simple beauty of the real world again.

Balinese HouseTemple Entrance

We turned off the main road and snaked down a winding path through smaller village homes and their temples, turning finally onto a dirt road through a coconut grove and jungle foliage.  We had arrived at Puri Damai.  We found the healing center in the midst of  this secluded oasis and chatted with the family there over some fresh Rosella tea.   Still not knowing where I was, I asked what kind things I would be able to help out with.  With their answer, I discovered that Puri Damai is much more than herbal healers—it is a family-run traditional Balinese healing center with a small kindergarten, neighborhood yoga classes, and a recycled wood-shop, all situated on an organic rice patty and permaculture medicinal plant gardens!  After walking around to see this description in action, I was in love.  At Puri Damai, it felt like I had rekindled my plot of paradise from Auroville.

Herb Garden

From that moment on, I have been stunned to find myself at a place so similar to what I have been studying and dreaming about:  a truly community-centered project in bioregional herbalism working towards integral sustainability. At Puri Damai, 20 neighbors that were jobless have been employed, local children come for school or to play in gardens or swim in the pool, and the sick come from across the street to all over Bali to be healed by their own people and plants.  So, it has been truly inspiring to stay here and volunteer in all their programs the past two weeks.

Puri Damai HouseRice Patty

Healing Center Herbal Center

Dayu and Wayan, the mother and father of the family, are trained healers in herbalism, reflexology, acupressure, bio-energy, and Balinese massage.  They use these skills to do some valuable healing work on their community, all by donation.  In fact, as soon as my translator left me at Puri Damai and I was truly alone in Bali, reality struck.  I was gleefully staring across the rice field when, all of a sudden, a local family came in carrying their 10-year-old-daughter on a car seat with a tumor on her knee the size of a grapefruit!  Dayu invited me into the consultation room to see her work.  Using a special wooden utensil, she prodded a point on the girls foot to which she let out a yell of pain.  Dayu looked at me and said, “this is cancer.”

A few words on cancer I have noticed since being here.  When Dayu later took me around the herb garden saying the names and uses of the plants, almost every single plant was for general or some specific form of cancer.  This made me realize: 1) there really is no ‘traditional’ cure for cancer, but 2) it is a total imbalance of the system which many many herbs can naturally help restore.  Unfortunately, as I saw, an overwhelming number of the local people that come to Puri Damai is for cancer treatment.  Seeing the enormous extent to which the toxic side-effects of our industrial achievements are deteriorating the health of the poorest and most remote people in particular made our Western ‘cancer culture’ of pink ribbons, breast cancer walks, and expensive research grants seem so out of touch.

But all those healthcare criticisms aside, I am happy to say that the best part of being here has been having a rewarding homestay experience!  I am the first foreigner that has ever stayed here, but the family that runs Puri Damai—mother, father, three children ages 18, 20, 26, and all the staff—have totally taken me in.  No one speaks more that just a bit of English, but we have gotten by on laughter and having a lot in common.  Experiencing and practicing personal health care differently between cultures has been one of the biggest challenges in my year of homestays.  In new environments with different foods and schedules, it has been a daily endeavor to keep my energy level up.  But here the emphasis is already on health, and there are plenty of outlets for maintaining and enhancing it.  Dayu in particular has been really excited to share her knowledge and has been teaching me reflexology, traditional massage, and all about her herbs.

Herbal Signage Herbal MedicinesKindergarten GardeningNeighborhood Yoga

Furthermore, I have been exploring the culture by following them around in their daily routine.  We have already been to two weddings, one cremation ceremony, a family picnic at the botanical gardens, to dinner at my older host brother’s house in Denpasar, accompanied my host mom to her day job at the environmental department in the government office of the local municipality, and been out and about with my 20-year-old host sister.

I have honestly say that I am thoroughly obsessed with Balinese culture.  It has an underlying similarity to the South-Asianness I have seen this whole year, but at a higher octave.  The landscape is like no other and the people are so genuinely friendly, honest,  pure-hearted, and compassionate.  The culture is everywhere (you don’t have to go looking for it) and has maintained itself alongside development and widespread tourism like no where else I have seen.  There remains a strong respect and reverence for one’s ancestors, fellow man, and the whole of nature here that is desperately needed all around the world.  Locally, they refer to this as Tri Hata Karana, which is the philosophy of an equilateral relationship between our fellow humans, nature, and spirit.

The Bride and GroomWedding OfferingsCremation

While I learned so much from every positive and negative experience this past year, being here makes me see Nepal and India in a somewhat dimmer light: where is the people’s honesty towards creating a just and uncorrupt government?  Where is their personal health standard to keep everything from being filthy? If Bali can do it, why not elsewhere?  But in the end, the magic of Bali is that it reminds me that the whole world and everything living on it are all magical.

RiverAncestor AltarWaterTemple 2

Time has flown by so fast that I cannot believe I am in my final days at Puri Damai.  Soon, I will no longer be alone with the Balinese as a week of classes  in nearby Ubud brings a migration of 20 other American students.  But I have fostered strong relationships here and feel my work at Puri Damai has only began.  I had a really inspiring conversation last week with the eldest son, Vin, who is a 26-year-old lawyer in Denpasar.  He shared his next-generation vision for the future of Puri Damai:

I think Puri Damai can become the real center for herbal medicine in Bali.  Everyone in Bali looking for herbal medicine already knows us, comes to us; my parents are already training everyone to do it themselves and people from other islands in Indonesia want to come here and teach.  We just need to fix this place up more: expanding the gardens, maybe building a larger treatment center, a place for classes, and a guesthouse for teachers and visitors. For now we need to deal more with this, our finances, and improve the medicine’s packaging.  Then we will be in a place to look for some partnership to  help us with marketing and gain more connections in Indonesia and abroad.  I hope you can help somehow.

Absolutely I wanted to help!  I felt so energized by his passions and excited to help in whatever way I could.  But I was equally apprehensive.  I saw his vision going to routes: 1) a wholesome growth in which the local community is even more uplifted and Puri Damai’s reach extends to heal a large circle, or 2) this kind of development spoils the heart of this place by being oversaturated in capitalism, globalization’s influence, and tourism (the village I research in Nepal was at a parallel crossroads.)  Thus, I felt equally enthused about helping Puri Damai’s growth as I felt a call of duty to protect the purity of this small place along the way.

In that moment something clicked inside; the purpose of this whole year abroad made sense and a clearer line of continuity was drawn between each place.  I want to start an organization that will connect, support, and protect healers around the world, their indigenous knowledge, and their local communities and projects in whatever way they need.  To start, this will be a way of giving back to healers whom I have learned and continue their projects: Chhyamtang in Nepal needs most of all to raise money to build a temple, Parvathy from Pitchandikulam in Auroville will soon start an herbalism project in her village from scratch, and Puri Damai can use better packaging, marketing, and more students.  In the future, this organization would include many other such community healing projects, giving without expectation while guiding each along holisitic, community-based, and integrally sustainable model.  Furthermore, these could dually become outlets for my own and others future research in these ancient healing systems, community development, and ecopsychology as I have began to do this year.

But what is most exciting is that this dream will quickly begin to manifest as reality through my classes in non-profit management and social entrepreneurship in the fall.  So while I am sad to say goodbye to Puri Damai this week, I am excited to plug back into the group of social entrepreneurs coming to Bali to gain their insights and support on creating this project.

Poolside Palms Water Temple


1 thought on “Balinese Beginnings! Community Healing at Puri Damai”

  1. Clayton-this was the first time I looked at your blog. Whoa. I’m so inspired by your passion and motivation. Your realization about the purpose of you year abroad, this is perfect. I’m so happy for and proud of you!

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