The healing heat of Bali's black sands

The healing heat of Bali's black sands
Family healing: This grandfather is seeking relief from leg pain with hot sand treatment. His granddaughter keeps him company.

Black sands with mica shimmer in the mid-afternoon sun on Keramas Beach in Gianyar. While others run for the shade; another woman, Suharti has had friends bury her in hot volcanic sands that are as black and dense as mud.

Buried to her stomach and shaded by strips of cardboard, the 50-year-old kiosk owner is not alone. Lined up along the shore like patients in a hospital ward are others, eager to try the sands to find relief from ailments such as arthritis, nerve damage and vitamin deficiencies.

"Friends said I could get better by planting myself in the black sand so it gets the warmth into my legs," says Suharti, who suffers from arthritis of the knees.

Standing all day preparing and selling foods at her stall in Gianyar City causes her legs to swell and cramp. Her knees are red with inflammation and walking is painful and difficult. This is Suharti's first attempt at healing with the hot sands, known as tanam, or planting, therapy.

"Friends said to just give this a go. Who knows if it will help. I have tried Javanese jamu ramuan that I bought in Gianyar market, but that didn't help," Suharti says, referring to the traditional remedy made with turmeric that is believed to reduce inflammation.

Suharti is leaving nothing to chance in her hope for a miracle. She has employed a local healer and priestess, Ida Ayu Ketut Krishnawati, from Keramas to carry out rituals believed to help in drawing out the illness.

"The small river there leading to the sea tells us this beach can clean our ills and send them back to the sea. I am here as a mediator between the patient and the gods," says Ayu, her lips stained orange with betel nut and dressed in a white sarong. Her grey hair flows down her back as she washes Suharti in the sea and prays over her following her hot sand treatment.

"The gods sent me this skill," says Ayu. "It was a miracle. I did not look for this. When the spirit comes he talks like wise man."

Like the others 'planted' along Keramas beach, Ayu believes the hot black sand increases blood flow so muscles relax and oxygen levels increase with improved circulation. Ayu also places her faith in the Gods.

"We ask the sky, the air, water, wind and Ibu Pertiwi (mother earth) to heal Suharti. Hopefully she will be made well by Brahma. I don't make people well. Only the Gods can do that," says Ayu, preparing offerings as part of her healing art. Whether prayers or hot sands, Suharti is optimistic these alternatives to modern medicine may help.

"Already I feel good. The cramps are lighter," says Suharti, who has suffered from arthritis for more than two years. "Normally, I have a lot of cramps and can't walk fast. I walk very slowly but already and I am walking better. I will continue this treatment and see how it goes."

Nearby, Guru Made Surata rests under a blanket of black sand. The 50-year-old quit his job at a villa a year ago due to sciatica that left him practically crippled.

"The doctor said my nerves were compressed, so I have been coming here every day for the past year. I arrive about 3:30 p.m. and bury myself until about 6 p.m. First, I check that sand is hot enough to heal and then I cover my legs in the sands. It's nice meet many friends here doing the same thing," says Surata, who believes the therapy saved him from confinement to a wheelchair.

"There has been a change in my health. When my nerves first compressed, for three weeks I could not even walk to my bathroom at home. Now my walking is not good but much better.

I also do physiotherapy, but this is the best therapy and cheapest. But it takes longer. My hope in future is that I can get well so I can work again," says the middle-aged man who is practicing an ancient therapy known as psammotherapy, which is believed to ease joint pain and inflammation as the body absorbs sea nutrients from the hot sands.

Some Balinese doctors trust in the healing power of psammotherapy. It was on his doctor's recommendation that Ngurah Kariasa began planting himself at Keramas Beach.

At 32, Kariasa is one of the youngest people on the beach. Like Surata, he is unable to work due to an illness that affects the nerves in his left leg.

"My left leg has the feeling of ants under the skin. The problem started about three months ago and my doctor says it is caused by a vitamin B1 deficiency causing damage to the nerves," says Kariasa adding his treatment options were either sand treatment or a hospital bed.

"I started the sand treatment a week ago. My doctor recommended this rather than going to hospital. I am also taking vitamin B1 and painkillers. I am already feeling better with this treatment. The pain is lighter, as is the feeling of ants in my leg. So it has been quick, just a week so far," says Kariasa who hopes to soon be well enough to return to work as a driver by choosing another alternative to wellness.

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