So I’m taking a short-cut home one night after a late dinner, and turn the bike into a somewhat dark lane in Seminyak . It’s around midnight, and my headlight illuminates a young woman standing stock-still in the centre of the road. She has long black hair covering most of her face, which is slightly averted, but I sense that she is staring straight at me. Her dress is of pure white and imbued with a dazzling intensity. It reaches down to the ground, seeming to blend seamlessly into the very cobblestones of the lane. Her garment shimmers and undulates like sunlight on the top of a cloud. Although she is clearly female, not a single detail of the contours of her body is visible.
Right, I think – another lost Eat, Pray, Love acolyte wandering the streets of Bali, looking for salvation, or enlightenment, or … something. Yet she doesn’t seem to have that New Age look about her, and she’s a hell of a long way from Ubud. In fact, in the two seconds it takes me to draw abreast of her, I decide that she’s quite creepy and I ride past without pausing. I feel an intense psychic pressure boring into the back of my skull and write it off as the effect of too many scotches at dinner.
“You are lucky you are not dead! It was a Kuntilanak!” says a shocked local friend the next day. Another one, the horror evident on her face, says, “A Pontianak! You met a Pontianak! She would have ripped out your belly if you had stopped!” It turns out that those who believe in Indonesian ghosts apparently have a overwhelming fear of these apparitions. Reputedly women who have died in childbirth and become ‘undead’, they terrorize villages as they seek revenge. Legend has it that they target passing men. Lucky she wasn’t on a motorbike.
Not being a believer in ghosts, I still think she was just a particularly scary Gilbertine. But the experience did serve to remind me that I’ve met many people here who have some pretty powerful fears and phobias. Some, like the fear of snakes, wasps or bees are understandable, related as they are to self-preservation and avoidance of pain or anaphylactic shock. Some are cultural, like the fear of dogs, or the reaction of small children to Ogoh-ogohs, those huge Balinese monsters of legend.
Likewise with the pervasive fear of the dark displayed by many locals. I had a live-in pembantu who kept her room light on all night. Any power outage would result in screams of fear until she found her flash-light to ward off the terrifying dark. My villa is a haven of relative silence – but the lack of community noise scares some locals who have told me, “I could not live here. It is too quiet – I would be afraid.” They must be glad Nyepi Day comes only once a year.
But other phobias are beyond my ken to grasp, although obviously very powerful for those so afflicted. I think spiders are cute, but I have a friend who lapses into a catatonic trance at the mere sight of one. It takes at least thirty minutes before he is even capable of speech. I love storms – the more lightning, the better – but I know people who cower in locked rooms at the first distant peal of thunder. I know a fearless and adventurous woman who is terrified of mice. A single rodent glimpsed in her peripheral vision will cause her to execute a leap on to a chair – from a standing start – that would be the envy of many Olympians. She flatly refuses to come down until the offending animal has died of old age.
The teenage daughter of a friend is a spectacularly confident young lady, über-cool and totally together – until a butterfly flies towards her. Then it’s bedlam of monumental proportions as she tries to to scale barbed-wire fences and run through masonry walls to put some distance between her and the attacking lepidopteran.
Yet another educated, confident and otherwise secure person of my acquaintance appears to be scared of nothing on the planet. She happily jumps off tall towers, only prevented from dashing her brains out on the ground by a large rubber band attached to her leg. She climbs ridiculously steep and rocky mountains in the dark, and can rappel like a commando. Most impressive of all, she can negotiate Jakarta traffic with equanimity. But the sight of a millipede, even one that has been dead for six months, will provoke a panic attack that only two hours of meditation and a cylinder of pure oxygen can assuage.
I do sympathise though, I really do. I know that aversions and phobias can be extremely uncomfortable, but I also know that repeated exposure to the offending stimulus can do much to habituate the sufferer. It worked for me – my aversion to Bintang singlets was so debilitating that I was actually forgetting to enjoy Bali. But continual exposure to these disturbing garments – impossible to avoid in much of South Bali – has de-sensitised me to the point where I can now see one without flinching. Much.
Who knows? The technique might work for ghosts, snakes, spiders, mice, millipedes and butterflies too. At least it would be nice to see my fearful friends relax a little.